Affordable, comfortable, friendly -- these are just some of the words that can be used to describe a European river cruise on Emerald Star. Part of Emerald Waterways -- the more value-oriented sister company to the more luxurious Scenic -- the ship seems more relaxing and laid back than many of its counterparts on Europe's waterways.
One of the first things you'll notice about Emerald Star is how comfortable it feels. Decor is modern, almost IKEA-like in its sleek simplicity; there are no bold patterns to overwhelm the senses, no period-piece furniture you're afraid to sit on. The lounge, which stretches half the length of the boat and is the hub for all activity onboard, is decorated in shades of black, white and gray with colorful pops of bright pink chairs. There are plenty of comfy couches and armchairs to sit in and watch the scenery go by, chat with other cruisers, read a book or play cards with new friends.
The friendliness of the crew and your fellow passengers just add to the comfortable feeling. Wait staff, bartenders, the guest services folks and the cruise director are always smiling, always ready to lend a hand or ask how your day was. Passengers tend to be down to earth, there's no dress code (so no one is judging!) and with open seating at all meals, it's easy to meet other people. Emerald draws many Australians, so the ship can feel boisterous at times, unusual on a river cruise.
(We did hear from the cruise director that if you're only going to do a one-week subsection of a longer two-week journey, it's better to be on the first half as cruisers who do the entire sailing aren't always welcoming to the newcomers. On our sailing, however, we saw no signs of this.)
Another standout feature of a cruise on Emerald Star is its affordability. There are many inclusions, from daily excursions to unlimited Wi-Fi and, most impressively, all gratuities -- both onboard and on land, meaning you never need to worry about having extra money on hand to tip a tour guide in a local port. Complimentary drinks (both soft and alcoholic) are poured liberally at lunch and dinner; if you want to drink at other times, prices are high but if you can hold out until mealtimes you can get plenty to drink.
Also included onboard are bikes for passengers to use when in port and -- rather unusually for a riverboat, a beautiful back-of-the-boat infinity pool -- a particularly popular spot when sailing between ports.
Our biggest disappointments on Emerald Star came from the sometimes limited time in ports (most visits were a half day) and the mostly non-existent onboard enrichment and entertainment. With so much time on the boat and not a lot to do, we heard that naps quickly became a favorite pastime on any afternoon we weren't docked.