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4 Helpful Votes
Sail Date: November 2012
The summary of this review is that the trip was WONDERFUL. This was our third Grand Circle trip (previously with OAT to Machu Picchu/Galapagos Islands and GCT to South Africa, but our first river cruise) and we have had three GREAT ... Read More
The summary of this review is that the trip was WONDERFUL. This was our third Grand Circle trip (previously with OAT to Machu Picchu/Galapagos Islands and GCT to South Africa, but our first river cruise) and we have had three GREAT experiences. As with the other two trips, the difference on this trip was the Program Director and the Staff. They truly reflect the high standards maintained by Grand Circle, which in our mind make the difference. The Itinerary We had read a lot on various forums about the Danube Markets, but little about the Rhine Christmas Markets. What a nice surprise to see markets in almost every stop despite our early trip. Only in Nijmegen (where they don't have markets) and Mainz (where they weren't open yet) did we not see markets, though they varied in size in various towns. We made up for that, however by shopping in other stores in the towns which many times had better prices and selections than the markets themselves. We found the best prices for our needs in the small stores in Heidelberg (Steins, Nutcrackers, & Smokers) though we managed to buy something in every town without much trouble. We followed our philosophy of buying something if we really liked it when we found it, because we have too often in the past said we'd get it later and couldn't.....and we didn't regret this approach as we rarely found cheaper prices. Our guide, Steven Martinot, was very helpful and thorough in recommending which town might have a particular souvenir, and which store/restaurant/bar might suit our needs. We arrived at the airport in Amsterdam about 9:30am and were on the ship by 11:00. One of the Program Directors met us and escorted us to the bus for the transfer to the Ship. We were docked centrally near the train station and in the afternoon set off to walk to the Anne Frank House, some shopping, and the obligatory stroll through the Red Light District. Amsterdam is an easy and safe city to get around in (we had been there before) so we went off on our own. We skipped the optional tour in Nijmegen the next day to the Holocaust Museum in favor of some relaxation (that jet lag is rough) but heard from those that went that it was a moving experience. Our walking tour was the first of many strolls through various river towns which highlighted the history and architecture of the area. The use of the provided individual receivers allowed us to hear our guide perfectly throughout the trip. After a brief walking tour in Cologne (where we experienced our only drenching rain and wind) we were given free time to visit the Cathedral or to browse the markets. There were several different Christmas markets in Cologne, and we finally got to leisurely visit them when the rain diminished and we returned after lunch, but it is NO fun at all to visit the Christmas Markets in drenching rain, no matter what protective clothing you bring!! It was a good first lesson, however, as we learned that those "water-resistant" parkas we brought really just resisted the water for a little while and there was no substitute for long underwear, rain pants, waterproof rain jackets, and LAYERS of clothing. Toe warmers and hand warmers came in handy as well!! Each day we stopped at another town along the way, stopping very close to town except in Strasbourg where the street cars were convenient and easy to use. Koblenz, Mainz, Heidelberg, Speyer, Baden-Baden, Strasbourg and Kayserberg were all wonderfully scenic stops. The two additional optional tours, Rudesheim and Heidelberg were well worth the modest cost. The walking tours were generally not strenuous, though definitely involved walking on cobblestone streets and uneven pathways. They varied in length, were generally slow-paced, and were usually a mile or two at the most. On-ship entertainment varied from a local children's choir to magicians to the chef teaching the making of German stollen. A musician performed every evening and at special events to assure constant entertainment. The tour was generally fast paced if you wanted to do everything, with something to do most of the time (especially shopping), but individual choices could slow this considerably by balancing the free-time activities. Most days we were eating breakfast by 8am and ready to tour by 9am. Usually, a half day was available for voluntary activities such as shopping or lounging. The Crew The entire staff of the ship was wonderful. We have never been on a ship, large or small, that had an entire staff (from the Captain and Hotel Manager to the Engineers, cabin stewards, or other staff) that ALWAYS seemed to sincerely care about making our trip perfect. We NEVER experienced a hint of poor service or uncaring people just going through the motions. Rather, each person without exception treated us as valued guests. We seldom saw our cabin steward (though when we did he always asked about how he could help us further); we would go to breakfast or dinner, and magically when we returned our cabin was always spotless and refreshed. At mealtime, despite our changing tables, so we didn't always have the same wait staff, they quickly knew our names, and the idiosyncrasies of our choices. I had two wonderful massages on the ship (yes, they have a masseuse!!!). The cost was about what you would pay at home, and less than half the charges you might see on a large cruise ship. I highly recommend you try to get one....a great way to get over that jet lag!! We have never had a more accessible Captain on any trip. We first met him at the Safety briefing which was the most thorough I have ever experienced. Throughout the trip, he was available, personable, and truly interested in the passengers. He even participated in the crew show (not to be missed, by the way), and not just to give a speech!! Likewise, the other senior members of the staff were always attentive and accessible. On any tour, the Program Director provides the glue that brings it all together. We again were blessed with a superb Program Director, Steven Martinot, who consistently shepherded us through the tour. As on all tours, there are different personalities of our fellow travelers that require different amounts of attention (perhaps we are one of those too). I have never seen a tour director more consistently patient with everyone, and truly interested in pleasing everyone. A truly remarkable person. This service level and extraordinary standard of excellence with its staff is the quality that separates the Grand Circle experience from the rest. The Ship The cabins were comfortable, though small. There are good videos on the GCT website that clearly show the cabins, but the nice surprise was the roomy bathrooms. In looking at cabins on the first day before people moved in, it appears they are all about the same with a small amount of space deducted from the cabin to provide the narrow balcony. Our shower (201) was large and covered the width of the bathroom (probably close to 4'x3') while others had corner showers that seemed a bit smaller, but certainly adequate. The pull-down beds were VERY comfortable and even though I am over 6', and large, I was absolutely perfectly relaxed. The sofas were adequate for sitting, but too narrow to lay down on, so we ended up leaving the beds down all the time. Two movies showed continuously on the TV (many were Christmas movies, though we saw Casablanca and Patton on two nights as we went to sleep!!); there was also news and other channels as well. The ship was exceptionally clean and the decor was pleasant, though not brand new. However, it did not show signs of wear or deterioration at all. The lounge was very comfortable as were all of the facilities on the ship. A small area off the main lobby, and the library provided quiet spaces that could be used as well. Obviously, in the winter, the sun deck serves primarily the smokers on the ship. A three-sided covered area behind the wheelhouse provided some protection from the wind and the elements, but obviously required heavy coats. On the day we sailed a particularly picturesque section of the Rhine, the dining staff provided homemade hot chocolate in this area as we all enjoyed the afternoon on the river. The Food The food was wonderful! We've cruised on over 20 large ships, and traveled extensively, and found the presentation, preparation, and variety to be very good. For Breakfast, every day omelets or eggs were available for custom preparation, a special preparation was available from the kitchen, and all of the normal breakfast foods -- pastries, meats, waffles or pancakes, juices, and fruits -- were provided on the self-service buffet. At lunch, this same buffet line (actually two similar lines) contained a wonderful salad bar, usually at least 3 prepared sandwich options, several hot options, and other self-serve sandwich options. Many days a custom pasta dish was prepared to your individual taste. Again, an option from the kitchen was available to order as was a hamburger and French fries!! We always started with soup which was delicious. Varied desserts options were always provided. Dinner started usually with an appetizer, soup and salad followed by a choice from two or three entrees. These included a wide variety of dishes including vegetarian options, turkey, duck, chicken, fish, lamb, pasta, and beef. Also, standard options of Grilled Chicken Breast and Salmon were always available with a baked potato. Two dessert options were offered. In short, only the pickiest eater couldn't find something to eat each night. And of course, red or white wine was provided on a complementary basis at dinner. Coffee, Tea, or Hot Chocolate were available on the ship 24 hours/day. Cookies or snacks were provided in the lounge in the afternoon and evenings. The first day, 5 bottle or 7 bottle wine packages were offered at a discount (bottles ranged from about 13 Euros and up) and soft-drink packages were also offered. Generally on the ship, prices were reasonable and seemed to be less than those charged for comparable items on large cruise ships. The Challenges Yes, there were VERY minor irritants along the way that could be improved upon (have you ever been with 140 people in any event that hasn't had some irritant?) As with any tour, a little flexibility and a sense of humor are needed. The most important of these was the inability to reserve a table for meals in the restaurant. When traveling with 4 in our group (tables were mainly for 6), it became a challenge to get 4 seats at the same table.....the recommendation from the Program Directors was to send someone early to stand in line and "hold" the seats! Thus, for every lunch or dinner, my wife or I was generally somewhere between 10th and 15th in line (I refused to go more than 15 minutes early) necessitating one of us to miss the port talk or other pre-meal activities. Actually, despite an otherwise wonderful trip, my wife has said she won't go on another river cruise unless she can reserve a seat in the dining room. The number of people who were always in line to reserve a table indicates the significance of the problem (we had groups of up to 30 on the trip). One night, the Manager actually gave the Captain's Table to a late arriving group that made a big fuss (perhaps this is a hint for future travelers). I gather they recognize this is a problem, but haven't found a way to accommodate it. Whenever a minor problem occurred (for example our toilet kept running), it was only a few minutes after reporting it that the issue was resolved. Our cabin bathroom tended to have a slight 'sewer' smell occasionally. I suspect it was a problem of not retaining water in the shower trap (I think it is a common 'boat' problem), but it was never so overwhelming that it was offensive. Plumbers were on board at two ports, and they were cleaning "kitchen fat" out of the pipes (at least I think that's what the limited English of the plumber said) and following this the smell disappeared. Special Suggestions We ended up with 3 suitcases (2 big, 1 medium) to get all of our different sweaters, raingear, snow gear, etc. to the ship. We also included a duffle bag for overflow when we bought too many souvenirs. Now we could do this as we did our own air, and were allowed 2 bags each, but suffice to say we had four full bags going home! In fairness, though, I could have left one sweater and two sweatshirts at home, and if we had taken advantage of the onboard laundry, easily stayed within 1 bag each (until we bought souvenirs!!). Those nutcrackers and steins and stuffed animals etc really do take a lot of room!! Fortunately, two suitcases just squeezed under the couch on each side!!! Read Less
2 Helpful Votes
Sail Date: May 2005
This is a review of our May 28-June 18, 2005 Grand Circle Travel (GCT) "Great Rivers of Europe" cruise/tour on the Rhine, Main, and Danube, sailing from Amsterdam to Vienna on GCT's M/S River Melody. The trip included three ... Read More
This is a review of our May 28-June 18, 2005 Grand Circle Travel (GCT) "Great Rivers of Europe" cruise/tour on the Rhine, Main, and Danube, sailing from Amsterdam to Vienna on GCT's M/S River Melody. The trip included three days before the cruise in Brussels and three days after in Vienna. Most of this review is about the ship, as you will spend over half the time aboard. The ship's features and services shouldn't be compared to an ocean liner, but are more similar to a Mississippi River cruise on the Delta Queen. This is our 14th cruise, including two river cruises and the two GCT trips. AIRLINES The GCT airline service was not convenient; our total travel time was more than 16 hours  a 6 a.m. (PDT) flight from LAX to Washington D.C. with a five hour layover, arriving in Brussels at 7:30 a.m. (Central Europe Daylight Savings Time) the following morning. (Brussels is nine hours ahead of Los Angeles.) The flight to Brussels was on a United 767 with individual TV screens in the seatbacks; the outside rows were two seats wide. The return flight was on a Lufthansa 747 taking only 14 hours -- but we were jammed in like sardines, with no individual TV screens, and the outside rows were three across. And there were no pre-assigned seats from LAX to Washington D.C. or from Vienna to Frankfurt. Our previous GCT flights to Europe were on Delta and very good - non-stops LAX to London and Paris to LAX, with individual TV screens, and two seats wide. In the future, we will arrange our own flights and not use GCT. SHIP CABIN There was plenty of storage space for large suitcases under the two single beds (there are no larger beds in any cabins). There were two closets about two feet wide for hanging clothes, and two sets of two drawers. However, when the bed was folded down, the two drawers were difficult to reach -- they were deep under the bed and you had to sit on the floor to reach them. The cabin's mechanical key locks were recently removed, leaving a one-inch open hole in the door. The old locks were replaced by a plastic keycard arrangement located above the holes. The balcony proved to be a good investment and we used it often. The only problem: Because of the balcony, your bathroom was two feet smaller than in the non-balcony cabins. There were two small chairs on the balcony, and one chair and writing table in the cabin, with a telephone and hair dryer. One smaller round table is between the beds near the sliding glass balcony door. During the daytime, the beds were folded up against the wall and a small half-sized couch was available to sit on (but too small to lie on). CABIN TV The TV set was very small -- about 10 inches -- and located above one bed. Thus it could only be seen from the opposite couch or bed. It had six TV channels with only two in English (CNN's European edition and SkyView, a British news channel) and several in German. It was very difficult to get a daily or even a weekly weather forecast for Europe where our ship was. Frequently, the TV would go out of service when we passed under a bridge, into a lock, etc., as the satellite signal was blocked. One TV channel shows a view forward from the bow; another provides photos of the crew. Public announcements are piped into the cabin's loudspeaker; often late-evening, unimportant announcements would disturb the early sleepers. There were no music channels. BATHROOM The toilet is high. Two large mirrors over the sink provide a reverse image. Everyone uses the smaller round mirror instead. There's very little sink counter space, and a shower (no bath). E-MAIL SERVICE The ship has a single computer in the lobby for passengers, but without access to the Internet. Passengers can use the computer to compose and save outgoing e-mail messages on a 3½-inch diskette, and give it to the ship's front desk personnel, who will send your messages the next time the ship is docked. Your best bet is to use Internet cafes in each port, where the cost is at least half what the ship charges. BOARDING PASSES You must go to the front desk every time you leave the ship, and request your paper boarding passes. These are removed from your mailbox behind the counter, and you need to return them when you return, since the front desk personnel count the passes to verify everyone is back on board. SHIP'S LOCATION It was always difficult to determine where you were on the river, since no map was provided in the lobby or on your cabin's TV set. Nor were there any weather forecasts or narrations of the scenes we were passing - castles on the hilltops, small towns on the river's edge, etc. DINING Everything is open seating - no reserved tables. Thus some passengers lined up early and rushed into the dining room to get a window or large table. Tables typically seated four or six persons; the tables in the rear of the room away from the windows have benches and chairs instead of all chairs, and appeared to be larger. The morning orange juice always tasted watered-down. Two small glasses of wine (red or white) were served per passenger at dinnertime. Mealtimes were 6-9 a.m. for breakfast, lunch at 12:30 p.m., and dinner at 7 p.m. (lunch and dinner have just one seating). The quality of the food was fair; for the heavy eaters, more was always available. SHIP'S LOUNGE The drinks tasted watered-down. All drinks were small and expensive, and the service was slow. In fact, many passengers began to buy wine in the ports to drink in their cabins, and stopped using the lounge. The ship charged a $5 (U.S.) corking fee to open your wine. There is a 24-hour instant coffee dispenser in the lobby area. The lounge is poorly designed for the evening entertainment or tour talks. NEWSPAPER There were one or two copies of a faxed two- or three-page newspaper, but they always disappeared quickly from the front desk. BRUSSELS, BRUGES AND AMSTERDAM PRECRUISE TOURS The optional tours were good, with good meals, good canal boat rides, and very good hotel breakfast service. But there were not enough photo stops and no museum tours. We only visited one church. There was no Internet service in the GCT-provided hotel. The chocolate and porcelain factories we toured were very small operations -- almost like backyard garage operations. VIENNA POST CRUISE TOURS The optional tours were good, with good meals. The same comments apply as in Belgium about photo stops, museum tours, church visits, etc. This hotel had Internet service in the lobby, but the cost was as high as on the ship. Only two blocks away was an Internet cafe with more than 10 computers available at half the cost. TOUR ACTIVITIES All of the tours including the optional ones were very good. However, the sights to be seen or visited did not follow the GCT catalog or web schedule. Some sights were eliminated and others changed without any notice. Be sure to plan your cruise around the fact that all stores are closed on Sundays and all museums are closed on Mondays. Be sure and take the optional tour to have coffee and cake at a local resident's home. Each group is limited to six to eight passengers, and it was very interesting to visit the home and talk one-on-one to the housewife. UNUSUAL ACTIVITIES One day, the tour director gave each of us one euro and asked us all to buy some sweet rolls while ashore, to be pooled together for breakfast the following morning aboard the ship. TIPPING All crew tipping ($10 U.S. per passenger per day) can be added to your cabin bill. However, for local bus and guide tipping, keep a brunch of one-dollar bills available (for a half day, one dollar per passenger for the bus driver and another for the guide; or double that for a full day). Plus you will need to tip the tour director ($5 per day per passenger) at the end of the cruise in dollars. U.S. currency was widely accepted aboard ship and by the onshore stores, cafes, etc. Of course, you can us your credit card in the stores and cafes; and euros are need for any local transportation or services (streetcars, subways, coin-operated computers, etc.). SUMMARY It was a most interesting cruise, and we saw many interesting sites including the Gothic cathedral in Cologne, the Heidelberg University and castle, the baroque palace of the Prince-Bishop in Wertheim, the Nuremberg museum, the Main-Danube canal, etc. The negative side: It's a long cruise with lots of walking on cobblestone streets. Read Less
River Melody Ratings
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