The river cruising arm of U.K. tour operator Arena Travel has finally launched MS Arena after a two-year delay due to the pandemic.
The value-for-money line, aimed at British and Irish passengers and always with an English cruise director, describes the 192-passenger vessel as its "premium" flagship offering a four-star service. MS Arena was constructed in 2005 and previously sailed as MS Flamenco for the German line Nicko Cruises. It has been extensively refurbished since being taken over by Arena. We're aboard MS Arena on its first sailing on the Dutch Waterways. The ship also sails on the Rhine, Moselle and Danube. Here are our first impressions.
Comfortable cabins with French balconies
Surprisingly, for a budget conscious ship, every cabin has a floor-to-ceiling panoramic window that opens out onto a French balcony -- where you can look out rather than step out -- or tilt open to let in fresh air. The cabins are spread across two decks and there are no lower deck water level cabins with fixed windows.
The refit has included hotel-style beds being fitted in all the staterooms bar 24. These cabins have a fold-down bed and a sofa bed are some of these cabins are set aside for solo travellers. All cabins are the same size, 140-square-feet, and the ship doesn't have any suites.
There's plenty of storage and we appreciate having proper wooden coat hangers, rather than the fiddly fixed ones, and a plug-in hairdryer.
You pay for drinks but won't end up with an eyewatering bar bill
Arena offers very good value for money. One of the ways it keeps fares affordable is by not including wine and drinks with lunch and dinner, which is common on most river lines. That said, the drinks are very reasonable. A beer is €3.70, glass of wine €4.90 and cocktails €8.70. Bottles of wine start from €24.
Additionally, passengers can pre-book a premium package for €20 per person, per day. This includes unlimited drinks with meals, bottled water in the cabin, a 10 percent discount on excursions that are not included in the fare, upgraded toiletries and other perks.
Nice touches and personal service
Everyone has commented on the badges worn by staff, who all wear face masks (although passengers are no longer required to wear them). As well as their names the have "the smile behind the mask" badges with photos showing what they look like without masks. It's such a lovely touch and talking point, and helps crew members really engage with passengers. We're surprised other cruise lines haven't thought of doing it.
The ship has a relaxed, friendly vibe and crew members are very visible and happy to help. The cruise director has a glass-walled office and passengers can drop by whenever he or she is there, and the head chef and members of the galley team come out to welcome people to the restaurant. One passenger asked for the recipe for a particularly delicious apricot tart and the chef was happy to share it.
Everything stops for tea…
On the dot at 4 p.m., traditional British teatime, afternoon tea is served in the lounge. It's an eagerly awaited daily event and passengers gather in the lounge in anticipation of tea served with a variety of sweet treats such as sponge cake and Dutch apple cake.
… And there's home-from-home food
As Arena is aimed solely at the U.K. and Irish market it's no surprise that there are lots of familiar favourites served at mealtimes along with a bottomless pit of English tea bags at the 24/7 tea and coffee station (we have witnessed minor mutinies on international lines when tea has run out).
The breakfast buffet comprises all the components of a full English -- including baked beans -- and although Marmite and brown sauce haven't made an appearance yet you can probably expect them in the future. Along with regional dishes you can also expect to see stalwarts such as bread and butter pudding on the lunchtime buffet or evening a la carte menu.
At the start of the cruise anyone with dietary requirements, such as vegetarian, is given a card to hand to the restaurant manager at the first meal. This is a good idea as it enables waiters to locate these passengers easily at each mealtime and ensure a smooth service. Seating is at allocated tables, assigned at the start of the sailing, although if anyone wants to move it wouldn't be an issue.
There are plenty of luxury river ships out there but Arena unashamedly places MS Arena as a four-star vessel. It certainly fills a gap for anyone looking for an affordable river cruise --including first time river cruisers dipping a proverbial toe in the water for the first time --coupled with home comforts.