Having been on 13 ocean cruises, we decided to try a river cruise. I researched on CC and decided on a southern France itinerary then started research on the various companies. Summer '13 was a good year to do that with all the flooding in northern Europe. My mantra became "A true measure is not what happens when things go well, but when things go bad". Our choices came down to AMA & Vantage. I contacted both by e-mail. Via AMA, I received an e-mail from an online travel agent (??), while directly from Vantage I received a "Personal Travel Guide attachment. We found the guide very helpful as a starting point to develop questions & it brought up things we hadn't thought of. In the meantime, I continued to receive e-mails from the online travel agent asking me to call them re: AMA (?) and we watched the online videos on the Vantage website plus continued to read remarks on CC about both companies. We called Vantage in August with our questions we had developed from the guide and in a few days booked with them. We added the pre & post extensions to the French Waterways - Paris & Barcelona. After looking at Vantage's airfare offer, we booked our own and our own travel insurance. We eventually received a catalog from AMA.
When we arrived in Paris, we were taken to the hotel with a Vantage transfer we purchased earlier - a bit of a cost, but easy for jet lagged guests arriving from Seattle. Vantage's City Host met us at Le Meridien Etolile (not in the center of Paris, but close to a Metro stop and walking distance to the Arc de Triumph). She spent the morning trying to get us in our rooms early - before 3pm. There was 42 of us. Buffet breakfasts were good, fast service and the 2 included dinners were pretty good. Included tours - all day bus tour of Paris & the Louvre. We didn't sign up for the extra cost of the Versailles tour, but did so for the extra cost of the "Illuminated Paris with Dinner & Cabaret". The cost was worth the show - the food was ok, plenty of wine and champagne poured, but we did NOT see any illuminations! One night we went on our on via metro (easy) near Notre Dame to a Rick Steve recommended restaurant - Tastevin. Great food!
After 4 days, we left Paris on the fast train for Dijon (tour included) & to embark on the MS River Discovery II at Chalon sur Saone. Thinking back, I realize our Cruise Director was on the train with us and in Dijon - meaning, he was available to us before boarding the boat. Also our City Host stayed with us until we embarked. Personnel exchanges were seamless - there was always someone from Vantage available (except for the flight to Barcelona).
The MS River Discovery II is beautiful and fairly new. First night's entertainment was simple but enough for a long day; a violist & guitarist duo. By the end of the cruise there was a more lively group for entertainment (Gypsy Night) and we found ourselves dancing around the room. Meals onboard were very good - typifying the region - generous with wine - French Chardonay & Cabernet Sauvignon. Other wine & alcohol was available for purchase. My husband stopped looking for goodies onshore as the desserts were just as good or better onboard. We did splurge on lunch in Lyon since it is know for it's food. Our tour guide for that day recommended a street to choose a restaurant - it did not disappoint. We had delicious turbot and asparagus salad.
Port tour highlights - learning about the regional French wines (one of my goals & it was accomplished), petting baby goats, tasting goat cheese, taking the extra cost Medieval Village of Perouges tour (worthwhile), a tour guide singing "Ave Maria" at the hilltop chapel in Vienne (goosebumps, it was so good), and the Pont du Gard tour that included the walk through the top of the aqueduct (as seen on Vantage's online video).
After a bit of a delay at the Marseille airport for Barcelona (Baggage handlers sorta on strike? - the Concierge from the ship was with us at the airport), we arrived in Barcelona. Now we saw a Vantage City Host in action. Somewhere between the plane and our arrival at the Le Meridien Barcelona hotel (right off the famous La Rambla), one of our fellow guest lost (or it was stolen) her neck wallet that included her passport, credit cards and Euros. Eventually the City Host accompanied her to the US Embassy on Monday morning. Again, the breakfast buffet was good and the included dinner was better than the one in Paris. Our problem was one of the dinners on our own. If you want good Spanish food, you need to leave the La Rambla area and eat no earlier than 8:30 which we should have done - oh well, next trip. The Spaniards eat around 9pm. Included tours - Morning bus tour of Barcelona and an excursion to Monteserrat Monastery. Not enough signed up for the optional Figueres tour (Salvador Dali) and it was cancelled & refunded. On our own and arranged with the hotel concierge, we went to La Sagrada Familia - beautiful! We shared a taxi with others from our group. To leave Barcelona, the City Host arranged our taxi to the airport - we didn't buy a Vantage transfer.
One other note: Vantage has switched from Program Managers to one Cruise Director and a Concierge. The two worked as a team. Previously guests were divided in 4 color groups each with a Program Manager and you stayed with that same group the whole cruise. Now you are assigned daily to a group - one day green, next day blue, etc - and you meet more people this way. My husband did say he might have liked it being the same group - I like the mix-up. And the Cruise Director goes on all the excursions so he is available to talk to.
We thoroughly enjoyed this first river cruise (definitely more in the future) and found Vantage very good.
Our French balcony room was very nice - plenty of room for our stuff. The bathroom was bigger than most balcony rooms we book on ocean cruises. The shower itself was definitely bigger (hand-held shower head) and there was a cabinet under the sink. A clothesline was in the shower and we used that. We also used the laundry service. Prices were per item and 1/2 price just to press. Enjoyed seeing the swans swim by, the churches, Roman ruins and the recreational campers and fishermen.