Have just returned from an excellent cruise aboard the River Princess, commencing in Amsterdam, moored just behind the Central Station, so very convenient; We travelled independently as we already live in Europe, so this review is just about the cruise itself. The boat was exactly as described on Uniworld's website, and the cabin, which was on the starboard side (highly desirable on rivers/canals rather than the port side preference of Cruise liners), enabled us to spread our possessions very comfortably, as there was loads of storage. The fittings and quality were of 4 star hotel quality, and the bathroom was a reasonable size and well laid out, again with loads of storage room. When we booked we were aware that the boat could not be boarded until 2 hours before sailing, but as we had had to check out of our hotel by 11 a.m. I telephoned the boat reception and was informed that we were welcome immediately, could put our bags in Reception, and could have a complimentary lunch onboard, although the cabins were not going to be available until the stated onboard time. We therefore taxied to the boat, our bags were immediately picked up by the cheerful and welcoming crew, and the Hotel Manager (In charge of the ship's facilities) welcomed us aboard with great courtesy. The lunch was set out buffet style in the main lounge area and was fresh, plentiful and served with cold or hot drinks. We also could use the restrooms and the top sundeck for the remainder of the afternoon.
The whole boat was immaculate, no hidden scruffy corners, everything well looked after. The service throughout was excellent and all the staff and crew were amiable and readily available. We did feel that the tone for the whole voyage was set by the Captain, Antony van den Boom, who was always smiling, very efficient and ready to lend a hand to any of his crew whenever needed, so a very happy ship.
The food was of a very good standard, and well presented. We did find that there was sometimes a lack of choice, in that due to the restrictions of the kitchen size on such a comparatively small vessel only one meat, one fish and one vegetarian choice for main course was offered each day, though the quality was excellent, just a bit experimental with ingredients sometimes, although there was always a fallback choice of steak and fries or chicken fillets and fries. The menus comprised a starter dish of some innovation, excellent and very unusual on occasion soups, a fish course, the main course, and exquisite desserts or well-selected cheeses and biscuits. Coffee in all its forms, plus tea always available throughout. The wine list (and indeed the drinks in the Cocktail Lounge) were very reasonably priced indeed, compared with on land prices in Europe generally, and certainly with our home prices, and there was no hidden service charge applied. As an alternative to a choice from the extensive wine list, the chef offered suggested wines each day at very competitive prices for example €16 - €21, and an unfinished bottle could be cabin-marked and brought to the table next day if wished. On the liquor line there was a special promotion each afternoon of a particular Cocktail at a reduced cost. I did notice that there was no pressure to buy drinks unlike the constant harassment on the seagoing cruises, and in fact very little drinks appear to have been ordered during the evening entertainment time in the lounge.
The Cruise Director, who had been with River Princess for 2 years, but moves around through the Uniworld fleet, was Tony Campillia, and besides being extremely informative on all historical matters, was also available to attend to any problems of the passengers, at all times, and always with a pleasant attitude as if one were doing him a favor by asking! He also was responsible for the arrangements for excursions, and always accompanied the included excursions each day. The Hotel Manager, Rudolph van der Meulen, was ever-present to cope with Reception and hotel-like problems, and both these guys presented essential information in an easy-listening way, which made the need-to-know items far less boring that they might otherwise have been.
As a little extra excitement my birthday fell on the middle Sunday of the cruise, and as with others who were celebrating birthdays or anniversaries of some sort, the Captain and Crew made a special effort and a smart presentation of a birthday cake with a lighted sparkler on top, accompanied by accordion music by the marvellous resident musician, Peter, made the occasion more special. This was not arranged by us at all, but it appears that the passport dates are consulted and the ceremony goes ahead!! Much appreciated.
The shore excursions. The cruise included something each morning or afternoon, by was of a coach connection to the most famous tourist site in the area (usually a palace, church or cathedral) followed by a general amble around the streets of the relevant town or village to familiarize the guests with where to shop and how to get back to the boat. Again unlike the standard Cruise lines there was no special recommendation to go to a certain shop for a discount, etc etc., they just indicated the shopping areas and gave basic language info and a map of each place with the mooring place well indicated. We went on some of the included excursions but not having any particular desire to traipse around every historic monument, frequently did our own thing, after the amble around the streets bit, and shopped or visited other sites at our leisure. We also took 2 optional excursions, again the prices were comfortably below those offered on Cruises, and one of these was to Regensburg, which is typically Germanic and just like Christmas card villages should look, where we had an excellent lunch included at a good local restaurant. The second excursion was to the Viennese concert. This was not at the Vienna State Opera House of course but at an impressive building, with a first-class ensemble and fine singers and ballet dancers. Unfortunately for all concerned the temperature was 39 degreesF, and there was no air-conditioning. Thus after the first half of the performance when even the players were looking less than comfortable, the ensemble leader asked for the main windows to be opened, and blow the acoustics, as we were all near to fainting from the excessive heat in there. This concert was followed by a ride around the town outskirts to view the magnificent illuminations. Money well spent, as throughout the ride in and the last mentioned trip we were given a good explanation of the history of the buildings by a good English speaker.
Amongst the included excursions were a visit to Cologne Cathedral, the Bishop's Residenz at Rudesheim followed by a visit to the cellars where long tables had been prepared with glassware and rye bread, and we were treated to wine tasting of 3 wines of that area, and an explanation of their growth and treatment. All very spooky in the dark cellars lit by 400 candles. Again no pressure to buy anything, although one could if one wanted to.
We visited Heidelberg, which had to be accessed by coach, and thus we had to stay with the group as the boat itself was leaving for a different mooring a few miles away, having just stopped to let us connect with the tour. This was a very informative visit but for our particular tastes a bit too patronizing as if we were school children on a history trip. However as Europeans we are very used to loads and loads of castles and their history, and it could well be that this was more appreciated by our friends from the other side of the Pond, who were more receptive to the history of their ancestors.
Other visits included many Baroque or Renaissance churches and we had a lecture onboard by one of the guides on what to look out for in the different styles. Philistine I may be but seen one seen the lot, although I did click away with the best of them at the spectacular ceilings and carvings when we did join any particular trip. I would have liked to have had an alternative choice included or even as an optional excursion, such as a visit to one of the many excellent art galleries, or even entertainment centers such as the casino at Budapest! In the event as the weather was bitterly cold at the start of the trip and then exceptionally hot when we arrived in Vienna and even hotter in Budapest, anywhere indoors was bound to be a winner either for warmth or against the heat, depending on the day!
Highlights of the trip would be the locks, their amazing depth the deepest being 85 feet, and we were thankful that we had chosen the top deck cabins as all light was cut off from the interior when we were at the bottom of the locks, and I expect that those in the lowest deck must have had very little natural light for much of the time when we were moored as well. Obviously we all spent a considerable part of the day on the move, in the lounges or eating, lots of eating, so that might not have been a problem to others. The height of the wheelhouse and indeed the sundecks and their fittings on many of these river cruisers now means that they have to retract the wheelhouse and lower the guard rails to clear the low bridges of which there were hundreds; this meant that for many days only a portion of the sundeck was available for sitting, and the sun umbrellas could not be in place until the last few days. As it happens we only had 91 passengers instead of the full complement of 138, so it worked out reasonably well, but with more people it would probably have been a bit difficult.
The organization of the disembarkation was well-managed, we were kept informed about where and when we would be able to leave, and for those who were not going on by air somewhere we were allowed to use all the facilities of the boat after vacating our cabins at 8.30 absolute. For those interested we had learned through the Cruise Critics boards that Zona taxis had the Airport concession at a fixed rate and we had hired them at HUF 3000 from our hotel to the Airport, and also from the boat to the hotel on our last day, albeit at the same rate, which was around £8.00 or 15$. They turned up on time and no extra charge was made for the baggage. (Incidentally for anyone interested the boat moors on the Buda side between the Chain Bridge and the Elizabeth Bridge).
Overall impressions: I cannot be sure that this type of holiday is for me just yet, although I have reached an age when I ought to be prepared for long times doing nothing, but although I very much enjoyed the beauty of the river and canals, the scenery and the little villages, I think I am still not ready for the inactivity between-times, as there is nothing to do on board other than linger, read, or possibly play cards or other games. The opportunity to meet with and compare notes on lifestyles of people from other parts of the World is always one of my pleasures (can't stop talking my family say....), and this was of course very easy to do with so much time on board and at the open seating, and I can see that whatever one's age as long as there is the ability to walk around there is much enjoyment to be had from this type of holiday, although it is definitely not suitable for anyone with any walking problem or wheelchair users; I may be tempted to go again, certainly I would consider Uniworld as a first choice as we can't fault it, but I would have to think long and hard about the location and what excursions included or not would be possible.