River Empress Cruise Review by May B
- Sail Date: April 2018
- Destination: Europe River
This was my 37th cruise; fourth river cruise; third Europe river cruise; first Uniworld. My favorite ocean cruises are Crystal and Celebrity, and in Europe our two river cruises were on AmaWaterways (I’d certainly be happy to cruise with them again). We booked through an agency that puts together air and “best available” cruise cabins, close to departure, at good prices. We were hesitant to let somebody else plan our air, but we booked less than two months in advance on a cruise we had wanted to do but didn’t think we could fit into our busy schedule! This itinerary has a Jewish Heritage option for tours in 2018, which is what attracted us to it. I had inquired about whether they’d be doing the same for 2019 and they didn’t know yet. Because the planning would be minimal (just check the weather and try to pack appropriately), we decided to jump in and book.
We actually were happy with the Delta flights chosen for us. We were flying to Basel to start the cruise, and we knew we’d have three ups and downs (we don’t live in a hub city) so it was fine. What was a bit frustrating is that the Basel airport has two distinct exits, one into France and one into Switzerland. We didn’t see the signs about that; we were merely focused on finding our luggage carousel. Luckily a friend who was with us saw the appropriate signs and stopped us from using the wrong exit. I thought Uniworld could’ve mentioned that for guests embarking in Basel. Then to compound the frustration, after finding the representative and boarding the bus for our group transfer, we arrive at the “pier”, with two ships parked along side. No representative from Uniworld welcomed us. Only one crew member came to get luggage, and he couldn’t take everybody’s at once. Finally a second crew member showed up and assured us he’d take our bags, suggesting that we just go to board the River Empress. It wasn’t even clear which way to choose to walk to the ship!
Ok, all of that was quickly forgotten when we got on board and could relax comfortably for an hour in the lounge, or even outside on the deck, until lunch was served in the main dining room. After that, it was easy to leave our carry-ons with the front desk and walk into the center of the town, where we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the lovely market full of flowers, fruits and vegetables, baked goods, and food stalls. We saw city hall and found the cathedral, so we felt we had started our European sightseeing quite nicely.
Back at the ship, we unpacked and were ready for dinner and bedtime! Before dinner each evening, the Cruise Manager gives a briefing about the next day’s activities. The lounge is comfortable and everybody who wishes to attend fits in nicely. The sommelier/bartender gives a briefing about the included wines that evening for dinner as well as the ones with an upcharge (one white and one red in both categories). That’s a good time to visit with the Cruise Manager if you have any questions about the next day. Also, when you return to your cabin, you’ll find the information about the next day, and there’s plenty of detail that kept us well clued in.
We were quite pleased with all of the meals aboard the River Empress. Breakfast and lunch are buffet and you quickly figure out which things are duplicated on both sides and where to find your favorites. On a few occasions, restocking wasn’t as quick as we might hope to see, but otherwise everything was available and at the correct temperature. For breakfast, you can order from the menu if you wish, instead of picking out your own things or going to the gentleman cooking the eggs, and there’s one special dish every morning. We were a party of four, and often dined with three additional guests we met onboard, and I would say that all of us were quite happy with the food – and we were VERY happy with the service. We made a point of sitting in the same area because we knew the waiter, Milen, was so good. Special kudos to Uniworld for the nice job they did incorporating local foods into the menus.
I never met our cabin stewardess but she definitely did a good job. I adjusted the little chairs the first night, or I would’ve tripped over them in the middle of the night! But otherwise the cabin was fine, although small. Still, we had enough room to unpack and we certainly had a nice hot shower every day and a truly comfortable night’s sleep. Sometimes we even had a nice view out our window! Other times, we had a view of the river ship next to us, or the walls of the locks that are used to navigate the river, or the docking area. On the little desk/dressing table, there’s an apothecary jar with small, delicious chocolates, and that went a long way to erase my frustration from our airport and river arrival.
There’s a lounge entertainer before and after dinner, so there’s lovely background music and the opportunity for dancing. One evening, there was a group of three performers who were extremely well received (perhaps because they were over the age of 60, as was most of the cruising population). The cocktail waitress joined the packed dance floor when they played YMCA.
The tours were exactly what we wanted. We had signed up for the Jewish Heritage tours at every port stop that offered them (six out of seven) and the sites we visited, and the tour guides, were excellent in four out of the six and just a bit disappointing in the other two. These tours require advance sign-up, and varied from 24 to 30 guests, always with two tour guides. Usually the tour guides were in two separate groups part of the time and together, all of us, the rest of the time. For the most part it worked great. There are forms to evaluate the tour guides and I certainly took the opportunity of telling who was great and who was not so great. As you may know, river cruising is very big in Europe, so there’s no doubt plenty of competition for the various companies to book the guides. Uniworld uses the QuietVox system so we can always hear the tour guides. I wear hearing aids and I had no trouble using the QuietVox earpiece with no adjustment needed. The only thing one needs to remember is to charge the system every night and take it with you the next day on tour.
One day there was a really good speaker onboard, and one morning there was scenic cruising through the area with many lovely castles and legends. The cruise manager narrated, using the QuietVox system.
As an aside, while we were onboard, Uniworld announced that the Jewish Heritage tours for 2019 will be offered on the Rhine again and also on the Danube. For some totally unknown reason, the Danube cruise seems not to be including Budapest. That makes no sense to me (not that anybody asked me).
Uniworld is an all-inclusive cruise line. All our tours, alcohol, and gratuities, off and on the ship, were included in the cruise fare. I like that a lot. On occasion there’s an opportunity to do an off-ship experience with an upcharge. I didn’t do any, but a friend did and she was very happy with it. The only other things you might spend money for on the ship are purchases in the gift shop, massages, or the upcharge wines (only by the bottle).
Our Cruise Manager was Anthony and I thought he was outstanding. He’s a huge asset for Uniworld. Actually, I have to say all the crew and staff I dealt with were excellent. All in all, a truly lovely cruise experience. I would be delighted to cruise with Uniworld again.
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