We’re just back from a special “Heroes” sailing with Vantage Deluxe World Travel -- the Boston-based, family-operated tour company -- in Germany’s heartland onboard River Splendor.

Vantage Travel operates one “Heroes” sailing per year. The Heroes onboard were the families of fallen police officers from Boston, Los Angeles and Palm Springs (in previous years, passengers have been war veterans and victims and first responders of the Boston Marathon bombings.). Seven families joined the sailing on an all-expenses-paid tour.

With 176 passengers, River Splendor debuted in 2013 and is aimed squarely at the American market (though the onboard currency is in Euros). Since Vantage Travel offers land-based programs, too, passengers can add a pre- or post-cruise stay to complement a river sailing as part of their itinerary.

We boarded River Splendor for a partial sailing of the Heart of Germany, Mainz to Regensburg, voyage. Here’s our take:

The Heroes Program is a Nice Touch

Now in its 15th year, the Vantage Heroes program was co-founded by Patricia Lewis, from Vantage Travel, who was on our sailing to accompany the group. During our first night onboard, Patricia gave a short speech to welcome the Heroes, but aside from that, the Heroes were left to enjoy the sailing and there was no formal programing focused on meeting with the them. We noticed that Vantage Travel went out of their way to look after the Heroes -- escorting them for lunch in port and on excursions, and making sure they had everything they needed -- which was a nice touch.

Gentle Programing, Slow Pace

River Splendor’s passengers are typically 65 plus and tend to enjoy a slower pace. The schedule onboard nicely reflected this. There were gentle walking tours in ports, and plenty of scenic cruising allowing passengers to soak up the pretty landscape. There’s some light enrichment included on River Splendor -- we experienced a lecture and cooking class and spotted a German language lesson on the schedule, too. The cooking class was led by two of the ship’s chefs who created a local dish and provided the recipe and a taster for those attending. Our only gripe was that it overlapped with the lecture so passengers had to choose between the two.

Inclusions and Technology

Drinks with dinner, Wi-Fi, use of the ship’s bikes and a walking tour in every port are included in a Vantage Travel river cruise. Port transfers are also included if you book your flight with Vantage Travel. Drinks outside of dinner and gratuities are charged extra. Drinks were generously topped up throughout dinner and there was a once-per-sailing wine pairing dinner with more premium wines that were also included. We found Wi-Fi access excellent in all corners of the ship and we also liked that inside the ship’s library, two brand-new iPads have been installed for passenger use, with access to news sites such as CNN.

Service, Food & Wine

Meal served on Vantage Deluxe World Travel's River Splendor (Photo: Kerry Spencer/Cruise Critic)
We were most impressed with our cruise director and dinner service, though service was lovely throughout our sailing. The food was more inconsistent, though. We tucked into a gorgeous paella that was perfectly seasoned, topped with a crispy-skinned fillet of sea trout one evening and the next we ate a veal dish (a popular choice of meat in this part of Germany), served pink and beautifully cooked. The wine selection, particularly during the sailing’s special Wine Pairing dinner, was excellent and showcased fantastic local varieties. At other times we felt underwhelmed by the choice and quality on offer, particularly at lunchtime when we experienced dry and overcooked fish and meat dishes in the main dining room.

Vantage Travel is Ideal for Groups

If you enjoy touring and dining in groups, Vantage Travel fits the bill. Passengers were urged to sit with others at tables of four, six or eight at lunch and dinnertime, which made it easy to get to know fellow shipmates. There are no two-seat tables in Compass Rose (the ship’s main dining room), so passengers should be prepared to mingle over mealtimes. We liked that River Splendor also offers eight adjoining cabins for family and friends traveling together.

More independent passengers might tire of the group dining every night, but there’s always the Captain’s Club at the back of the ship -- away from the crowds and with a more intimate feel -- which offers tables for two and four and serves a different menu to the main restaurant.

It’s Also Ideal for Solo Travelers

We were impressed with River Splendor’s offering for solo cruisers. The ship has 14 no-supplement cabins (six of those are French Balcony cabins). Vantage Travel also organize dedicated solo events, Solo Connections, which offer a fun and informal way for solo travelers to get together with like-minded passengers.

Contrasting Cabins

Cabins come in three categories: Inside (Lower Deck); French Balcony (Middle and Top Deck) and Suites (Top Deck). We were impressed by the French Balcony cabins and Suites, which felt light and spacious thanks to large floor-to-ceiling windows. In contrast, Inside cabins felt dark and, for some, claustrophobic because of the lack of natural light. There are two small high-up windows that you can’t easily see out of, which creates a bleak cabin space. Pick an Inside cabin if you’re on a tight budget or don’t plan on spending much time in your room. Otherwise, you’ll want to book a French Balcony Cabin or Suite.

We were impressed with cabin bathrooms throughout the ship, which felt spacious with a large shower area and glass door (Suites feature a shower over a bathtub), and generous 75ml L'Occitane toiletries.

Fifty Shades of Fall

View from Vantage Deluxe World Travel's River Splendor of the autumn scenery along the Rhine River (Photo: Kerry Spencer/Cruise Critic)
The Rhine, particularly the UNESCO World Heritage Rhine Gorge, is arguably at its most stunning in fall. The foliage -- in gorgeous green, yellow and golden-brown hues -- is striking and dotted with pretty fairytale castles and rolling vineyards. We loved the balance of port time with scenic sailing on our Vantage Travel cruise, which offered plenty of opportunity to soak up the gorgeous autumn shades of the river.

Bottom Line

A budget-conscious traveler who’s ready to mingle with other passengers and appreciates a slower pace of ship life will likely enjoy River Splendor. If you prefer a more luxurious experience, an active schedule and less traditional programming, this ship is probably not for you. And if you’re looking for a late-night party crowd, you’re not going to find it onboard River Splendor. While the Cabaret Lounge Bar stays open until late, the majority of passengers on our sailing went straight back to their cabin after dinner, around 9 p.m.