Monarch Empress

We're spending the week onboard Monarch Empress, the newest of the four riverboats operated by Gate 1 Travel and the first to be built for the line.

The tour operator based in Philadelphia sets out to deliver "More of the World for Less" with quality, affordable vacations for North Americans (and more recently Australians). Many of our shipmates are both returning clients who have traveled extensively on Gate 1 Travel's land-based itineraries or those who were completely new to river cruising.

Here are our impressions from the first days of our trip, sailing on the Danube River between Budapest and Regensburg.

Main Lounge on Monarch Empress

Neat Design Features

We're really impressed by some of the 144-passenger ship's neat and thoughtful design touches, many of which you won't find on riverboats with more expensive fares. In the past, we've struggled to open heavy doors onto outside decks -- especially hard if you're carrying a cup of coffee in one hand or there's a bit of a breeze -- but on Monarch Empress they're all automatic and activated by a large push button, which you can work with your elbow if your hands are full.

In the cabins, there are alarms (which hopefully you won't need, but good to know they're there), soft-close drawers, a nightlight in the bathroom and -- in the majority of staterooms -- a large fixed seat running along the back of the showers, which is also useful for storing extra toiletries.

Most ships have a telephone on the vanity unit/desk furthest from the bed, which isn't particularly handy if someone calls in the evening or you want a wake-up call. The in-cabin phones on Monarch Empress are fixed on the wall by one side of the bed and can be used to call reception and other cabins. OK, you can't make or receive outside calls like you can on some ships, but these days who uses expensive hotel-style phones on rivers when the majority of passengers have mobiles to keep in touch with friends and family?

Plenty To Do

The entertainment on river cruises is always low-key compared with ocean ships; however Monarch Empress offers more than most. Earlier this year the ship appointed an entertainment director, Amir, who's around from early morning (when he leads a gentle exercise class) to after dinner (when he hosts a variety of light-hearted quizzes). In between there are all kinds of things that we've never come across on river vessels, including a darts tournament, mini-golf and even the French game of petanaque, or boules, on the sun deck, which was great fun.  To encourage passengers to take part in the activities, there is the added incentive of a bottle of wine and chocolates for the winners.

Apple Strudel Making Class on Monarch Empress

Great Crew

From the tireless housekeepers -- seemingly around from the crack of dawn until they put a chocolate on your pillow at nightly turn-down -- to the friendly and often funny waiters, super helpful reception staff and cruise director Mick with his seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge, the crew are all fantastic. They even performed a crew show one night to showcase some of their other diverse talents. When I walked into the lounge on the first day, the bartender Dan remembered meeting me before, citing both the year and the cruise. Remarkable. (Although hopefully he didn't just remember me for the time I spent propping up the bar!).

Younger Crowd

The average demographic for river cruises is 55+, but the reality is your fellow shipmates will often be much older. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it's also nice to travel with a bunch of different folks. Gate 1 Travel mainly attracts North Americans, Canadians and Australians, with a sprinkling of passengers from other English-speaking countries. This week there are several people aboard who are in their 40s, which helps create a good onboard vibe and a livelier atmosphere in the lounge at night.

Plenty of Excursions

We're cruising along one of the most scenic stretches of the Danube, particularly the gorgeous UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley, which is lined with vineyards, fortresses and cute village. The days onboard Monarch Empress follow a similar pattern, with an included guided excursion each day, which is typically a walking tour or motorcoach trip to an abbey or other place of interest with knowledgeable local guides. For those who want to do a bit more, there are four optional excursions available at extra cost -- between $54 and $116 -- which included day trips to Salzburg, home of the "Sound of Music", and the historic town of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic.

In Vienna, we went to an orchestral concert in the stunning surroundings of the Hofburg Palace in the heart of the grand Austrian capital. It was a memorable evening, which naturally included "The Blue Danube Waltz" by Johann Strauss, and also featured some amusing audience participation. Everyone agreed it was well worth the $62 price tag.

Good Value & Flexibility

Gate 1 Travel prides itself on offering affordable river cruises, and its fares are less than many other lines plying the same stretch of the Danube. It offers the flexibility of vacations with included air or cruise-only fares, the latter a useful option for passengers who want to spend more time in Europe before or after the sailing.

Not As Much Choice or Inclusions

Of course, if you pay less then you can't expect everything. Food and wine are the two main areas where we're noticing the difference between Monarch Empress and more expensive lines. These days the majority or river cruises include free-flowing wine, beer and soft beverages with lunch and dinner, but with Gate 1 Travel, you only get drinks with the evening meal.

Also, there is a lack of choice at dinner, particularly for those who might be expecting a full menu. There is one set appetizer, soup and dessert, so if you don't like it, you either have to go without or ask for something like a green salad, particularly if you're vegetarian (albeit on some days both the starter and soup were veggie-friendly). The entrée does offer some options, with a choice of a meat, fish or vegetarian dish, or the "always available" menu items of chicken breast with steamed vegetables and baked potato or Caesar salad. Additionally, passengers can help themselves to cheese from the buffet. Several passengers have said that the lunch buffet, where there is a big choice, is the best meal of the day. Other than that, we haven't heard any grumbles from our fellow passengers who all seem to be having a great time and are loving the cruise.

Look for a full review of Monarch Empress to come soon.

--By Jeannine Williamson, Cruise Critic contributor