CroisiEurope's Elbe Princesse represents a relatively new river ship design for the industry, sailing the tricky Elbe and Vltava Rivers between Berlin and Prague (and reverse). Building upon the concept it pioneered with the Loire Princesse on the similarly low Loire River in France, the company designed the 80-passenger vessel to be powered by two side-mounted paddlewheels with an ultra-shallow draught of 4 feet. This allows the ship to sail all season long, even during periods of low water, allowing the tiny vessel to moor right in town and bypassing the bus transfers typical to the Prague region. While the look of the paddlewheels is appealing, we found the ride to be bouncier and noisier than we were used to on other river sailings. That's not to say it was unpleasant, but it's a factor when you're looking at other river vessels.
We're told the interior design of the ship was inspired by Scandinavia. This is apparent in the light wooden latticework found in the lobby, bar and lounge, as well as the wooden lighting fixtures, which appear to have bent strips of birch wood, in the stairwells. The modern yet spare design is Ikea meets Aloft Hotels: The result is modern and playful (with pops of magenta pink and teal set against stark black and white), while remaining comfortable and functional. Black and white Rorschach-style cityscapes along with hip design motifs depicting the phrase, "Let's Move to Berlin," bring in a local and youthful element. Mirrors are cleverly utilized throughout the lounge and dining room to provide an illusion of more space.
At a price point advertised as competitive (but still in line with other river cruise providers), the ship has a few kinks to work out. Doors didn't shut well -- it took multiple times before we could shut our cabin door enough to lock it -- and the plastic, faux wood bathroom floor squeaked significantly. We couldn't lock the sliding-glass door in our cabin. Soundproofing from one cabin to the next was minimal -- we could hear fellow passengers hang up the phone along one wall, and during a period of sailing with the paddlewheels on, we heard furniture banging against an adjacent wall. The sound of rain against the windows was peaceful one afternoon, but then it began beating down on the tin-like roof above our heads on the second floor and became distracting. Had it been nighttime, we would have needed earplugs. The beds are narrow… we nearly fell out.
While a few loose ends mar the physical aspects of the ship, the overall comfort, warmth of service and quality of the food overshadowed these nuisances. This is made even more apparent by the willingness of the entire crew to speak English. While CroisiEurope is courting English speakers and North Americans, the line is French and it's apparent that the ship and cruise are not designed with us in mind. From the electrical outlets to frazzled tour guides, the ship seemed designed by and for fellow Europeans, and we felt like outsiders.
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The draw of this river cruise is truly the destinations -- Berlin, Dresden, Meissen, Prague -- and avoiding cancellation due to water levels. If you're up to buy into the whole European experience -- ABBA-style Muzak piped into cabins and all -- then Elbe Princesse is a fine choice to get you there. What is lost in translation is made up in heart; service is genuine and the experience is enjoyable, down to the dark chocolate hearts left at turndown.
As a French cruise line sailing German waters, the ship will largely draw European passengers, with just a smattering of interested English-speakers. The age demographic on river cruising generally skews older (55-plus), but the fresh take on decor, the appeal of buzzing cities like Berlin and Prague and the reasonable price point could attract younger couples to book.
The dress code is casual; one gala evening is held per cruise -- typically on the last night -- which invites passengers to dress up a bit more than they normally would for a specially prepared meal paired with wine. Buttoned-up or polo shirts and khakis or dress pants for men is fine, and dress pants, skirts or dresses will work for women. Holiday or theme cruises, such as New Year's or Christmas markets, might dictate a few additional evenings of cocktail attire. Walking tours are the name of the game on river sailings, so be sure to bring comfortable shoes.
Port charges and gratuities are included in your cruise fare with CroisiEurope. WiFi is free onboard for the duration of the cruise; this worked on both our phone and our laptop simultaneously, but required us to reconnect multiple times. A Samsung Galaxy tablet is located at the front desk for passenger use.
Almost all beverages are free at all times -- including wine, beer, soda, juice, tea, specialty coffee and a small list of liquors. The cocktail menu indicates which drinks are additional (think Champagne, Armagnac, Bailey's).