Rhapsody's entertainment offerings aren't low-key -- they're no-key.
One night on our cruise, passengers gathered in the comfortable, clubby lounge for after-dinner karaoke. Another evening featured a horse-racing contest. Throw in the crew's talent show, and that about covers it. There are no Vegas-style shows, no trivia challenges, no ice sculpture demonstrations. But, that's not what river cruising on Rhapsody is about.
Grand Circle's focus is on cultural enrichment -- or "learning and discovery," as you'll hear over and over again from your program directors. We've traveled with Grand Circle six times -- twice on river ships -- and I think the company's educational enrichment programs rival others in the industry and surpass most.
This most recent cruisetour included three nights in Prague and seven nights aboard Rhapsody. Included in the cost of the fare are four, guided, sightseeing tours of European capitals, a round-table discussion of life in today's Slovakia with three college students in Bratislava and a home-hosted lunch in Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO world heritage site in the Czech Republic. On top of that, there are shore excursions -- or optional tours, as Grand Circle puts it -- in every port. Ours included a walkabout in Salzburg, dinner and dancing (the polka, of course) at a country inn in Czech and a tour and wine tasting at the stunning abbey in Melk, inhabited by monks since 1089. In Melk, one program director accompanied the optional tour, while the other PD led the passengers who did not sign up for the shore excursion on a stroll of the Wachau Valley village -- an example of the added value the program directors bring to the experience.
In the evenings, just before dinner, the PD's give not-to-miss port talks in the lounge, providing the essentials about the following day's activities. One of the most memorable activities on our Danube cruise was an afternoon sailing through the Wachau Valley -- a wine-growing region that has become one of the most popular bicycle routes in Europe -- featuring top-deck commentary from our PD. It was a cold, clear day, and as Rhapsody quietly passed by the hillside vineyards, the granite and limestone gorges and medieval churches, the essence of cruising on this small river ship was writ large.
The word "intimacy" used to put me off when the topic involved small-ship cruising, and it took years before I was willing to try river cruising. My worry: 140 people on one tiny ship -- and no place to hide. The happy truth here is that, on Rhapsody and other ships like it, I have yet to feel like the public space quotient is off kilter.
Rhapsody has four decks. The top -- the Sun Deck -- is a great place to gather for viewing the passing landscape. It's also the only spot on the ship where smoking is permitted. The Serenade Deck is the centerpiece of most of the public rooms: the two-level restaurant with its floor-to-ceiling windows; the quite large bar and lounge; and a small library that has a chess table, board games, several comfortable chairs and the ship's only available computer. Don't expect much in the way of Internet service onboard. You can only send and receive email, and it's done on a delayed basis.
There's an ice machine next to the library, near the ship's self-described "boutique:" a series of glass cases, displaying Hummel figurines, beer steins, yodeling stuffed bears, Swarovksi jewelry and Rhapsody logo wear. The passenger services desk is also there, and this is where guests can exchange U.S. dollars and euros for local currencies and pick up the "U.S.A. Times," a daily compilation of news, sports and weather reports.
The program directors maintain a hospitality desk, just off the library, where they dispense helpful handouts and post the day's activities. It's fairly low-tech, but it's a crucial component to Grand Circle's active itineraries.
Clearly, Grand Circle does not put an emphasis on fitness -- and that's too bad. The so-called fitness center has two bikes and a treadmill that, during our stay, was in poor working order. There are no free-weights or resistance machines. Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., the fitness center does have a sauna and whirlpool. Otherwise, you'll have to get your exercise ashore.
Grand Circle Small Ship Cruises does not allow passengers under age 13. There is no special youth programming.