All of Emerald's excursions are included in the price of the cruise, and you have at least one excursion in every port you visit. Most excursions run in the morning and get passengers back onboard the ship by lunchtime. If a second excursion is offered, it might come after lunch, with a return before dinner, or, it might take passengers to a location where they'll dine off the ship.
For the most part, tours put passengers on coaches and take them to the heart of town. Most tours will have several stops, and all require some walking, though gentle walking tours are also available in some ports. In places where Emerald docks near the towns or city center, excursions start at the pier with no coaches.
Tauck assigns three guides -- called "Tauck Directors" and employed by the company -- to each cruise. Tauck Directors will meet the passengers at the hotel if there are pre-cruise stays, and they'll become passengers' lifelines during their cruise, serving as guide, interpreter, shepherd and problem-solver. On our journey, passengers connected strongly with the directors, even hugging them at the end of the journey. Directors also work closely with local guides, who take passengers around in ports, speaking perfect English while explaining what they are seeing and why it's important. The guides chosen are simply excellent: funny, smart, informed and unflappable. For most tours, passengers will wear audio receivers -- which are stored and charged in cabins -- while guides speak into microphones that transmit the signal to the receivers. This is especially useful in settings like churches, where hushed voices are encouraged.
Excursion options include tours of churches and historic buildings, but they also might take passengers to wine and cheese tastings, cooking classes at culinary schools or onto a petanque court to learn the French game that is similar to bocce.
In addition to the coach and walking tours, bike tours also are offered occasionally. These are optional and lightly attended, often running concurrently with another excursion. On our journey, tours were led by one of the Tauck Directors, and passengers rode bikes kept on the ship. (The bikes have seen better days, but they're functional.) Bike tours last around 45 to 60 minutes, depending on the riding abilities of the passengers who take the tour. They'll take passengers through some traffic but generally are along paths used mostly by pedestrians and other bikers.
Passengers do not need to tip Tauck Directors, tour guides or drivers; Tauck pays gratuities.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
River cruise ship entertainment is rarely a highlight, but Emerald seems to have found the magic formula. Entertainment is offered several times during your cruise, when local performers are brought onboard. Performances, which usually last for an hour, take place between lunch and dinner or after dinner in the ship's Panorama Lounge. Performances are well attended. Entertainers reflect the region to which the ship cruises, so for French sailings, passengers might watch a classic French jazz singer or see a solo accordion player. Afternoon entertainment sessions often are paired with things like an ice cream social or an oyster tasting.
Near the end of the cruise, crew put on a show of their own, which involves dancing, singing and audience participation. While the recipe could easily fall into the bad summer camp variety of entertainment, it is just a lot of fun. Passengers enjoy seeing the hidden talents of staff members they'd mingled with all week, and the participatory games bring passengers out of their shells. On evenings where there isn't additional entertainment, a pianist will play American favorites.
When it comes to enrichment on Emerald, the focus is on the destination. All enrichment has to do with where the boat is sailing. In the south of France, that might mean a lecture on history or discussion of the Rhone lock system by one of the Tauck Directors. Additionally, the captain will open up the wheelhouse once a cruise so passengers can visit. A big hit on our cruise was an onboard painting session in Arles; passengers recreated masterpieces by van Gogh, who famously lived in the Provence city. Passengers also can partake in food and cocktail pairings of local delicacies and spirits.
Because all beverages are included in your cruise fare, passengers can get drinks delivered anywhere. Drinks are free flowing, and passengers gather between activities to drink together and talk about their daily adventures.
Panorama Lounge (Deck 3): The ship's only bar, the Panorama Lounge has lots of seating in plush chairs and couches. Seating is arranged to accommodate groups; you can find seating for two, but most people would rather sit with fellow passengers. The space, decorated in navy blue, gold and brown, is brightly lit thanks to lots of windows, including floor-to-ceiling panorama windows at the front of the ship. A nice-sized horseshoe-shaped bar at the front has a number of stools, but most passengers elect to grab their drinks and sit elsewhere. The lounge also has a piano, and a pianist plays during cocktail hour and after dinner. There's a small dance floor that is used more by the entertainers than the passengers.
The lounge itself is well used throughout the day, with passengers sitting by windows to watch as the ship passes through locks or chilling on couches to do some reading. Each night, there's a cocktail hour, and most passengers attend to eat hors d'oeuvres, sip Champagne and cocktails, and hear about the next day's activities. The lounge offers an extensive cocktail menu, and a few passengers on our sailing were drinking their way through the menu, on a mission to find new favorites.
The Sun Deck on Emerald has a seldom-used hot tub, which can accommodate four passengers. (We found that it was used more by the end of the week than at the beginning.) You won't find any towels on the top deck, so you'll have to bring some from your cabin. There's also a putting green that comprises five holes. Passengers can get clubs and balls at guest services.
All of the ship's services are located on the second deck. This is where passengers embark and disembark; the process requires a keycard scan. This is also where you'll find the ship's guest services area, where you can ask questions, get problems solved, book spa appointments and grab tasty sweets from the candy dishes or snag cough drops. (The ship's lone elevator, which moves between decks 2 and 3, opens just off the atrium where you'll find guest services. The elevator doesn't go to the Sun Deck or to cabins on the lowest deck.) The ship's cruise director or guest services staff also can book special activities ashore for passengers wishing to do something off-the-beaten-path: things like dinner reservations at special restaurants or car rentals in port. The ship's cruise director also has a desk on Deck 2.
Right across from the guest services desk, you'll find a small boutique that sells items such as handbags, scarves, jewelry, soaps and lotions, ties and perfume.
The Panorama Lounge, also on Deck 2, offers a daily selection of newspapers and magazines from around the world for passengers to read in the lounge. A condensed news handout is left for passengers in their cabins each morning. (For passengers in suites, these papers are customized, so passengers from the U.S. will get American news, while passengers from, say, Australia, will read about what's going on in Oz.)
There is no internet cafe, but Wi-Fi service is available -- and free -- onboard; passengers must bring their devices to guest services to enable browsing.
Passengers can't smoke in any indoor space, but virtually every open outdoor space has ashtrays -- a bit of a turnoff for nonsmokers.
Emerald has one spa therapist onboard and a small, one-room spa on the first deck. Here, the therapist performs treatments like Swedish, deep-tissue or foot massages, as well as chakra balancing. Prices are less than you'd pay at a land-based spa, and they include tip. For example, a 60-minute deep-tissue massage is 75 euros. Many passengers on our sailing opted for a massage, and time slots filled quickly, with most people trying to arrange treatments between excursions and meals.
A tiny fitness center is adjacent to the spa room. It houses two treadmills, two stationary bikes, four flat-screen TVs and a handful of free weights, ranging from 1 to 10 kilograms. The space doesn't have benches or weight machines, so all free weight movements must be performed while standing or on the ground. There are a number of mats, as well, but there's only space for one or two to be laid out at once. The gym is little used, which is probably good, as you can hear what's going on in the gym from the spa treatment room and vice versa. It's also quite hot, perhaps because it is so close to the spa room.
At least once during a cruise, passengers are offered a morning yoga and stretch class -- fee-free. Most stretches and poses are done from a standing position, so passengers who have difficulty getting to the floor (or getting up from the floor) can still participate. Classes can be changed on the fly to accommodate the fitness level of the passengers taking it.
On the Sun Deck, there's space to walk, though not a walking track, per se. Additionally, Emerald has 12 touring bikes that passengers can borrow while in port. We found them a bit rickety but loved the opportunity to see the ports in a new way. There are no e-assist bikes onboard. Helmets are available but not required.
Emerald doesn't have a dedicated space for children, nor does it have dedicated staff to take care of children. The ship does offer a limited number of dedicated sailings for families under the company's Tauck Bridges program. Those sailings attract multigenerational travelers, and programming -- including shore excursions -- changed slightly to make them more kid and family friendly. Shore tours might include cooking classes or a cowboy show on a family ranch, for example. The cruise line doesn't bring onboard special tour guides dedicated to children for Tauck Bridges sailings, but it does ensure that staff on the sailings are good with kids. Menus for these sailings are adapted to be more kid-friendly (less fancy), and onboard entertainment like movies and popcorn are added. These sailings tend to be more active and definitely focus on the kids.
Regardless of whether the ship is offering a family-specific sailing, the recommended age for children to sail on Emerald is 8 years old. The ship offers two pairs of connecting cabins, both on the third passenger deck. Connecting cabins combine a 183-square-foot cabin with a 300-square-foot cabin, and they connect through the closets.
Each of Emerald's 300-square-foot cabins comes with a small convertible sofa that can accommodate one or two children.