Situated on the upper Navigator Deck, the retro Peppermint Lounge, with its '50s and '60s theme, is the social hub and center for all the onboard entertainment. It's nicely furnished, predominantly in shades of blue, and is large enough to accommodate all of the passengers on the vessel. A couple of times we felt the daytime recorded music played in the lounge was rather loud and intrusive, but it was immediately turned down when we brought it to the attention of a crewmember.
Inside the entrance to the lounge is the rectangular bar, with stools around the edge. Drinks are served with bowls of peanuts and pretzels. Cocktails of the day are flagged in the daily program (€5.30 for the alcoholic drink and €4.20 for the nonalcoholic cocktail) and each night there is a changing menu of themed cocktails, such as American classics, French favorites and flavored martinis. If none of these take your fancy, the team of friendly bartenders quickly get to know your usual drink of choice. Although the average passengers are not party animals, a handful sometimes stay up late, and the bar remains open until the last man (or woman) is standing.
Immersion in the local culture plays a big part in Vantage's itineraries, and passengers can expect a daily program of lectures, demonstrations and entertainment closely linked to the countries visited. These range from enlightening talks from local excursion guides followed by question-and-answer sessions to cooking lessons with the chef, commentary when sailing through areas of particular interest and light-hearted activities and presentations led by the cruise director and concierge. On our French cruise, these included a game of petanque (or boules) -- with rookie efforts enhanced by a glass of the aniseed-flavored French spirit pastis -- and a cheese and wine tasting. Other events included a silk "presentation" (aka an opportunity for a spot of onboard retail therapy) in the city of Lyon, famous for its centuries-old silk-making industry.
Although there is a piano in the lounge for visiting performers, there was no resident onboard pianist (a mainstay of most river vessels) on our cruise. This resulted in a much more varied program of after-dinner entertainment, which included a French movie night (with popcorn and subtitles), live music from a local band, an evening of accordion music and an amusing show of comic sketches (including an outstanding singing performance by one of the waitresses) staged by young and enthusiastic crewmembers.
A really neat feature in the Peppermint Lounge is the Wurlitzer jukebox. Now adapted to play CDs, it is available to passengers free of charge, and they can choose from an extensive song list of contemporary and classic hits.
In common with most river vessels, a daily shore excursion is included in the fare. These are led by very well-informed local guides, who are able to answer all manner of questions, and accompanied by the cruise director. Each evening, in his daily port talk, the cruise director provides an overview of the forthcoming tour. In some instances these are graded as "active" -- generally involving hills, steps and uneven walking surfaces -- and "regular" -- an alternative, shorter option on flatter ground. Each cabin contains personal headsets and ear pieces, which are used on the group excursions. These are useful as passengers don't need to huddle close to the guide in order to hear.
There are also optional tours, usually two per cruise, available at extra charge.
The ship is accessed via the airy two-deck atrium, which is topped by a chandelier. It sets the scene for the elegant and tasteful decor that prevails throughout the public areas. This vessel settles on a happy medium when it comes to styling -- neither overly ornate nor too minimal.
The reception desk, on the middle Explorer Deck, is manned 24 hours a day, and situated opposite is the hospitality desk. Crossword and Sudoku puzzles are available at the reception desk for passengers to fill in at leisure. In the daily program, the concierge provides sightseeing tips on places of interest, which is very helpful for passengers who want to explore on their own. These include suggestions for museums, with opening times and entrance fees, and recommendations for cafes and restaurants, local souvenirs and any special events taking place while the ship is in port. Passengers can visit the hospitality desk for further ideas or to ask the concierge to make bookings. In the lobby, next to reception, is a display cabinet selling jewelry, accessories, Vantage logowear, candy, guidebooks and small essentials such as shaving cream and other toiletries.
One of the side corridors leading to the Peppermint Lounge -- an area on river vessels that is usually "dead space" -- has been cleverly turned into a library, with a glass door at each end. Furnished with a pair of tables, seating up to four in comfortable chairs, and a squashy sofa in front of another table, it is a quiet area to sit, read and take a nap. Passengers can take their pick from a good choice of novels, guides and glossy coffee table books, and there is also a selection of general interest magazines, jigsaw puzzles and board games.
More board games are available in the airy Captain's Club, with its floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows, on the upper Navigator Deck. In addition to being the casual dining area, it doubles as a quieter lounge, and has a flat-screen TV and a hydraulic sliding roof that can be fully opened and closed within three minutes. The area leads to the small open-air deck at the back of the ship, another pleasant space to sit and while away time. The retractable roof and rear deck means there is plenty of "outdoor" space on sunny days when the 14,000-square-foot sun deck is closed to passengers due to low bridges.
The only thing that mars some of the corridors and entranceways in public areas is the rather worn black and yellow marking tape to warn of potential trip hazards. It is undoubtedly useful but makes these areas look a tad shabby.
An elevator runs between all three passenger decks, and there is a hydraulic chair lift that enables passengers with disabilities to reach the sun deck. (On the majority of river vessels this deck is rendered "out of bounds" to people who can't manage stairs.)
Ice machines are located in the Captain's Club, on the upper Navigator Deck, and in the lobby area on the Explorer Deck. Complimentary Wi-Fi is available throughout the ship, although the reception tends to be better in the Peppermint Lounge during periods of high usage or when the signal is low (which is common on sections of river cruises). Five iPads are available for passengers to use (with a $300 deposit), and there is a complimentary guest computer and printer -- the latter a useful amenity for printing out boarding passes -- on the lower deck, outside the gym.
The ship offers a 24-hour laundry service, with items collected from the cabin. Prices range from €1 for underwear to €3.50 for a shirt, blouse, skirt or pants. An ironing service is also offered, chargeable at 50 percent of the laundry price.
Throughout our cruise, it was noticeable that the crewmembers really gelled together. They were an unfailingly happy and charming bunch and played a major part in the upbeat atmosphere onboard.
Although rather plain with its grey flooring, the sun deck has wooden tables, which seat four, sunbeds and shaded areas, making it a perfect spot to enjoy the scenery on fine days. There is also a giant chess board and an area designated for smoking.
A small, attractive gym on the lower deck is decorated with nautical pictures and ornaments. (Often fitness rooms appear to be an afterthought in an empty cabin.) It contains a treadmill, cross-trainer, stationary bicycle, Swiss ball, free weights and -- for the brave -- a set of weighing scales. Towels and water are provided. Opposite is a small massage and beauty room. Prices range from €30 for a 20-minute hand and arm massage to €75 for a 60-minute full body massage. The ship carries five complimentary bicycles available to passengers on a first-come, first served basis.
There are no facilities for children, and the cruises are geared towards mature and retired passengers. However, the choice of accommodation -- including the number of single cabins -- makes Vantage a viable option for multigenerational travel. On our cruise, there were a number of couples traveling with their adult children and a grandmother with her 12-year-old granddaughter, who was made to feel very welcome.