In April 2013, Uniworld launched cruises in Italy with a goal to be the most luxurious line on the Po. The company succeeded with flying colors, and the freshly remodeled 134-passenger River Countess surpasses any other river vessel based in Venice.
From the moment you step onboard, the company's signature style of fabulous elegance is presented in full force. A large chandelier and leopard-skin circular sofa dominate the lobby, and natural light, fresh flowers and two parallel staircases combine to give passengers a warm welcome. River Countess might be elegant in style, but the dress code is resort casual. It caters to a predominantly English-speaking, retired clientele.
After 10 years of service, River Countess underwent a total transformation in 2012, with more than $5 million worth of refurbishments. Immediately prior to its Italian debut, the ship received a few extra touches, including a pizza oven and a new tapestry behind the reception area.
One of the most impressive spaces is the Sienna Salon Sky Lounge, a glass-walled conservatory-like cafe decked out with plants and outdoor furniture. On a blue-sky day, the cozy room lights up with sunshine. The main restaurant is also a sight to behold, with white leather booths, white tablecloths and white-tuxedoed waiters.
Seven-night sailings are offered between April and November, with four nights spent in Venice, using the ship as a base. Other shore excursions -- to the historic and cultural delights of Verona, Bologna, Padua and Ravenna -- require coach trips of one to two hours. For these reasons, the itinerary may suit couples who can't decide whether to see Italy by road or river, as there is less sailing time than on the average cruise.
In 2014 and beyond, fares will include all gratuities; unlimited fine wine, beer, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages; shore excursions with local guides; Internet and Wi-Fi in all rooms; and transfers on arrival and departure days. For the remainder of the 2013 season, house wine is complimentary, with other choices available at additional cost.
There are two dining venues: Savoy Restaurant, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are held, and Sienna Salon Sky Lounge, a glass-enclosed space for passengers who feel like having a lighter or quieter meal. The Il Castillo bar also serves afternoon snacks, such as sandwiches and cookies.
The main restaurant offers classic Continental cuisine, plus daily Italian specialties. Its decor is very elegant, with white and cream furniture, white tablecloths, leather booths, a chandelier and plenty of windows for mealtime sightseeing. Meals are served open-seating at set times, depending on the day's activities, with tables for two, four, six, eight and 10.
Breakfast is offered from a large buffet area in the center of the room. The spread includes a wide selection of cereal, breads, cheese, meat, fruit, yogurt, smoothies and fried foods like sausage and hash browns. A chef is designated to cook omelets and fried eggs; poached eggs and other dishes can be ordered separately from the kitchen at no extra charge.
Lunch includes a soup station, salad bar, carvery, hot entrees, pasta, sandwiches and desserts. Local delicacies are often provided as an optional treat.
Dinner features a full menu with several hot or cold starters like an antipasti plate, two soups (usually one consomme and one creamy option), three entrees (fish, meat and vegetarian), rich desserts and cheese plates showcasing Italian specialties that include stracchino, asiago and taleggio. If nothing on the menu is to your liking, you can ask for a more standard option like steak.
The service is efficient, although it occasionally takes a while to receive your meal or wine top-up. Friendly waiters always deliver with a smile.
Sienna Salon Sky Lounge on the Sun Deck is more casual, located in a sun-lit conservatory-style space that's covered by a glass roof and walls that can be opened or closed, depending on the weather. Open all day to cater to passengers who come and go, it's offered as an alternative venue for light meals in a quieter atmosphere. A long table is set up with pizza (cooked in the ship's new pizza oven), pasta, salad, soup and sandwiches, served by two or three chefs and waiters. Brunch and cocktail parties are also held there.
Red and white house wine, beer and soft drinks are complimentary at lunch and dinner at both venues. Prosecco is also handed out at the Captain's Welcome and Farewell events. All drinks (except premium spirits and some higher-end wines) will be free from 2014.
As a quick breakfast alternative, hot drinks and small snacks are available in the ship's lounge and downstairs coffee and tea station. Only suite passengers have the option of room service.
River Countess has 63 staterooms (151 square feet), classed from Category 1 to 5, and four suites (214 square feet). All have outside views; the more value-priced accommodations have picture windows, while staterooms and suites on Rhine Deck feature floor-to-ceiling sliding windows (known as French balconies).
Uniworld's decor is upmarket, elegant, warm and sophisticated, with a great attention to detail. No expense seems spared on the high-quality bedding, furniture, marble bathrooms and overall construction.
Each cabin has a desk with a chair and a smaller table for daily delivered water, while the suites have a larger table and sitting area with a sofa and two chairs. Mirrors behind the bedheads in all cabins provide a sense of greater space. The bathrooms are well sized for a river vessel, but they're much larger in the suites. Suites have bigger showers and two basins each; regular staterooms each have one sink. Built-in closets provide adequate space for clothes and other belongings, and suitcases can be stored under the beds.
Riverview staterooms and suites have handcrafted Savoir of England beds; high thread count, 100 percent Egyptian cotton sheets; European duvets and a pillow menu. The twin beds can convert into large doubles.
Each stateroom or suite comes equipped with a flat-screen TV and complimentary movie and entertainment options, built-in closets, hair dryer, individual climate-control thermostat, telephone, safe and bottled water. Marble bathrooms are stocked with L'Occitane shampoo, conditioner, body lotion and shower gel; plush towels; a backlit magnifying mirror; waffle bathrobes and towel warmers.
Suites have additional amenities and services, including bottles of wine upon arrival, morning coffee and tea, Nespresso coffee machines, continental breakfast served in cabin, daily fruit and cookie plates, evening canapes, refrigerators, slippers, DVD players, iPod docking stations, and shoe shine and free laundry services.
From 2014, gratuities for onboard and onshore services, including pre- and post-cruise extensions, will be included in cruise fare.
For 2013, tipping is at your own discretion, but Uniworld recommends the following as a guide (amounts are per passenger, per day): 10 euros to be shared among all the ship's staff and crew; 3 euros for the cruise manager; 3 euros for the local host on land extensions; 1 to 2 euros per guest, per day, for day-tour guides; and 2 euros for drivers.
River Countess is compact, so it has only a few public areas to mingle and relax.
Entering on Rhine Deck, passengers are welcomed by a glamorous 24-hour reception area with a chandelier and a couple of sofas, including a circular leopard-print lounger, where people tend to congregate. Adjacent is the classy, turquoise-themed Captain's Lounge and Library, comprising three tables, a small collection of books and photocopied newsletters from around the world.
On the Danube Deck are a small boutique, an Internet nook with two computers, a 24-hour tea and coffee machine, two tables, chairs and jars of biscotti.
Down below, Moselle Deck has a self-service laundry, with washing machine, dryer and detergent supplied.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The wide-open sun deck has shuffleboard, giant chess and tables and chairs for reclining in the fresh air. This is the most popular vantage point for sailaway and watching the passing scenery. It's also the only place where you're allowed to smoke. There is no pool or hot tub.
The ship has a small spa, the Serenity River Spa, with a masseur on Danube Deck. It also offers a fitness center, equipped with stationary bikes, a treadmill, a rowing machine, weights and yoga mats. Exercise classes, such as yoga and Zumba, are held early mornings on the sun deck, weather permitting.
Families are welcome, but Uniworld provides no facilities or activities for children. For this reason, it's rare to see kids onboard.
The general age for river cruise passengers is 60 and older, but Uniworld passengers tend to be slightly younger and well-traveled. Many on our Italy cruise were past passengers from other European river cruises on the Rhine or Danube.
Most travel as couples or groups of friends, but solo travelers are also attracted to River Countess, due to the elimination of the single supplement on several Venice departures. The mix of nationalities is largely American, Canadian, Australian and British.
Resort casual, comfortable attire is encouraged for both ship and shore. A good pair of walking shoes is essential. As the ship sails in Italy, where some cities have cobblestone streets, be sure to stick with flats (no heels).
Passengers dress up slightly more in the evenings, especially for the farewell dinner, but never as fancy as during formal nights on ocean cruises. Some people don't even change out of the clothes worn on shore excursions.
For events like the Captain's Welcome and Farewell Dinner, women might like to pack a few dresses. Men can get away with collared shirts and blazers, but there's no need for ties.
The II Castillo Lounge is the full-service bar and dance floor located at the front of the ship on Rhine Deck. Most evenings are quiet, with a small crowd in the lounge enjoying the resident pianist and singer, who plays classical and modern songs nightly.
On one night, a local theater group came onboard for an evening of Italian opera repertoire. Another day, a wine expert gave an afternoon lecture about Italian wines; however, no tastings were served.
Most passengers participate in the daily shore excursions included in the cruise fares, which are limited to basic bus and walking tours, hosted lunches in town and a pasta-making demonstration. QuietVox headsets with earphones are provided for every tour so that everyone can hear what local guides are saying. A smaller number also pay for the optional trips to museums, art galleries and glass-blowing demonstrations, available every day.
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