River Ambassador, which entered service in 1993, is one of Uniworld's older vessels. But following refurbishments in 2006 and 2011, the age of the 120-passenger ship is hard to distinguish, thanks to the light, fresh and stylish interiors.
These are all down to Beatrice Tollman, president and founder of Uniworld's sister company, Red Carnation Hotels. Her idea was to create a genuine feeling of a 'boutique' hotel on board the ships, and in an era when the word 'boutique' is used in far too broad a sense, she's certainly succeeded. European river cruisers are pretty similar in size, restricted by the bridges and locks of the waterways they transit, and many ship designers opt for safe, fairly bland decor. But Uniworld's fleet feels genuinely individual. You board the ship and the reaction is 'wow'. It's the fabrics that do it: dove grey silk walls, heavy cream silk drapes and sofas in silver crushed velvet.
Just about everything about this Rhine cruise was exceptional. The service was excellent; attentive and friendly without being obsequious. The food genuinely reflected the region in which we were sailing and was elegantly presented, accompanied by regional wines selected by Uniworld's wine buyer, who happened to be on board and circulated in the dining room, enthusing about the wines he'd chosen. Excursions were varied and interesting and the atmosphere on board convivial, despite the almost total lack of nightlife, as everybody went to bed after dinner.
All meals take place in the Restaurant, forward on Moselle deck. It's an elegant room, all done in white and flooded with light. All meals are open seating, although people tended to head for the same places every evening. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style.
Breakfast, served from 7 to 9 a.m., is an impressive spread, with eggs cooked to order, as well as egg and bacon on the buffet, fresh fruit, cheeses, cereals, pancakes, waffles and juices. Coffee comes from espresso machines; there's one in the lounge, too, with a regular supply of mini-muffins and doughnuts.
Lunch was always a reflection on the region in which we were sailing, in my case, the Rhine, with assorted sausages, German-influenced salads featuring potato and cabbage, schnitzels, black breads and hearty soups. This was presented alongside lighter dishes of salads, pasta, cheeses and cold cuts, as well as a hot dish of the day with vegetables. There's a choice of desserts, as well as fruit and a cheeseboard.
Tea (and pastries) is served midafternoon (usually around 3:30 p.m., depending on the day's tour schedule) in the lounge.
Dinner is usually at 7 p.m. and goes on till 9, although in reality, most people go to eat as soon as the cruise manager has finished their presentation of the following day's events. In Europe, the food has Mediterranean influences; chicken wrapped in prosciutto, or fish with a cheese risotto. There was a vegetarian dish every night, as well as some always-available items, chicken or steak, for those who prefer their food plainer. Because my cruise was a special family departure, the chef had drawn up a healthy children's menu, with some genuinely creative dishes on it; child-friendly crab cakes, and vegetable tempura, for example.
Waiters pour wine from the region with lunch and dinner and on one night, there was a superb wine-pairing dinner which really showcased the diversity of German wines, from delicate, spicy whites to punchy reds and a magnificent dessert wine. Uniworld's wine buyer was on board and delivered a short presentation about each wine before we tasted it.
Beer and sodas are also offered complimentary for those who don't drink the wine.
Room service is offered only as continental breakfast in the suites; the cabins don't have suitable space for dining.
The ship's reception is a light, airy space where you can sort out tours, borrow bicycles or chat to the tour manager, whose desk is in the corner. It leads to the Lounge, the hub of the ship's social scene, with a bar and dance floor, and a piano. A coffee machine offers free espresso and cappuccino, as well as a steady supply of mini muffins, popular among those who had slept in and wanted to grab a quick bite before departing on tour. There's a small library and board games, as well as internet access from two terminals. Wifi is also available -½ either way, internet is €15 a week. A shop area in the reception sells Uniworld branded clothing.
On the upper deck, there are plenty of comfortable, squashy sun loungers as well as a giant chess set and shuffleboard. The Sky Bar, a glass-enclosed structure in the middle of the deck, is occasionally used for drinks receptions and activities like cookery demonstrations, although it doesn't see much action when the weather is bad.
Cabins come in three categories, and there are four suites. Categories 2 and 3 are on the lower deck (Moselle) and have a picture window, while category 1 cabins are on the upper deck (Rhine) and like the suites, have French balconies. Regardless of category, all accommodation has Savoir of England beds, Egyptian cotton sheets, pillow menu, built-in closets, hair dryer, individual climate-control thermostat, direct-dial telephone, 'infotainment' centre with flat-screen TV and complimentary movies, bathrobes, bottled water, and safe. Marble-lined bathrooms have power showers with L'Occitane en Provence products.
Additional goodies in the suites include a daily fruit and cookie plate, evening canape; slippers; DVD; iPod docking station; Nespresso coffee machine; bathroom towel warmers; refrigerator; bottle of wine upon arrival; morning coffee and tea; continental breakfast; shoe shine; and free laundry service.
Furnishings in all cabins are bold and lavishly luxurious, mixing textures and rich, jewel-like colours of scarlets and turquoises with more subtle bronze and grey. The result is stunning. But there were some elements of style over substance. In my suite, there was no wardrobe space to hang a dress (with an upper and lower rail, the lower one got in the way). So I hung my dress inside the bathroom door on a hook helpfully attached to the full-length mirror. There was no soap dish in the shower, either.
There are no extra berths; although the staterooms are in no way lacking in facilities, there isn't room for a third bed in any. Bring luggage that fits under the bed, as there isn't much spare space unless you opt for a suite.
There aren't any cabins adapted for wheelchair users.
A gratuity of €13 per passenger, per day is recommended, €10 for the crew and €3 for the cruise manager. There are also recommendations for guides and bus drivers but most passengers take their own decisions on tipping these outside suppliers. In 2014, most cruise fares (excluding Russia, China and Vietnam) will include gratuities for onboard and onshore services, including pre- and post-cruise extensions.
There are no special facilities for kids but families are welcome; our cruise was, in fact, designated a family special, with separate family excursions, a kids' menu and a Wii room, but River Ambassador won't necessarily be the ship allocated for these itineraries in future. Although the family departures were new when we sailed, the crew coped brilliantly, interacting with the kids, the galley laying on special menus and the cruise manager even conducting a 'behind the scenes' tour, with no adults allowed. For multi-generational families, or those seeking a cultural experience geared to all ages, these departures are highly recommended.
But kids who need a lot of entertainment and can't sit still through dinner might be better suited to a cruise on a large, ocean-going ship.
Passengers are mainly North American with a handful of Brits and Antipodeans. Most were well-travelled and many had never cruised but were regulars on the escorted tour circuit. Uniworld does a couple of family-friendly cruises every year and I was on one of these, so there were a lot of families on board.
Dress code is country club casual. During the day, that meant casual trousers and skirts; shorts were fine for sunning on the top deck. At night, men wore polos and jackets; for women summery dresses or trousers and smart top. There's one night hosted by the Captain, during which some men wore ties.
Almost all shore excursions are included in the price and sometimes there's a choice, so the ship empties during the day. Uniworld uses the Quietvox portable lightweight audio headset system, through which the tour guide communicates via microphone to individual headphones, which means you can wander around and still hear. The excursions were of excellent quality and often included extra treats -½- ice creams in Koblenz, a tasting in a local sausage shop, a wine tasting in a winery attached to a castle.
Every evening, the cruise manager gave a talk about the following day and took the time to make sure everybody was happy with their plans. One day, we had a trio come onboard to play light classical tunes after dinner, which was well attended -½ the only evening people really stayed up.
During the day as the ship was sailing, various events were laid on; informal German lessons one day, and a kaiserschmarrndemonstration on another, the chef assembling a vast pan of pancake pieces fried in butter, tossed in icing sugar and served with plum jam. It's a classic dessert in Germany and Austria. One cabin had been turned into a Wii room for the children on board, with a steady supply of chocolate bars and fruit. On the sundeck, people played giant chess and shuffleboard and on one cloudy afternoon, we lounged in our cabin watching movies from a vast selection.
|Fitness and Recreation|
As on most Europe riverboats, River Ambassador's gym facilities are token and compact, featuring a couple of machines and a fitball. Yoga was offered each morning on the sun deck.
The ship has a tiny spa, in a converted cabin, offering surprisingly adventurous treatments; a display in the reception promised massages using chocolate or honey products, for example. A 50-minute massage costs €60.
The ship carries a fleet of bicycles which are lined up in port for individual use; on one occasion, a guided bike tour was offered and was quickly over-subscribed, so more bikes were quickly hauled in from a local rental shop. There are Nordic poles, too, for keen walkers.
There is no pool or whirlpool on River Ambassador.
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