Some say river cruises are the new bus tours of Europe -- only better. Cruisers unpack once and then sail down Europe's famous rivers to dock in the heart of its wonderful cities.
Uniworld's River Empress, like most river boats, is long and narrow with an interior -- and stylish decor -- remind me of the ambiance on a small, luxury cruise ship. Still, while the River Empress offers a soothing atmosphere with rich-looking materials, roomy cabins, and fine cuisine, don't think it's a snobbish experience. A cruise on this ship is casual, from the dress code to its down-to-earth clientele who love to talk, walk and explore the culture of the region they are visiting. It's not a totally laid-back experience either -- the ship sometimes stops in two or three places a day.
The ship generally sails during daylight hours so passengers can enjoy the view while lunching, and docks at night so they can stroll around in town after dinner. The ship was designed to appeal to Americans, and features English-speaking staff, a lighter cuisine and no smoking allowed except on the Sun Deck.
The restaurant is lined with floor-to-ceiling windows so virtually all diners have a view. Although it can accommodate all passengers at once, that's only 140 max so the room has the warm, intimate atmosphere of a small restaurant. The tables seat four or six; there are no tables for two. The color scheme here echoes that of the Main Lounge with pale teal and light-colored wood; a marble walkway inset into the carpeting is beige with coral accents.
Breakfast and lunch are served at a buffet set up on the center bar, which has a marble surface. Dinner is served by the wait staff and might include smoked, marinated salmon with creme fraiche as an appetizer and grilled tuna on green tagliatelli with a fresh, thick tomato sauce for an entree. Lamb, veal and beef entrees are also popular. Desserts often are fruit ice creams or perhaps a Bavarian cream of bitter almonds. Of course, a selection of cheeses is always available. There is no room service. Coffee, hot water and teabags are always available in the Salon/Patio along with cookies or candies.
The public areas are beautifully decorated, primarily with soothing shades of pale turquoise, light coral, beige and taupe. The Main Lounge has lots of comfy couches and chairs and is lined with panoramic windows. There's a pale wood bar, a small dance floor with an area for the piano or perhaps a small combo. The adjacent Club Lounge is a smaller, quieter room with luxurious beige leather chairs, needlepoint pillows, a small bar and a chessboard. One deck down is the Salon/Patio, a sunny, casual room with wicker chairs and piles of newspapers, books and board games.
Two laptop computers allow passengers to write e-mails, which are delivered at no cost via satellite twice a day. If replies come in, they will be printed out and delivered to passengers if the subject line includes the cabin number and name. A tiny beauty salon offers hair services only. Atop the top sun deck, there are lounge chairs and a lovely section covered by a glass roof and walls that can be opened in warm weather. There is a free self-service launderette with two washers, two dryers and an ironing board and iron; the front desk provides detergent.
The 65 staterooms are an identical 153 square feet, the only difference being the deck they are located on and size of the windows. Those on Deck 3 have two floor-to-ceiling windows, while cabins one deck down have two good-size windows. Those on the lowest deck have small windows located just at the waterline. The cabins are lovely and thoughtfully designed to make the most of the space.
The color scheme is pale beige and wheat with touches of deep blue. Staterooms are outfitted with a dressing table/desk topped with black-and-beige-veined marble, a small round table and chair, two closets, six drawers, a safe, a hair dryer and a TV that carries CNN. The bathroom is small but very efficient with a marble-tiled shower with stylish fixtures. A white porcelain sink is inlaid in a wood vanity; the drinking glasses are white porcelain -- a nice touch. Beds can be arranged as two singles or one queen; a decent reading light is positioned over each bed. Beds are made with wonderfully comfy duvets and down pillows. Heavy drapes keep out any smidgen of sunlight.
Electric voltage is 220v, so Americans will need a converter and adapter if they bring along any appliances such as a curling iron. The four suites are 225 square feet in size with three floor-to-ceiling windows, a separate sitting area a large TV and a sofa bed that can accommodate a third person. The bathroom features a shower and a full bathtub.
Recommended gratuity is $10 per passenger per day to be pooled among the crew and $3 per person per day for the cruise manager. Uniworld will move towards all-inclusive in 2014, when most cruise fares (excluding Russia, China and Vietnam) will include unlimited fine wine, beer and spirits, as well as gratuities for onboard and onshore services, including pre- and post-cruise extensions.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The 24-hour fitness center -- said to be the largest on a river ship though only a fraction of those on mega-ships -- has two stationary bikes, one treadmill, two elliptical walkers, free weights and six yoga mats. An adjacent room contains a sauna open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Shore excursions are included at each stop and might be a walking tour of a small town or a motorcoach visit to a famous landmark.
There are no special programs for youngsters, and they are not encouraged.
Uniworld customers tend to be older, experienced travelers, although the age demographic may be trending downward as river cruising grows in popularity. The typical passenger is 50 years of age or older with a household income of more than $75,000. Many have cruised on large ocean-going cruise ships although Uniworld trips are also eminently suitable for the first-timer to Europe. Perhaps this is a more comfortable option than the five-country motorcoach tour?
Casual and comfortable during the day. Evenings are more "dressy" and a jacket is recommended for the captain's dinner. Most passengers are American seniors and the line says it wants them to feel comfortable, so dress regulations are not enforced.
You won't Vegas-style showgirls, lavish production numbers or a jingling, flashing casino on the River Empress. You will find a piano player/singer who performs music for dancing in the Main Lounge. Sometimes, regional entertainment is brought onboard. Lectures are offered; new for Uniworld are theme cruises on music, art or wines of a region which include guest speakers and visits to related museums, concerts and vineyards at no extra cost.
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