|Fitness and Recreation|
As on most Europe riverboats, River Beatrice's gym facilities are compact (featuring a couple of machines and a fitball) but the ship's lone spa staffer makes the most of the space. Yoga was offered each morning on the sun deck.
The spa consists of a guest cabin turned into a massage room, but the handful of treatments, focusing on massage, are more than adequate.
Most recreation is experienced off the ship. I loved using the complimentary bicycles in most of our ports (even in Vienna!); crewmembers haul them on and off at every port. (Even in Durnstein, when we were actually docked alongside another riverboat, staffers would haul them up the stairs, across the other ship and down again.) The bikes have locks, and you can request helmets. Passengers can also borrow Nordic walking sticks.
There is no pool or whirlpool on River Beatrice.
The ship does not make any effort to accommodate children, though families are welcome onboard.
When I took my first Europe river cruise on a perfectly pleasant if unexceptional vessel a dozen years ago, it was clear that this travel experience was more about the dramatic terrain that surrounds the river than the boat that cruises on it. That ships traversing European waterways have long been bland, though comfortable, is due in large part to restrictions in width and length (they must pass through narrow canals and under ancient bridges). There simply isn't room for sprawling spas, lap-length swimming pools and soaring atriums.
Indeed, on most every riverboat, public rooms are limited to a main restaurant, small fitness center, a library, and a vast roof-top sun deck that's dressed with tables, chairs, chaise lounges and perhaps a human-sized chessboard. Stateroom furnishings are comfortable, if basic, and all but the very newest riverboats feature cabins with immutable twin-sized beds that are made into ad-hoc sofas during the day, and private bathrooms that are typically somewhat claustrophobic.
Despite my generally low expectations of riverboats, I had higher-than-usual hopes prior to my cruise on Uniworld's new River Beatrice -- and not just because the company had been trumpeting this as a genuine luxury riverboat. In 2003, Uniworld was purchased by a company that owns, among other travel operations, tour operators like Contiki and Trafalgar and, to my mind, the equally important Red Carnation group of hotels. This handful of luxury properties includes London's Chesterfield Mayfair, Dorset's Summer Lodge, Geneva's Hotel D'Angleterre and West Palm Beach's Chesterfield, all of which I've loved. These hotels excel in large part because rooms are plush and theatrically decorated, service is superb, and food served at in-house restaurants is sophisticated without being pretentious. A company with a track record of creating wonderfully upscale vacation offerings should be able to translate the same experience into a river cruise, thereby taking the riverboat experience up a notch.
River Beatrice delivered on Uniworld's promise. Staffers and crew were marvelously attentive. The ship itself is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen with hallways lined in silk and a collection of original artwork that was so compelling I found myself going out of my way each day to visit various favorite pieces. Eighty percent of cabins have French balconies, and the 15 suites are impressive for the riverboat industry where spacious accommodations are an anomaly.
Meals, which beautifully incorporated tastes and foodstuffs from the places we visited along the Danube, were consistently delicious. The boat's lone shore tour staffer deftly balanced standard, intro-to excursions with a smattering of more adventurous -- and more locally oriented -- outings.
It's clear that European riverboats are now, even with spatial limitations, beginning to catch up on trends that have been changing ocean-going ships for the past decade. As we passed by numerous riverboats operated by other cruise lines -- or tied up with them, literally side by side, at various docks -- it was clear to me that the newer ships all were more beautiful, offered more flexible onboard options, and featured more of the key amenities, from high-tech toys to French balconies, than ever before. I'd happily cruise on any of them. But there wasn't a ship I saw out there this summer that compared with River Beatrice.
River Beatrice's four-deck-high, white, mirrored atrium, is an eye-popping spot, both warm and contemporary. Its focal point is a most gorgeous white chandelier made by Venice's Vecchia Murano. The atrium spans all passenger decks and is the ship's hub: all public rooms save for the Captain's Club are located off the atrium. Here's where you'll find the purser's area (don't miss the gorgeous Chagalls -- originals -- displayed there), where you can change money, ask to borrow a bicycle or make any other request, for that matter. Up one deck is the shore excursions desk where you can sign up for tours and get information on the stops on the itinerary. A gift shop sells some gorgeous, and quite pricey, jewelry and collectibles, as well as necessities.
The Lounge is the all-purpose gathering room with a bar. It's most popular as a pre-dinner venue but also is a great spot for peace and quiet during the day and for post-dinner entertainment.
The cozy Captain's Lounge, located aft, is a secondary gathering spot with a well-stocked library, cozy seating area and tables roomy enough for foursomes to play Bridge. Two Internet-connected terminals are available; passengers with their own laptops can also pick up wireless signals in cabins, in the main lounge and on the upper deck. I will warn you that when passing through canals, access was often cut off. Cost is a flat 15 euros for the week -- a pretty good bargain for onboard Internet.
One of the most pleasant aspects of the ship -- especially since we were blessed with a rain-free week -- is its outdoor spaces. Wrapping around the Captain's Lounge is a charming seating area with nice wicker furnishings -- a perfect spot for a morning cup of coffee. The ship's sun deck, which runs the length of the ship, was the nicest one on the Danube -- covered in teak-like wood, it's equipped with gorgeous wrought iron chairs, tables and loungers with incredibly comfortable puffy cotton cushions. Three canopies offer shade.
An elevator services all decks. Laundry service is available for a fee (there's no dry cleaning) and a small launderette is free to use, though there's a nominal charge for soap.
A gratuity of 10 euros per passenger, per day is shared among staff and crew. Passengers tip the cruise manager separately; Uniworld suggests 3 euros per person, per day, but on our trip the cruise manager was so helpful (and answered so many questions) that I went above that. Tipping guides on tours is optional -- I noticed that about half of our group did offer a euro or two after shore excursions. River Beatrice will become fully all-inclusive in 2014, when most Uniworld cruise fares will include unlimited fine wine, beer and spirits, as well as gratuities for onboard and onshore services, including pre- and post-cruise extensions.
Passengers on our high-season summer cruise were largely North American, British or South African and in the 50-plus and beyond age range. Most were well-traveled and many had never cruised but were regulars on the tour circuit.
Dress code is country club casual. During the day, that meant casual slacks and skirts; shorts were fine for sunning on the top deck. At night, men wore polos and jackets; for women summery dresses, skirts and pants outfits were appropriate. The only night that passengers really did dress up was for the Captain's Gala on our last night and so men donned ties.
On River Beatrice, accommodations come in three shapes and sizes. The largest, the owner's suite, is 300 square feet. Fourteen additional suites measure 225 square feet and feature small seating areas and French balconies. Standard cabins measure 150 square feet. Some have picture windows while others have a step-out verandah.
The ship's one owner's suite is not only the largest onboard, but it also features a top-notch entertainment system and bathroom with soaking tub and shower. (It's the only cabin onboard to have a bathtub.)
Interestingly, River Beatrice has the largest number of suites among Europe's riverboats. These accommodations are not only gorgeous with their cream-on-cream color scheme (and silk-covered walls), but they also come with a few extras not found in standard categories, such as a DVD player, breakfast room service upon request, mini-fridge, fresh fruit and even a coffee machine. Two deep armchairs positioned at the end of the bed offer a distinct living room area (and you can pull them right up to the French balcony to watch the world slip by). One of the best features is the free laundry perk. And the bathrooms are particularly gorgeous, with lavish use of marble, beautiful (and deep) Hansgrohe showers that resemble the best of English country hotels, and Thick and Thirsty towels and robes.
All suite passengers have the use of a butler to, presumably, pack and unpack and carry out other duties, such as shoe shining. I never found a use for a butler, though.
All accommodations feature commonalities like the magnificent English Savoir beds, built-in closets, individually controlled thermostats for hot and cold weather, flat-screen televisions and private bathrooms. Furnishings are custom designed and created to fit the typically snug spaces that are common of riverboat cabins. Lots of well-placed mirrors actually create a more spacious ambience. Window coverings are lush and rich, and the beds' headboards are crafted out of velvet.
Bathrooms in standard cabins are shower-only but light and airy. L'Occitane toiletries, including shower gel, shampoo, lotion and conditioner, are provided.
As on most European riverboats, the real entertainment is largely found ashore rather than onboard -- and River Beatrice's shore tour program was exceptional. In every port, at least one complimentary excursion was available. These by and large offered a broad view of a place (city tour of Vienna, for instance, or walking tour of tiny Passau with a visit to its cathedral for a concert). In most cases, these were designed for all passengers at all levels of mobility and primarily involved motorcoaches or short walks in small villages. Most were a half day in length. The tours were consistently thorough and interesting, and the Quietvox portable lightweight audio headset system, through which the tour guide communicates via microphone to individual headphones, means you can hear what's going on even if you're at the back of the group.
More intriguing were the ship's extra-fee options (called "Irresistible Optional Tours") that included, on our afternoon in Passau, a visit to a Bavarian village, or in Durnstein, the heart of Austria's wine country, a fantastic group bike ride with a wine tasting. Easily the most popular of these supplementary tours was the chance to attend a classical concert focusing on Mozart and Strauss one evening in Vienna.
Cost ranged from 46 euros for the Wachau Valley cycling tour to 49 euros for the concert in Vienna.
One of the highlights each evening was a pre-dinner "what to expect tomorrow" talk hosted by the Cruise Manager (basically the shore excursions manager). On River Beatrice, three staffers, all who live in the region, revolve in and out as cruise managers, and ours, Hildegarde, was marvelous. Both entertaining and informative, she was especially helpful with tips and advice to travelers wanting to strike out on their own. A highlight was the occasional impromptu evening walkabout she'd host in various cities -- no charge, just for fun.
Occasionally, when the ship was docked well into the evening, local performers would come on for a post-dinner show. These were delightful. In Bratislava, the Pressburger Duo, consisting of a pianist and violinist, performed classical standards with a humorous twist. On the evening we were alongside in Linz, I was hard pressed to choose between Hildegarde's night walk and a performance by the New Ohr Linz Dixie Band; I opted to stay onboard for what turned out to be a lovely mix of the two -- the music was superb and loud enough that I was able to enjoy it from the sun deck, watching the sun set over the old city.
Other memorable events on our cruise included an afternoon spent cruising along the Danube at its most beautiful part between Melk and Durnstein. We all gathered on the sun deck while Hildegard told us what we were seeing as we drifted past castles and vineyards. The trip into Budapest, early in the morning as the sun was rising, was a similarly entertaining and gorgeous experience, again complete with narration.
And the most memorable event of all was a gift from our captain. After our trip's last dinner, as the ship was docked overnight in Budapest, the captain took us out for a night cruise around the city. It was a chance to see Budapest's monuments all lit up -- and under a starry sky, no less -- and it was magical.
River Beatrice' cuisine focuses on continental European dishes with some fun-themed meals that take advantage of dishes of the Danube region (like sausages in Passau and wiener schnitzel in Vienna).
River Beatrice's primary venue, called "The Restaurant," is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Decorated in stark whites that reminded me of the main dining venues on both Seabourn Odyssey and Celebrity Solstice, it is airy and ethereal. There are numerous round tables for large groups and plenty of four and six tops, as well. What's in scant supply is seating for two, though if the ship isn't full, there's plenty of room to spread out. As is common on many European ships, The Restaurant has a permanent buffet area that's primarily used at breakfast and lunch (though it was also in action one night for an unusually casual dinner, designed to accommodate passengers with plans to attend an evening symphonic concert in Vienna).
At breakfast, typically served from 7 to 9 a.m., the buffet offers the same fare all week. Various stations serve up cheeses and cold meats, breads and pastries, fruit, yogurt, Muesli and other cereals, and hot dishes like scrambled eggs, sausage, English bacon, rosti potatoes and baked beans. An omelette station accommodates a'la minute requests. A juice bar features the usual suspects (grapefruit, apple, tomato) though one of the few culinary disappointments onboard River Beatrice was the orange juice from a can. On a ship of this caliber the orange juice should be freshly made.
In addition to the buffet options, passengers can choose to order the breakfast specialty (fruit-stuffed beignet or eggs Benedict, for instance) or eggs cooked-to-preference. Waiters serve coffee and tea.
A continental breakfast for early and late risers brackets breakfast hours; a spread of breads, cheeses, meats and pastries, along with juices and coffee, is laid out in the Captain's Club from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. and then again from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
Lunch in The Restaurant, which is usually served from 12:30 to 2 p.m. (unless port excursions require a time change), revolves around the buffet. The focus primarily is on cold fare -- salads, cheeses and meats -- with a handful of hot dishes (a roast and potatoes, for instance). You can also order dishes off a limited menu; these are prepared a'la minute. I loved the special themes that were offered (a favorite was the Bavaria-influenced menu). And one day, when we were actually cruising at lunchtime, restaurant staffers set up a small buffet of salads, meats and cheeses on the beautiful top-of-ship outdoor deck.
Waiters offer drinks service in both venues.
Tea (and pastries) is served mid-afternoon (usually around 3:30 p.m., depending on the day's tour schedule) in the lounge.
Dinner each night is elegant without being fussy. As with all other meals in The Restaurant, it's an open-seating affair that begins at 7 7:30 p.m. after the ritual cocktail hour in the lounge one deck above. While most passengers did file into dinner at about that time each night, The Restaurant served until 9 p.m. to give guests more flexibility.
The meals are delightfully choreographed and made not only of regional recipes but also from local foodstuffs. Each features four courses, beginning with an appetizer such as Vienna Backhendl salad (greens with pumpkin seed oil, chicken and radish) or pan-fried taleggio cheese with cranberries, and moving on to soups, like the Waldvierthler potato cheese soup.
Entrees, which focus on traditional regional dishes or generally European choices, include pan-fried trout with a Veltliner sauce and potato dumplings in the style of Austria's Wachau valley (its premier wine-growing area). A favorite of mine -- which could have been served like the overly fried clich that I grew up on in America -- was the wiener schnitzel. I had this, a thin-sliced escalope of veal that's fried lightly and served with parsley potatoes, at several other restaurants on my trip; the chefs on River Beatrice made the most delicious version.
Vegetarian choices are highlighted on menus and at dinner there's always one dedicated entre. Among those on my trip were Austrian krautwickel (onions and mushrooms in a stuffed cabbage ball) and Austrian potato goulash.
For simpler tastes, steak or chicken breast is offered each night.
Desserts tended to be the weakest link of the otherwise exceptional dining experience onboard River Beatrice, featuring an odd combination of tastes (the orange sorbet did not necessarily need an accompaniment of yogurt fruit salad and brittle) or pineapple meringue in orange sauce.
Riverboats traditionally only have one dining venue so it was a pleasant surprise to experience River Beatrice's alternative restaurant, open on only a few nights during the weeklong cruise. The Captain's Club lounge, located aft, is transformed from a library and game room to a romantic dining venue. Its tables are covered with white linen cloths, candles are lit, and ambient music plays gently in the intimate space. It's limited to 25 diners and though reservations are required, there's no extra fee.
The ambience, especially at sunset as the lounge is bordered on three sides by floor-to-ceiling windows, is marvelous. The quality of the dining is less so -- clearly chefs are challenged by the fact that there's no kitchen here and so food must be brought from the restaurant, on the opposite end of the riverboat. Still, it was such a marvelous experience I dined there twice!
At dinner, complimentary wines are chosen to reflect the region and to balance the menu (each night we tried a different red and white). A nice touch is that for those who don't care for wine, beer and sodas are also provided for no extra charge.
Room service is rarely available on riverboats. On River Beatrice, passengers occupying its suites are able to order from a limited menu. Beverages -- such as coffee, water and tea -- are available 24 hours from a small open kitchen located on Deck 3.
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