Stern's Guide to the Greatest Resorts of the World, Stern's Guide to the Cruise Vacation, Stern's Guide to European Riverboats and Hotel Barges, and The Indispensable Guide to Foreign Words and Phrases--by Steven B. Stern (Sponsored by Stern's Travel Guides, Ltd.)
What is new and unique in River Boat Cruising: The new Viking Legend and S.S. Antoinette of Uniworld
For those cruisers who would enjoy a more intimate, low-key experience sailing down scenic rivers and inland waterways while visiting non-coastal European cities not accessible by ocean-going cruise ships, a riverboat cruise may be the perfect solution. Numerous riverboat companies operate in Europe, traversing the Rhine, Main, Moselle, Elbe, Havel, Danube, Seine, Saone, Rhone and Volga Rivers, as well as the waterways in Russia, Holland, and other countries.
Most of the river boats built prior to 2000 generally provided “smallish” cabins with two twin beds on opposite sides of the room where one or both fold up and convert to a couch during the day time. Bathrooms were also quite small crowding in a shower, sink and toilet. The cabins on the upper passenger decks had large picture windows, but on the lower decks the windows were small (the rationale was that when the ship was docked, there was no view from the lower decks because they were below the dock line). Public areas would include a reception lobby where the passengers entered and exited the ship; a three-meal-a-day dining room, usually with a buffet table; an all-purpose lounge and bar; and a sun deck spanning the length of the ship with lounges and the captain’s bridge.
Wishing to lure away passengers from the traditional cruise ships, the river boat lines needed to provide a more enticing package. During the 21st Century, several new river boat companies emerged constructing more spacious and upscale vessels. The existing lines renovated or scrubbed the older craft and also added more modern new-builds. During recent years the competition among river boat companies became even greater. As a result each new ship that comes on line seems to be offering more spacious accommodations, more suites, a larger number of French balconies, additional common facilities, more amenities, more diverse dining, and better guides for shore excursions.
Being among those cruisers who especially enjoy the more intimate river boat experience, we booked a 7-night Main Canal/Danube River cruise on the 189-passenger Viking Legend followed by another 7-night Rhine River cruise on the 164-passenger S.S. Antoinette of Uniworld. The Viking Legend and its sister ship, Viking Prestige, entered service in 2009 and 2010 respectively; whereas, Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette, entered service in 2011. These vessels have been touted to be the latest and most innovative to ply the waterways of Europe. Having sailed in previous years with both cruise lines, we were most anxious to see the changes in their products.
Viking River Cruises was formed in 1997 by a Scandinavian and Dutch consortium and rapidly purchased 23 existing ships, including nine river boats from the venerable KD River Cruises of Europe. As the years progressed, the company sold off many of the older vessels, refurbished others and commenced a program to build new and more modern ships. Today the cruise line has 16 vessels plying the European Rivers, six in Russia and the Ukraine, and one luxury river boat on the Yangtze River in China.
Our seven-night cruise on the Viking Legend commenced in Nuremberg, Germany and terminated in Budapest, Hungary with visits to Regensberg and Passau in Germany, and Melk and Vienna in Austria. We flew into Nuremberg via Munich. Transportation from the airport to the river bank where the ship was docked was provided for those that had made air and hotel arrangements through the cruise line, otherwise there was a charge; however, a taxi from the airport cost only 20 euros.
Crew members assisted us carrying our luggage to our cabin #322 which was on the upper passenger deck. On both the upper and middle passenger decks ( but not n the lower deck),all of the staterooms and suites had French balconies with floor to ceiling sliding glass doors. This was an innovation from most of the pre-2009 Viking river boats. Although a balcony cabin is desired by today’s cruiser on any ship, having one on a river boat seems especially enjoyable since there is so much more to view on an European river, than on the ocean.
We found our 170-square-foot stateroom quite comfortable, tastefully furnished, with sufficient storage and the usual amenities such as a private safe, a hair dryer, 220-v outlets, and a 115-v outlet for razors, a refrigerator, a telephone and a small bathroom with vanity, toilet and a circular shower stall with a curtain (that often flooded the small bathroom when in use). The two single twin beds could be pushed together but not converted to matrimonial style. We were especially pleased with the TV programming that included CNN, CNBC, Fox, BBC,ESPN, MGM movie, Sky Cinema National Geographic and movies on demand. Generally there is not a whole lot going on in the evenings on river boats, so the addition of a variety of TV choices was most welcome. Bottled water was replenished daily. Ice machines were located down the hall. There was laundry service on the ship but regrettably no machines for passenger use. Robes and slippers were available on request.
On many river boats, the vibration of the engines annoyed us, especially in the evenings; however, on the Legend the state-of-the-art propulsion system delivered a quieter, vibration-free ride and our sleep was not disturbed.
Since I do much of my writing while traveling, it was still another plus that there was free wireless internet and I could use the small net book that I brought along. For those without their own computer, the ship furnished several free of charge (however, reception was not dependable and often unavailable).
After getting settled we proceeded to tour the ship. The common areas were tastefully decorated with warm woods and fabrics and paintings. Although more modern and impressive than the older Viking vessels, the layout was similar and included the all-purpose observation lounge and bar, as well as, the large dining room featured large scenic windows for viewing the passing landscapes. A new addition to the Legend is a very attractive, comfortable library/lounge area with both a panoramic view and access to an outdoor seating area. The sundeck was fairly typical of the other Viking ships, but included shaded lounging areas. We were disappointed not to find a fitness room or sauna which has become customary on some of the more recently built river boats.
We poked our heads into one of the two 340-square-foot suites. These suites were quite an innovation for the cruise line and afforded extra luxury for those willing to pay the higher tariff. Inclusion of several deluxe suites seems to have become a trend with the newer riverboats coming on line.
Before dinner during cocktail hour, we looked over our fellow passengers and chatted with several in the lounge. About 60% were Americans, 35% Brits with a few other nationalities thrown in. Most were well traveled, between early 50s and mid- 70s with a few younger and a few older. We found that the demographics on the Antoinette somewhat different with 75% from the U.S., 10% Canadian, and 10% from Great Britain. and Australia. Traditionally, the passengers on river boats tend to be somewhat older. On both ships, the cruise director gave a lecture describing the following day’s itinerary and excursions during cocktail hour. During the days on both vessels, various enrichment lectures and cooking demonstrations were offered.
We found the officers, front office and hotel staff and cabin stewards on both ships outstanding. All of the crew spoke English, were extremely accommodating, and far more knowledgeable and responsive than on most cruise ships. The dining room staff on the Antoinette was especially notable.
The dining experience on both the Legend and the Antoinette was somewhat similar. Both had an open-seating policy; however, passengers were expected to come to lunch and dinner shortly after the doors to the dining room opened. Breakfast and lunch were the most outstanding, and always included an attractive, well-stocked buffet table with numerous dishes, many indigenous to the countries visited. Additional hot dishes were also available and served directly from the kitchens. Dinners were multi-course, table-service affairs with a choice of two different appetizers, salads, main courses, and desserts.. On the Viking, the dinner main courses were attractively served but quite hearty and not always to our taste; however, salads and lighter fare were available. We found the fare on the Antoinette more to our liking and superior to many ocean-going vessels; however, the variety of selections on both ships was a great deal less than on ocean-going cruise ships. The highlight dining experience on the Legend was the Bavarian lunch on deck en route to Vienna. While traversing the scenic Wachau region of the Danube, bratworst, Wiener schnitzel, potato salad, and steins of beer were served accompanied by an accordion player.
Both ships served wine with dinner. Also on both ships, specialty coffees, and snacks were available throughout the day and evening; however, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages were fairly expensive (priced in Euros). Passengers were allowed to bring wine they purchased ashore to meals with no corkage charge.
After dinner (on both ships), guests gathered in the Observation Lounges for after- dinner beverages accompanied by nightly piano music. Night life on river boats is a whole lot more low key than on cruise ships. With the exception of a piano player, party games, and several local entertainers brought on board from the shore, there is not much going on.
Certainly, one of the most desirable facets of a river cruise is that the boats dock directly in the town or nearby, allowing passengers to just jump off the boat and stroll into the center of town. Both cruise lines included daily excursions in the cruise fare
(plus several optional tours that were not gratis). For the most part, the guides were extremely knowledgeable and had an excellent command of English. Passengers were given portable listening devices that enabled them to listen to the narrative of the guide even when they were some distance away. (See side bar for a list of the tours).
We felt that the depth of the tours and the option for occasional gratis dining ashore was not comparable to what we had experienced on a few other cruise lines. In addition, some of the more desired tours such as an evening concert or a tour of Schoenberg Castle in Vienna (Viking Legend) or a visit to the famous castle and university town of Heidelberg (S.S.Antoinette) were not included in the cruise fare, and required an additional tariff.
When our cruise on Viking Legend concluded in Budapest, we flew to Basle to meet Uniworld’s newest ship, S.S.Antoinette. Having been launched in March 2011, she offers 7-night cruises on the Rhine River between Amsterdam, Netherlands and Basle, Switzerland. The itinerary included visits to Cologne, Koblenz, Rudesheim, Breisach and Speyer in Germany and to Strasbourg and Colmar in France.
As we entered the lobby we were dazzled by the elegant French décor. A spectacular blue sapphire, 10-foot Baccarat chandelier, which originally hung in New York’s Tavern on the Green, loomed above the ship’s two-story lobby. The lounge and restaurant designs were inspired by the Palace of Versailles; the finest European marble adorned the walls and floors; and a nineteenth century Venetian glass mirror rested high above the reception desk. Arranged throughout the ship is a collection of carefully selected original art from personal collections. We had never seen a river boat with such elegant décor and furnishings.
We booked our trip only a few months before sailing time; and therefore, the only stateroom available was one of the 20 smaller cabins on the lowest passenger deck. The cabin was elegantly furnished, but had small windows, a small marble bathroom, limited drawer and closet space, and was difficult to maneuver. Before sailing, we investigated the other categories of accommodations. The staterooms located on the middle level were a bit larger, and had floor- to- ceiling windows, the top half of which could be opened. On the top level the staterooms and suites were considerably larger and had separate alcoves with sitting areas and similar windows. When the top portion of the window was opened, it gave the impression of a protected private balcony which also could be enclosed in cooler weather. Guests occupying the eight 294-square-foot suites and one 391-square-foot Royal Suite enjoyed additional perks, including butler service. The accommodations on the top deck were by far the most desirable.
Included in all of the accommodations, as well as ours, were English Savoir beds draped in the finest and highest thread-count Egyptian combed cotton linens, cashmere blankets, European duvets, a choice of pillows, robes and slippers, flat-screen TVs with CNN, BBC,CNBC, and movies on demand, hair dryers, direct dial telephones, private safes, ice buckets (ice machines are located in the public areas), and marble bathrooms with glassed-in showers, bathrobes and L’Occitane bath products. Here again, we were most impressed by the décor and amenities which were superior to other river vessels..
After settling into our stateroom, we took a tour of the public areas. We were impressed by the numerous innovative additions to these areas which included an elevator that serviced each deck; an enclosed, glassed-in atrium with a heated, mosaic-blue tile swimming pool, a shower and massage room; a small fitness room with a variety of cardio machines (we finally got a chance to exercise off a few meals); a fleet of bicycles; the L’Orangerie, a sky lounge on the Sun Deck for semi-outdoor dining; and a 20-seat movie theater with plush seats and state-of-the-art equipment. Salon de Grand Trianon, the main bar and lounge, featured fine antiques and inspirational paintings in carved gilt frames with windows dressed in striped silk taffeta. The Leopard Lounge also located on Sun Deck was an intimate, imaginatively decorated venue with a leopard décors. These were certainly the most extensive and attractive facilities we have found on any river boat to date.
Here again we enjoyed free internet access and free Wi-Fi throughout the ship; as well as, a self-service launderette with an ironing board, an alternative to the full laundry service.
Having traveled on all of the latest additions to the various major river boat companies during the past two years, we feel that as of the summer of 2011, the Viking Legend and the S.S. Antoinette are the most innovative and beautifully appointed vessels presently plying the waters of Europe.
SIDE BAR 1
In 2012, Viking River Cruises will introduce four of its more sophisticated high-tech and revolutionary “Viking Long Ships”: Viking Freda, Viking Idun, Viking Njord and Viking Odin. Six additional sister ships are scheduled to enter service in 2014. These latest model river boats will boast the largest real suites on the European waterways with separate sleeping and living rooms in two 445-square-foot Explorer Suites and seven 270-square-foot Veranda Suites. All suites will feature a French balcony in the bedroom and full-sized verandas in the living room (the Explorer Suites will have wrap-around balconies allowing a 270 degree view). Three-quarters of all accommodations will have a French balcony, a full veranda or both. Other innovative features will include energy-efficient hybrid engines, solar panels, an onboard organic herb garden, an all-weather indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace with retractable floor-to-ceiling glass doors, as well as, al fresco dining areas on the upper deck adjacent to the lounge.
SIDE BAR 2
SHIP FACTS FOR VIKING LEGEND:
Entered service: June 2009
Beam (Width): 37.57’
Passenger capacity: 189
Number of crew: 45
Number of passenger decks: 4
Staterooms: 2 at 340 square feet
82 at 170 square feet
4 at 134 square feet
Itineraries for 2012: Various itineraries on the Danube River
SHIP FACTS FOR S.S. ANTOINETTE:
Entered service: March 2011
Passenger Capacity: 164
Number of crew: 55
Number of passenger decks: 4
Staterooms: 1 at 391 square feet
8 at 294 square feet
53 at 196 square feet
20 at 163 square feet
Itineraries for 2012: Various itineraries on the Rhine River.
SIDE BAR 3
Daily tours included in the cruise fare on the Viking Legend: a bus/walking tour of Nuremberg with a visit to the Imperial Castle; walking tours around the medieval cities of Regensburg and Passau; a visit to the 900-year old Melk Abbey; bus/walking tours of Vienna and Budapest.
Optional tours, at additional charge, included: a tour to Weltenburg Abbey and the Danube Gorge; a nighttime concert in Vienna; a tour of Schonbrunn Castle in Vienna; and a visit to Lazaar Horse Farm outside of Budapest.
Daily tours included in the cruise fare on the S.S. Antoinette: a full-day tour along the Alsatian Wine Road through charming villages, pastoral landscapes, medieval towns and lush vineyards.; a canal cruise through the Alsatian town of Strasbourg; a wine –tasting at Castle Vollards in Rudesheim; another walking tour through Koblenz at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers; a walking tour in Cologne with a visit to the cathedral. and the most picturesque highlight of the cruise, meandering along the Rhine with picture-perfect views of the Lorrelei and the most famous castles that sit above the Rhine.
Optional tours at an additional charge, included: a Black Forest excursion; an excursion to the Castle of Heidelberg; dinner and entertainment in Rudesheim; and a visit to Marksburg Castle, the best preserved castle on the Rhine;