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.)
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Having taken river cruises on every English-speaking European riverboat line except Vantage River Cruises, it was time to complete my compilation. So in early August, 2013 we embarked on Vantage's River Discovery II for a cruise in France that commenced in Chalon-sur-Saone and terminated in Tarascon in the area of Provence. The company offered a pre-cruise package that included three nights in Paris with guided tours to Versailles, the Louvre and important sites around the city. Those passengers who did not take the pre-cruise offering still received one overnight in Paris at Le Meridien Etoile along with a welcome get-together dinner.

From Paris we were transported on a high-speed train to Dijon where we spent the afternoon before being bused to Chalon-sur-Saone to embark the ship.

Aboard ship, we had one of the 165-square-foot, French balcony cabins on the middle passenger deck. Below us were twelve similar cabins with only windows, as well as six 125 square-foot single cabins and one handicapped stateroom; and, above us on the top passenger deck there was one 330 square-foot "Owners Suite", twelve 225 square-foot junior suites, and sixteen additional French balcony cabins. Quite frankly, "French balconies" are nothing more than-floor- to- ceiling glass sliding doors with bars across the glass to prevent passengers from jumping off. These are not balconies, but do provide a feeling of openness and permit you to look out from one side to the other of the ship.

Although our cabin was not large by comparison to the cabins on some of the more recently built riverboats, we were extremely pleased with the plethora of storage space. Eliminating the balcony and built-in refrigerator provided extra storage drawers, a large writing-make-up desk and a small lounging area. The design of these cabins was more utilitarian than we found in comparable cabins on other riverboat lines. We were pleased to find both 110 and 220 electrical outlets. All accommodations include two single beds that could be pushed together, a flat screen TV, a hair dryer, a private safe and WiFi. The bathroom had a decent-sized glassed-in shower and afforded generous storage area beneath the single vanity.

The four 225-square-foot junior suites provide considerably more space, include a refrigerator-mini-bar, a separate sitting area, a larger TV, and a double sink and bathtub in the bathroom. The one 330-square-foot Owner's Suite had a king-size bed, a separate Jacuzzi tub and shower in the bathroom, a separate sitting area with a sofa that converts to a bed, a separate desk and vanity, a Yamaha audio system, a complimentary minibar, restocked daily, free laundry service and private airport transfers on arrival and departure. The common areas and cabins had a very pleasant, airy, modern décor with light woods, chrome, glass and beige fabrics and carpeting. It was apparent that the ship was very well maintained. The crew was a combination of Romanian, Hungarian, Filipino, and Indonesian. The passengers were almost exclusively from the United States with the vast majority over the age of 60.

At the top of the ship was the open Solaris Deck with numerous chairs and lounges, some sheltered areas, a walking track and the captain's bridge. Immediately below was the Navigator Deck, -the location of the junior suites, the Owner's suite and several balcony cabins. At one end of this deck was the main bar and lounge, the venue for lectures, cocktail hour, and evening entertainment. At the other end was the Captain's Lounge, with both indoor and outdoor seating, used for alternative light lunches and dinners, as well as for card and board games and other daytime relaxing.

The entrance to the ship, the lobby and the information desk are located on Explorer Deck, the next deck down, along with the large, single-seating dining room and the majority of the French-window cabins. Below on Odyssey Deck, the lowest passenger deck, were the remaining non-French Window double and single cabins, a small fitness room with a treadmill, an exercycle and transport machine, and a computer room with three terminals available for use by the passengers gratis. There was also an elevator that serviced all of the levels except the open deck atop ship; however, a chairlift was available to transport the physically challenged between the top passenger deck and the open deck.

Most meals were served aboard ship; however, when we were touring all day in Beaune, lunch was provided at a restaurant ashore, and dinners the nights prior and after the cruise took place at the hotels. Breakfast was served buffet style in the main dining room and included an attractive selection of fruits, pastries, breads, cereals, breakfast meats and cheeses, gravlox, pancakes, yogurt, and eggs and omelets made to order. Coffee, tea, espresso and cappuccino are served at the table (and are available from a machine around the clock).

Lunches are from a menu with a salad bar on the buffet table. Unlike most riverboats, wine, beer and soft drinks are not included gratis with this meal. Dinner is a multi-course affair with choices of appetizer, soup or salad, main course (a choice of meat, fish or vegetarian entree) and dessert. Dinner does include the house red and white wines, or soft drinks of your choice. Service is attentive, and if you don't care for anything on the menu, a small steak, salmon or baked chicken is always an option. The dining experience was very similar to that which we found on other riverboats, but not outstanding. On several days we explored local restaurants and took our lunch ashore, just to break the routine.

Certainly the area where Vantage most excelled was its excursion program. With four knowledgeable guides on staff, as well as excellent local guides, passengers received in depth explorations and explanations of the various towns and villages visited by the ship. Most excursions were included in the cruise fare; however, optional tours to Perouges and Arles incurred an additional charge. The four cruise director/ tour guides were available throughout the day and evening to answer questions, organize activities and give lectures. Each evening at cocktail hour, one of these cruise directors would outline the program for the following day.

Another plus was the exceptional organization of all events and excursions. The 176 passengers were divided into four groups, each with a cruise director as their leader. This helped to avoid large crowds at the various sites visited and assured that no one got left behind.

Our itinerary included visits to Dijon, Beaune, Macon, Lyon, Vienne, Viviers, Avignon and Tarascon. In addition to the overnight pre-cruise hotel stay in Paris, there was a post-cruise stay in Monaco at the Fairmont which included a farewell dinner at the hotel.

Several performers were brought aboard in the various towns including an excellent French chanteuse, a band and singer performing international selections, and a gypsy band and dancers. On one evening there was a movie (in French with English subtitles). Every evening an excellent piano player provided music for listening and dancing. During afternoons while sailing, there were cooking presentations, silk painting demonstratons, lectures on wine and cheese and on French history and politics.

Overall, we felt that the cruise compared favorably with the other riverboats we had recently experienced, the strongest points being the service staff, cruise directors and the excursions.

Steven B. Stern
Author of Stern's Guide to the Cruise Vacation and Stern's Guide to European Riverboats and Hotel Barges.

Authors Note:
It is my personal belief that Vantage, as other riverboat companies will have to go "all inclusive" to be competitive in the future. Many seasoned cruisers prefer to pay a little more up front, rather than to be charged for drinks, wine, tips, and excursions during the cruise.
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