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Review of the River Empress
Cruise Date: March 2012
Booking: Internet Agency
Cabin number: 303
Cabin category: 2
Uniworld River Empress 3/21/12 - Part 1
Uniworld River Cruise
Springtime Along The Rhine
March 21 ? April 2, 2012
This is Part 1 of a 2-part review.
Before this cruise, we had been on 41 ocean cruises, but never on a river cruise. Being this is the fastest growing segment of cruising, we felt it was important to experience one first-hand in order for us to better convey information to our clients and assist them when booking their river cruises. We?ve sold many river cruises and have gotten a lot of feedback from our clients, but nothing can compare to doing something personally. After carefully considering all the various river cruise companies, boats, and itineraries, we originally planned to do the Uniworld S.S. Antoinette, which is their newest and most highly regarded river cruise boat in the industry. We were booked on their Rhine Holiday Market Cruise on December 14, 2011. Unfortunately, the day we were to leave for our cruise, our son developed chest pains and we had to rush him to the hospital where a few days later he had his gallbladder removed. Needless to say, we immediately cancelled our trip to stay with him and were very thankful everything came out okay. We always purchase travel insurance, so we were able to file a claim and we received reimbursement for all our out-of-pocket expenses. Up until this cruise, we?ve never needed the insurance - we were sure glad we had it this time. Luckily, a few months later, we were offered the opportunity to go on another Uniworld cruise on the River Empress for their Springtime Along The Rhine itinerary at a special travel agent rate and we immediately jumped at the offer.
Wednesday, March 21st
Since our son works for United Airlines, we get to fly for free on standby, but as usual, standby is not always the best way to fly. United has one flight a day from Dulles to Amsterdam, where we were to board the boat. We initially wanted to fly in the day before the cruise; however, all of those flights were overbooked for many days prior to the cruise, so we looked at flying into Brussels. Unfortunately, we found those flights were also overbooked. United has three flights daily going to Frankfurt and this turned out to be our best option. Only problem was, seats were not readily available for two days before the cruise and we had to fly in 3 days earlier than we had planned. The day we were schedule to leave, the first two flights looked to be booked and we decided to take the last flight at 10:48pm in hopes of getting Business Class seats. As luck would have it, the second flight of the day was cancelled due to mechanical problems and a lot of their passengers changed reservations to our flight causing the plane to be entirely booked. We did manage to get the last two seats in Economy Plus usually reserved for crew. The flight was a bit late and we didn?t leave the airport until around 11:45pm and spent the next 8-1/2 hours enjoying the normal cramped and uncomfortable seats now found in all planes, albeit that we had a few extra inches in our legroom.
Thursday, March 22nd
We arrived in Frankfurt around 12:50pm after getting very little sleep ? actually, more like an occasional catnap. It was very easy going through Passport Control as there was no line at all. We found our luggage immediately upon arriving at the carousel, headed towards the Customs desk, which was empty, and proceeded to the Deutsch Bahn train office. Again, we found a very short line and within a few minutes we had purchased 2nd class tickets on a direct train from Frankfurt to Amsterdam for 295? (around $395 for the two of us). Oh, the joys of traveling standby! The train was scheduled to leave in about 20 minutes, so off we went to find the platform, which is conveniently located in the airport. From the time we got off the plane until we got on the train was around 50 minutes. Not bad at all!
We left Frankfurt at 1:43pm and arrived in Amsterdam at 5:25pm (3 hrs. 42 min.). The train, as always the case in Europe, was very clean, quiet, comfortable, and fast ? reaching speeds up to 200mph. About an hour into the ride, we walked to the dining car, where we ordered a couple of sandwiches and sodas for around 14? (about $18). Again, we catnapped along the way until we arrived in Amsterdam. We walked out of the train station and immediately found a cab to take us to our hotel as soon as possible. We were staying at the Amsterdam Marriott and the cab fare was 20? with tip (about $27) for the 1-1/2 mile ride. Normally, we like to use the tram (or streetcars as we call them here), which are a very quick, easy, and cheap way to get around the city. We were tired, so chose not to hassle with getting a pass and getting on a tram while dragging suitcases around in our sleep-deprived state.
The Amsterdam Marriott is a wonderful hotel and we would definitely recommend it to those visiting the city. We normally prefer to stay in a bed & breakfast while in Amsterdam, as there are many wonderful ones from which to choose, but this time chose the Marriott as it is conveniently located and close to many tourist areas; the Van Gogh Museum, the flower market, loads of restaurants, and transportation are all an easy walk. The hotel is beautiful, the staff was very good, and the room was great. It was quiet and we had a nice view from our window. The bed was very comfortable, which is always important after traveling such a long distance.
After checking in, it was getting a little late in the day ? too late for a nap, yet still a bit early to try to go to sleep for the night. We decided to walk around the neighborhood and check out some of the many restaurants in the area. Right near the hotel, there are about four square blocks full of little restaurants of all types from Burger King & McDonald?s, to Greek, Italian, Chinese, Argentinian, and everything in between. Since we would be going to sleep soon, we didn?t want a big meal, so opted for a simple burger. Then we headed towards a little store where we bought 4 beers and went back to the hotel for dinner in our room. We bought a couple of bottles of Jose Cuervo tequila at the Duty Free shop at the Dulles Airport and after a couple of shots of liquor, a couple of beers, and a full stomach, it was not long before we were sound asleep.
Friday, March 23rd
We woke around noon after sleeping for about 13 hours and found a beautiful Spring day with lots of sun. Everyone was out and about enjoying the lovely weather and everywhere we went, people were telling us that just a couple of days ago it was windy, rainy, and cold, and this was the first nice day they had had in a very long time. The streets, cafes, taverns, and restaurants were full of people taking in the sunshine. It was as if they had declared it a special holiday because of the beautiful weather. Obviously, we had to take personal responsibility for bringing the weather with us ? compliments of the good ole USA!
During our walkabout the night before, we spotted a lovely restaurant called Zorba the Greek and decided we would indulge ourselves in a big lunch before beginning our day of exploring. It was not surprising there was no one in this particular restaurant as it was off the beaten path and it was about 2:00 in the afternoon. We ordered a luncheon special that consisted of a variety of items from gyro to mousaka. It was outstanding! The ice tea was also wonderful as it had a slice of orange, a slice of lemon, and some mint in it. Total for everything including drinks and dessert was about 30? (around $40). We walked away very full and very satisfied.
We have been to Amsterdam twice before and had already seen and done the usual tourist attractions: The Van Gogh Museum (which is amazing and not to be missed); the Anne Frank House (which is very moving and dramatic); a canal cruise around the city on the hop-on hop-off canal boats (highly recommend); the Dam Square (the city center); and the famous Red Light District (which is always a must). This trip was just about walking around, doing a little shopping, and relaxing. We found the Heineken Experience and thought about doing the tour however, when we got inside and found the cost to be 16? (about $22 per person), we changed our minds very quickly as that was much too expensive just to visit a brewery and have a couple of beers. (This particular brewery is the only one that charges admission.)
We bought a 2-day transportation pass for 12.50? per person (about $17 and good on the subway, trams, and buses), and used them to get around the city. We just spent the rest of the day shopping and enjoying the weather and the people. In the evening, we were still slightly full from our wonderful lunch, but in need of a light dinner. We found a nice little Italian restaurant close to the hotel that was fairly crowded and figured it was worth a visit. Nancy ordered lasagna and I ordered a pizza. While the food was adequate, the ambiance and the beer were very good, plus the price was right at about 10? per person. With several free refills on our beer, compliments of the staff, we enjoyed a very nice evening.
Saturday, March 24th
As with the day before, we slept late and then took a casual walk around the city. The weather was still cooperating and everyone was out enjoying another beautiful day. We found a restaurant specializing in all-you-can-eat ribs, which Nancy thoroughly enjoyed. They had an English breakfast, which caught my eye. Both of us had ice tea that was absolutely wonderful! They made it using sparkling water ? something neither of us had ever tried before and found very refreshing. We?ll definitely have to try and make this at home!
Amsterdam is a beautiful city and there are many things to see and do. As I mentioned, we?ve been there before, so we just spent the whole day concentrating on relaxing and appreciating the architecture, the people, and the food. However, no trip to Amsterdam is complete without the obligatory tour of the Red Light District (and yes, there are red lights around and is always best seen at night). It truly makes the term ?window shopping? take on a completely new meaning. After walking around this very interesting part of the city for a while, we finally stopped at a really nice Chinese restaurant on the main strip and had a wonderful dinner. Keep in mind that as with most cities in Europe, Amsterdam is not cheap and even a Chinese meal cost us around $50 for the two of us including a couple of Chinese beers.
Sunday, March 25th
We got up a little earlier than usual ? around 10:00am ? we needed to board the boat and get settled in as we had special plans for the afternoon. We packed our bags, took the tram (streetcar), and headed towards the main train station. Once there, we made our way through the station towards the river. When we got outside, we made a right turn and walked towards the riverboat dock.
For those coming into Amsterdam and taking a river cruise, you can take a train from the airport to the main train station. From there, you can either walk to the dock (about ¼ mile) or take a taxi if you have difficulty walking. If you?re doing an ocean cruise, you could also walk to that pier, but it?s about ¾ of a mile away and you might opt for a taxi. For those wanting to stay in Amsterdam before a cruise (either river cruise or ocean cruise) and want to be near the piers, there are two hotels between the train station and the piers; the Movenpick Hotel and the Doubletree, both very nice but a little expensive. There are a huge number of hotels ranging in size and price throughout the city, plus there are many wonderful bed & breakfast places. There?s something for everyone and every budget in this city. You can even rent very nice barges on the canals that provide a great local experience. (Note: Most of the B&B?s and barges require a minimum of 2 to 3 nights stay, plus they tend to sell out many months in advance, so plan accordingly.)
Okay, now a little information about the boat we were taking; the Uniworld River Empress was built in 2001 and is one of their smaller older boats. It is 361 feet long, 37-1/2 feet wide and carries 134 passengers in 63 staterooms (151 sq. ft.) and 4 suites (214 sq. ft.). (Note: Because of the locks these boats must traverse in Europe, they cannot be any wider than 37-1/2 feet and no more than about 450 feet in length, so this presents interesting challenges in the unique design of these boats.)
On our cruise, there were a total of 81 people, of which 20 were travel agents. Being the first cruise of the year resulted in a very small number of bookings and Uniworld invited agents onboard to become acquainted with their product. Because the boat was only 60% booked, it and the provided shore excursions never seemed crowded anytime during our entire cruise.
We got to the boat about 11:00am and were immediately shown our stateroom (#303) while the crew brought our luggage right behind us. We had a big window instead of the large glass doors found in the upper level staterooms. This was actually better for us as it provided a large shelf, which gave us additional storage space. The stateroom itself is relatively small (about 9? x 15? even though they say it?s 151 square feet), yet it is well-appointed, very comfortable, and very nice. Unlike ocean cruises, the ceiling is only about 7? high, which can be a bit disconcerting for some people. The only problem with a stateroom this size is the lack of drawer space. There were only two nightstands with three very small drawers in each ? not much space for socks, underwear, and t-shirts. The closets were average-size and we found this space adequate for our needs. The suitcases fit nicely & easily under the bed. We would not recommend bringing more than two suitcases unless they can fit inside of the larger ones.
The bathroom was small, but very nice! It had a small shower (no bathtub) with floor-to-ceiling marble and, as they say on their website, it was ?stocked with L?Occitane en Provence bath and body products, backlit magnifying mirror, comfy bathrobes, and plush towels from Christy's of England - the oldest towel maker in the world.? The bath products are excellent!!
The bed was equally as nice with ?handcrafted Savoir® beds draped in 100% Egyptian cotton linens, European duvets, cashmere/wool blankets, along with a menu of pillow options.? We did ask for and received a few more pillows, which were very comfortable. While the bed was of high quality, it was a little firm for us. This is not unusual in Europe as we discovered when traveling, most of the beds over there are a little firmer than we?re used to. We?ve always had a waterbed in our home, so it?s only normal we would find their bed a bit harder than we prefer. The only change we?d like to see in the stateroom for us wimpy Americans is to have a pillow-top or memory foam-top bed. We never thought to ask for a topper, as this might have been available and solved our problem.
They provided fresh bottled water twice daily and gave us two aluminum bottles to use during our shore excursions, which were nice to have. The flat screen TV was good, even though it lacked all the channels shown to be available on the stateroom listings. There were both 110v and 220v plugs provided in the cabin. Overall, our stateroom was delightful with a comfortable ambiance.
They also provided free Wi-Fi throughout the ship, which works well when in port; however, it is completely understandable it can be slow and spotty when underway. They do have two computers and a printer for guests to use that work very well.
There is a complimentary laundry room with two very nice washers and dryers, as well as an iron and ironing board. They also provide detergent at no cost.
One thing we really enjoyed was the very good local beer, wonderful local wine, and sodas ? all of which are complimentary but only with lunch and dinner.
They have walking sticks for those who like to walk and bicycles for those who don?t.
They provided wonderful complimentary tours in each port we visited. This included all transportation and entry fees, with the exception of one optional excursion to Heidelberg.
We settled into our stateroom and then realized it was noon. This was the time we had arranged to meet some clients, so I walked to the end of the pier just as they were arriving. Herman and Maria have been clients of ours for a few years and while we?ve talked on the phone and communicated via email, we?ve never met in person. I invited them onto our boat for a tour and afterwards we sat and talked for a while in the lounge about river cruising. When we left, the new Uniworld S.S. Antoinette was docked across from us and we really wanted to take a tour of her, but our hosts had plans and figured we?d do it later. Much to our chagrin, it was not there when we returned. It is such a beautiful ship!
Herman and Maria were wonderful hosts. He is from Holland and she is from Portugal, and they have a house in Amsterdam and another one on the coast in Portugal. They spent the day driving us around the outskirts of the city, showing us the countryside, answering a lot of our tourist questions, and finally taking us to their absolutely beautiful home in a picture-perfect community in the country. It was great to see how the ?real? Dutch live, as Herman said. We shared some very good cake and a bottle of outstanding Moët & Chandon champagne. We weren?t sure what type of wine they liked, so we presented them with a bottle of both white and red wines from Williamsburg Winery, one of our favorites made right here in Virginia. They presented us with an outstanding bottle of very fine Portuguese wine and a bottle of Oud Hollandsche Likeur called Kandeel. We can?t really describe the taste of the Kandeel except to say it?s rather thick, tastes a bit like eggnog (only lighter and much better), and is awesome on something like pound cake or ice cream. At 18% alcohol, it also has a nice little kick. In fact, we enjoyed it so much, we went to the liquor store the next day and bought two more bottles to bring home with us so we could share it with our friends.
After talking and sharing information about families and traveling, we loaded up the car and headed to a lovely village where they wanted to share their favorite little pub with us. The bartender was a friend of theirs and provided 4 different brands of beer for all of us to sample. One thing about The Netherlands, they have some awesome beer! When I looked around, I jokingly mentioned I didn?t see any Heineken. The bartender made the funniest face as if he had just stuck a lemon in his mouth. I was graciously informed that, ?Real Dutch don?t drink that swill! It?s only made for tourists and exported to those with an uneducated palette for good beer.? We all got a good laugh over that one. They also introduced us to an absolutely wonderful Dutch snack/appetizer called bitterballen. They are sort of like a fried flour-based meat/veal filled ball that is very good and something we can?t wait to make for our friends back home.
Following an absolutely fantastic day, we reluctantly returned back to our boat, excited to begin a new adventure, yet sad to say goodbye to our wonderful clients, who were by now our newfound friends. We pledged to get together again sometime; hopefully, we?ll get the opportunity to share our hometown of Washington, DC with them.
Dinner on the boat is offered from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. When they announced dinner was being served this evening, we decided to wait until after the rush since everyone was going at the same time. We sat and enjoyed cocktails for an hour, and around 8:00pm we went to dinner, where much to our pleasure, found that most people were leaving. This left a nice quiet and relaxing environment in which to savor our first meal on the boat. We had heard a great deal about the ?exquisite? food onboard Uniworld cruises and were looking forward to enjoying a really nice meal. Nancy ordered the fish and I ordered a strip steak (cooked medium) with fries. Imagine our dismay when all the food arrived lukewarm and we had to send it back. My steak then arrived a bit more done than I like and a little dry, but being very hungry, I ate it as I did not want to wait for another one. Nancy?s fish was only okay, but not great. Needless to say, we were both very disappointed as our first culinary experience was less than stellar, to say the least, and definitely not what we had expected. I?m glad to say, this was the only unimpressive dinner experience we had throughout the rest of the cruise.
Monday, March 26th
This morning we were still in Amsterdam and had a choice of two excursions; we could visit the Anne Frank House or go to the Van Gogh Museum. These were followed by a canal cruise in the afternoon and, as I mentioned earlier, all were complimentary as a part of the cruise. Since we?ve already done all three of these, we decided to spend the day sightseeing, shopping, eating, drinking, and exploring other areas of the city we?d not seen before.
Nancy was suffering from really dry skin because of our long flight plus the change in temperature. So our main focus today was to go searching for something to help alleviate the problem. We found a small pharmacy and the pharmacist was happy to help us. She recommended a product called Avene Eau Thermale Rich Compensating Cream for Extra Dry Skin. At about $32 for a 1.71 ounce jar, it?s not cheap, but Nancy absolutely loves it, says it works very well, and only uses a tiny amount as it goes a long way. In just three days of use, it made a huge difference on her face, so much so that when we got back home, I bought another jar for her online ($26 plus shipping) along with a couple of tubes of their hand cream ($15 each), which she says are equally as wonderful.
Note: One thing we?ve learned during our travels in Europe, they have some outstanding bath, facial, and hand products that do not include many of the chemicals used in U.S. products. In fact, they have banned over 120 chemicals, which were used in these products, while the U.S. has only banned 10 of them. This was confirmed in an investigative national news report we saw in the U.S., so we always try to buy items like this when traveling overseas.
Tonight was the Captain?s Welcome Aboard party with complimentary cocktails and was hosted in the main lounge in the front of the ship. The crew was introduced then a quick description of our itinerary was provided by the Cruise Director. I wore a jacket and no tie, which I have found to be right in line with what most men wear throughout Europe. Several Asian men were wearing blue jeans and golf shirts. While we found this to be a bit less than appropriate given the upscale environment of this cruise, no one really seemed offended. (Throughout the cruise, dress in the dining room for dinner was casual, though we did not see others wearing jeans.)
Unlike ocean cruises where you only see the captain a few times, the captain on a river cruise is always around and always available for questions. The captain on our cruise was a wonderful gentleman who was more than willing to assist passengers, let them spend some time in the wheelhouse, and provided great information to those of us unfamiliar with the nuances of this type of cruising.
I?m glad to say the food tonight was definitely much better than the night before, even though we still encountered a little glitch. For dinner, they usually offer 4 entrees consisting of pasta, fish, meat, and vegetarian. This meal offered eggplant as the vegetarian option, which is one of Nancy?s favorites. Since asking for two entrees on an ocean cruise is commonplace, she asked to get the eggplant and the fish. The waiter did not understand what she wanted. She tried to explain to him a couple of times that she wanted both entrees, which evidently was new to him. She thought he knew what she was ordering when he shook his head and off he went. However, after all was said and done, she never did get her eggplant. This was the same waiter we had the night before, so we decided to sit in a different area of the dining room after this night. For the remainder of the cruise, we had dinner in other sections and had wonderful service from there on out. With this one exception, overall, we thought the service throughout the entire ship was absolutely fantastic! Quite frankly, in 42 cruises, this was the best service we had ever gotten on any cruise. The staff was wonderful and we complimented the captain personally to let him know how well they performed.
Tuesday, March 27th
The one thing about cruising anywhere and especially when traveling in Europe is that they really don?t know how to make a really good All-American breakfast. To me, a good hearty breakfast consists of two eggs over easy, home fries, two slices of bacon or sausage, and two slices of whole wheat toast. Simple and easy. The problem is, when on any cruise or when outside of the U.S., they just can?t get it right. They don?t know how to cook eggs over easy ? most of the time they come out hard or the yokes are broken. And I don?t understand why, but their eggs just don?t seem to have as much flavor as ours. (You would think eggs are eggs, but I was born in the country and we raised 300 chickens, so I know what good fresh eggs taste like. Eggs in Europe just taste different to me.) Anyway, the home fries are usually stamped out frozen hash brown patties or dried up pieces of potatoes. Bacon is usually very thin and under cooked or very overcooked. Sausage is often a surprise as to what it really is. And toast is from very thin and dry bread. By the way, the English love to have baked beans with their breakfast, which is always a hoot (in more ways than one), but something I?ve come to like.
We were disappointed because we expected a 5-star river cruise company that touts their amazing food would be better than an average cruise and they would occasionally have something interesting for breakfast, such as a really nice quiche (and yes, real men eat quiche!). Or perhaps a really good breakfast casserole with eggs, sausage, and potatoes ? easy to make and very good. Well, as good as the food was at dinner on this cruise, breakfast was lacking just like every other cruise we?ve ever been on. Needless to say, I was glad to get home and cook a real All-American breakfast! Perhaps on one of these cruises, I?ll have to offer to show the chefs how to really do it right ? now that would be a treat. Perhaps I should teach them my famous huevos rancheros!!
This was our last day in Amsterdam and Uniworld provided two excursions back-to-back. The first was to the Keukenhof Gardens, which is a very impressive 70-acre garden complex with millions of flowers showing why Holland is known for tulips. The place is world famous and only open for 8 weeks every year. It is extremely popular for newlyweds ? they say on the weekends you can find dozens of brides and grooms posing for pictures in their wedding attire. Unfortunately, because of the crazy weather everyone had this Winter, we were about 2 weeks too early to get the full show. Nonetheless, while it was hard to appreciate what it would look like in full bloom, it was still beautiful and we took a huge number of stunning pictures.
When we left for our excursions, everyone was provided a box lunch to enjoy during our full day of adventure away from the boat. After we boarded the bus heading away from Keukenhof Gardens enroute to our second destination, everyone took the opportunity to open their boxes. We were all incredibly disappointed at what we found: two half sandwiches, one with a thin slice of cheese and the other with a thin slice of ham; a juice box with something similar to weak orange-flavored Kool Aid; and an apple. Not what any of us would call a gourmet lunch from a 5-star boutique cruise line, that?s for sure. Most of us decided to take the ham from one sandwich and the cheese from the other sandwich and make one small ham & cheese sandwich. The bread was thin and dry. The drink was not tasty. This was a group of mostly seniors and not too many of them were able to eat the apple without cutting it up first and since no one had a knife, many of the apples went uneaten. In hindsight, we should have checked the boxes before we went to Keukenhof Gardens, as there were a couple of nice places to eat inside the complex and we could have had a decent lunch. Lesson learned ? always check boxed meals!
Our next stop was the outdoor museum of Zaanse Schans village ? what they refer to as historical Holland in a nutshell. While there are many quaint little homes around the area where people live, the main attractions in the complex were a wooden shoe factory, a cheese factory, and three working full-size windmills.
We first visited the shoe factory and it was very interesting to see their small museum with wooden shoes made for various purposes. They had ones with very large flat soles so the wearer would not sink in the bog; ones with spikes to help on ice; and others highly decorated for special occasions, such as shoes for a bride that were meticulously hand carved. The workmanship was truly amazing. We were treated to a demonstration on how they make wooden shoes today with mechanical equipment and were surprised to hear more than a million wooden shoes are produced each year for use by the Dutch. Obviously, those of us in the U.S. aren?t educated in such matters, think wooden shoes are no longer worn, are very uncomfortable, and are just something for tourists to take home. It was interesting to hear wooden shoes are still worn by people out in the country and farmlands for various purposes. They?re cheaper than regular work shoes, they last a long time, they can be adopted for various uses, they are waterproof, and have great insulating factors. It was all very informative.
Next, we went to one of the windmills where they produce fine pigment powder used in dyes for coloring fabric. We were able to see the whole thing in operation and climb up to the various levels. Having never seen a real working full-size windmill up close and personal, we found this to be incredibly fascinating, especially as we stood next to the huge blades ?swooshing? by in the wind.
We had about 45 minutes to walk around the village on our own and we spent the time looking at some of the quaint houses and shops. We found the Henri Willig cheese factory and had to sample all their delicious products. After trying the various types and ages of cheeses, Nancy was surprised to see I found an aged goat cheese I particularly liked. I have to admit, I never thought I would like a goat cheese, but this was very good and we had to buy a pound to bring back with us.
After visiting this wonderful little museum village, we were bused back to our boat, which had now moved from Amsterdam to Zaandam. That afternoon was spent cruising past Amsterdam and into the Rhine River.
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