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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 2
Uniworld River Cruise
Springtime Along The Rhine
March 21 ? April 2, 2012
This is Part 2 of a 2-part review.
Wednesday, March 28th
We were on the second level of the boat and while we did not have a set of glass sliding doors like the cabins on the third level, we did have a large picture window (about 8? x 4?). It was perfect for lying in bed and watching the shoreline glide leisurely by. We kept the curtains open almost the entire cruise even when we were sleeping. I woke up during the night a couple of times and would watch as we slowly passed by the lights and houses wondering where we were. Once, I woke up and didn?t see anything. I watched for a moment and it took me a while to realize I was looking at a wall and it was moving downward. After a while, I figured it out; we were in a lock and the boat was rising inside the lock. I continued to watch as eventually we reached the top and then proceeded on our journey. ?Something you definitely don?t see on an ocean cruise,? I thought to myself as I drifted back to sleep!
Today we arrived in Arnhem at 8:00am. For those not familiar with this amazing town, it played a pivotal part in the war during Operation Market Garden in September 1944. This story was told in the famous movie, ?A Bridge Too Far.? The movie was actually filmed in a town several miles away because Arnhem was pretty much destroyed during the war, so it was considered too modern and no longer authentic enough to be used in making the film. But the bridge remains and so do the stories.
We were offered a choice of two excursions; the Battle of Arnhem Tour with a visit to the Airbourne Museum Hartstein, which is the one we did because we were more interested in the history of the area. The other option was the Kroller Muller Museum, which is one of the most visited museums in The Netherlands with its exceptional art collection and sculpture garden.
Our tour guide was very good. Since the theme of our tour concerned the famous battle, the stories were all about the importance of the bridge to the allies, the problems the British encountered, the mistakes they made, the response of the German army, and about the terrible sacrifices suffered by the local Dutch people.
Our guide?s mother lived in Arnhem during this period, so her stories were often based on first-hand information, which were especially poignant when describing the total lack of food during the Winter of 1944 and how many people died due to starvation. Overall, it was a very moving and educating experience.
After the tour ended, we were taken back to the boat for lunch. Since we always docked in the middle of the towns and cities, it was easy to use as a base during our escapades and Arnhem was no different.
Lunch on the boat was normally served from 12:00pm to 1:30pm and, quite frankly, not much to speak about. As with breakfast, lunch is served buffet style ? there are no ala-carte items available. There would usually be one item that was interesting, but normally just the usual sandwich and salad fixings. They would have a carving item, such as ham or turkey. Sometimes the items being served were just a bit lacking. For example, they once had schnitzel and I was really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, it was extremely thin and because there was no gravy, it was very dry. To me, it was not very tasty at all. While overall lunches were good, we were a little disappointed because we just expected better.
After lunch, we walked into town to sightsee and shop. It?s a wonderful little town with great people and several really nice pedestrian shopping areas. We found a city square with pubs all the way around, with the exception of a small church on one side. Because it was such a lovely day, every chair was taken by people enjoying the warm sun along with their cold beer. The only chairs available were in the shade, so we sat down and ordered a couple of their local beers. (I can?t remember the name as I forgot to write it down ? I usually take a picture of the can, glass, or bottle to help me, but didn?t do it this time.) I do remember it was very good ? in fact, I can honestly say I?ve never had a bad beer in The Netherlands or Germany. Come to think of it, I don?t think I?ve ever had a bad beer anywhere in Europe!
It was great watching all the people and found it funny that everyone was sitting facing the sun ? no one had their back turned to it. After all, it was one of the best days they?d had in many months, according to the locals and they just wanted the sun on their faces to gain some color.
After enjoying our beer and a relaxing time watching people, we again started walking the streets in search of a nice scarf for Nancy. (Everyone in Europe likes to wear a scarf, including the men!) It wasn?t long before we found a quaint little shop with a delightful lady who found the perfect scarf to go with Nancy?s sweater. It was on sale and at 5? was a great deal.
We eventually made our way back to the boat in time to enjoy some cocktails before our 6:00pm departure enroute to Cologne. It was a little chilly, so we just wrapped ourselves up in the very nice blankets Uniworld provided for use when on the sundeck and enjoyed the countryside as we made our way slowly up the Rhine.
Thursday, March 29th
Breakfast is served from 7:00am to 9:00am and we were scheduled to arrive in Cologne at 9:00am and begin our tour at 10:00am. We got up around 7:30am, got dressed, and sat down around 8:00am to enjoy our breakfast as we were coming into the outskirts of the city. We had been to Cologne twice before, but only by train and only for short periods. Had we known how nice it is and how close the shopping and sightseeing is to the main train station, we might have taken some time to see the city during our other travels.
We met up with our guides at 10:00am to begin a walking tour of the city and a visit to the Roman Germanic Museum. Uniworld provides wireless receivers about the size of a cell phone with an earpiece to use on tours. The guide has a transmitter so everyone can hear them talk without having to be right beside the guide. These worked very well and made it easy to listen to the narratives as we walked along taking pictures.
As with most German cities, the central part of Cologne is great for walking around, sightseeing, shopping, and enjoying the local culture. We really enjoyed our tour, which included a visit to the museum and was very fascinating.
After the tour was completed, we thought about finding a little restaurant for lunch, but I had forgotten to bring my other camera lens that I would need when visiting the cathedral. We decided to make our way back to the ship for lunch. It wasn?t very far and we took a different route than the guide had used making for an interesting jaunt. Following lunch, we walked via yet another route towards the cathedral and found the perfume store where the original 4711 scented water Eau de Cologne is sold. Nancy did not find it personally complimentary for her (neither did I), thus we passed on the opportunity to buy this world-renowned fragrance. Eventually, we arrived at the famous Gothic cathedral (K?lner Dom), which is the largest in Germany and one of the largest in the world. They began building it in 1248 and worked on it for 300 years while completing only half of the structure. Due to a lack of funds, construction was stopped and then delayed for 300 years before finally being restarted again in the mid 1800?s. What was interesting was it only took 30 years to finish the second half and finally completed in 1880 still using the original plans. Although Allied bombings in World War II destroyed almost 90% of Cologne, this ?miracle of a church? survived almost completely unscathed. It is a an amazing church and definitely not something to be missed when in the area.
We walked around for quite a while shopping and exploring the Hohe Strasse ? the main artery of Cologne?s huge pedestrian shopping zone. Later, we found a quaint little pub to quench our thirst. The one other thing that Cologne is known for is their famous K?lsch beer! This is a distinctive local beer that is brewed only in this area. There are more than 20 local breweries producing this relatively light beer that is always served cold in small tall glasses of 0.2L (about 6.7 ounces). Unlike other beers in Germany that are served in large glasses or huge mugs, which encourage patrons to take their time drinking, people are expected to drink their K?lsch beer relatively quickly (about 3 gulps) while it?s still very cold. And also unlike other beers, as soon as the server sees an empty glass, they will automatically keep bringing more glasses of beer until told to stop. It has an alcoholic content of around 5.5% (compared to 3.2% for most U.S. beers) and we had a good time with the local patrons and their quaint customs.
We left the pub and headed towards an island just in front of our boat, which is the location of the Lindt Chocolate Museum! They were closing in an hour, but we knew we could probably make it through in plenty of time. The price was 12? per person for seniors (about $16), which we thought was relatively expensive, but based on our past experiences with other chocolate factories in Europe, we figured it might be well worth it. It wasn?t! While it was educational, had a lot of displays, and great information, it was self-guided and definitely not worth the $32 we paid, that?s for sure. We would not recommend taking the tour. However, we would suggest visiting the store, especially if you?re a chocolate lover! The one thing we found and got to sample was their Frick Cr?me de Chocolat. This is their outstanding chocolate with alcohol! It was amazing and we had to buy a big bottle as it goes very well on ice cream or cake. We also bought a bag of premium milk chocolate bites that are decadent.
We made our way back to the boat in time for a private cocktail party sponsored by Uniworld for the travel agents onboard. This was their opportunity to give us a slide show and presentation about their company, their ships, and their itineraries. They really do have a wonderful product with exciting itineraries ? made us want to try them all! One thing we learned is that in 2013 they will be offering something never done before - river cruising in Italy. Sounds awesome!
Following dinner, we were provided with entertainment in the main lounge by a local amateur group of about 25 elderly gentlemen called the Shanty Choir. Their repertoire consisted of popular German polkas and ballets with a nautical theme. Very enjoyable.
We then departed Cologne at 10:00pm enroute to Braubach.
Friday, March 30th
Until today, we had been graced with lovely sunny weather. Our luck ran out; we had cloudy skies with an occasional mist and much cooler.
We ate breakfast, put on sweaters and rain jackets, grabbed our cameras, binoculars, and took our wireless receivers to the lobby. At 9:00am, when we arrived in Braubach, we got on the buses to begin our ride up the hill to the Marksburg Castle. Of all the centuries old medieval castles in the Middle Rhine region, this is the only castle that was never destroyed. All the rest of them were destroyed by invading forces and most were rebuilt at some time during their very long lifetime. There are still remnants of many castles along our cruise that were never rebuilt. The Marksburg Castle had some damage during WWII and has gone through several renovations during its history, but never destroyed since it was built in 1117 and is still the best-preserved castle on the Rhine. It is a remarkable example of what castles were really like back in 12th century and unlike any other castle we?ve ever toured. Definitely worth the visit.
When we got back to the boat, it was time to depart for what was one of the highlights of our entire trip; a cruise through an area of tall hills on both sides of the river, little towns around every bend, and many castles along the way.
After lunch, we again put on our sweaters and our rain jackets, and headed to the sun deck where we could watch this magnificent sight unfold before us. It was still chilly and cloudy with a little mist occasionally, so we just bundled up and enjoyed the cruise. The staff brought us delicious hot chocolate to keep us warm and ensured everyone had plenty of blankets. While we could have stayed inside and watched through the windows, we would not have gotten the total ambiance and magnificent pictures. This was an amazing part of our journey and something that sets river cruising apart.
Our next destination was Rüdesheim, which is reportedly the most famous wine town in the world. Because of its outstanding wine, the staff treated us to Rheingau Riesling as we were sitting on deck during our cruise towards the town. It was a wonderful wine.
Rüdesheim is located at the southern entrance to the fabled Valley of the Lorelei and is the center of the Rhine wine industry. They boast almost 3 million visitors ever year - obviously, it is a bit touristy. Nonetheless, it is quite romantic with its medieval charm. Unfortunately, not being the tourist season, most of the stores closed early as did the Weinmuseam (Wine Museum) and the famous Siegfried?s Mechanical Musikabinett, which is something we had really been looking forward to seeing and were very disappointed it was closed.
Nancy saw a really nice purse that she had to have and on sale for 15? (about $20) I couldn?t resist getting it for her. Later, I found a great hat store and saw a felt hat similar in style to Indiana Jones. When I tried it on, Nancy said she loved it on me and of course, that?s all it took. It?s foldable and waterproof, so it?s nice for traveling and plus, did I say Nancy said it looks great on me? I had my eye on one a couple of years ago when we were in Austria and I always kicked myself for not getting it, but sure glad I got this one as Nancy said it looked great on me!
So, sporting my new look and Nancy carrying her new purse, off we went in search of a cold drink. We found a wonderful little pub to enjoy the local beer called Bitburger, which was very good. We also had to try Rüdesheim Coffee ? I think this is mandatory when visiting the area. It?s similar to Irish Coffee, but made with the locally distilled brandy Asbach Uralt instead of whiskey. It was prepared in front of us ? they poured a cup of their wonderful coffee and then the brandy is poured on top and set on fire. Very good and guaranteed to warm you up even on the coldest day. We also found the pub owner only charged 1.80? for a shot of any liquor on the shelf. At about $2.50 per shot, we didn?t need any encouragement to stay for a while. We even bought a round for the house! Of course, there was only one old guy in the pub besides us! He earned it because he had been sharing some amusing tales during our time in this delightful little pub. This is the type of place we very much enjoy visiting as it?s off the beaten path, not visited by a lot of tourists, and provides a wonderful opportunity to meet the locals.
After dinner, we were treated to entertainment by a local couple. She was a wonderful singer and everyone enjoyed the performance.
Saturday, March 31st
We departed Rüdesheim at 5:00am while we were still sleeping and were scheduled to arrive in Mainz at 8:00am. At 8:30am, those who had paid for the optional excursion to Heidelberg got off the ship and the rest of us stayed onboard for our cruise to Frankfurt. (They were bused to Heidelberg for their tour and then bused back to the boat in Frankfurt around 3:00pm.) If I remember right, the price was about $75 per person. We slept a little later than usual and got up just in time to eat breakfast before they stopped serving at 9:00am.
We had a nice leisurely morning and did some laundry in the complimentary machines, which were very nice. I took some incredible pictures when we transited a couple of locks. It was amazing to watch them steer the boat that is 37-1/2 feet wide into a lock that is only about 41 feet wide. On one side, the boat was no more than 6 inches from the wall and to see them do it and never touch the wall speaks volumes about their skills.
We were scheduled to arrive in Frankfurt at 1:00pm and then take a city tour, so we grabbed a small bite of lunch before we left the boat. This city is the largest of all the ones we visited and because it was pretty much destroyed during the war, it is now very modern with tall skyscrapers. The tour by bus lasted about an hour followed by a half hour walk around the city center. When we got off the bus for the walking tour, many people decided to go their own way and not return to the ship - Nancy and I were two of them. We walked around taking pictures and enjoying the city. Unbeknownst to anyone, the Occupy Movement was schedule to hold a demonstration march around the banking area. (Frankfurt is one of the major banking hubs in Europe and there are over 200 major banks in the city, many with very large office buildings.) The police were out in force dressed in full riot gear. They take such issues very seriously over there, thus there were thousands of police around the area to keep the demonstration under control and within the confines of the pre-determined route. The entire event was very peaceful, very controlled, and there were no problems. We felt very safe walking around with the usual large Saturday afternoon crowd. We found an area that had many little wonderful kiosks selling various foods and products. We couldn?t pass up the fresh French fries or the handmade potato chips, while enjoying a very good locally crafted beer called Binding. It was interesting to see none of the vendors selling drinks used plastic cups. All of them charge a 2? deposit on the glass or mug they use to serve the drink, which is refunded when you return it. Something that is very ecologically friendly and definitely something you won?t see in the U.S. We also had to try the famous Ebbelwol or apple wine. While the locals love it, it does take getting use to ? tastes sort of like an alcoholic apple cider. There were all sorts of various foods, including one kiosk a large metal circular grate about 5? in diameter suspended on three chains over a pit with real wood logs burning. The cook was constantly turning the grate over rather large flames as he cooked all types of German sausages, bratwurst, chicken on-a-stick, hot dogs, kabobs, and ribs. It was awesome!
On our slow leisurely walk back to the ship, we found the L?Occitane en Provence store and had to check it out. Uniworld uses these products on their boats and we loved them. We could not pass up buying a jar of ultra rich body cream, lip balm, and soap. Their products are made mostly with pure shea butter, hence they are rather expensive yet very nice and worth the price.
Tonight was the Captain?s Farewell Dinner and the only choice we could make on the menu was the entrée, everything else was automatically served. It was one of the best meals we had throughout the entire week and was what we had been expecting all along.
Sunday, April 1st
They started serving breakfast at 6:00am today for those who needed to get to the airport early. And for those needing to get off the boat really early, they also offered a ?breakfast box?. After our experience with their boxed lunch, we can only imagine what was included in there for breakfast.
We had originally planned to take the third flight of the day at 5:00pm from Frankfurt. However, after checking the flight load, we decided we?d better get to the airport early and see if we could catch the first flight at 11:00am instead. (The second flight was at 12:20pm, so we had that as a fall back should we miss the 11:00am flight.) Uniworld provides complimentary shuttle service to and from the airports, which is a very nice amenity. This can also save you considerable money because some airports are quite a distance from where the ship docks, as was the case in Frankfurt. We took the 8:00am shuttle and got to the airport around 8:30am. The only bad thing was they dropped us off at Terminal C and most of the people had to go to Terminal A or Z, which was a train ride plus a long walk away. It would have been better to drop everyone off at Terminal B, especially since these cruises are full of seniors and B was more in the middle of everything.
We lucked out and got the last two seats on the plane, albeit in coach. I was in the very first seat in Economy Plus and Nancy was in the very last seat in the back of the plane ? could not have been further from each other ? but at least we made it and didn?t have to take a chance on the next flight being full. Eight and a half hours later, we arrived back in Dulles, went through immigration and customs relatively quickly, got our luggage, grabbed a taxi, and arrived home around 2:30pm. Needless to say, by 8:00pm (2:00am our body time), we were dead to the world in our nice warm comfortable waterbed.
First, let me say that overall this was a wonderful experience and, in our personal opinion, much better than ocean cruising. We are definitely hooked on river cruising and can?t wait to try it again. We also loved Uniworld ? they have a truly outstanding product. The staff was absolutely magnificent! We?ve now done 42 cruises and the staff was the best we have ever encountered ? we can?t speak highly enough about their fantastic attention to the guests. They were always willing to assist in any way they can and all were empowered to take care of any of our requests. Never once did anyone say that was not part of their job and they would have to have someone else assist us ? whoever we asked always took care of us. The Maître d' was very attentive, extremely helpful, and always talking to all the guests to insure they were happy and taken care of properly. Every member of the staff was approachable, eager to assist, helpful, and very polite. Then they would follow-up to make sure everything was satisfactory ? in other words, excellent service as it should be.
Now, with that said, we do have to point out both of us were a little disappointed in the food. Breakfast and lunch were not a big deal, even though we did expect a bit more quality. Dinner was always very good and while overall we had no complaints, it was not quite up to the very high level of expectation we had after talking to our clients who have done river cruises and after reading all the outstanding reviews. Don?t get me wrong, as I said, dinner was very good and we would rank it up there with some of the better ocean cruises we?ve taken. It was just not as over-the-top as we believed it would be.
In all fairness, this was the first cruise of the year for this boat and crew, so it?s possible they were not quite up to speed, yet. Our cruise was also taking place during the very early Spring and they were unable to shop in every port for fresh fruits, vegetables, and seafood like they prefer to do during the high travel time of the year when these are in season and readily available. Obviously, this would have a major impact on the quality of food. Plus, Europeans, for the most part, eat much smaller portions than their American cousins ? after all, we do tend to overindulge and like to supersize everything. This is not something exclusive to river cruising as we found it throughout our travels in Europe.
We had friends on the S.S. Antoinette and when we compared the quality of food we were served, they could not speak enough about the excellent meals they had. As I?ve always said, what one person loves another will hate. So given the fact that food is always very subjective, it is possible the quality will be impacted given a different ship, different chef, different itinerary, and/or at a different time.
As for the cabin, it was nice and we?re glad we got the one we did. We would not suggest getting a lower level cabin because while there is a window, it?s relatively small and you have to stand up to look out of it. Having a big window like we had or better yet, having a big sliding glass door, not only makes the cabin appear bigger, it affords an opportunity to watch the never-ending landscape go by, which is one of the best things about a river cruise.
We didn?t have a choice on this particular cruise, as it was a travel agent trip that we couldn?t pass up. If we get the opportunity to select another one, we would much prefer to do it closer to Summer (either before or after) when the weather is nicer, more things are open, fresh fruits and vegetables are readily available, and more activities are prevalent in the towns and cities. Of course, there would also be more crowds, however the excursions offered by Uniworld do help with that problem.
Those who are mobility-challenged may find some of the excursions on this particular itinerary to be a bit challenging. This is especially true when visiting the castle or wanting to see all of the Anne Frank House. While Uniworld does provide tours based on ability (slower paced for those who can?t walk fast), they really aren?t equipped to handle those in wheelchairs. They do have an elevator on their ships, but as with all European river cruise companies, it does not go down to the first level because that is actually below the water level and laws do not allow it, so you cannot book the least expensive cabins. Also, river cruising is not the type of cruise for those who cannot walk up a gangplank, get on or off a bus, or have problems negotiating cobblestone streets. However, this is not exclusive to river cruising as it?s prevalent throughout Europe. The good thing is the boats dock in the center of town, so if you can walk short distances, you?ll still be able to tour the town. Plus, there are usually taxis readily available if you prefer to ride.
In closing, perhaps our expectations about the food were too high for this particular boat on this particular cruise, but overall this was a wonderful trip and we would certainly not hesitate to do another Uniworld cruise and are especially anxious to try their newest ships. Now, if we can only find the time and the money!
We encourage everyone to try a river cruise, as we believe you will thoroughly love the experience. While this is true for everyone, this is especially true for those who have only done ocean cruises since it is a completely different experience in every aspect. It is a very easy, affordable, romantic, and lovely way to see the interior of Europe, as well as Russia, Egypt, Italy, Vietnam, China, and many other parts of the world that are inaccessible when doing an ocean cruise. There are many river cruise companies and itineraries to choose from, as well as many specials always being offered. There is positively a river cruise to satisfy everyone?s lifestyle, budget, and desires for an outstanding adventure while enjoying very small crowds.
Based on our first experience with river cruising, we can honestly say that Uniworld unquestionably provides an excellent experience ? one we?re sure you will thoroughly enjoy.
You?re welcome to contact us if you have any questions or need additional information. And when you?re ready to book your cruise (or land vacation), we?re here when you need us.
Pete & Nancy Peterson
Cruise & Land Specialists
Cruise Planners, Inc.
Location: Ashburn, VA
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