Occupation:Travel Agent - Cruise Specialist
Number of Cruises: 43
Cruise Line: Uniworld
Ship: River Empress
Sailing Date: 2012-03-21
Itinerary: Amsterdam - Frankfurt
Uniworld River Cruise River Empress Springtime Along The Rhine
March 21 to April 2, 2012
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 Euro (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 Euro (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 Euro 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 moussaka. 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 Euro (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 Euro (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 Euro 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 Euro 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 a quarter 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 3/4 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 Moat & 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 â€“ 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.
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, â€œA 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 Airborne 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 â€“ 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 Euro 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 sun deck 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 (KÓ§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 1800â€™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 KÓ§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 KÓ§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 Euro 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 CrÑme 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 â€“ 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 RÃ¼desheim, 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.
RÃ¼desheim 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 15â‚¬ (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 RÃ¼desheim Coffee â€“ 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 â€“ 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 1.80â‚¬ 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 RÃ¼desheim 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 Euro 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 Lâ€™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 entree, 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 â€“ 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 â€“ whoever we asked always took care of us. The MaÃ®tre 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 â€“ one we're sure you will thoroughly enjoy.