Uniworld River Cruises River Empress by Peter Milward Other (Specified in Review) May 1, 2005
After taking many traditional cruises, I decided to explore Holland aboard a river cruise ship, the Uniworld River Empress. Although quite different from typical cruise ships, it was nonetheless a terrific experience and a great vacation.
As I approached the ship in Amsterdam, I noticed that there were no people waiting to board! We walked right up the short gangplank into the lobby, where the Uniworld crew welcomed us with warm smiles and keys to our cabin. Check-in was quick and easy, and we were in our cabin within a couple of minutes.
The ship holds 138 passengers and has five passenger decks. Deck 5 is the Sun Deck, which is mostly an open-air viewing deck with chairs and lounges. There is also a glass-covered sitting area so that even in inclement weather you can have a panoramic view. This is where the bridge is located as well, and towards the very front are tables and chairs. We often brought drinks to this part of the deck and watched the countryside slowly pass us as we relaxed.
Deck 4 is the location of the beautiful dining room (more on food later!). Also, all of the ship's suites (four of them) and top-graded cabins with floor-to-ceiling windows are on this deck. Towards the front is the bar/lounge, which is the meeting place for port talks, captain's welcome aboard party, etc.
Deck 3 has cabins, and so does Deck 2, along with an area (indoor patio) for 24-hour coffee and tea service, a small boutique, the gym/sauna and the hairdressers. Deck 1 has cabins, along with the small launderette (two washers and dryers, which are free; soap is $2.50 for two loads).
From top to bottom, the ship sparkles. Although much smaller and cozier than a cruise ship, it has great cabins, a spacious and bright dining room and the services mentioned above.
The Dining Room
The ship's policy is open seating at all meals. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style. However, at breakfast you can order an omelet of your choice from the buffet and at lunch, you are offered soup and dessert by your waiter. Dinner includes a starter (every night is different, and they are really creative), soup, a main selection (meat, fish or vegetarian), a nice dessert choice and cheese and fruit from the buffet. The food was all outstanding, and there is something for everyone. If you cannot find something, they will make something for you, e.g. steak. The food overall was high quality, tasty and delicious.
At 154 sq. ft., cabins are not overly spacious but certainly adequate. The cabin layout was very nice; they managed to fit in bedside tables, a sitting chair and table, and a bathroom with a nice shower (that consistently had great temperature control and water pressure). Everything was very clean and new, and the cabin service is excellent.
Holland is really beautiful at tulip time. The trip begins in Amsterdam, sails north to Hoorn and Volendam, then heads back south to Rotterdam, Delft, Arnhem, and Schoonoven. I won't go over each detail of the ports (Uniworld's brochure does a terrific job of that), but instead will mention some of our favorite activities.
Amsterdam: We were lucky that the cruise spent a night in Amsterdam at the beginning of the trip, and two nights at the end. There is a lot to see and do, so don't worry about spending too much time there. We boarded the ship about 2 p.m. Sunday and spent an hour on board getting unpacked and touring the decks. We went to visit the Anne Frank House (well worth the 15-minute wait to get inside) and walked around central Amsterdam. (We had tried to go to the Anne Frank House earlier in the day, but the lines were too long. At 5 p.m., they had diminished quite a bit.) The next morning, Uniworld took us to the world's largest flower auction just outside Amsterdam. It is called the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, and is similar in many ways to the New York Stock Exchange, except that instead of stocks, the product is flowers. This place is huge; you walk above all the action and look down at flowers, the actual auctions (where the prices are set for flowers worldwide), and the logistics of getting the flowers in and out of the auction center. We returned to the ship midday and as we were eating lunch we sailed up to Hoorn.
Zaanse Schans is an outdoor windmill museum, and also gives demonstrations on how to make wooden shoes. Great photo opportunities here, and also on the bus ride through the multi-colored fields of tulips that extend as far as your eyes can see!
In Delft, we toured the pottery factory and then spent time downtown. There are many old and interesting churches, and a huge plaza with nice outdoor cafes.
Ten reasons to choose a river cruise over a traditional cruise:
I believe there is a market for both types of cruises. However, here are 10 reasons why I would travel on a river cruise again with Uniworld:
1. The crew. They can make or break a cruise, and hands down this crew (of only 36) did an outstanding job. We had great service from the cruise manager, the officers, the front desk personnel, the cabin attendants and the dining room staff.
2. The ship. Although much smaller than traditional ships, the River Empress had a great deck plan and above all, was sparkling clean.
3. The food. I was never disappointed with any of the meals. There was a lot of variety, and portions were the right size (although you could order seconds if you wanted).
4. The destinations. Although Amsterdam is a large city with an adequate port, most of the other destinations we went to were too small for traditional ships. This trip gave us an opportunity to explore ports that we otherwise would never see on a cruise.
5. The tours. Every one is included with your cruise fare. Just show up when they tell you to, and a first class tour bus is waiting for you just a few feet from your ship. Not only did they leave and return on time, every one had a knowledgeable and friendly tour guide, along with an experienced driver. Do not underestimate the value of having all your tours covered in your cruise fare, particularly when the conversion rate for dollars to euros is so poor!
6. Easy on, easy off. These river ships are more like hotels when it comes to arriving and departing guests. Whenever the ship is in port, it is easy to just walk off and on without great fanfare. It reminded me of going to and from a hotel. Quick and easy, in and out!
7. Other passengers. With such a small group, it is easy to meet others and we found that over the week we made many new friends.
8. Relaxation. There is something remarkably soothing about sitting on the top deck and watching the nearby land go by.
9. The other itineraries. Uniworld has many ships sailing throughout Europe and other parts of the world. Now that I've had my first experience with them, I'll definitely be back to another river cruise.
10. The small things. They had umbrellas in the cabin should it be raining out. Juice, coffee and pastries were available at 6 a.m. for us early risers. A small vase of fresh flowers is put in every cabin after the cruise begins. There are free washers and dryers, and welcoming smiles from the crew in the lobby every time you come back on board.
What a wonderful week we had seeing Holland on the River Empress. I'd do this trip again if there weren't so many other places I want to see first!