This year, it’s almost impossible to discuss travel to Europe without the unfavorable exchange rate coming up. It looks to be an expensive summer for Americans on the Continent, and as long as the dollar keeps buying just 60 or 65 eurocents, European bargains are becoming harder to find.
But in this summer of our monetary discontent, Tauck World Discovery offers high value in a premium, brand-new product: the Swiss Sapphire riverboat, which was christened in Antwerp, Belgium, on April 3.
The Swiss Sapphire in Maastricht, a port on its Holland & Belgium Cruise.
Your clients will rarely have to dip into their pockets during a Swiss Sapphire cruise, except to purchase souvenirs. But Tauck even provides some of those—as lagniappes, little surprise gifts that passengers receive here and there throughout their vacation. Tauck prefers to keep the details of these treats a surprise, so I’ll mention only one: a box of chocolates from the chocolatier that opens its kitchen to Tauck guests for a tour and demonstration as part of their Antwerp sightseeing.
The inclusions on a Swiss Sapphire cruise that are publicized are extensive: room and board, of course, but also all shore excursions, gratuities, wine at dinner and beer at lunch. If guests want to explore on their own as the locals do, Swiss Sapphire carries eight bicycles for complimentary passenger use. My ride around bike-happy Maastricht, Netherlands, was one of many highlights for me during the inaugural cruise.
The Wow Factor
The Sapphire’s inaugural cruise—an abridged version of its “Holland & Belgium in Spring” itinerary—was my first experience traveling with Tauck, and in that short time I easily recognized why the company has such a fine reputation. (Repeat customers account for more than 80 percent of Tauck’s passengers, either by traveling again themselves or referring new clients to the operator.) Everything was very well organized, and had obviously been planned with great care.
The lobby of the Swiss Sapphire.
A prime example: The Sapphire carries 118 guests while other European river cruisers of the same size have passenger capacities upward of 130 or even 150. Instead of cramming additional cabins in, Tauck created more public areas—foremost among them, the Lido Bar, which gives guests another place onboard to dine or just hang out. Any time of the day or night, snacks and drinks are available in the Lido, which also serves as an Internet café, library and game room, and features both indoor and outdoor seating.
An alternative dining venue is atypical for river cruising, but Swiss Sapphire passengers can opt for a lighter meal in the Lido Bar at breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the main dining room, meanwhile, there are four choices for the main course at every dinner: gourmet or regional meat and fish dishes, a vegetarian entree and a “classic fare” (something more traditional). Among the dishes we enjoyed were a prawn appetizer served on a potato pancake with white wine-lemon dressing and, for an entree, roasted veal tenderloin with black truffle-Madeira sauce and caramelized Belgian endive.
Rating the Digs
At 300 square feet, suites aboard the Swiss Sapphire are just about the biggest you’ll find on any river cruiseboat. Each features an expansive living area, walk-in closet, marble tub as well as shower stall in the bathroom, and one really long wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. Regular staterooms also have floor-to-ceiling windows—which are actually sliding glass doors, with a railing on the outside, so you can have a balcony effect from inside your cabin.
Suites on the Swiss Sapphire are larger than those on other river cruiseboats.
Standard cabins are fairly snug at 150 square feet, though they have a decent amount of closet and shelf space and such upscale amenities as plasma TVs, minibars, robes and slippers and L’Occitane toiletries. Clients who’d like some more room without upgrading all the way to a suite should consider #201, 202, 301, 302, 317 or 318, which measure about 185 square feet and have a sitting area. There’s one of these larger cabins on the lowest deck too, #101, but like the rest of the staterooms on that level (all beginning with 1), it has small windows.
Like other river cruisers, the Swiss Sapphire has one main gathering spot, the lounge. Tauck dedicated one-third of the top floor to its lounge, and it’s big enough for different ambiances within the same room. If you want to be in the center of the action, take a seat in the center of the lounge. Want a little more privacy? Tuck into a spot near the entrance, where the banquettes are recessed. For an unobstructed view at the boat’s fore, sit near the bar. There’s a pianist playing in the lounge every evening, karaoke in the wee hours and special entertainment or games on some nights. The lounge is also where such activities as history/culture lectures and exercise classes are held.
At the aft end of the sun deck is a Jacuzzi. On the lowest deck, there’s a massage room. Those are your best bets aboard Swiss Sapphire for indulgent relaxation—especially soothing after a day of walking the cobblestone streets of an old European town. For travelers who like to maintain their usual workout routine, Swiss Sapphire has a fitness center with three stationary bikes, a couple of treadmills and free weights.
Tauck entered the river cruise market in 2003, and is just one of the newer entrants in this burgeoning industry. As the marketplace becomes increasingly crowded, Swiss Sapphire carries one of the most reliable guarantors of quality in the entire travel industry: the Tauck brand name. Every aspect of a Sapphire cruise upholds the impeccable standards that have distinguished the company on land for so many years. Whether it’s being given bottled water as you disembark for your day ashore or greeted with a cold drink as you re-board later in the day, service quality on Swiss Sapphire is optimal. Every time I entered the Lido Bar, within a minute a waiter came over to offer me refreshment...even when I clearly had come in just to use the computer.
Prague is just one of the cities the Swiss Sapphire visits.
My disembarkation plans differed from the other passengers’ (who headed straight to the airport or a hotel), but they were handled without a glitch and my luggage was transported to the proper place. This special request was fulfilled not only with utmost efficiency but with an extremely gracious and cheerful attitude by all staff involved.
“I would categorize it as probably the most deluxe product out there today within river cruising,” says Andy Pesky, senior vice president, leisure sales and marketing, of Protravel International, who sailed on the Swiss Sapphire’s inaugural voyage. “I’d have to say that the Sapphire now sets the standard for others to follow.”
The Buda Castle in Budapest, as seen from the Danube.
Pesky says the Sapphire stands out in river cruising because of the “caliber of guides” and “the way they handle a group.” Service levels, according to Pesky, “carry through well from the Tauck tours, which are reputed to be among the very best in the business.” He also notes that food and presentation in the dining room are “better than most of the riverboats."
Just the Facts
The Swiss Sapphire sails April through October, starting its season with Holland/Belgium trips. Other itineraries include the five-country “Blue Danube”; Prague or Budapest to the Black Sea, which includes Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania; an Amsterdam-Budapest route; and the combination “Grand European Cruise.” Tour lengths range from eight days/cruise-only to 24 days with pre- or post-hotel stay. Lead rack rate in a standard cabin is $3,540 per person double for an eight-day cruise. Call Tauck at 800-468-2825 or visit agent.tauck.com. The travel agent liaison is Rick Baron, director of worldwide accounts ([email protected], 203-899-6883).
Know What You're Selling
Even with an outstanding product like the Swiss Sapphire, Protravel’s Andy Pesky emphasizes the need for greater agent and client knowledge about river cruising. “You’ve got to understand the difference between a riverboat and a [sea] cruise,” he says. “People who are used to cruising shouldn’t expect all the hoopla that you get on a cruise ship—a riverboat doesn’t have all the activities that a cruise has. You have to be aware that you can’t roam the decks like you can on a cruise ship.
“Yet a riverboat has a lot of attributes,” Pesky continues,“such as one-seating dining, all the tours included and you come right into the downtown area in a city. You don’t have to tender in; you’re right there. Getting off and just walking into town is a big, big plus. It also has activities that you can do [off the boat], such as biking and walking. Riverboats get you to a lot of places that a cruise ship would never get to.”
Another favorable difference, Pesky notes, is that riverboats cruise close to shore. “You’re always seeing something, as opposed to when you’re on a [ocean] cruise and all you see is water. I think it’s very interesting to go past the towns and see the people.”
Protravel’s river cruise business increased 150 percent in 2007 over the previous year, Pesky says. According to one industry journal, the number of Americans taking a European river cruise has risen by more than 140 percent in five years, and a third of the cruise lines have seen their traffic soar by at least 40 percent since 2005. Tauck World Discovery reports that its 2008 river cruising season was three-quarters sold out by last Thanksgiving.