Following is a firsthand account by Maureen Jones, a traveler and a travel agent with over 30 years of experience. She is president of Los Altos, CA-based All Horizons Travel, Inc., a member of the Signature Travel Network.
I have taken more than 80 cruises, and in December I went for the first time on a cruise down the Rhine River to visit Christmas markets in Switzerland, France and especially Germany, where we stopped at five towns along the way. I have been to the Christmas markets many times, since it was a yearly adventure with my parents during my growing up years in Europe, but this eight-day trip onboard S.S. Antoinette of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection was especially wonderful.
After flying into Basel, Switzerland, we were met at the airport and taken to the ship. The next day we had a tour of the city with Uniworld’s own coaches and guides, and wandered around the Christmas market, which was crowded with local people buying pastries, spices and Christmas ornaments, and drinking hot wine. We mostly sailed at night, docking the following morning at the next town on the itinerary. Each evening, we had a lecture on the area we were to visit the next day, and were given an excellent map with highlights. I liked that we could stay ashore as long as we liked. Some people used the bicycles they had onboard for touring.
Every one of us was given a marvelous gadget that we plugged in our ear and switched to the correct channel, so we could hear what the local guide was saying about the area we were walking through. The group I was in only had six people, which made it more personal. Several people onboard who were slow walkers, with canes, were given special attention.
Strasbourg, France, our second stop, is built on an island with canals dividing it up. We had a lovely cruise around the little town. As the official seat of the European Parliament, it’s very much a European Union government town, with a lot of historical buildings. The magnificent Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral is a must-see.
Five Stops in Germany
A full day in Heidelberg was of great interest, since there is so much history here, with the medieval castle and university being among the oldest in Europe. It is a steep walk up to the castle on cobblestones, so it is important to wear flat shoes; otherwise you can slip on the uneven streets.
Rudesheim was crowded with locals all doing their Christmas shopping. I also enjoyed going to the Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Museum.
The stops at Mainz and Koblenz were also fun. Small medieval towns dot the landscape along 40 miles of the Rhine, with lots of ancient fortresses, castles and half-timbered villages, all nestled along the banks of the river with the steep hills covered in grapevines.
Cologne was the end of our delightful journey. It has the largest market in all of Germany, occupying five village squares. They have a little motorized train that takes visitors to each of the markets; it was a fun ride for only about $9. During World War II, 90 percent of the town was bombed, but the magnificent 1,000-year-old Cologne Cathedral was left standing. We stayed two extra days at the Hyatt Hotel across the river with a nice view of the cathedral.
About the Ship
Cruising on Antoinette was like staying in a London hotel suite, not surprising since the Red Carnation Hotel group is a sister company and the same interior designer does all their vessels. I loved the heated mirrors and towel racks in the marble bathroom, and the glass-covered balcony with comfortable armchairs and a TV. There is no comparison between the other cruise lines I have been on and Uniworld.
|The 1,000-year-old Cologne Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.|
The luxurious Antoinette holds only 164 passengers, has fantastic service and gourmet food, plus wonderful entertainment and lectures. I was also impressed with the movie theater, pool, gym and spa. I especially enjoyed the wide range of ages and nationalities. Having people from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain onboard made a wonderful cosmopolitan group.
After a sea cruise I usually come home exhausted because there’s so much walking on the ship, miles of corridors, stairs and lifts, and keeping a busy schedule with lectures, classes, shore excursions, movies and shows. Plus, if the ship has to anchor in the bay you must take a tender ashore where you board a bus to take what often turns out to be an expensive excursion.
The riverboat, as I found out, was so compact that it took only a minute to get from one’s cabin to the dining room. There was no reserved seating. What I particularly liked was the buffet counters they had set up, so no matter what time of day or night it was, you could get coffee, tea, hot chocolate, sandwiches, cookies and pastries. The wine, beer and soft drinks were all free with meals, and the menu was outstanding. There were 11 chefs onboard, and on the last night the captain introduced them all—a classy thing to do.
Antoinette was the utmost in luxury, with magnificent artwork, lamps, flowers and a marvelous lounge. I have never been on a vessel that had such comfortable couches and chairs.
It was such a pleasure to sit and listen to the wonderful artists and craftsmen they brought onboard at various stops to entertain the passengers. One chap was the most outstanding glassblower I have ever seen. The vases and jewelry he made were top quality and very reasonably priced. There was everything from jazz and opera performances to a delightful German lady telling about the history of Christmas family customs.
|S.S. Antoinette passes small, picturesque towns such as Bacharach between Mainz and Koblenz.|
I enjoyed the experience onboard Antoinette more than going on a big ship with thousands of passengers. I’m already planning my next river trip, perhaps later in the spring to see the flowers, or summer when I can sit on the deck in a comfortable armchair and sail through Europe. No long lines, no rough water, only smooth and peaceful sailing with a small group of people. Best of all, Uniworld offers great value, when you consider what items are free, such as excursions, wine and beer, use of laundry room, Internet and Wi-Fi, and a very important item—free transportation to and from the airport.
Uniworld’s Fleet, Options
Uniworld, which only markets through travel agents, operates 12 boutique vessels and offers 37 itineraries in Europe, Russia and Asia. Your clients can select from eight-, 10-, 15-, 27- and 32-day cruises. Antoinette will continue its weekly Rhine cruises throughout 2012, the last four being a series of “Holiday Markets” itineraries.