River Empress is one of the older ships in Uniworld's fleet, dating back to 2002, and a one-off (not part of a "class"). Like its fleetmates, it goes through a regular series of refurbishments to keep it looking brand new, with the most recent taking place in 2013.
The good news is that everything looks so fresh out of the box, it's hard to tell that this 130-passenger Grand Dame is deep into her teenage years.
Since the ship's launch, however, river cruising has come a long way, and some of Uniworld's more modern river boats have features such as (small) swimming pools, hot tubs, multiple lounges and alternative restaurants.
River Empress has none of these, harking back to an era of more simple river cruising, with one main dining room, an al fresco dining area (in good weather), two small lounges and a large, open top deck.
But there are three aspects of River Empress that make it exceptional, despite its age. The first is the ship's extraordinary attention to detail, giving you the feeling that you really are staying in a luxury, country house boutique hotel (run your hands along the walls of the corridor, they are all padded). The second is the astonishing level of service. True, river ships are small and the atmosphere is far more personal than large cruise ships, but the staff and crew go out of their way from the moment you step onboard to make you feel at home. After a day or two they know your seating, drinking and dining preferences.
The third is the dining, which is outstanding. Often locally sourced, and reflecting the region, meals are complemented by local wines. River Empress sails along the Danube, Main and Rhine, so expect Rieslings and local Alsatian and Bavarian foods to appear on the menu.
Another highlight is that the ship often sails during daylight hours during particularly scenic stretches of the river, so passengers can enjoy the view while lunching. Docking at night means you have the chance to stroll around in town after dinner. On River Empress, you'll have the best of both worlds.
If it wasn't for the fact there was a river directly outside your window, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were staying in a boutique hotel when you first step into your cabin. The walls are padded with an elegant blue pattern, and swirls of braided yellow throughout. The bed is vast and supremely comfortable. The carpet is thick and plush, and the walls are adorned with prints.
The overall effect is of high-end, traditional luxury: sumptuous, inviting and -- despite being quite small -- somewhere you'd be quite happy to stay awhile, read a book or just watch the river go by.
Riverview: The 65 cabins are an identical 153 square feet, the only difference being the deck they are located on and size of the windows. Those on Deck 4 have two floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass windows, creating a French balcony. Cabins on Deck 3 have two large windows, while those on the lowest deck have small windows located just at the waterline, which can be slightly claustrophobic especially when entering locks.
The cabins are exquisitely designed and despite the massive (very comfortable) bed right in the center of the room, make the most of the space. A floor-to-ceiling mirror at the back of the bed -- which takes up a whole wall -- adds to this feeling of spaciousness.
The color scheme is pale beige and wheat, with touches of deep blue. Cabins are outfitted with a dressing table/desk topped with black-and-beige-veined marble, a small round table and chair, two closets (with a pair of slippers inside), six drawers, a safe, a hair dryer (in the bathroom) and a flat-screen TV that carries an enormous number of channels including CNN, CNBC, BBC World News, Sky News, MTV, RTL and some non-English channels, as well as radio channels.
Beds can be arranged as two singles or one queen; a small bendy reading light is positioned over each bed. Cabins feature wonderfully comfy Savoir-brand beds, a choice of Egyptian cotton duvet or sheets and blankets, and a pillow menu, complete with monogrammed pillowcases.
Heavy drapes keep out any trace of sunlight.
There are a variety of plug sockets beside the dresser, catering for European, UK and U.S. passengers.
You also get a branded metal water bottle to use on shore excursions and to take away as a souvenir. It's a very nice touch.
The bathroom is small, but very efficient with a marble-tiled shower and a glass folding door. The shower is powerful and hot and can be detached to use as a spray. Products are high-end L'Occitane from the South of France, but apart from in the suite bathrooms, they are in dispensers fixed to the walls (except, oddly, the the conditioner, which comes in a small bottle).
A white porcelain sink is inlaid in a wood vanity with a small trashcan and storage space; the drinking glasses are white porcelain -- a nice touch. There is a fluffy robe hanging on the door.
There are 12 interconnecting cabins (eight on the 400 Deck, and four on the 300 Deck), which are ideal for families.
Suite: The four suites are 225 square feet in size and are roughly one and a half times the size of a standard cabin. They have three floor-to-ceiling windows, two of which slide open, and a third which is fixed. There is a separate sitting area, with a small desk and two chairs.
There is a large desk, with a coffee machine; as well as a complimentary mini-bar and an extra cupboard.
All suites share a butler, on hand to help with making reservations or confirming shore excursions, amongst other duties. They also get premium drinks included (and in the suite), part of the ship's "Diamond Selection" of premium alcohol brands.
The bathroom is also about one and a half times as big as a standard bathroom, with twin hand basins and a large shower space. The products are Hermes, supplied in small bottles.
There are no cabins accessible for wheelchairs.
The food onboard River Empress is outstanding: fresh, locally sourced and usually reflecting the region in which the ship is passing through, with wines to match. Service is equally as impressive, with wait staff quickly knowing your preferred seating spot, wine and the type of after-dinner drink you like. Endlessly attentive, engaged and knowledgeable -- sometimes even anticipating your need -- this really is service at its best.
All meals are served in the restaurant, unless the weather is favorable and an al fresco dinner is also offered in the Sky Lounge; Afternoon tea is served in the lounge.
The restaurant (Deck 4): The main dining area is lined with floor-to-ceiling windows so all diners have a view. Although it can accommodate all passengers at once, the room still has the warm, intimate atmosphere of a small restaurant. The tables seat four or six; there are no tables for two, but if the ship is not sailing full, you can always request not to share. The only jarring notes are the bright red chairs, which look out of place in such a calm space. There is a marble walkway inset; the carpeting is beige with coral accents.
Breakfast and lunch are served at a buffet set up on the center bar, which has a marble surface.
Breakfast: There is an omelet station, where you can request an omelet or various eggs of your choice. There is also always a daily hot special, such as eggs Benedict, which the wait staff are always keen for you to try. The spread is sumptuous, and sets you up for the day: cold cuts, smoked salmon, gravlax, sausages, two types of bacon, tomatoes, potatoes, scrambled eggs, a selection of pastries and different breads; cereals, yogurts, smoothies -- even Prosecco, if you wish. You won't go hungry. Breakfast is served from 7 a.m. or 7: 30 a.m. to 9 a.m. daily.
Lunch: Unless you're out on an all-day excursion, most people return to the ship for lunch. Lunch will often reflect the region that you are in, and might include a selection of local specialties, accompanied by a regional wine. It is served buffet style and tends toward the light, so expect lots of fish such as salmon, plaice and sea bass, served with rice pilaf and new potatoes; as well as heartier dishes such as meatballs and pasta dishes. Lunch is served dependent on itinerary and can start as early as 11:30 a.m. but is usually noon to 2 p.m.
There is an extensive salad bar -- which goes beyond lettuce, carrots and tomatoes -- to include tzatziki or hummus, for example, hard-boiled eggs, artichoke hearts and potato and Caesar salads. Try the dressing; it's the favorite of the owner's wife, Beatrice Tollman.
There is always an extensive and delicious selection of desserts, served in tiny pots so you can justify more than one. There is also a cheese plate, featuring three regional varieties, plus dessert wine.
What is particularly heartening is how knowledgeable and engaged all the wait staff are, often going into detail about the provenance of the food and the wine.
Dinner: Dinner is a four- or five-course set meal served by the wait staff. There is always a choice of three starters, two soups and three entrees, followed by a selection of desserts and a cheese board. On Gala dinner evenings, expect an extra appetizer. Starters might include escargots a l'Alsacenne (when in the Alsace region), prawn cocktail, cottage pie with oxtail rather than beef mince, marinated salmon with creme fraiche or "Capitan's salad."
The soups are outstanding -- German split pea soup, Marseille bouillabaisse, cappuccino of mushrooms.
There are a lot of fish choices with the main dishes -- plaice, John Dory, sea bass -- presented in grilled, breaded or a la meuniere. Meat dishes might include New York strip steak, chicken breast, Wellington of veal tenderloin, all served with vegetables and rice or potatoes (you can always request an alternative accompaniment). The Chef's Recommendation highlights the signature dish of the day. Our only slight complaint was that the portions were a little small.
Desserts are delicious and might include fruit ice creams or perhaps a Bavarian cream of bitter almonds, Black Forest gateau or a chocolate mousse. There is also a cheese plate, again showcasing regional cheeses such as boursin, Brie or Roquefort.
Wines are suggested and reflect the region (we had never heard of any of them, but loved sampling the local Rieslings), and act as an ideal accompaniment to the dishes. However, if you would prefer another label, just ask.
There is always a full vegetarian menu available, which is not just a main without the meat. It might include a fruit cocktail to start and eggplant parmigiana, arborio risotto or quiche as a main.
There is also a 'Traveling Lite' option, which will include the lowest calorie dishes on offer from the menu. All food intolerances are catered for on the spot, or advise the line or your travel agent at time of booking.
If you want a bit of privacy, you can request to have your meal served to you in the Captain's Lounge, at the other end of the ship.
Patio (Deck 2): Various types of coffee (from a machine), hot water and tea are always available along with cookies or candies. Pastries are laid out here, too, from 6:30 a.m. for early risers.
Sky Lounge (Deck 5): If the weather is good, then an al fresco BBQ lunch will be served in the 20-seat Sky Lounge, as an alternative. You can still choose to eat in the main restaurant, if you wish.
Room service is available 24/7 at no extra charge. Passengers can also choose to have their entire meal served to them course by course in their rooms.
Passengers should go casual and comfortable during the day -- slacks and T-shirts are perfectly acceptable. Bring along good walking shoes, a raincoat and something warm during the shoulder seasons (March/April and September/October). A hat is recommended for July and August, due to the heat. Evenings are a little more "dressy", but this is not enforced, and no one will frown upon you if you're still wearing the same day clothes -- although the ship might draw the line at shorts and flip-flops at dinner. There is one semi-dressy evening, and that is the Captain's Dinner when a jacket for men and dress for women is recommended.
Uniworld is one of the most inclusive of all the river cruise lines, and upfront fares reflect that; it's considered a luxury river line. Everything except spa treatments, one or two shore excursions and a handful of premium alcohol brands is included -- gratuities, most excursions, wines and spirits, Internet and shuttles to town are all included in the price of your fare.
The only alcoholic beverages that are not included are the "Diamond Selection" of brands (which include Hennessy XO brandy, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Chivas Regal and premium Champagnes). These are however available to suite guests at no charge.
Fares are inclusive of gratuities for onboard and onshore services.
The currency onboard is the U.S. dollar.
River Empress' shore excursions are designed firmly with the clientele in mind; in other words, do not expect kayaking, white water rafting or rock climbing. The majority are coach tours or gentle walking tours, with a few variations such as a tram ride round Colmar, for example; or a river boat tour around Strasbourg. Many are walking tours that set off just outside the gangplank of the ship and will amble into the town and back, with frequent stops for refreshments.
On each cruise there will be a selection of included excursions, which will usually be in the town where you are docked. Generally speaking, if you want to go further afield you'll need to pay. The included excursions usually run to half a day; the paid ones are usually a full day. They might include a trip to the Black Forest while you are in Strasbourg; or a trip to Heidelberg while the ship is in Speyer. The visit to Marksburg Castle, for example, costs €39 per person, while the Black Forest excursion will set you back €79 per person.
Our view: If you haven't visited these towns before, stick with the included tours: the towns are stunningly pretty with plenty to see and do in a day. If you have visited these places before then you may wish to shell out and go further afield.
You can make reservations the night before for most excursions, though for some of the more popular ones (the cable car in Rudesheim, or the for fee ones), 48 hours ahead is recommended; you can't book online ahead of time).
The majority of the tours are so gentle and on flat surfaces that they would be perfectly suitable for people with mobility issues or small children.
Every evening, the Cruise Manager gives a talk/overview of the excursions and what can be expected each day. The excursions themselves are run by knowledgeable, English-speaking (and sometimes English) guides. You are not accompanied by a member of the ship's team.
Every cabin has two QuietVox portable audio headsets in the wardrobe for use on the guided tours.
Shuttle buses to the town center are included.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
River Empress does not offer a packed itinerary of events during the day, in fact it doesn't offer anything at all. Which is fine, as it means you don't feel you are missing out on anything. After all, the places you visit are the stars of the show, and with the majority of the moorings literally a few minutes' walk from the town centers, there's no real reason for you to stay onboard.
During the day, most people are out on shore excursions and nothing is laid on till lunch and then Afternoon Tea, which is served in the lounge at the appropriate time (4 p.m. to 5 p.m.). There is no trivia, movie showings, Friends of Bill or Dorothy or any other meet or greets.
In the evenings, it's a similarly simple affair -- you won't see Vegas-style showgirls, lavish production numbers or a jingling, flashing casino on the River Empress. You will find a piano player/singer who performs music for dancing in the Main Lounge most nights. Sometimes, regional entertainment is brought onboard, but this will usually consist of one or two more musicians playing the same, generic 50s–80s pop music, rather than traditional folk music for example, or dancing.
A limited selection of lectures are on offer; new for Uniworld are theme cruises on music, art or wines of a region that include guest speakers and visits to related museums, concerts and vineyards at no extra cost. In 2016 these include The Monarch Collection (an exploration of the continent's aristocratic heritage); The Connoisseur Collection (delves into French culinary delights); Christmas Markets and Multigenerational cruises. Onboard lectures include Austria's Blue Blood (Monarch) and Chefs dynasties in France (Connoisseur). On the Castles along the Rhine sailing, the line has one signature lecture and a number of other informative talks.
Patio (Deck 2): The Patio is a marble-floored, mirror-walled space just above the waterline where you'll find tables and chairs, a selection of magazines, a wall of board games, but more importantly a self-service coffee machine, making various different types of coffee, a selection of tea bags, a water dispenser and two cookie jars. Pastries are available here from 6:30 a.m. It's a lovely, light space to relax.
Captain's Lounge (Deck 3): The Captain's Lounge is opposite the main lounge at the front of the ship, and is an intimate space with a handful of tables and chairs, and flanked by two glass cabinets full of books; on most ships this would be designated The Library. It's a place to relax away from the (relative) hubbub of the larger lounge. You can get drinks in here at any time and also Afternoon Tea.
The Lounge (Deck 3): The main lounge takes up all the front of the ship, has lots of comfy couches and chairs and is lined with panoramic windows. It's beautifully decorated in soft colors of blues, beiges and accents of greys. There's a bar at one end and a small dance floor with an area for the keyboard or a small band. This is really the heart of the action onboard in terms of entertainment, which kicks off at about tea time and will (theoretically) continue until the last person is dancing. In practice this is around 11 p.m., but it does depend on the clientele onboard. You can snack on potato chips, peanuts and olives.
Most nights, the resident musician, Charlie, will sing popular hits till late. Occasionally, the ship will bring a guest band onboard, who will also play popular hits till late. Despite nights being designated "Disco Night" or "Dancing Queen Night," most nights are similar with popular hits till late. Personally, we would have liked to have seen more local performers and a bit of local color rather than cookie-cutter pop bands singing English-language pop songs.
Sky Lounge (Deck 5): The Sky Lounge comes into its own during the summer months, when a retractable roof is rolled back for al fresco meals. Outside of these times, it is a place to take shelter from the elements, but its not serviced (so bring your own drinks).
The sun deck takes up most of the rear of the top deck -- there is little else a part from rows of loungers and chairs, and a giant chess set. There is also a smoking area. At the front of the ship, you'll find the Sky Lounge, the wheelhouse and a small seating area.
Reception is as you enter the ship, and all rooms and corridors lead from here. Reception is staffed 24/7. The whole area is beautifully decorated with mirrors and a series of figurative paintings of a woman in various states of undress smoking a cigarette. Here you'll find a small sofa, a table and two chairs for passenger use; and on the opposite side the Cruise Manager's desk. There is also an elevator leading to all floors.
There is no shop, but all the jewelry on display in the cabinets here and one floor below are for sale; ask at Reception.
You'll also find two (well hidden) rest rooms on this level, on the way to the lounge.
Directly below Reception is the self-service laundry, which is free, and has two washers and two dryers; this is unique to Uniworld. Ask for free detergent at Reception. Outside the laundry is an ice machine.
WiFi is free and it's theoretically available throughout the ship, but it's very variable -- particularly when you're sailing that part of the Rhine between two countries. There are also two laptops available for use -- again, free.
Up until 2015, this ship (and indeed the line) made little or no provision for families; there were no facilities and kids were not really encouraged onboard. All this has changed quite recently, with the line launching its first dedicated Family River Cruise Collection brochure in early 2016, which offers 16 dedicated family friendly itineraries across the fleet. In addition, children between the ages of four and 18 pay half-price.
In theory you can bring kids younger than four onboard, but the ship (and its itineraries) would be best suited for children aged seven years and up.
(Note also, these family friendly itineraries are only on offer in July and August -- peak school holiday times in Europe, and also a Christmas Markets cruise in December.)
The timing of the program is dependent on the ship's itinerary, and will start after breakfast. Depending on the number of children onboard and their ages, they may be split into groups, with age-appropriate activities for each group. Family Hosts brought on for these cruises supervise and coordinate onboard activities for Junior Cruisers (ages 4 to 11) and Young Cruisers (ages 12 to 18).
Onboard activities on offer might include dessert making with the ship's pastry chef, to create ice cream cookies or 'crazy waffling'; a behind-the-scenes tour with the captain, including a tour of the wheelhouse (and help steer the ship); tasting local soft drinks with the resident Soda Sommelier, go on a ship-wide treasure hunt or take part in craft workshops and fun local language classes.
On full family sailings, the Captain's Lounge will be turned over to a dedicated kids room -- The Young Travelers Lounge -- complete with a PlayStation, a wide selection of games, movies, puzzles, kids' books and candy jars. Every family-friendly cruise itinerary also features onboard visits from local children or teens, who introduce guests to the daily life of their culture. If the ship is sailing less than full (or there aren't that many children onboard), one of the cabins will be turned over to a dedicated kids room instead.
The ship also offers a children's menu and early meal times for very young kids. The ship also has 12 interconnecting cabins (eight on the 400 Deck, and four on the 300 Deck), so it's worth requesting those when you book. Cabins do not accommodate more than two people.
Off the ship, the line offers a number of fun family excursions, which might include a visit to a theme park in Franconia, a public swimming pool in Breisach or climbing the Cathedral tower in Strasbourg.
Weary parents can also take advantage of leaving their kids onboard with babysitting while they explore the destination undisturbed. Each night the child receives a special pillow gift from the destinations visited.
It's also worth noting that the the crew are flexible and accommodating, so if you need a babysitter one night, or you need some extra time ashore outside of the regular programming -- just ask.
Not so long ago, River Empress would fit neatly into the traditional river image of elderly (65+) American and Australian couples (and the odd Brit). While that has not fundamentally changed, what has happened in recent years is a younger demographic (mid to late 40s) are trying river cruising for the first time, and -- in the school summer holidays and on the Christmas Market cruises -- families, often multigenerational, will be onboard. This is no accident. Uniworld put out its first dedicated family brochure at the start of 2016 and River Empress has a number of family cruises in July and August, with activities and care specifically for children. There are activities on offer for children as young as three, but most children will be seven years old and above.
The vast majority of passengers are English speaking, all literature is in English, all staff speak English, all briefings are in English and all tours are in English. There are no announcements onboard.
River Empress has a dedicated spa on Deck 2 (which is the size of a cabin) called the Serenity River Spa, and an onboard "Wellbeing Coach" who offers massages and wellbeing tips. She'll come to you in-cabin, or you can have your treatment in the Spa itself. There is a limited range of treatments that start at €25 for a Thai Chair Massage. Others include a Honey Massage (€95) and a Restoration and Rejuvenation massage (€120).
The 24-hour fitness center on Deck 2 is not big, but it does pack a lot into what amounts to about the size of two cabins: two bikes, one treadmill, two elliptical walkers, a rowing machine; as well as free weights and six yoga mats -- but you'll have to take the yoga mats with you as there's not enough space in there for classes. They take place on the Sun Deck when it's warm and in the lounge when it's not -- led by the Wellbeing Coach.
(River Empress once had a small sauna, but it was removed to extend the gym in the 2013 refit.)
The ship also carries 15 pedal bikes for free use in ports, which are available on a first come first served basis.
Date Refurbished: 2010
Country of Registration: Switzerland
Regular Capacity: 134
Maximum Capacity: 134
Crew Nationality: International
Officer Nationality: International
Language(s) Spoken: English
OverviewThe cosmopolitan style of River Empress, with its rich jewel tones and vibrant atmosphere, is certain to captivate you. Whether you're dining in the ship's sleek restaurant-reminiscent of a New York jazz and supper club-or relaxing over a cup of tea on the Sun Deck as you gaze out at the 360-degree view, there is no better or more relaxing way to travel through the scenic heartland of Europe.
Health and Beauty
No. of Dinner Sittings: 1
No. of Dinner Sittings: 7:00pm
Special Diet: catered with notice
Dress Code: Formal dress in evenings: Captain's dinnerGratuity Policies Gratuity Policies