Story and Photos By Gerry Barker
In all the many cruises we taken over the years, there is one type of cruise we’ve never tried: River cruising.
That all changed recently when we were invited by Vantage Deluxe World Travel to go on their “Heart of Germany” voyage — a seven-night sailing from Frankfurt to Munich on Ms River Splendor, touring six historic cities along the way.
So it was with great anticipation that we boarded our nonstop flight, Miami to Frankfurt, on Lufthansa. This was not only our first river cruise, but also our first visit to Germany.
Vantage had already done a nice job of advance preparation. We had received a detailed itinerary along with our electronic airline tickets, and had welcoming emails from the ship’s concierge, who provided helpful suggestions on what to bring and what to wear. As long time Floridians, we had to try and pull together what cold weather gear we could find for November in Germany. As it turned out, we should have packed more. It was kalt!
A Vantage rep was there to meet us at the Frankfurt Airport, and we, along with a handful of other guests, were escorted to the bus which would take us to the ship. If you’ve ever been a stranger in a strange land, you know that kind of personal service is very appreciated.
Ms River Splendor, launched in 2013, is one of several ships owned and operated by Vantage, a Boston-based, family-owned company serving the travel sector since founder Henry Lewis started the company in 1983. Now offering travel options to over 80 countries on all seven continents, they specialize in providing personalized service and cultural immersion at affordable prices.
We got our first look at Splendor and it hit home this was not going to be your typical ocean cruise. Docked on the Rhine at the city of Mainz, she’s long and lean, with four main decks. Passenger capacity is 176, served by 46 crew. On this cruise, there are 111 (we’ve been on ocean cruises where there are more people than that in line for the service desk), including invitees from the Vantage Heroes program, an initiative that honors war veterans, first responders and their families, among others.
Greeted by Renata, our cruise director, and Maya, the concierge, we waited in the Cabaret Lounge for our rooms to be ready, fighting jet lag from the six-hour time difference. Located on deck four, it’s a large space featuring a full-service bar, coffee machine and an area housing books and games. It’s also where they stage entertainment and lectures.
Splendor has staterooms on decks two, three and four. Our room was on deck two, equivalent to an inside/ocean view. Featuring two small windows, it was a little disconcerting at first to realize we were mostly below water level — a little like being in an aquarium.
At 165 square feet, it was typical size-wise of the majority of rooms on the ship. Nicely appointed with chairs and a desk, we had plenty of closet and storage space. With one US power outlet, we broke our own rule by forgetting to bring a power strip, which was annoying. On the plus side, it did feature a USB connection.
We had a flat-screen TV that featured trip information, movies on demand and music. The bath was very nice, with upscale toiletries and a shower with a wand — a favorite amenity of Pam’s. While the water pressure was great, and hot water plentiful, we never could seem to get the room warm enough, especially the floor in the bathroom. We suspect it was our below-water location.
We had two twin beds made into a queen arrangement. Oddly, each bed had its own comforter instead of one, queen-size cover, which resulted in several, middle-of-the-night adjustments. Our deck also featured the crew quarters, as well as a fully-equipped exercise room and computer workstation.
The staterooms on decks three and four feature French balconies, with glass doors that open to let in the outdoors. We learned river cruise ships have no balconies in the traditional sense, since they have to navigate the narrow locks connecting all the waterways we would transverse. If you go, we strongly suggest upgrading to a French balcony room, especially if you’re claustrophobic.
For more space, you can choose the Owner’s Suite (330 sq. ft.) or one of the the Deluxe Suites (250 sq. ft.). Vantage is also a leader in solo travel (Solo Traveler recently honored Vantage with three awards), and caters to that audience with 125-sq. ft. rooms, a smart marketing move to a growing and affluent audience.
Wifi is free and available throughout the ship, and was working well on our voyage.
Topside is a sun deck, which features a jogging track. Unfortunately, it was only open to guests on the first full day of the voyage due to the low clearance on the river bridges. Not a huge deal, since 1) the sun didn’t shine most of the time and 2) it was cold and windy.
One of the joys we derive from cruising is meeting interesting people and making new friends. This voyage offered more opportunities for both than any of our other cruises featuring 30 times the number of passengers.
In such an intimate setting, with no assigned seating for meals, it was easy to fall into conversations with mostly seasoned travelers, the majority of which were repeat Vantage customers (one woman had made more than 50 trips using Vantage). We quickly bonded with a couple from Ohio, a couple from Denver, two sisters from Brazil and a woman traveling solo from North Carolina.
Apart from the “Heroes” onboard, most were, like us, Baby Boomers off to see the world.
As first-timers, we were excited to experience Germany and learn about its culture. Vantage provided great opportunities to do both at every port of call. Over the next week we would be visiting Mainz, Koblenz, Heidelberg, Wurzburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg and Regensburg.
The cruise includes tours at every stop, led by knowledgeable guides. Also included are audio headsets tuned to a specific color assigned to your group, insuring you don’t have to be next to your guide to hear their commentary. We also had suggestions from the ship’s concierge, Maya, on things to see and do during our free time.
Looking back through the hundreds of photos we both took, it’s hard to summarize the amazing castles, churches and historic landmarks we encountered. To counteract the biting cold, which reached the low 30s, we made frequent stops to cafes, restaurants and bakeries for hot chocolate, wine and delicious local dishes.
We did have one glitch at Bamberg, where the captain announced the engine needed a part replacement. That meant busing us to Nuremberg, and later, Regensburg. We didn’t miss any stops, and Vantage compensated passengers by giving us 20 Euros each for lunch in both cities.
Also of note, in Nuremberg there were two tour options — “Medieval Nuremburg” or “Nuremburg and World War II.” At Wurzburg, you could take the Rothenburg Tour with Christmas Museum for an upcharge of $69.
It was all very memorable, but Regensburg, stood out. Boasting a rich medieval history, you enter over its 12th century stone bridge. In the center of town is St. Peters Cathedral, with its Gothic spires reaching into the sky, where inside is the world’s largest hanging pipe organ and breath-taking stained glass. Magnificent. A close second was the Wurzburg Residence, a Baroque masterpiece built in the 1700s.
We’ve always been fans of German food, and enjoying authentic sausages and sauerkraut at cozy local restaurants on our tours was a highlight.
Onboard Splendor, there are two dining options: Compass Rose is the main dining room, located on deck three, while the Captain’s Club, aft, is a smaller venue featuring a lighter buffet. As noted, there is no assigned seating in either. Dress is casual, but Pam always enjoys adding a touch of glitter and glam.
The breakfast buffet was a good way to start the day. Apart from all the traditional fare, you could order up an omelet or eggs your way at the omelet station. We were somewhat disappointed with the food overall at lunch and dinner, although to be totally fair, since we don’t eat beef, there were a number of choices we didn’t sample. The presentations tended to be better than the taste.
Service was a bit uneven as well. On one occasion, Pam was attempting to pour a glass of water when our waiter grabbed the pitcher out of her hand without comment, which we found very rude.
Dinner includes wine and beer, which is a nice perk, and they mark special occasions with song and pyrotechnics on cakes (we were the recipient of one ourselves that noted our wedding anniversary … thank you, Vantage). Also on the plus side, the 24/7 coffee machines were a real bonus. Some of the best hot chocolate we’ve had.
Unlike what you may be used to on the ocean cruises, don’t expect a jam-packed day of BINGO, dance classes or hairy chest contests. River cruising is by its nature more sedate, more relaxing, more do your own thing.
In the afternoons, there were lectures and occasional performances, including a violin show. Every evening before dinner, Cruise Director Renata gave a port talk on what we could expect the next day. And after dinner, Dariusz the DJ sang and played disco and 80s music in the Cabaret Lounge. You haven’t heard “YMCA” and “Ring of Fire” until you hear it with a German accent. For us and our new friends, it was party time!
One night Renata hosted “Liars Club,” where you guess the right multiple-choice answer. Our team came in second and we scored champagne. On the final night, we were treated to a traditional Bavarian Brass Band, a good way to say goodbye.
A few more observations:
— We were fascinated watching Splendor go through the many locks along the way. While we’ve been through the Panama Canal, the river locks are almost as impressive in their own way.
— The first day was spent cruising the river while Renata provided educational commentary on what we were seeing. The castles were enchanting, as was the gorgeous fall foliage, on display in all its glory everywhere we went. Especially intriguing were the vineyards that went up the hills vertically all over that part of Germany.
— We started with a complimentary bottle of water in our room. After it was empty, we tried to buy another just like it. We couldn’t. They pointed us to the bar to purchase the small bottled water there. We found that a little odd.
— Executive Chef Ketut gave a cooking demonstration in the Captain’s Lounge while we were in Wurzburg. He showed us how to make Kasspatzle, described as a “German version of macaroni and cheese.” It was one of the best things we had on the ship. Later, they staged a cookout on the aft deck, featuring steak, salmon and veggies. That was popular with the guests.
— Special shout-out to the Captain’s Cocktail Party on the final night. Guests were treated to every kind of drink, from bubbly to Brandy Alexanders and White Russians. Nicely done.
Our first river cruise is in the books, and how do we rate the experience? We found a lot to like.
First, and maybe most important, the personalized service for which Vantage is known. Meeting you at the airport (if you make your arrangements through Vantage), the guided tours, the hand-holding when you need it. Hats off to
Renata and Maya and their staff.
Second, the tours themselves. River cruising is really about what you can see and learn in the cities you visit, and Vantage does a good job of recruiting guides who know their subject. Plus they provide a good balance of tour and free time. Pam has to get her shopping in, don’t you know.
Third, the people we met. While we usually make new friends on cruises, this cruise was particularly conducive to fun conversations and making new friends.
Whether it’s your first, second or 20th, Vantage offers a lot of value, and memories, for the money.
Story and Photos By Gerry Barker