In Praise of French Balcony Cabins on European River Cruise Ships

Avalon Waterways French Balcony Stateroom

Avalon Waterways French Balcony Stateroom

First time river cruisers can feel they need, what the Americans term a “veranda”, a sit out balcony and not a French balcony.  Why? This would not really be my preference.  I would choose a French balcony over a veranda on a European river cruise ship. You are not trying to see past 4,000 other people to the shore as you would on an ocean liner.  By far the best place to watch the view of the river bank is on the top deck which gives you a 360 degree panoramic view which you can never get from your stateroom, even if you have the biggest one on the ship.

Douro River 360 View from the Spirit of Chartwell Sundeck

Douro River 360 View from the Spirit of Chartwell Sundeck

Let me try and explain why I believe some of the best French balcony stateroom options, offer just as much as a veranda on the central European rivers.

So, I am writing a piece in praise of the French balcony. Where does the term French balcony come from? Are the French particularly scarred of heights and prefer not to be able to look down when stepping outside the safety of the bricks and mortar? Is it a phrase coined by the English to criticize the French for not providing a proper balcony for Queen Victoria? Is it an oversell? Pretending to offer something that it is not. What hapless travellers have crashed full frontal into the triple glazing to demand an explanation forthwith from their charlatan travel agent only to be told, blame the French? Wikipedia simply offers the phrase a “false balcony” which is true if a little harsh.

Why do river ship staterooms have French balconies?

Simple fact, river ships can only be a certain size in width and height, being limited by the height of the bridges and length and width of the locks. Imagine an “Anthem of the Rivers” trying to plough its way down the Rhine. If it were even possible, to navigate, what currently takes a 7 night itinerary would take days longer, as the captain would simply have to go more slowly, so you get my point. Operators are restricted. They can’t go out and they can’t go tall.

So, cabins with verandas have to use the available space for a seating area outside as well as a cabin inside. See the flaw in the plan so far?

Viking River Cruises sell small French Balconies on the Longships

If you are Viking River Cruises then you have decided to sell the French balcony short and all hail the veranda. The Viking Longships have the small French balcony cabins  on the rivers in their modern fleet. At 135 sq ft, your cabin, it could be argued, has been compromised by a veranda. And it’s not yours, but the guy over the corridor who has taken the other 40 sq ft from your cabin! Even the lower deck cabins with the half height window are 150 sq ft.

Uniworld French balconies go for elegance

Uniworld Cat 2 & 3 stateroom on SS Antoinette with electronic french balcony

Uniworld Cat 2 & 3 stateroom on SS Antoinette with electronic french balcony

The exterior of a river cruise ship simply looks more elegant with French balconies. Verandas can give the appearance of a Canary Island waterfront covered in flats (apartments). There I’ve said it! Uniworld however, I have to take my hat off to, they have realised it and have enclosed their verandas in electronically removable glass, keeping the lines of the ship sleek and clean. The SS Antoinette, SS Catherine and soon to be launched SS Maria Theresa, all have this design. Shape and form do matter and the boutique river cruise line have taken this into consideration. However, an insiders tip, the French balcony stateroom, with its electronic window which glides away so beautifully, is the same size – 196 sq ft – as the veranda cabin on the upper deck. So the veranda itself which is wide enough for a sideways chair has taken the space off your cabin. For more interior space, the category 2 is a good choice.

No veranda envy on Tauck, Avalon or Riviera

Tauck, MS Inspire, MS Savor, Cat 7 suite

Tauck River Cruises MS Savor Cat 7 Stateroom

The lovely people at family owned Tauck have created their inspiration class ships, the MS Savor and MS Inspire with no verandas at all. Tauck have said completely and utterly no to their brand new ships having verandas. A brave move for one of the world’s best travel companies you might say. Designed in partnership with Scylla, their long term ship operating partner, these beautiful ships contain more suites than other ships at the luxury end of the market, so huge cabins with ample room for a veranda you might think. But no. My beautiful category 5, 225 sq ft, stateroom on the MS Savor, with its wonderfully comfy bed, Nespresso machine, separate seating area and a gorgeous Molton Brown smell had no veranda and was much bigger for it. Another operator who is launching more and more suite ships is Avalon. Most staterooms are now over 200 sq ft, with an extra wide, 11ft French balcony. The flat glass which covers the entire wall is fantastic for making you feel like you are part of your surroundings. It feels like you are outside even in the cooler months when you are less likely to have the window open.  Let me just mention that we are Tauck certified agents as I passed my exam, (but that’s a whole other blog piece).

One of the best inventions of the last few years has been the completely disappearing French balcony glass. So, although the Riviera ships, the William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, which do various itineraries on the Rhine and Danube, do have four deluxe suites with outside space – and you have to be booking a year in advance to get one any time during May-September – everyone else on the middle and upper deck gets a glass wall that opens to the world and saves themselves a few quid in the bargain.

Still want a veranda on a river cruise ship? Then you can do both!

AmaSonata, Cat BB, Twin Balcony, Stateroom

AmaSonata, Cat BB, Twin Balcony, Stateroom

Which brings us finally to AmaWaterways. Berlitz have rated them as having the best fleet on the European rivers and their new Concerto class ships really are stunning.

These ships have middle deck French balcony cabins at 170 sq ft, with disappearing, sliding glass doors opening the whole cabin up to the river. All categories above this feature the AmaWaterways Twin Balcony concept with both a French balcony and a veranda. There, problem solved!

Have a good Friday.

Alex

Global River Cruising

SS Antoinette Review – Day 7

Today was our final full day on the SS Antoinette.  The Uniworld staff are exceptionally good.  As usual we were greeted at breakfast by smiling staff asking us how we were and following up on our conversations from yesterday.  This is not over the top hospitality but a high level of care from staff, that however busy they are are always able to take the time to ask whether you enjoyed the excursion, whether you had tried to specialty of the day or whether there was anything else they could get for you.  I was very pleased to see that my coffee cup was getting filled without me asking – a very important point for a six cups at breakfast girl!

A Morning Visit to Cologne from the SS Antoiniette

Cologne is the biggest and busiest place we have visited.

Cologne Cathedral

The cathedral took 600 years to build due to its gothic style and the swarms of tourists put you in mind of other European city tourist hotspots such as Notre Dame in Paris.  The Christmas markets were also getting set up and it started to all feel really Christmasy.  Armed with our map from the ship’s Cruise Manager we went off to explore ourselves around the vast array of high end shops and household names which the German consumer seems still to be enjoying.  We ended up going off the map.  We thought it best to route march back just in case we missed the 1pm sailing time.  We made lunch with time to spare but felt able to tuck in due to our unplanned exercise.  The roasted suckling pig was amazing as was the fish and chips.  There goes the button on my trousers!

Scenic Cruising along the Rhine to Amsterdam on the SS Antoinette

Now we were scenic cruising again on the SS Antoinette along the busy 21st century Rhine.  Armed with hot chocolate we headed for the private area at the front of the ship for the best view of the industry on the banks, the deluxe riverside houses built by Germany’s new middle classes and watching the captain pick his way through the coal barges, container ships and other river cruisers all the way up past Dusseldorf onto our rendez-vous with Amsterdam.  Some colleagues brought the remains of their wine from lunch and we stayed on the top deck for hours just watching the river going by.  It was heaven.

Drinking hot chocolate on the River Rhine on the SS Antoinette

When the cold got the better of us, the staff called us into L’Orangerie for afternoon tea.  We obviously said we were just looking.  But then the small hot scones with jam and cream just begged to be tried plus the German specialty cakes which the Pastry Chef, who was serving them had worked so hard to produce.  It would have been mean to have said no.

Uniworld provides an add-on in Amsterdam for 3 days in a hotel and this is very popular.  A briefing was given to the people taking this option.

 Our Farewell Gala Dinner on the SS Antoinette

Time to dress up for one last time and enjoy the food and the entertainment.  The menu lived up to its billing:

Farewell Gala Menu, SS Antoinette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We didn’t have a particularly early night as we were heading into Amsterdam the next day.  Everyone decided to let their hair down and enjoy Greg and Margaret for one last time.

Dancing on the SS Antoinette

Thank you to everyone at Titan and Uniworld for a fantastic trip.  River Cruising in such style has enabled me to relax, sightsee and enjoy the most wonderful service and food.

 

 

I am now going to try a Red Carnation hotel in the UK.  The lady who runs the sister company to Uniworld has just won “Hotelier of the Year” for 2012.  I can’t wait to try it.

 

Alex Leete

Global River Cruising

SS Antoinette

November 2012

SS Antoinette Review – Day 6

We sailed this morning to Koblenz and arrived at 10am.  It is worth mentioning that you can’t feel the motion at all on the SS Antoinette or hear any engine noise.  You are only alerted to movement by looking out of a window.  As someone who feels seasick at the slightest movement it was a dream come true.  No rushing to an open window for fresh air on this trip.  We were able to lie in bed and watch the world go by from our full length window.  Totally spoilt!

There was time to linger over breakfast whilst the scenery passed by the Restaurant de Versailles window.  There was also an epicurean demonstration of how to make a black forest gateux with the executive chef which was great fun.

Visiting Koblenz on the SS Antoinette

View from Koblenz Cable CarOn docking in Koblenz, we once again took our Quietvox machines and our numbered cards and followed guide number 5 around the fascinating town of Koblenz.  (This tour also included a gentle walking option).  This city which celebrated its 2000th birthday back in 1992 is at the “confluence” of the Rhine and the Moselle rivers.  The Romans named it  Castrum ad Confluentes (The Camp at the Confluence) which was later corrupted into Koblenz.  Through pretty winding streets and buildings spanning the ages, you learn that 85% of the city was destroyed during the allied air raids of the second world war and as such the city has received extensive renovation and has successfully preserved the ambiance of the old Koblenz.  We took the cable car across the river up to Europe’s oldest fort which gave us an excellent view of all below.

The park on the riverbank, where the ship is moored, contains both the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm 1 and three sections of the Berlin wall as it is dedicated to German re-unification both in the 19th and 20th centuries.

We went all epicurean at lunchtime and were treated to a buffet meal which included the executive chef offering us three different types of sausage and a huge dolop of sauerkraut.  There were even three different types of mustard  Having started off the week opting for the lighter options I was now happy to accept at least another three of the hot choices onto my plate at lunchtime as it was all just so good.

The afternoon was free time for those that chose not to take the optional tour to the 750 year old Marksberg castle.  It was time for a bit of present shopping for the family in what is a sizable German city but very easy to walk around.

Once back on board we tucked into afternoon tea and then went to the Captain’s wheelhouse visit.  Captain Jort gave a very entertaining explanation of how the nautical side of the ship is handled and the training of the sailors.  He himself has worked his way up to Captain within Uniworld and seems very happy with his nautical life.  There does generally seem a longevity of the Uniworld staff which always tends to be the sign of a well run company.  Especially when they come from so many different countries and English is not their native language, the human touch is even more important to bridge cultural barriers.

Tonight we had a disembarkation briefing in the Salon du Grand Trianon.  Passengers would be leaving for Amsterdam airport from as early at 5am on Sunday morning for those that were connecting with transatlantic flights.  If anyone needed train information then the SS Antoinette staff would do the research.  All bags got colour coded tags dependent on transfer time and each customer had to ok the bag onto the vehicle, so none could be misplaced.  Very straight forward and well explained.  Breakfast was available in some shape or form for even the earliest risers.  Gratuities settlement was also explained.

For dinner this evening I chose the lightest options from the main menu: vanilla-pineapple shooter for the appetizer, beef consomme with pancake strips which was delicious and then Beatrice Tollman’s spaghetti pomodoro and left out the pudding.  However, the wine was still free flowing and probably made up for my calorie counting on the food!

This picture however shows the full glory of the Wellington of Pork Tenderloin served with port wine jus, sugar peas, glazed carrots and caramelized sesame potatoes. Yum.

Wellington of Pork Tenderloin, SS Antoinette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the ship was docked in Koblenz until 11pm, there was chance to sample some of the portside bars as well as the entertainment on board.  As we’d stayed up late the night before we stayed for a little while to listen to the show songs sung by Tony & Florina Lettieri in the main lounge which went down very well with the guests from the US.  Some of our group went to the Leopard Bar for cocktails and board games.

Cinema on the SS Antoinette

There is also an on board cinema which has the comfiest leather reclining chairs and puts you in mind of somewhere that Frank Sinatra would have had in his mansion.  There is a daily programme at 10am, 3pm or 9pm with popcorn and ice creams included.

 

But we decided to go for an early night in the cabin and choose a film from a massive selection including pretty new releases.  We chose “The Help” not realising that it lasted 3 hours.  Lights out at 1am!  Not as early as we had wished.

Alex Leete

Global River Cruising

SS Antoinette

November 2012

 

SS Antoinette Review Day 5

This morning we woke in Rudesheim, the most famous wine town in the region.  We had a more leisurely start to our the day on the SS Antoinette as we were taken to a wine tasting at Castle Vollrads at 10am.  For those who were up earlier there was an excursion to the Mechanical Museum in Rudesheim for which the Cruise Manager had organised a little land train to take the guests to at 8.30am.  There were plenty of early risers who said it was well worth doing as the museum had been especially opened for the SS Antoinette guests.

Wine Tasting at Castle Vollrads on the SS Antoinette

Castle Vollrads Wine Tasting, Rudesheim, Germany

Castle Vollrads has been producing wine since the 14th century and all of them are the reislings.  Our private tour was fascinating as we were split into groups of about 20.  Despite the early hour we were all very pleased to try the three different reislings on offer, one dry, one medium and one sweet.  The explanation of the production processes, the terrior and the history of the winery were all fascinating.  The shop at the end of the tour had exclusive prices for our group which went down very well.

Cruising the Middle Rhine Gorge on the SS Antoinette

Map of Castles of the Middle Rhine Gorge

We then returned by coach to the SS Antoinette and settled down for a delicious lunch whilst daytime cruising to Boppard, which was to take us through the “Romantic Rhine” middle Rhine gorge through the castles.  Each guest is given a small map with the castles on, their navigation point in the river. This afternoon we were to pass 20 on our way to Boppard.  The Cruise Manager provided commentary onto the top deck and in the lounge.

 

 

We braved the cold to get the best view from the sundeck.  The staff had put out blankets and hot water bottles for us and regularly provided hot chocolate.  Nothing is ever too much trouble  By moving indoors and outdoors we kept warm and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.  We even cruised past the Lorelei rock.

Pfalz Castle, Kaub, from the SS Antoinette

 

This castle is called Pfalz and sits in the middle of the river.

 

 

 

 

The SS Antoinette arrived in Boppard by 4.30pm and we were led on a walking tour by the Cruise Manager.  We were then left with free time to sample a gluwein and do a little shopping.

Uniworld’s Epicurean Adventurer Programme on the SS Antoinette

Tonight was Uniworld’s signature “Epicurean Adventurer” dining experience which showcases the cuisine of the area.  We asked our favourite waiter Boris for his recommendations.  We were treated to a traditional potato pancake served with sour cream, red beet mouse and salad bouquet.  Then for the main course we had roaster sirloin with Dornfelder sauce with sauteed peppers, zucchini and oxtail “sheppard style”.  It is worth mentioning that anyone who is less adventurous is able to order something simple like a free range chicken breast or salmon for any evening meal.  I even say one couple order one of each of the starters and mains and puddings at every evening meal and the waiting staff happily obliged.  I think they thought they were on “Masterchef”!

After dinner there was a local La Strada classical quartet on in the lounge who played some stunning gypsy melodies.  However, as we were moored in Boppard overnight we decided to go into town for a drink.  When you leave the ship, even during the day you need to take a room card with you.  This then needs handing back into reception on your return so they know not to leave without you.  We stayed out until 2am and used the opportunity to sample some local beers.

Alex Leete

Global River Cruising

SS Antoinette

November 2012

 

 

SS Antoinette Review Day Four

We woke up today to find the SS Antoinette still cruising to Germersheim, the stopping off point for Speyer.  There was also a signiture lecture this morning, nice and early at 8.30am entitled “The European City from the Middle Ages to “Modern Times” by Sven Matthiesen.

Visiting Speyer from the SS Antoinette

Speyer Dom

A 20 minute bus transfer away, Speyer is home to Europe’s largest Romanesque building, Speyer Dom (cathedral). With its six spires it took over 30 years to complete.  We learnt that as the Romanesque style is plain this time was nothing compared to Strasbourg, which as it is in the gothic style took over 600 years! Three Holy Roman Emperors are buried in the crypt and it appears that each son was trying to out-do the other in the redesigns according to our best guide yet, Tomas (seen here with his number 4 paddle).  As a German speaking English he could speak as an English person would, using a turn of phrase, philosophy and an understanding of the sense of humour that only someone who had lived in Britain you’d think would have.  We also visited the ancient Jewish area and sacred bath which is still in use today.  Uniworld provide a “Gentle Walking Tour” option for Speyer where the guide follows a slower pace but still does 70-80% of the tour.  The gentle option was ticket 5.  Each excursion we were asked to pick a card from reception with a number on it.  That then related to our bus and to our guide.  It worked really well and meant groups were of even numbers.  Each guide had a “lollypop” with the group number on that they held aloft and we all wandered towards them so we could re-tune our devices to their commentary.

We had free time for cafe and kuchen and then returned to the ship for the hot buffet lunch.

Cafe in Speyer, Germany

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cycling Down The Rhine!

As the SS Antoinette was moored next to a cycle path than ran the length of the Rhine a group of eight of us decided to try the complementary bicycles.  You just ask at the front desk and a bike is brought down for you and adjusted quayside.  I reckon we cycled about 5 km and I was very glad to get back to afternoon tea and cakes in the Salon du Grand Trianon.  Other passengers had gone on the optional afternoon excursion to Heidelberg.

Bike and SS Antroinette

(rather a dull picture I’m afraid but the ones of us – in motion – came out blurred of course!)

 

 

 

 

Private Dining on the SS Antoinette

This evening we took up the invitation for the Private Dining Experience in L’Orangerie.  At no additional charge this is on a first come, first served basis by signing up at the front desk – there are announcements during the day.  It is a more intimate experience with the suite butlers waiting on you and the chef cooking the food in full view of the diners.  A tip for deciding which night you try is to find out what is being served in the main restaurant that night.  We had a lovely meal, but our colleagues who stayed in the Restaurant de Versailles had Confit of duck which is one of my favourites so I was a little disappointed to have missed it.  However, the Tiramisu – of which I am not a great fan – was fantastic.  Well done to the chef for using the Asbach Uralt German whiskey of the region.

Tiramisu on SS Antoinette

 

 

 

 

 

Alex Leete

Global River Cruising

SS Antoinette, November 2012