My wife and I sailed on the third sailing of the new SS Maria Theresa. We enjoyed much about the cruise although a few things left us scratching our heads. I will hit the highlights of the good, the not so good, and the unacceptable.
The best part of the ship was the food and drink. The food is outstanding and on par with the best cruise ships have to offer (my point of comparison is Crystal). My wife and I enjoyed every meal and appreciated the ties to local cuisine. The chef has taken a light approach to sauces and that was much appreciated. The breads and croissants are to die for. The complimentary wines were wonderful and tailored to each region as the sailing progressed. Coffee is French press - the first cruise line that we have been on that has taken the time to do that.
The staff was very nice and the service was of a generally high quality. The dining service quality was fine but not of the very highest quality. The difference is that cruise ships with the highest level of dining service anticipate your needs; they bring you coffee without asking, they offer a second bread stick before you request it, etc. On the Maria Theresa, we found that we needed to ask - they did not anticipate needs. It was not a big deal as the wait staff brought you what you asked for in short order.
The little alcove for coffee on the lowest floor is delightful. It was a wonderful luxury to head there in the morning in my slippers, get a coffee and croissant, and take it back to the room.
The included shore excursions were marvelous. The guides were uniformly excellent. The highlight was a special chamber orchestra concert that Uniworld arranged just for our ship in Vienna. This special effort that more main stream lines would not go to was much appreciated and something that we will remember for the rest of our lives.
The not so good:
Embarkation was anxiety filled. The ship was not where Uniworld said it would be, so when we got to the dock I had to scramble and ask other ships for help. It turned out that the ship was docked a mile away. It would have been nice if Uniworld had sent an e-mail or contacted our travel agent about the change in dock. But they didn't. Once we schlepped to the ship with our luggage, embarkation was a breeze. So if you book the Maria Theresa, please be aware that, at least in Amsterdam, the ship may be at a very different location than the one listed in your travel documents.
I understand that everyone has different tastes in decor, so the following simply reflects the taste of me and my wife. We had read reviews about Uniworld's decor being over the top and now we know what they mean. This ship seems to reflect Marie Antoinette on a really bad "let them eat cake" day. The philosophy is that more is better - if a mirror looks good, add a lot more. If some marble in the bathroom helps make it wall to wall. If a pouffy drape and flowery upholstery and carpet work, add more. The result to us was not positive. There are so many mirrored surfaces that parts of the ship such as the downstairs hallway and the bathroom outside the dining room make you feel as if you are in a fun house. There are so many pouffy curtains that if the colors weren't subdued you could almost imagine that you were on a floating brothel. In looking back at the cruise it appears that Uniworld was attempting to recreate the feel of Versailles. Our opinion was that to do that effectively you need a much bigger space to work with. A more subdued decor approach works better with the small spaces a river ship has to offer.
We were quite surprised to find that the Maria Theresa does not have any inside forward views and, to us, that was a significant deficit. The lounge is quite nice, but the forward view is blocked off. Sure, you can go up on the Sun deck, but if it is cool, the weather is inclement, or the Sun deck is inaccessible due to low bridges (which happened about 40% of the time on our cruise), then you cannot look out the front of the vessel.
There is a surprising amount of vibration and noise when the ship is at high speed (as it was from Amsterdam to Cologne). During that period we could not sit in the Leopard bar at the rear of the ship due to the shaking. My wife had trouble sleeping during nights that the ship traveled at high speed due to vibration and noise and we spoke to a number of other passengers who said the same thing.
The Maria Theresa boasts the latest technology, but that is a two edged sword. On one hand it is kind of neat that the TV is built into the mirror. On the other hand, I didn't really want to spend my cruise figuring out how to adjust the lights, air conditioning, TV, etc. After hitting the glowing round thing that is supposed to turn on the cabin lights for the fourth time in order to get them to turn on, I started longing for a simple light switch. The complimentary internet was nice and worked better than I expected - at least using my iPad. Trying to use the internet through the TV was an exercise in frustration.
The cabin is cluttered with nonfunctional furniture. You would think that with space being a premium on the ship, that efficiency would be a priority. Not on the SS Maria Theresa. The design emphasis is on the Marie Antoinette look, not utility.
Another example of the lack of utility was the layout of the dining room. Both the wait service areas and buffet stations are at the front of the dining room. So everyone has to walk past them to get to a table. Since the aisles are very narrow, this lead to traffic jams during breakfast and lunch as people entering the dining hall have to navigate past waiters filling drink orders and other passengers filling their plates at the buffet table. The obvious solution would have been to flip the room around and put the service areas and buffet tables at the back. This was one of the areas (along with the lack of frontal view and the lack of drawer space as described below) that had us scratching our heads and asking, "What were they thinking?"
When we got to our cabin, we called the front desk to ask where the drawers were for our clothes. After all, the ship was taking a 14 day cruise, so we figured there must be a hidden chest of drawers. The answer we got back was that there were cabins that did not have any drawers and ours was one of them. We were floored. You go on a cruise to not have to live out of a suitcase and now we were being forced to...well.... live out of a suitcase. When we talked to the hotel manager, she apologized and said it was a design flaw. But she didn't offer any useful remedy.
Closing remarks: So would we book another cruise on the Maria Theresa? No. I do not want to cruise in a cabin without a single clothes drawer. I want a ship that has more tasteful decor and provides an interior frontal view. But I do want a cruise line with food this good and staff this nice.
Although we have cruised extensively (Seabourn, Silver Sea, Windstar, Paul Gauguin), this was our first river cruise and Uniworld exceeded even our high expectations. Service, accommodations and food aboard Uniworld's SS Maria Theresa on its inaugural European Jewels cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest were of the highest quality. Shore excursions enhanced the cruise with knowledgable, experienced tour guides. Adding to enjoyment of the cruise were opportunities to get to know other passengers who shared similar experiences. We enthusiastically recommend this cruise to anyone who wants to experience the Rhine, Main and Danube Rivers and the medieval towns and historic cities along their shores.
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