By Heidi Sarna.
You could say we wrote the book on family cruising. My 14-year-old twin sons have been on more than 30 cruises with their travel writer mom. In the early years — their first cruise was at 9 months — it was the big ships that suited us best. Cribs, babysitting, playrooms, kiddy pools and video arcades were needless-to-say vital amenities at that time. As they got older, we began drifting toward the small ship cruises that I have always preferred and which I feel are more educational and memorable for my boys in the long run. We started on Ponant’s L’Austral along the Croatian Coast when they were 10, enjoying snorkeling excursions, bike rides and treks to old hilltop castles.
The next summer it was the Star Flyer in the Greek Isles where we paddle-boarded in the sea, rode motor scooters along insanely gorgeous winding island roads and dug into delicious calamari, creamy feta cheese and crusty bread in local tavernas. In their 12th year, it was an awesome cruise on the historic and adorable little Juno across Sweden’s Gota Canal after a week at a youth soccer tournament in Gothenberg, watching the boat go in and out, up and down, a series of 66 locks, and sometimes riding the boats’ bicycles along the tow path.
Last summer, I planned a Rhine River cruise aboard the 130-passenger River Empress, one of Uniworld Boutique Cruises‘ fleet of sleek high-end river boats. I won’t kid you, my boys had pleaded with me to choose a big-ship cruise — they missed them after so many years — where they could play basketball and ping pong, and spend every lunch time at the pizza counter and ice-cream machine with gaggles of other kids.
While I could see where they were coming from, I wasn’t budging on the family river cruise. They’d wind up enjoying themselves, maybe even loving it, as they did those other small-ship cruises we have taken. Exploring some major European cities they hadn’t been to before in Germany and Holland would be great for them — the history, the food and the cultural buzz — and I wanted them to see all of those medieval fairytale castles along the Rhine. Our July sailing was one of Uniworld’s series of annual family river cruises, so there would be other children and special efforts made to please young cruisers as well as mom and dad, including having lots of bicycles on board for use in port.
In the end, they made the best of it, and we all had a ball. But don’t take my word for it: here’s my teen sons’ take on their family river cruise on the Rhine:
Q: What were your first impressions when we first boarded the River Empress?
Tejas: I expected a big retro sailing boat/yacht, much like my last experience on a river cruise, however I was really surprised and happy to find a beautiful modern reception and lounge!
Kavi: I thought the River Empress was quite fancy as the lobby was very elegant with lots of glass and chandeliers all around the place. The front lounge area seemed very cozy and it was nice how they provided plug points for all different countries.
Q: What were your favorite rooms on River Empress?
Tejas: I think the whole ship was great, but I especially loved the cabins, ‘kids room’ and dining room. I loved the cabin because the bed and bathroom was lit (aka “cool”) and the TV had a really good movie selection. The kids’ room was actually the ‘captains lounge’ reconfigured so that kids could play on a play station, as well as sit on small tables to play board games. This was a great place where all the kids met to play FIFA. I also really liked the dining room because it was really fancy, and the buffet selection as well as the menu was stockpiled with great food.
Kavi: I thought that the top of the boat was the nicest part as I could see up and down the river. I really enjoyed one of the days when we could eat up there and see as all the castles went by. The whole journey was very scenic so even if there were no castles it was always a very nice view.
Q: What were your favorite things to DO on the boat?
Tejas: Watch movies in my room or play FIFA with the other kids.
Kavi: Probably either playing video games in the captains lounge or looking at the scenery from on top of the boat. I especially enjoyed reading up there as it was very peaceful.
Q: Did you appreciate the bicycles we could all use?
Tejas: Yeah that was great and really fun.
Kavi: I really liked the bicycles that we got to use as I much preferred biking around the ports than walking.
Q: What did you think of the food?
Tejas: I loved everything especially the lunches. I can’t choose anything specific cause there was such a great variety of delicious food.
Kavi: I really enjoyed the wide variety of food they had at the lunch buffet and at dinner, but my favourite food had to be the club sandwich that was available at the lounge area.
Q: What were your favorite ports?
Tejas: I liked the ports where we got off and just biked, and we didn’t have to go on a long boring guided tour or bus ride.
Kavi: My favourite port was Rudesheim as I enjoyed the view from the top of the hill and also enjoyed walking down. Another nice thing was the long bike ride that we did and it was really nice riding next to the river.
Q: What did you like more about the River Empress compared to the big giant ships you’ve been on?
Tejas: I liked how you got to know everyone really well. Things were also incredibly efficient and easy, compared to big ships where you have to wait for ages to get on and off at ports and other things like that.
Kavi: The ship was better than the bigger ships as there was less space so you could go everywhere very quickly and also you got to know a lot of people on the ship.
Q: What did you like less about the River Empress compared to the big ships you’ve been on?
Tejas: I prefer big ships because there are way more people to meet, and things to do, and of course sea days are really really fun. I also like that big ships are big so you can really explore the place and find different things. WiFi is also an astronomical benefit, but we got used to not having it on the river cruise.
Kavi: I prefer the big ships as there is much more choice and lots more to do.
Q: If you had to describe the River Empress cruise experience to a friend in one sentence, what would you say?
Tejas: A nice and relaxing holiday.
Kavi: It was a nice family boat with lots of nice people and fun things to do.