GATEWAY to the BLACK SEA
My wife and I took this Vantage Deluxe World Travel river cruise as a means to see the Danube River and the five nations that are part of the watershed of the river. We had done a good bit of research on what different companies offered and we chose Vantage as they had off-ship tours almost everyday included in the price.
We chose to fly Business on Lufthansa as they have a direct flight from Denver to Frankfurt with easy connections to Budapest and from Bucharest. All of our four flights to and from were on time and we arrived ahead of schedule in each city. With our arrival in Budapest we were met by one of the four Program Managers we would have on the 13-day trip. The transfer from the airport to the ms River Splendor was easy, well coordinated, and quick. When we arrived, the crew took our luggage and helped us quickly find our room and showed us how to use all the ship’s facilities.
As we explored the ship we saw that it was a brand new craft and had all the features a traveler would need. The lounge and the dining room were spacious and well laid out. The Captain's Club at the rear of the boat was well appointed and would provide those who chose to eat their lunches and dinners there with enough room and great views.
Rooms were well appointed and had a well-designed bathroom with a spacious shower. Two beds were pushed together but could have been separated. There was a round table with two chairs and a small desk. Two closets and six drawers provided storage space and a safety deposit box. The A/C-heating was excellent with immediate response. Each room had a HDTV that was connected to ships extensive library and public areas so one could watch daily presentations from the room. As one would expect, hallways were narrow and required a bit of patience.
The most wonderful aspect of the ms River Splendor was the crew. Everyone, and we do mean everyone; from the Captain to the hardworking crew was SUPERB. Everyone smiled, always asked what they could do to help us, and when asked quickly responded with assistance. Our cabin steward was always aware when we left and when we returned the room was completely made-up, towels were replenished, trash removed, floors cleaned, and the beds were made or turned down (with chocolate on each pillow).
The dining room staff was likewise always attentive and on hand to provide us with anything we needed. For the buffet breakfast settings were always quickly replaced. The buffet was never short on any item. Coffee and tea were plentiful. For lunch and dinner in the dining room was 5 Star; excellent food and service. In the Captain's Club they were as attentive but as all meals there were buffet, the staff made sure we were always taken care-of. In the evenings the cook (Attila [the Hun]) knew us from first day and how to cook our food. A special thanks to Elena, in the bar and then in the Club for always taking care of us with warmth and a giant smile.
The front desk always had a difficult job as they took care of the 166 guests when we left the ship with our Whisperers, our boarding passes, and our special documentation. When we returned they collected all the items and gave us back our room keys - always with a smile. They even helped us when the ship wide Wi-Fi internet was not working (10% of the time). The top deck, used for walks, relaxations, games, and viewing was always spotless. The crew took care of us all the time.
In speaking of the four PMs - Program Managers (Tour Directors or Tour Guides) one must be aware that we had 166 passengers on board the ms River Splendor and with this many people there are so many variables to a successful experience.
The age distribution was such that we had one person in her 40s and many in the 80s. Many required assistance but others had no trouble walking on cobblestone streets and uneven pavement or stairs.
To facilitate our movement we were divided into four groups - Blue, Orange, Yellow, and Green. Each group had a specific PM with 41+ members and we rotated our embarkation that was called on the ship wide intercom. We would pick up our Whisperers and walk to the nearby parking lot and board a chartered bus. This way the large busses could stagger their departure. We had to be aware of each other as there were members of each group that required more time to walk, load the bus, and use the facilities.
Every day of the trip with the exception of the passage through the Iron Gates we disembarked and went on a "local" tour. We usually met a local guide who led the day's activities keeping us all informed using the Whisperers. This was true whether we just went into the disembarkation city or to the countryside with one to two hour drives. We were given great information from these locals and in all cases it was quite beneficial. Our PMs were not licensed by these European nations to lead the group in these local ventures. As our PM was from Romania he took us through the sights in his country during the last days of the trip.
A few of the most positive aspects of these trips were frequent rest room stops and no designated shopping trips. Every day just before dinner we were given the Port Talk - an explanation of the next day's schedule by one of the PM. We were also provided with a printed schedule in our rooms when we returned from dinner. We had the opportunity to sample local cuisine in local restaurants with beverages choice of soda, beer, or wine and then coffee or tea.
The best experience was a home-hosted meal in Croatia. We have been on 15+ of these experiences and this one may have been the best. The husband and wife were so welcoming - he kissed the hand of each of the five ladies in our group and she hugged us all. They both served us a delicious Croatian meal accompanied with the usual beverages - but these had been locally made - everything was EXCELLENT!
As on any trip there are many positives, mentioned above, and some negatives. On this trip the most evident negatives were related to the PM. On our arrival day there was no initial group meeting – our group being Yellow. This is usually a meeting where the PM gives his qualifications, his background, his cell phone number in case of an emergency, etc. The 41+ guests are then given a minute or so to introduce themselves and where they are from. Then the PM can pass on some rules and guidelines for the daily excursions and general information on the trip and what to expect. This never happened on this Vantage trip and was a missed opportunity for communication.
Probably the most significant concern was the age difference and physical abilities of the passengers. Generally people were very nice but their activity level was extreme. We had 30 to 40 people who were very physically fit. On the other side we had as many who used walkers and canes and could not manage stairs or any incline. Getting out of the bus took 10 minutes and restrooms breaks were 45 minutes long. Many people would go on a walking tour and quickly take a taxi back to the ship. Vantage had promised us in their web pages, personal PDF documents, and phone calls that we would have the option of Fast Paced Tours throughout. We were told by a PM that this trip would not have this option.
Other areas of concern were:
1. Groups would finish early in a locale and wander into other groups disrupting the presentation.
2. With the exception of Romania, our PM did not do anything - he sat at the back of the bus working on his papers. Fortunately there were never any problems needing his attention.
3. At the end of the trip we had an all groups meeting to discuss the evaluations. We were specifically told to mark the answers as EXCELLENT.
4. We were given only one survey per couple - both travelers had to agree on one answer.
5. Every day we were reminded to tip and on the last day were told "the sky is the limit” for tipping the Program Managers.
6. We attempted to borrow the bicycles the ship had available. I asked several times but on each there was some excuse - no one is available to get them for you to there was not enough time.
7. With the exception of the home-hosted meal there was no personal interaction between the native population and the group. My wife and I did that on our own.
8. The trip is billed as a trip to the Black Sea and we spent less than an hour on the shore of the Sea. To get there we had to personally find our own way and walk on our own to the beach.
As anyone who has traveled in any size group knows, the success of a tour depends on the quality and professionalism of the PM. At best these were quite average and did not provide the excitement we expect from area natives who want to show the best of their country. The local guides did but those were brief moments in an eleven-day trip.
We might try Vantage again in a small group or in 20 years when we are older and fit in better.