When is a river cruise not a river cruise? It’s a question I ask myself as I look out onto Venice from my floating six star boutique hotel, the River Countess.
This beautiful ship can happily glide along the rivers of Europe but my first experience with her is something slightly different.
Rather than taking the traditional river cruise route and making her way from one city or country to another, Uniworld’s Venice and the Gems of Northern Italy cruise is based in and around Venice. We start and finish in the floating city, with a trip along the Po River in between.
While Venice is one of my favourite places in the world, when I first step onboard the River Countess for a moment I forget where I am. The city outside fades away as I fall in love with the ship herself.
The first thing you see on the River Countess is a large chandelier twinkling above a leopard skin circular sofa in the middle of the lobby. For a second I’m having French and Saunders “Lucky Bitches” flashbacks and I’m definitely feeling like one as I check in.
Life Onboard the River Countess
As I move around the ship it soon becomes clear why the River Countess has been named Travel + Leisure magazine’s top rated cruise ship, ahead of other river and ocean vessels.
All 63 of the staterooms on the ship are the same size (151 square feet), they each have handcrafted Savoir of England beds with high thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and a pillow menu, marble bathrooms stocked with L’Occitane products, and flatscreen TVs loaded with free on demand movies and TV channels.
Every stateroom has an outside view and the main difference between them is the size of window, ranging from a wide head height window on the lower deck to floor to ceiling sliding windows, or French balconies, on the Marco Polo deck.
The only other real difference is the colour schemes change from level to level, as reflected in the beautiful hallways, with the exception of the four suites (214 square feet), which have their own individual look and can also be found on the Marco Polo deck.
In 2012 the River Countess was given a $5 million refurbishment and while I’m told she was gorgeous before, I adore her now. The Castillo lounge not only looks stunning with it’s stylish turquoise furniture, the bar has friendly staff ready to mix you a complimentary cocktail of your choice.
The main restaurant has white leather booths, white tablecloths, attentive staff and oh, the food!
At breakfast you could choose from the buffet or egg station, or order from the menu. Lunches offer another generous buffet with the egg zone transformed into a fresh pasta station, while dinners are time to choose from the menu. The biggest problem being what to choose each day and trying to resist a second or third dessert from their very talented and tempting pastry chef.
Meanwhile upstairs near the sundeck you could find the ship’s pizza oven whipping out authentic, thin, crispy and delicious Italian pizzas. Good luck stopping at one slice.
All meals and unlimited beverages including house wines, spirits, beer, soft drinks are complimentary. So are the WiFi and the laundry where you can wash and dry your clothes, or if you’d prefer to avoid such things on your holiday you can also pay for your clothes to be cleaned by someone else. However if you have Dry Clean Only clothes you will have to look ashore for that option.
And if you’re anything like me and a sucker for a good massage, you definitely need to pay a visit to the spa. While spa treatments are often very expensive on board ships I was pleasantly surprised by how reasonable the prices were.
When I saw a package of three treatments of an hour long massage, a 20 minute head and neck massage and a 30 minute hand and foot treatment for 90 Euro I snapped it up. Even better, they could be taken separately throughout the journey to extend the pampering and the treatments themselves were divine. Now that’s what I call a holiday treat.
St Mark’s Basilica Private Tour on River Countess
I may have been in heaven on board the River Countess, but outside one of the most special places on the planet was waiting, and I was about to see one of the highlights in a new way.
I remember visiting St Mark’s Basilica on my first trip to Venice many years ago. It was an incredible experience, but on subsequent trips the incredibly long queues had prevented me going again.
But Uniworld have done something special, having St Mark’s opened just for the River Countess passengers at night.
Like most of the other tours on the ship, the St Mark’s visit doesn’t cost anything extra, and as you may imagine almost everyone on board wanted to experience this one. But with a ship capacity of 130 people that meant that there would still be only around a hundred of us under the golden domes.
The sign on the front of the church may have said closed, but we were slipped through a side entrance and entered the darkened Basilica, where the setting sun lit up a corner of the gold mosaics.
Then as our guide told us the story of St Mark and the church, the domes were suddenly lit and we were able to sit there in awe and silence. Just looking, and feeling, and savoring something extraordinary.
As if sitting below the domes was not enough, the custodian also unlocks the crypt where the bones of St Marks are said to be kept and after coming back above ground we are able to walk straight up to the Pala d’Oro and be dazzled by more than 1,900 gems in the Byzantine altarpiece.
When the time comes to leave I thank the custodian who smiles as he takes the large keys of St Mark’s and shuts the door on an experience I’ll never forget.
Uniworld Tours on River Countess
While the St Mark’s night tour is the stand out of the trip, Uniworld has a range of other tours people can do throughout the week.
Another favourite of mine was the Do As the Locals Do where we went hopped on water taxis and went with the ship’s chef into the Rialto markets.
Here he introduced us to local foods and traditions as he bought the fish, fruit and vegetables we would eat for lunch and dinner later that day, with the help of some great local guides.
One of the things I really liked about the guided tours was the fact that we had our own QuietVox headsets, which allowed us to listen to what the guide was saying without having to crowd around. And without the guide having to shout and bother other passersby.
To help people see parts of Italy they may not have before some of the tours were full days to places like Verona and Bologna, while others were half days or a few hours. Personally I loved being on the ship so much that I preferred a half-day away and more time on board or just wandering around Venice.
You could dip in and out of the tours as you liked, and the only time we had to get off board was when the ship headed out into the Adriatic sea so that it could join the River Po. As the River Countess isn’t allowed to have passengers on board when she’s at sea, we did have to join a tour as she made her way back and forth. But other than that you could spend the day however you wished.
Before the River Countess, I had only been on one other river cruise before, following the Mekong through Cambodia and Vietnam. There were times on this trip when I did miss that down the river feeling, and I loved it when we were cruising along the Po and coming in and out of Venice on the lagoon.
But again, this is not your usual river cruise. This one spends more time in one place than most, but that place is Venice. And oh, how I wish I could have stayed on board that ship in that city for even longer.
Amanda Woods travelled as a guest of Uniworld Cruises but all thoughts and opinions remain her own.
Love cruising? You may also want to check out some of my other cruise reviews, including a Rhine River cruise on Uniworld’s SS Antoinette, Celebrity Century, Holland America’s MS Oosterdam, and Hurtigruten’s Northern Lights cruise in Norway. Or find out what life is like for a Uniworld cruise director here.
Uniworld and Trafalgar are both part of the Travel Corporation. You can check out my review of a Trafalgar tour of Turkey here.