By Bob Hoelscher
In March, I had the opportunity to participate in the maiden voyage, naming and christening ceremonies of Vantage Deluxe World Travel’s new River Splendor in Belgium and the Netherlands. This 176-passenger vessel is scheduled to be employed primarily on 10-night Danube River cruises.
Vantage has historically sold its cruise and tour products directly to consumers and group leaders by mail and email, without targeting the professional travel industry, so this was my first personal exposure to the respected Boston company, now celebrating its 30th anniversary. Regardless, I was most favorably impressed, and I’ve been assured by Ethan Jule, Vantage’s vice president of outbound sales, that bookings from travel agents and tour operators are welcome given an understanding of the company’s somewhat unusual marketing strategy.
The ship is most attractively decorated in traditional fashion, similar to what one came to expect from oceangoing Holland America Line before some recent excursions into modernity. Colors are muted, furnishings are of high quality, and everything is very comfortable and easy on the eyes. For some reason the (main) Latitude 52º Lounge and Compass Rose Restaurant seem more spacious than I have encountered on most other European river vessels, although the latter venue suffers somewhat from the excessive noise common among similarly low-ceilinged ships. The smaller Captain’s Club (lounge) in the stern, also used for onboard lunches when most guests are away on sightseeing trips, as well as special dinners, is a sheer delight.
Complimentary amenities have become standard in Europe aboard English-speaking ships. Passengers expect lectures and local entertainment to supplement an “easy listening” onboard pianist; they also expect complimentary shore excursions, onboard computers and wireless Internet access, 24-hour beverage service and English-language entertainment on cabin televisions.
Service was exemplary, and the food was excellent — both selection and taste — throughout our five days aboard River Splendor. Although I was treated to a delightful 250-square-foot “Deluxe Suite” — a large cabin with a spacious bathroom — the standard 165-square-foot staterooms appear to be well designed and quite comfortable. All accommodations are equipped with twin beds that convert to a double, and all but the 20 cabins on the Odyssey (lower) deck feature sliding-door “french balconies.” The ship also offers single travelers eight pleasant 125-square-foot cabins, a more affordable alternative to paying a significant single surcharge.
Our trip began in Antwerp, where a guided walking tour of that historic city, a welcome reception at the Town Hall and an elegant dinner with entertainment at the Grand Café Horta supplemented the naming and christening event. In Amsterdam, sightseeing included an evening walking tour of the notorious Red Light District and a somewhat disappointing canal cruise to an erstwhile “diamond factory.” I had thought that herding guests into “tourist traps” like this one had largely become history, so I sincerely hope this is not a standard Vantage practice.
Overall, though, we experienced a fine program, and the presence of numerous existing group leader customers gave testimony to Vantage’s apparent success at creating happy, repeat travelers.