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River Countess has an apt name. Uniworld's river ship is sleek as an otter, all white but for bluish tinted windows, sedately afloat at its pier in Venice. The captain is standing by the gangplank in braided sleeves and gold buttons, and looks as if he's about to pipe me aboard like a news-reel Windsor arriving at the royal yacht Britannia. Inside, I'm wafted into a lobby that has a chandelier, gilt mirrors and leopard-skin seats. A continental European countess, clearly: impeccable pedigree, but with a taste for flamboyance and startling clothes.
Soon I have my identity card and room key and am whisked from a hot, dishevelled day of travel into a cool cocoon of a cabin, which I won't have to give up for ten days. Could this be the best moment of any cruise? I close the door, kick my suitcase under the bed, shower, and sink into the embrace of my bother-less bolthole.
I'm in cabin 419 on the highest accommodation deck, well above the waterline and somewhere near the first-floor level of canal-side buildings that pass by in coming days, all geranium pots and hanging laundry. I have what's optimistically called a Juliet balcony, though Juliet would have to be extraordinarily svelte to make use of it. Never mind. It means I can open the glass doors wide and soak up the Venice sunshine, which skips across my ironed white bed linen with dappled exuberance.
I'm used to small cabins on river-cruise ships, but this one demands more than the usual nimble ninja contortions. There's a tiny desk that might be suited to writing aerogrammes, a little shin-knocking glass table for in-cabin dining, and some good storage space. But it has what matters: a big, comfortable bed with sheets smooth as a nun's wimple and a doona of snuggle-worthy softness. A mirrored wall behind the bed makes the cabin feel larger than it is, and the finishes and detailing are pure quality: cupboard lighting, reading lights, a pillow menu. The decor is light and, for a Uniworld ship, surprisingly restrained in white with blue trim (red in some other cabin categories). The bathroom, though so small even mouse-swinging would be difficult, has a de-mist mirror, warming towel rack, marble finishes and my favourite L'Occitane products.
The ship's decks are named for famous Venetians – Bellini, Casanova, Tintoretto and Marco Polo – but the decor is sharp and contemporary, with nods to Venice only in its glass chandeliers, winged-lion arm ends on some chairs, and hanging carnival masks. Browns, blues and creams predominate, though the lowest corridor is an eye-aching red. Though elegant artwork is everywhere, Uniworld's usual bling is rather toned down, providing gorgeously luxe spaces that won't overly offend minimalist sensibilities.
A forward lounge-bar provides the main public space, and there's also a beautifully presented library. The "coffee lounge" is so cramped there's scarcely room to ease myself into an armchair; unaccountably, most of the surrounding space is taken up by a shop and mostly unused gym. (The lounge proves to be a better place for coffee, with the added temptation of help-yourself marshmallows and biscotti.) After two weeks on the road, however, I'm thrilled to discover a laundry, unusual on a river-cruise ship. A spa and small Internet corner complete the amenities.
The most-used public area is the top deck, which covers the entirety of the ship. It has tables and chairs up front, loungers behind, and an informal dining zone in the middle for lunchtime salad and pizzas. It's immaculately kept and nicely presented with potted plants, olive trees and a giant chess set. Early morning exercise and yoga classes are held here; not, I must confess, independently verified, though I can confirm that, during the day and evening, waiters pass to and fro, taking orders for ice-clinking drinks. Stefania is a cheerful asset, chatting to guests and bringing a touch of Sicilian exuberance to the deck without ever flagging in her endless to-ing and fro-ing of tray-wielding duties.
In a destination like Venice, though, the deck's biggest asset is its uninterrupted, 360-degree views of the passing scenery. I'm here for hours, lounging under sunshades and strutting the rails, and always gawking at Venice's constant backdrop of bulging baroque domes, church spires, pleasure palaces and bridge-stapled canals.
You can have gorgeous cruise hardware galore (and Uniworld ships do), but it all comes to naught if the service isn't up to scratch. Happily, River Countess is well run. I seldom see my housekeeper despite my cabin being serviced twice daily: there's no in-your-face presence on this ship, perhaps because gratuities are included in the fare. Genial young Dutch captain Thijs van der Lee is a standout, always at the gangplank (often with other members of his crew) for daily send-offs and returns from shore excursions, and later mingling with guests on deck.
Mostly Eastern European staff tread that hard-to-attain zone between efficient and friendly. Attentive waiters learn passengers' names and drink preferences and are ever attentive at the table, no easy task given changing daily menus and the gluten-free, vegetarian and low-salt requirements of some guests.
It's common to dine on cruise ships and never be aware of the cuisine from the destination in which you're sailing. Fortunately, River Countess provides constant reminders that we're in Italy, dishing up the likes of delicate chicken broth afloat with tortellini, vitello alla piemontese (veal with truffles), osso bucco Milanese style and the classic Venetian dish spaghetti alla vongole (with clams). After-dinner cheeses are very fine, providing me with taste-buds travels through Italy. I discover that the semi-soft taleggio is mild and fruity, asiago crumbly and nicely aged, stracchino from the Venice region so soft it oozes across my plate, begging for a bread crust. I overdose on gorgonzola, wondering why poets have never written an ode to cheese.
This is the best food I've had on any ship – river or ocean – and that it comes out of a cramped galley is truly remarkable. The main Savoy Restaurant kicks off the day with a buffet breakfast spread that includes fresh pastries, smoked fish, cold cuts, cheese, cereals and hot dishes served by waiters on request (hello, French toast with maple syrup and berries). Lunch too has a smorgasbord of soups, salads, sandwiches and gluttonous desserts, as well as pasta cooked to order. A la carte dinners offer several choices over four courses courses, including Italian and vegetarian, as well as simple fall-back options such as salmon and steak. Wines are complimentary.
Grumbling isn't uncommon on cruise ships, as elsewhere in life, but my fellow passengers are almost unanimous in their admiration for the food on River Countess. When someone mentions that the gorgonzola is served too cold one lunchtime, you know there's probably nothing else to complain about.
Guests are well-travelled and well-fed, and know good food. They're a mix of retirees and younger couples, often on special anniversary holidays; and mostly American, though with a leavening of Canadians, Brits and Australians. (River Countess has no program for children and there are none on board on my cruise, but that changes during specifically family-oriented departures in July.) The ship style is smart casual, and there are no formal nights, though many passengers are slightly dressier for the farewell dinner. Hallelujah, there's no need for a tie, that item of clothing most guaranteed to spoil a holiday atmosphere. And when you're on a ship this good, nobody wants to do that.
Uniworld launched cruises in Italy in 2013, when it brought in the remodelled and refurbished River Countess from the Danube. It carries 130 passengers in five cabin categories plus suites, and sails between April and November on the Venetian Lagoon and Po River. There are two itineraries, both opening with a land section in Milan and Verona, and one continuing to Florence and Rome. There are shore excursions to Chioggia and Burano on the Venetian Lagoon, as well as Padua, and Ferrara or Bologna, which require coach transfers. Passengers must disembark for a mandatory shore excursion when the ship sails the unprotected open waters between lagoon and river.
The cruise starts and finishes in Venice. It's worth noting that this isn't a journey for those who want the feeling of floating merrily downriver, ever onwards to different destinations through gorgeous scenery. Sailing times are relatively short and little of the shallow, relatively drab, levee-imprisoned Po River is navigated. On the plus side, overnight mooring means your sleep is never disturbed, and the ship spends abundant time in the mistily atmospheric Venetian Lagoon, cruising past multi-coloured island houses and leaning belfries. Several sailings in and out of Venice alone make this cruise worthwhile: there's no better way to see this fabulous floating city. The ship surely also offers the tourist-trap city's best dining, and very conveniently located accommodation.
Emirates flies from both Melbourne and Sydney to Dubai (14.5hr) and Venice (5hr 30min) or Milan (6hr). Phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com/au
Uniworld has two itineraries in Italy, starting in Milan and including a cruise on River Countess. The 15-day 'Splendours of Italy' is priced from $8,629pp twin share, and the 10-day 'Gems of Northern Italy' from $5,159pp twin share, including meals, beverages, guided shore excursions, gratuities and transfers. Phone 1300 780 231, see uniworld.com/au
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Uniworld.