Rolling on the River is Cruising's Hottest Trend

(One exception: Peter Deilmann Cruises, geared largely to the German market, announced last month that it is removing all of its eight river vessels in 2010.)

How does the River Beatrice, now Uniworld's flagship, make waves in a burgeoning market? By paying attention to details. As in generous closet and storage space. As in vanity mirrors and good bathroom lighting. As in French balconies in 80% of the staterooms. "I've toured a lot of other ships, and this one stands up," say Wagner. "They've been listening to their customers."

Overall, the River Beatrice fairly gleams, from the white Murano crystal chandelier in the two-story lobby to the smartly appointed staterooms. Some 2,085 mirrors — from beveled wall insets to cabin table tops to full-length in the bathrooms — enhance the luminosity and sense of space. Silk wallpaper, velvet curtains, original art (Chagall, Picasso and Matisse, among others) and a soothing cream and brown color scheme complete the understated elegance.

Close to Culture

There's no skimping on cabin amenities, either: flat-screen TVs, in-room safes, mini-fridges, hair dryers, fluffy robes and slippers, and crisp white-on-white Egyptian cotton linens. Bathrooms boast floor-to-ceiling white marble and luscious L'Occitane toiletries. Several unexpected touches stand out: espresso makers in the mini-suites, delicate white orchids, and complimentary bottled water. One quibble: Although rooms are equipped with Internet access, service was slow to non-existent.

Still, some passengers, such as Barbara King, a show-business retiree from Scottsdale, Ariz., find the 150-square-foot cabins too small. But she still prefers this to the megaliners.

Visitors are immersed in the flavor of Europe from the minute they step aboard. Start with the 53 crew — from the Dutch captain, Austrian hotel manager and German cruise director, to the Romanian concierge, Hungarian masseur and Slovakian engineer.

Well-prepared meals — some five-star worthy — spotlight regional specialties, too: Hungarian goulash and cabbage soup (better than it sounds); Wiener schnitzel and Sachertorte; Bavarian sausages and potato pancakes. But there's plenty for the less adventuresome, with two entrees plus a vegetarian choice at dinner.

After dinner, forget cabaret shows, casinos or Broadway revues. Instead, cruise director Christine Bremberger showcases the local culture — especially fitting for a region as famous for its musical heritage as Central Europe. Highlights include a magical night at the Kursalon concert hall in Vienna, where a chamber music group played selections from the Strauss brothers, Mozart and Haydn— all of whom lived in this music capital — as well as an unforgettable organ recital at St. Stephan's Cathedral in Passau, which boasts the world's largest cathedral organ with nearly 18,000 pipes. You can even take onboard Viennese waltz lessons.

The makeup of passengers is international, too — Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada and the USA — but all are English-speaking to avoid language barriers, says Robert Fitzgerald, a Uniworld sales manager.

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