A common theme in the world of travel is that it is better for one to spend time and money collecting experiences rather than things. Experiences can enrich our lives so much more than the mere accumulation of assorted sundries. This thought kept coming back to me the past few weeks as I spent 10 blissful days collecting experiences with The Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection on their Gems of Northern Italy river cruise. Uniworld is widely respected and lauded in the river cruising world, and as agents, we always feel confident when sending our valued clients on a journey with them. They consistently meet and exceed expectations and this cruise was no exception. From the beginning, you know you are a part of something special, an experience that other companies cannot offer, and Uniworld curates with precision and creativity.
This river cruise stands out amongst the herd as one filled with uniqueness, and the scheduled first two days in Milan were the jumping off point. The hotel we were billeted in was located just behind the beguiling Milan cathedral. In compelling Italian Gothic style, this cathedral both surprises and astonishes. Every time I see it I discover something new. I was delighted to be so close to it and the bustling atmosphere around it. On our first excursion, we were treated to a private viewing of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Something I had never before taken the time to see, I was incredibly glad I finally did as pictures don’t do it justice. It is tranquil and fascinating in its faded glory. The remainder of the day was spent wandering the streets of this vibrant city, stopping at the cathedral, the Galleria (the famous Milan shopping mall) and Teatro La Scala. We dined in a quaint local restaurant where the staff was eager to please and the food divine. Everyone left Milan feeling enriched and pleased to have had the chance to explore this oft-overlooked Italian city.
On day three the itinerary took us overland to Verona where we started with a peek at the crowded, and slightly overrated, Juliet balcony. Luckily, our guided tour showed us other interesting, lovely parts of the city including the ancient Roman arena. It was a beautiful sunny day and after our city tour we boarded the coach and had a short drive to the countryside for a private lunch at an ancient vineyard owned by descendants of Dante Alighieri, Italy’s famed poet.
This was a special experience that included a creative menu paired with delicious wines. They then gave us a guided tour of the estate showing us the grapes drying on the racks, their smell pungent, sweet and wild. Many guests bought bottles to send home so that they could share the beautiful wines with loved ones upon their return. Later, with the sun setting behind us, we arrived at our ship, the River Countess, docked proudly in the Giudecca canal of Venice.
The ship is radiant. It’s opulence on par with the palazzos of this storied city: gilded chandeliers, plush armchairs, bubbly prosecco in crystal flutes, eclectic art adorning the halls. The staff greeted us cheerfully and their kindness and hospitality continued unwavering throughout the cruise. The staff Uniworld has collected is truly remarkable, each one of them continually warm and helpful.
Exhausted from the activities of the past few days, I indulged in the pleasures of room service that first night. Room service is a rare treat on a river cruise and I was grateful Uniworld offered it. A glass of wine with a warm meal alone in my stateroom while the breeze off the lagoon blew softly through the curtains was just what the doctor ordered that evening.
Cocktails were served in the Captain’s Lounge every evening, allowing the cruise director to review the itinerary for the next day. (This being an all-inclusive cruise we were always happily eating, drinking and enjoying excursions without a thought to signing a bill!) There were several tours to choose from each day, or one could choose to do nothing at all. A day of lounging on the sundeck overlooking the lagoon is enchanting in its own right. Watching vaporettos, water taxis and gondolas cruising by, hearing the water splashing the sides of the boat, the gulls soaring and diving above, while the cool humid breeze plays in your hair is a delightful experience. Or perhaps you’re more inclined to grab your map and head off on your own! You are by no means relegated to staying on the ship. Local exploration is highly encouraged. Although, it is well known that maps of Venice tend to be useless. You will surely get lost and turned around in its maze of narrow streets and bridges. Have no fear! You will eventually right yourself and hopefully, be delighted with the experience.
It has to be said that this particular cruise is not your typical river cruise. We were not piloted down a river for 8 days, watching castles, mountaintop monasteries and ancient fortified towns fade by. Other than a short cruise down the Po river, we were, for the most part, moored at various docks in the Venetian lagoon. At night we cruised through the water watching palazzos glitter mysteriously in the fog. We had several day excursions through the Veneto countryside to Italian towns that aren’t on the typical itinerary. Padua and Ferrara were particularly interesting and different. Others chose to take the day trip to Bologna for a pasta making class and all who went were delighted with the program.
We also cruised down to Chioggia, a town at the southern end of the lagoon where we docked overnight. Chioggia is like a miniature Venice: smaller and less crowded but with charming shops and ancient churches to explore. A bike ride through the town and along the beaches of the Adriatic was the perfect way to break up days spent power touring. We pedaled past the crowded market, along with the streets bustling with locals and tourists, and out onto the long expanse of beach scattering seagulls with a sense of childish glee.
Another day we cruised to the historic islands of Torcello, Burano, and Mazzorbo. I greatly enjoyed the wine tasting at Venissa on the island of Mazzorbo. The wine, called Dorona, is an exclusive vintage only made in the Venetian lagoon. It comes from the ancient golden Dorona grape, treasured by the Doges of Venice, that was recently discovered still growing next to the oldest church in the lagoon. We all felt a profound sense of rarity as we enjoyed a small glass of this intriguing wine, a special boutique experience arranged specifically for Uniworld guests.
For me though, the stand out event of the cruise was the evening tour of San Marco cathedral in Venice. Uniworld is granted exclusive access to the cathedral at night after the tourists have all gone. We walked through the evening mist along the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco. Once there we were escorted into a dimly lit nave and seated. The soft lights were then fully extinguished and slowly, ever so slowly, turned back on. Gasps were audible as the glittering mosaics were revealed in their complete radiance. Goosebumps lined my arms and my stomach did a happy flip-flop of amazement. Having had seen the cathedral on previous visits in a crowd of pushy tourists, this experience was an exceptionally rare treat and one I will not soon forget.
This cruise was special for many different reasons: the ship, the staff, the food, and the ever-flowing wine were all top notch. But ultimately it was the numerous and varied experiences that Uniworld orchestrated for us that made it magical. For anyone who has been to Italy and longs to return to explore lesser known parts of this incredible country, this is the perfect option. Or, for someone who has never been and prefers to avoid the throngs of tourists that flock to Florence and Rome and would rather not unpack and repack suitcases throughout their trip, this is the trip for you. Prepare yourself to be pampered by an incredible staff and treated to exclusive experiences that will have you longing to stay. In fact, just this morning as I lay in bed anticipating my alarm, I felt almost as if I could still feel the rhythmic swaying of the ship. I felt a warmth of enrichment for having had experienced this magical cruise and I wistfully dreamed about when I would board my next one.