Shore excursions are a focal part of the cruises aboard Monarch Empress and each day there is an included tour. These are all guided city walking tours combined with motor coach excursions and are led by expert local guides. All passengers have personal earpieces and receivers in their cabins, which enable them to hear the guide clearly without having to cluster around.
Gate 1 rates its itineraries as "moderately active" and passengers can expect three to four hours walking every touring day. The pace is moderate, however, some excursions include uneven surfaces, steps and slopes, and the cruise director will always highlight the activity level of the tours in his nightly port talk so passengers can decide whether or not they want to go.
On every sailing, there are a number of optional for-fee excursions, a total of four on our weeklong itinerary. They started at $54 for a half-day tour of Vienna's Schonbrunn Palace to two full-day tours to Salzburg and UNESCO-listed Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, both priced at $116. These can either be booked and paid for in advance at a 10 percent discount, or booked onboard. A highlight was the Viennese concert in what was once a private music hall for the 19th-century ruling Hofburg family. This costs $62. Although the onboard currency is the euro, these excursions are paid for on a separate account through the Gate 1 head office and therefore the cost is in U.S. dollars.
Each time passengers leave the ship they hand in their keycards and are given a shore pass, which enables the reception team to keep track of who is on or off the vessel.
Complimentary bottled water is not provided for excursions and still or sparkling water can be purchased from the bar and is priced at 2.40 euros for 25cl (8.45 oz.) or 4.60 euros for 75cl (25 oz.). When passengers arrive back from shore tours, they are given a refreshing cold towel and soft beverage.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
In common with most river cruises, days mainly center around sailing through picturesque landscapes and going ashore on excursions, and as a result the onboard entertainment is fairly low-key. However, Monarch Empress provides more entertainment than many lines as in 2017 it appointed a dedicated entertainment director. On our cruise, he organized one or more daily events including a darts tournament, game of petanque, mini-golf, quizzes and a hike ashore.
There was also a crew show where the onboard team showed off their diverse talents. Visiting entertainers, including Hungarian musicians, opera singers and a really funny German "one man band," also came aboard to perform in the evening after dinner. The onboard singer and musician played a wide repertoire that included easy-listening tunes during the cocktail hour and music and songs for dancing -- on the circular dance floor in front of the bar -- after dinner. He also played the piano during afternoon tea.
The cruise director provides an insightful daily port talk in the main lounge, plus a live commentary when sailing through places of interest, such as the UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley or Budapest by night. On some days, while sailing, there are fun hands-on demonstrations where passengers are invited to join in, such as an apple strudel-making class hosted by the chef. A printout of the recipe is available for passengers to take home.
Lounge (Deck 3): The attractive main lounge is situated forward on the upper Empress Deck. It is particularly light due to a large glass roof set over the dance floor area. A curved bar, with 10 swivel bar stools, is situated on the left-hand side of the entrance. It stays open until the last passengers go to bed, which is generally around 11:30 p.m. but occasionally in the early hours if there are night owls onboard.
The bar menu is reasonably priced, with no automatic gratuities on the prices. Wines by the glass -- chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and a Portugieser rose -- are all priced at 4.40 euros. A glass of sparkling wine is 3.70 euros and a glass of Champagne is priced at 7.50 euros. Beer is from 3.50 euros. Cocktails, such as pina colada, mojito and bloody mary, are all priced at 8.50 euros, with long drinks including gin and tonic, vodka and tonic and whiskey and cola, priced at 8.10 euros. There are also nonalcoholic "mocktails" that start at 5.90 euros. Juices are 2.60 euros and sodas start at 3.60 euros. On each sailing, there will be several "happy hours" with a 50 percent discount on featured drinks. Complimentary pretzels and chips are served with drinks. In addition to free beverages from the tea and coffee station, espresso and cappuccino can be ordered from the bar at a cost of 2.70 euros and 3.50 euros, respectively.
Decor-wise, the lounge has two quite different halves. The section closest to the bar has a mix of leather easy chairs and fabric-covered chairs and settees set around rectangular coffee tables. It is decorated in a restful cream, blue and gray color scheme and also has a small circular dance floor in the middle, which is also used by visiting performers. Close by is the onboard musician's piano.
The forward section of the lounge, behind some narrow, wrought iron dividers on either side, is decorated in warmer tones of red and gold, creating a different "feel." Here the chairs have cozy curved backs and are set around small, high circular tables. There are also some stools. In the center is a circular sofa with a novel sculpture of a dancing lady set in the middle. The lounge is large enough to accommodate all passengers at the same time and is the social hub of the vessel. With its floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows, it is the social hub of the vessel. By day passengers have uninterrupted views of the passing landscape and, in the evening, it is the sociable meeting point for pre- and post-dinner drinks and nightly entertainment.
Terrace (Deck 3): Situated directly in front of the lounge is an alfresco terraced area, accessed by an automatic door on one side. Overlooking the front of the ship, it is a prime spot to take photos when the ship is navigating through locks and other areas of interest. A wooden horseshoe-shaped bench runs around the inside, interspersed with narrow, fixed tables that are large enough for a drink or a small plate with a snack, but not much more. It is a lovely area, but not particularly comfortable to sit for a long time as there are no cushions.
Club Lounge (Deck 3): The ship's small second lounge is located aft on the Empress Deck. Overlooking the back of the ship, and with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides, it is a lovely, quiet spot to sit and read or watch the passing scenery. Decorated in tranquil brown and cream taupe tones, there are three sofas and six armchairs set around four coffee tables.
By the rear windows are three card tables and a larger oval table, the former with four chairs and the latter with six. These are ideal for playing cards, games or simply sitting and enjoying a coffee, which is freely available from the 24/7 tea and coffee station.
Each day condensed versions of the U.S.A. Times are put out on the tables so passengers can keep up to date with the latest news back home. A tucked away corner of the lounge has a variety of board games and a small library of books, mostly novels, to borrow during the cruise. There is also a desk, chair and electrical sockets in this area, which is a useful space for passengers who want to use their laptops. On the opposite side is a unisex toilet.
There is a flat-screen TV on one wall, and during our cruise this showed a rolling video of either Gate 1 Travel itineraries or one of the featured movies of the day. Passengers can turn off the sound, which made the lounge very peaceful. Walls are decorated with contemporary artwork and detailed maps of the rivers on which the ship sails. The lounge can be used for private parties and group get-togethers, on request.
An automatic door on one side of the lounge leads to a small outside deck wrapped around the back of the ship, with four round tables and two chairs at each. Smoking is allowed and there are ashtrays on the tables. From here, stairs lead up to the sun deck.
The large sun deck runs the length of the ship and is divided into two sections. The forward area is set out with 30 rattan-style chairs, a few small tables and some ornamental bushes, overlooking the prow. It is lovely area to enjoy the passing scenery, although there is no shade. Beyond the wheelhouse, and accessed by five steps on either side, is the second and larger section of the sun deck. There is a walking track around the outside and the central area is set out with sun loungers, chairs and tables, with ample sun shades if needed. On chilly days blankets are provided. At the aft is a small putting green.
The main doors on the Empress Deck lead into an elegant marble-floored lobby and reception area that has a red rectangular couch in the center and is topped by an ornate chandelier. The reception and hospitality/shore excursion desks are crafted from polished wood and complete the traditional look. The reception desk, which has a bowl where passengers can help themselves to complimentary candies, is on one side of the lobby and the hospitality/shore excursion desk is on the other. There is a screen that displays the information channel (also available on the TV in the cabin) which shows the daily program, weather forecast and the evening dinner menu.
A board near the hospitality/excursion desk displays the list of optional excursions and the names of passengers who either booked them in advance of the cruise or while onboard. This is a useful facility (in fact, we wondered why other ships don't do it) as passengers can easily see if they are down for an excursion, or which tours they have booked, without having to double-check with the cruise director.
Inside the entrance to the lounge, behind the reception desk, is a display cabinet selling souvenirs, jewelry, day-to-day essentials such as toiletry items, Gate 1-branded gifts and logowear. If passengers want to purchase something, a member of the reception team will open the cabinet on request and the bill will be added to the onboard account.
Wi-Fi is available throughout the ship on a complimentary basis. In common with all river cruises, the signal can by patchy, and at times nonexistent, and tends to be stronger nearer large cities. The ship does not have a public computer so passengers need to bring their own laptops or hand-held devices if they want to stay in touch.
Cleaning and pressing services are available for an additional fee. Prices for pressing range from 3 euros for a shirt or blouse to 8 euros for a suit. Washing and ironing is priced from 1 euro for a handkerchief and 2 euros for underwear to 6 euros for skirts or pants. Laundry items are left in the cabin in the bag provided and are returned within 24 hours. There is a surcharge of 50 percent for an express 10-hour same-day service.
The ship has an elevator between the passenger decks and public areas on the Countess and Empress Decks but it does not go up to the sun deck or down to the lower Duchess Deck cabins, both of which have to be accessed by stairs.
Smoking is only allowed on the sun deck or the terrace outside the Club Lounge.
There is a tiny gym next to the stairs leading to the lower Duchess Deck. Open 24/7, the space has one running machine and one upright cycling machine, both from the LifeFitness brand. There are also free weights, an exercise mat and set of digital scales. Towels are provided and the mirrored room also has a TV and a very small window set high in the wall.
Each morning, usually at 8 a.m., the activity director leads a free half-hour fitness class which is suitable for all abilities. Mats are provided and, weather permitting, it is held on the sun deck. On other days, it is held in the lounge. For early risers, it is a very nice way to start the day and enjoy the early morning river views with a gentle stretch to loosen up.
The ship does not offer any spa services and does not carry any bicycles.
The minimum age for children on Gate 1 Travel's river cruise program is 16, and all teenagers under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult. There are no children's facilities or special activities offered for youngsters onboard Monarch Empress and the cruises would only really appeal to teens with a keen interest in European history and culture.