I was certainly impressed at being picked up from my front door and whisked to Gatwick with their VIP home departure service. After the short flight we were met by a Uniworld representative at the airport and I was soon stepping up the gangway and sipping champagne as I checked in. With my luggage already waiting for me in the cabin, the whole process was seamless and hassle free.
After a safety briefing and an introduction to the senior crew on board the Captain did have to impart some bad news - due to low water levels we would not be able to sail on the River Po. So my first river cruise would turn out to be more of a lagoon cruise, but Uniworld made sure we did not miss any of the published itinerary and all the tours ran as planned.
As we sat down to dinner in the elegant main dining room, the boat set off past St Mark's Square, providing a magical back drop to our first evening on board.
The River Countess was fully refurbished in 2012 in a contemporary style. A bright and airy lobby is the focal point, with stairs up to a very spacious deck area with lots of seating and sun loungers. The main lounge has large panoramic windows, and there is also a small library, shop and gym. Whilst the cabins are not large, they are boldly decorated in reds and whites and thoughtfully laid out with plenty of storage space, and the bathroom featured a large shower and L'Occitane toiletries. There were lots of really nice touches around the boat such as fresh cookies at the 24-hour coffee station and free use of bicycles and Nordic walking sticks.
The first day was an early start, with a walking tour of Venice and the Doge's Palace (skipping the queues). Guests were split in to small groups of 20 and the local guide gave us a fascinating insight into life in Venice. The afternoon was free to explore the city and we could return to the boat at our leisure. The real highlight of the week was the evening at the St Mark's Basilica, a private event that is exclusive to Uniworld. After a taxi tour along the Grand Canal we arrived at St Mark's Square and escorted in to the darkened Basilica. Once everyone was seated, music was played and the lights slowly came on to reveal the spectacular mosaic ceiling. The guide gave a brief talk before we were given time to explore the Basilica and the crypt without the crowds you would normally get during the day which made it feel really special.
The itinerary for the rest week was very busy. Highlights included a visit to the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua with its remarkable fresco walls, and the beautiful city of Verona, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The full day tours all included lunch at a local restaurant, with the trip to Bologna finishing with an interactive pasta making workshop.
The food was excellent, with a big emphasis on local dishes and there were always a great selection of Italian cheeses. As an alternative, pizzas and pastas were served in the Sky Lounge with its retractable roof on the top deck.
The final day was a welcome chance to relax after a busy week. After some free time in the morning to explore Venice, the boat set sail for a scenic cruise of the Venice Lagoon. Limoncellos and Italian gelato were served as we enjoyed the views. A beautiful end to a memorable week!
Find out more:
· Request a Uniworld River Cruises brochure