A Spa With a Pool and Sprawling Suites: Uniworld’s Latest Ship Brings a New Level of Luxury to Europe’s Rivers

Itineraries on the sleek S.S. Victoria include an eight-day sailing through Belgium and the Netherlands. Comfortable suites, high-touch service, and gourmet cuisine await you on board.

An all-white open-air bar with modern white bar stools on the top deck of Uniworld's 'S.S. Victoria' river cruise ship

The S.S. Victoria‘s upper-deck Vista lounge and bar can conveniently collapse to clear low bridges.

Ian Schemper/Uniworld Boutique River Cruises

On Day Two of our European river cruise with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises in late March, my brother and I returned from dinner one night to a stateroom transformed by turndown magic. The lights were dimmed, curtains drawn, and duvets pulled back enticingly, chocolates nearby.

But the excitement over sailing on my first-ever river cruise—a week along the waterways of Belgium and the Netherlands—with Jason, also a rookie, still hadn’t faded, and I wasn’t the least bit sleepy. Instead of crawling into bed, I opened the curtains to see what was happening out on the water.

Turns out, not much—because the 110-passenger S.S. Victoria was deep inside a lock on the Scheldt River somewhere between Brussels and Antwerp. Inches beyond our floor-to-ceiling windows was a vast canvas of wet gray concrete. A ladder stretched upward along the wall of the lock; even craning my neck, I couldn’t see the top, but the rungs were so close I could have reached out and grabbed one if our windows had been open. It dawned on me why our stateroom butler reminded us to close them whenever we left our stateroom; when open, the windows protrude outward by about six inches (and from what I could tell, there wasn’t much wiggle room in many of the locks).

Though this unexpected view (or lack thereof) was slightly unnerving for a claustrophobe like me, I felt giddy over our front-row seat to the engineering feat of navigating a 443-foot-long vessel through this watery cavern. “Look at this!” I squealed to Jason over and over. But as a pilot whose job has apparently numbed him to the marvels of human transit, he was nonplussed.

However, once Jason found out from the captain that the vessel is entirely hand-piloted—no pressing a button to enable auto-navigation—he was appropriately impressed too. By the time we arrived at our final stop, Amsterdam, which is where I live, S.S. Victoria had eased through approximately 16 locks. When we were aboard and awake, we watched the action from our room or, even better, the top deck.

A bed with white bedspread and green pillows that faces floor-to-ceiling windows in a stateroom on Uniworld's 'S.S. Victoria'

Whether you’re in the Royal Suite or a standard stateroom, all cabins feature beds that face floor-to-ceiling windows that open to transform into a French balcony.

Courtesy of Uniworld

Luxury interiors on board

This trip—officially, an eight-day itinerary called “Holland and Belgium at Tulip Time”—wasn’t a first for just us: It was also S.S. Victoria’s inaugural voyage as a Uniworld vessel. Along with her sister ship, the S.S. Elisabeth, which will relaunch in 2025, the 55-stateroom vessel, which can hold up to 110 guests, is being leased for three years by Uniworld from Riverside Luxury Cruises. The ships, which were part of the fleet of the now-defunct Crystal Cruises (the oceanside of which has restructured as Crystal), add another level of modern luxury to Uniworld’s European sailings. But because they’re being leased, decor and design changes were somewhat limited, cruise manager Piet Abbeloos told me one afternoon. Still, there were distinct Uniworld touches everywhere: live orchids on tables, freshly made croissants and cookies daily, and top-notch staff, many of whom have been with the company for years.

Another notable feature: Uniworld’s first-ever two-bedroom suite, a 759-square-foot stunner that connects two bedrooms via a posh living room. When only one bedroom is connected, it becomes the 506-square-foot Royal Suite, which Jason and I somehow scored (we gave thanks to the river gods). After boarding in Brussels, we took in the space in an awed stupor, from the elegant living room with its stocked minibar, wet bar, and fireplace to the spacious bathroom and large walk-in closet. There’s a King-sized bed that can also be split up into two singles. (All room categories, including suites and standard staterooms, have floor-to-ceiling windows, Asprey bath products, and king-size beds; suites also come with butler service and free laundry, plus a daily fruit plate, cookies, and an evening snack). Due to a technical glitch, televisions (and safes) weren’t working properly (an issue that has since been resolved), but considering the fancy digs we’d be calling home for the next week, we barely noticed.

We explored the rest of the boat, the highlights of which included the lounge with a gorgeous glass ceiling and an upper-deck lounge and bar (which can conveniently collapse if needed to clear low bridges). Alas, the chilly late-March temps meant we didn’t spend much time up there. But come summer, this would be a prime spot to stretch out on a deck chair with a cocktail and watch the world go by. The spa area is also equipped with a small pool, an amenity not too many river cruise ships provide due to the limited space on board.

The swimming pool on Uniworld's 'S.S. Victoria'

The S.S. Victoria has a swimming pool, an amenity that isn’t very common on intimate river cruise ships.

Ian Schemper/Uniworld

Culinary delights and off-boat excursions

Jason and I quickly settled into a morning routine: Wake up as late as possible but with enough time to squeeze in a workout before breakfast. The gym is small but adequately equipped, and some preemptive calorie burning made us feel slightly less guilty for the culinary indulgences ahead, starting with the breakfast buffet. It was one of the best I’ve ever sunk my teeth into, complete with made-to-order omelets and changing daily options like blueberry ricotta crepes. Lunch was equally awesome, with a mouthwatering selection of locally inspired hot dishes (I’m still dreaming about the Belgian beef stew) and desserts galore. The salad bar was also a winner: If Uniworld bottled the dressings, I would have begged to buy one.

“This is my second steak—for lunch,” Jason declared one afternoon, yet he had no problem polishing off a bowl of homemade gelato. All meals were included in the rate, and we never had the same dish twice for lunch or dinner, which were three-course affairs complete with wine pairings by sommelier Razvan Ion. The velvety German red he showcased one night became my early go-to, and even with the rotating selection, waiters remembered to pour it for me every night.

The dining room on Uniworld's 'S.S. Victoria' with blue chairs

From a delicious breakfast buffet spread to multicourse dinners, passengers on the S.S. Victoria are sure to indulge.

Courtesy of Uniworld

Luckily, most of our excursions had an active element. My favorites were quintessentially Dutch: a bike ride around the quaint town of Heusden, which dates to the 12th century, and a boat and walking tour of Kinderdijk, a UNESCO site with 19 beautifully preserved windmills. Guides, like the Uniworld crew, are at the top of their game, knowledgeable and full of fascinating tidbits. In Brussels, we learned that the world-famous “Manneken Pis” statue depicting a naked urinating boy is a replica (the original stands in a nearby museum). As we gazed at a spinning windmill at Kinderdijk, our guide shared a hilarious Dutch phrase: If a person is “hit by a windmill,” they’re acting crazy.

But Arie-Jan van Hees, who toured us through the 65-acre Netherlands American Cemetery in the southern town of Margraten, stood in a class of his own. His detailed stories of fallen American World War II soldiers honored here—8,301 buried and another 1,722 missing whose names are inscribed on a wall—brought me to tears more than once. All soldiers have an “adopted” local family who visits their grave on important dates like birthdays, van Hees told us; his own family has adopted two soldiers. There’s a waiting list of 400 to adopt graves, and many families pass down the tradition to their kin.

I had no idea about this heartwarming connection between the United States, where Jason and I were born and raised in an Air Force family, and the Netherlands, my host country. But it’s one of the most touching displays of gratitude and honor I’ve ever witnessed. I was one of the last people back on the bus that day, but I vowed to return soon to Margraten with my husband and son so they, too, could see this sacred place.

An exterior view of the newly relaunched 'S.S. Victoria' gliding along the Moselle River with a village and vineyard-lined hills in the background

The newly relaunched S.S. Victoria gliding along the Moselle River in Europe.

Courtesy of Uniworld

A close-up look into local life

By the time we reached Amsterdam, our final destination, we had traveled about 155 miles—and I experienced more of the Netherlands in a week than I have living here for more than a year. Upcoming itineraries on the S.S. Victoria include the Rhine and Moselle rivers, with showstopping views of fairy-tale castles and splendorous vineyards. Even though our route might not be quite as scenic, I found a certain appeal in the gritty industrial corridors we sailed along. These ports are the engine of each city, fueling its inhabitants, into whose lives we also got a close-up. At one drawbridge crossing, I waved to a stopped motorcyclist who waved back. Later, I watched a man reading a book in an upstairs room of a house, his face illuminated by the glow of a lamp. In the beautiful town of Schoonhoven, a gaggle of kids tumbled down their grassy front yard as we docked, eager to see the action.

Traveling by water also offers a unique perspective on the astonishing topography of the Netherlands. “There’s a saying: ‘God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands,’” our guide remarked on the final day en route to Keukenhof, a botanical garden and flower lover’s dream. Indeed, a week of seeing dikes perched like grass-covered furniture on the landscape provided me with a newfound respect for how the Dutch have kept their country above sea level for centuries.

For our last excursion, “Respect in the Red Light District,” a frank discussion about sex work in Amsterdam’s most infamous neighborhood, we had to clamber through another boat S.S. Victoria was moored alongside. Passengers’ suitcases were lined up in the lobby, which made me dread the end of our own trip the next day. Not only had we been spoiled rotten on board, but also this new-to-us mode of slower travel—cruising along no faster than about 14 miles an hour, to be precise—fostered a deeper connection with the communities we sailed through and those we sailed with. Jason and I hadn’t spent that much time together since we were kids, but he was the best boat buddy I could have asked for.

On his way back to the States, he texted that the trip “was perfect in every way.” I had to agree.

To book: Prices for the 8-day “Holland and Belgium at Tulip Time” start at about $6,479 per person, including meals, unlimited drinks, and most excursions, as well as the use of bicycles and Nordic walking sticks.

Journalist Blane Bachelor regularly contributes to outlets including CNN, Conde Nast Traveler, and Garden & Gun. Her main specialties are travel and aviation, but she especially loves offbeat topics (like anything spooky or haunted!). Blane was born and raised in Florida and has lived in four countries abroad. Her current base is Amsterdam, where she resides with her husband and son.
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