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Emerald Sky


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Emerald Sky is the first of a fleet of "Star Ships" ships launched by Emerald Waterways, a European river cruise line that made its debut as part of Australian-owned parent company Scenic Tours, which also boasts all-inclusive brand, Scenic Cruises.

It marks an exciting departure from existing vessels, with an exceptionally bright, modern look and a unique new-to-river feature: a swimming pool with a retractable roof that transforms into a cinema at night. The three airy passenger decks pack in plenty of other facilities, including a hair salon, gym, massage room and bikes that passengers can use to explore independently. Some initial issues with the ship -- such as an extremely steep staircase onboard -- were fixed in the months following its launch.

This fresh-looking line has broken the traditional mould of river cruising and will appeal to people looking for moderately priced cruises, as well as younger cruisers and first-time passengers dipping a toe into this burgeoning sector of the cruise market.

The ship has a relaxed, easy-going vibe. There is no special dress code, and there are none of the formal nights you get on ocean cruises. For dinner, smart casual attire is recommended. Jeans can be worn in the restaurant in the evening, but shorts and flip-flops are not appropriate. Many passengers up the sartorial ante for the captain's welcome dinner and/or farewell dinner, albeit this still errs on the side of smart casual, rather than full-on cocktail dresses and suits.

Sky doesn't have the in-depth daytime lectures offered on some ships. An overview of the next day's port of call and excursions is provided in the cruise director's nightly port talk, which is reiterated in the daily program left on the bed each night. If the ship is cruising past particularly historic areas, the cruise director will provide a commentary through the personal transistor headsets and earpieces available in each cabin and usually used on shore excursions. This means people who are interested can listen in, while passengers who want to enjoy peace and quiet won't be disturbed.

A guided excursion at each port of call is included in the cruise price, typically a walking tour or bus trip to an interesting sight. Each cruise also includes a couple of optional "EmeraldPLUS" tours, such as a canal cruise in Amsterdam or an evening concert, available at extra cost. EmeraldACTIVE excursions include hikes, biking tours and other options such as kayaking; fitness classes will also be held onboard. Emerald Discover Tours usually encourage passengers to learn about daily life by visiting a local home.

Onboard entertainment on river vessels is always a low-key affair, and Sky is no exception. Before and after dinner, the resident onboard pianist performs a pleasant mix of pop, light rock and classical music, as well as show tunes. There are also visiting guest entertainers, including traditional musicians, dancers and a glassblower. We were enthralled by an enthusiastic couple who played Swiss cowbells -- much more melodic than you'd think! On one night each cruise, the crewmembers throw themselves into a light-hearted talent show, followed by a crew and passenger disco.

The absolute star of the show on Sky's entertainment scene is the onboard cinema, which is set up in the swimming pool area when passengers are at dinner. The base of the swimming pool rises to create a floor, and the comfortable pool loungers are rearranged to face the large pull-down screen at the aft of the ship. Films range from modern-day blockbusters to old favourites themed to the area ("The Sound of Music" when cruising through Austria, for example). Reasonably priced drinks are available from the bar in the corner. To add to the atmosphere, everyone gets a large complimentary container of popcorn. There are usually three film nights on a weeklong cruise, and entry is free. Because space is limited, passengers are asked to sign up at reception on a first-come, first-served basis. Everyone is issued with a pair of quality, fully adjustable headphones, so there is no noise disturbance to passengers in nearby cabins.

This area is home to the other half of Sky's "wow" factor. By day, the cinema is transformed into a 258-square-foot mosaic-tiled pool, which is large enough for a swim and has wall-mounted steps on one side. This flexible space, with a retractable roof, is a fantastic spot to lounge, enjoy a drink and watch the passing scenery or simply relax if you decide to stay onboard when the ship is docked.

A very small gym houses a stationary bike, rowing machine and bench, and onboard bikes are available for passengers to borrow free of charge to ride along the riverbank or into town.

Other facilities include a hair salon and a massage room.

The Sun Deck has a 410-foot circular walking and jogging track. Passengers are asked not to use it before 8 a.m. and after 10 p.m. to avoid disturbing people in the cabins below. There is also a mini-golf course with three holes.

The heart of the ship is the Horizon Lounge, situated on the bow on the upper deck. With floor-to-ceiling windows and a mix of comfortable seating -- including sofas, chairs, stools and individual seats, plus an assortment of tables of different heights -- it's the perfect place to sit and watch the world go by, catch up on emails or read the news in the condensed newspapers printed each day. The "library" is a cupboard beneath the coffee machine, and it's not clearly visible. The entertainment manager points out the location during the introductory talk, and crewmembers also put out a selection of books on some of the lounge tables. They include beautiful coffee table books on fashion and design, which complement the vessel's stylish interior, along with novels and local guidebooks. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the public areas and in the cabins, and the signal is generally excellent.

The mismatched furniture, in a variety of colours, is typical of Sky's boutique style. This extends to the striking artwork installed by Dutch company Oasegroen -- "green oasis" -- which specializes in eco-friendly, sustainable art. Eye-catching exhibits in the lounge and other public areas include nonendangered coral, ancient petrified wood that resembles marble, marlin's teeth collected from seashores, and Native American necklaces made from natural materials. The standout items, in every sense of the word, are giant plant holders made out of eggshells.

Glass, mirrors and shiny metal surfaces abound throughout the ship, including the bar where colourful bottles double as another art installation.

Outside the lounge at the front of the ship is the Terrace, with chairs, tables and reclining seats and footstools. There are also plenty of loungers and more chairs and tables up a level on the Sun Deck.

Unless your cabin is on the Riviera Deck, it's easy to miss the nod to an onboard shop, which, in reality, is a number of display cabinets with jewellery, sunglasses and other accessories that can be bought via the reception desk. Toiletries and other small personal items are not stocked and have to be bought in ports of call, which are invariably in the heart of towns and cities and close to shops.

The full-length central atrium, which runs through all three decks, is topped by attractive lights and again creates a sense of light and space. The decks are linked by one lift and a flight of stairs.

Throughout the ship, all of the members of the English-speaking staff were helpful and attentive, with ready smiles and a willingness to help if needed.

The main dining room is the Reflections Restaurant on the Vista Deck, which serves the breakfast and lunchtime buffets and a la carte evening meal, all on a freestyle dining basis with no seating plans. Tables seat two, four and six and can be put together to seat larger groups. There are also circular tables for six, and, as with the rest of the ship, the dining area has a pleasant, spacious atmosphere.

While times can differ slightly depending on shore excursions, breakfast is generally served from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., lunch from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner at 7 p.m. Unlike some other lines, which require passengers to show up exactly when the dining room opens, Emerald takes a more relaxed approach to the timing of the evening meal. Passengers who prefer to eat a little later won't be frowned upon for tardy arrivals.

Breakfast features an extensive selection of hot dishes, cold meats, cheeses, cereals and pastries. A station serves freshly cooked omelettes and fried eggs, plus a healthy choice section of fresh fruit, yogurts and smoothies. Juice and hot drinks are served at the table. Aussies and Brits will be pleased to know that Emerald serves both Vegemite and Marmite.

Lunch is along similar lines, with soup of the day and a wide choice of salads, hot dishes and a daily freshly cooked option, such as pasta. This is followed with desserts and cheese.

Dinner is table service and includes a choice of two appetizers and two soups, three main courses (one vegetarian), two desserts and a cheese plate. On gala dinner nights, there's an amuse bouche and an additional course. Typical dishes include devilled eggs, minestrone soup, beef in a Cognac and pepper sauce, asparagus in a mille-feuille parcel, carrot cake and fresh fruit salad. Special diets can be accommodated, and "always available" main courses of steak, chicken or salmon can be ordered. Complimentary beer, wine and soft drinks are served throughout lunch and dinner.

In addition to the included wine served with meals, there is a premium list featuring wines from Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Italy, Bulgaria and Slovakia.

The Horizon Lounge, on the upper deck, is used for a self-serve early-bird breakfast from 6:30 a.m. (earlier on some days, depending on the excursion timetable), with a selection of fruit, muesli and pastries. The same area at the bar also serves a light lunch option, with soup, sandwiches, salads and a hot dish. On fine days, it's really nice to eat this out on The Terrace, the sheltered open-air area at the front of the ship that seats around 25. Cruisers can also dine upstairs on the Sun Deck, where there's plenty of seating and panoramic views over the river. There's usually an alfresco barbecue lunch at least once a week, weather permitting.

No afternoon tea service is offered, though small pastries and biscuits are available throughout the day at the 24/7 complimentary tea and coffee station inside the Horizon lounge and at the pool bar. Soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, outside of mealtimes, can be purchased at the bar.

Waiter service meals were slick and attentive, and the food was well presented and of a consistently good quality throughout. Vegetarian dishes on the menu and buffet are helpfully marked with a "V", and there are signs on the buffet flagging up foods that are gluten- and lactose-free. Gluten-free bread is always available on request.

On embarkation day, the ship offers an evening buffet with a sandwich station. It's a particularly good idea as arriving passengers who don't want a full meal can make up their own light snacks with cold meats and cheese.

Sky's 92 cabins are located on three passenger decks. They are divided into four categories, and the majority is Panorama Balcony Suites, followed by standard Staterooms. There are four Owner's Suites, eight Grand Balcony Suites and two single cabins.

This is one ship where passengers will never complain about a lack of mirrors. There are two full-size floor-to-ceiling mirrors in most cabins, mirrored cupboards in the bathrooms, mirrors over the basins (although no makeup or shaving mirrors are provided) and mirrored panels beside the beds, all of which make the cabins seem light and airy.

The bathroom has a small sink, although the shower cubicle, with a door, is a good size. Soap, shampoo, conditioner and body lotion from the Italian brand Prija are supplied as standard in all cabins and replenished as needed.

Cabins all have air conditioning, safes, bottled water replenished daily, plug-in hair dryers and flat-screen TVs with a variety of English-speaking channels, films (for free!) and ship's webcam. The minibar is stocked with beer, wine, soft drinks and snacks, which have to be paid for (except in the Owner's Suites). The bedside table next to the bathroom is in a fixed position; however, the one nearest the window can be lifted out so the beds can be separated for passengers requesting a twin-bed configuration.

The onboard electricity current is 220V, and each cabin has European points in the cabin and bathroom, plus one Australian socket.

Other amenities include an umbrella, shoe cleaner and shoe horn, plus two sets of ear plugs. Although river ships are generally fairly quiet -- and soundproofing between cabins is very good on Sky -- this is a thoughtful touch for light sleepers. Also useful is the "do not disturb" switch, which illuminates a red light outside the cabin door and saves hanging a sign on the door handle.

There is an onboard laundry, available for a fee per piece, with items picked up from the cabin by housekeeping. There is also a clothesline in the shower.

Instead of the usual key cards, passengers are issued a "magnetic chip" that fits into a corresponding space to open the door. These are attached to lanyards, which you can hang around your neck, making them more difficult to lose or mislay.

Panorama Balcony Suites, located on the upper Horizon Deck and middle Vista Deck, are 180 square feet apiece, and the Staterooms, all located on the lower Riviera Deck, are each 162 square feet. The single cabins are also on this deck and are 130 square feet each. While called Balcony Suites, these cabins are one room with an "indoor balcony" that replaces the French balcony setup common to many other ships. This comprises a floor-to-ceiling window that drops down halfway at the touch of a button, giving an open-air feel; it's wonderful in good weather and a boon for those who want some fresh air at night. There is also an inner screen behind the main curtain to prevent insects from flying in when the window is open. The opaque screen is also useful to provide some privacy in the cabin during the daytime when the vessel is docked. There are two chairs and a table on wooden flooring directly in front of the window, giving the impression of a balcony, although there's nothing to separate this area from the main carpeted cabin. The standard cabins all have fixed windows, set high up the walls.

Each Owner's Suite is 315 square feet and situated on the Horizon Deck. Each has a separate bedroom and lounge, walk-in closet and sit-out balconies that offer two wooden chairs with padded seats and a small circular table that's big enough for drinks and small items. The bathroom is large, with two sinks and a shower. Passengers in these suites benefit from additional amenities like a complimentary minibar, restocked daily with wine, beer, soft drinks and snacks; a Nespresso machine; use of an iPad; continental breakfast; predinner canapes and after-dinner sweet treats served in the room; four complimentary items of laundry per day and an invitation to dine at the captain's table.

Each Grand Balcony Suite, also on the Horizon Deck, comprises one room with a verandah that has sliding doors and can be closed off from the rest of the cabin. The suite includes a Nespresso machine, continental breakfast, canapes and sweets served in the room, two complimentary items of laundry per day and an invitation to the captain's table.

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Horizon Deck
Vista Deck
Riviera Deck
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