I had the pleasure of sailing the along the Rhône river from Avignon to Lyon recently. I wasn't sure what to expect. As a good travel agent, I of course have taken all of the river cruise line trainings and you, my amazing clients, have also taken many river cruises I've planned. However, I haven't any planned trips with Uniworld Boutique Cruise Lines, so I went in with an open mind and plenty of anticipation :)
I chose to sail with Uniworld because of several reasons. First, while the boats are a similar size to other river cruise companies, they hold fewer passengers. On my sailing we had 121 people on board....and over 60 staff. This means the service was extraordinary! Uniworld also has a more inclusive pricing structure....meaning there are no mandatory charges once on board. The staff gratuities are included in the price, as are most alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages, meals on board and one guided tour or excursion per day. Finally, I chose Uniworld because the average age of people sailing on their ships is lower than many other cruise lines....meaning there are younger people sailing with Uniworld (they even have 2 new ships designed for travelers 25 to 45 years old...although people of all ages can sail).
This blog post is an overview of what I experienced. If you are interested in more details, please message me.
THE SHIP: The ship was S.S. Catherine. It is a newer ship (only a few years old) and is decorated very elegantly (all Uniworld ships are). At first, I thought it would be too over the top---I'm more of a casual person--but the decor fit perfectly for visiting France. There is lots of artwork throughout the ship---sort of like a floating museum. The foyer is beautiful and the first thing you see when boarding (photo below). The staterooms are all different--each has individual touches and colors. All of the areas of the ship are comfortable and there was room for everyone. The sun deck (the top of the ship) is perfect for afternoons of sailing. There are chaise loungers and tables (with bar service).
THE PORTS: I thought the itinerary was a good balance between small little towns and larger cities. We boarded in Avignon but sailed the first night to Tarascon. Tarascon is a small town right on the river, but other than a beautiful old castle and church, there isn't much to see. The tour that day was to the nearby city of Arles which has a long history and some of the best preserved Roman ruins of any place in France. This was a great balance---morning in Arles, back on board for lunch and then a few hours of free time to explore Tarascon (or other surrounding areas). That evening we sailed back to Avignon and then spent the next day exploring there. Uniworld offered several choices each day for excursions. For Avignon, there was an option to visit the nearly Pont du Gard (famous Roman aqueducts). I had wanted to visit there for years, so this was my selection. Same scenario---went on that excursion in the morning and then had free time all afternoon and early evening in Avignon. I had plenty of time to explore the city and see the Palace du Popes (highlight of Avignon). The third day we explored a little hilltop village called Viviers. We explored with a guide and then had a private organ concert in the smallest operating cathedral in France. It was amazing and something I couldn't have done on my own. The next day we were in Tain L'Hermitage which is known for its wines (and for the Valrhona chocolate factory and museum). I chose the active excursion which was a gorgeous hike up into the vineyards. There were a few wine tastings after the hike, but my friend and I decided that we wanted more time at the chocolate museum, so we left the excursion and started the free time early. That was the nice part of river cruising---there are excursions and guides if you want them or you can go off and explore on your own. Next was Lyon, which is huge compared to other ports on this sailing. We explored the old city and visited the Paul Bocuse food market---Paul Bocuse was very famous chef that helped put Lyon on the culinary map. The final port was on the Saône River (which also flows through Lyon---there is a confluence just out of town), but the water levels were too high for us (and all of the ships) to sail, so we stayed docked in Lyon and had to travel a bit further by bus to visit Beaune in the Burgundy region. We visited on Saturday, which is the market day, so that is always exciting. I chose to try one of Uniworld Masterpiece excursions that afternoon (these are optional and come at an additional cost) to visit a private château and winery owned by a count (sort of like a knight). We were a small group and were able to sample several of the wines before being treated to a a traditional lunch and tour of the chatâteau (that the count and his family live in). For me, this was definitely one of the highlights of the trip!
Aren't the photos beautiful?? Makes me miss France already :)
FOOD AND DRINKS: Like I mentioned, the price of the cruise includes most meals and drinks. Uniworld does offer premium alcohol at a surcharge. Many options were available in the included drink plan, including champagne. Breakfast is served in the dining room as a large buffet, with the option to order off a menu. There is a chef available for cooked to order eggs and omelets every day. There were always 5 or 6 hot options, fresh fruit, several yogurts, sliced meats and cheeses (European style), breads and pastries every day. Lunch is also buffet style with a chef hosted station every day (with a specialty item). Regional cheeses changed daily, as did prepared salads and hot entrees. There was always a salad bar and several choices of desserts. Ice cream was always available. Dinner was a seated service with 4 courses (an appetizer, soup, main course and dessert). The menu changed nightly and there were choices for all courses, in addition to some options that were always available (like a steak, chicken breast or salmon). There was a vegetarian or vegan option available on the menu each night. Room service was also available all day---and if you didn't want to eat in the room---you could order from one of the bars or lounges.
There was a sommelier on board and she chose a new white and red wine each day. Most of the selections were from the local regions we were visiting. There were 2 bars on board and you could order coffee specialties, tea infusions (my favorite was a ginger and lemongrass), along with your typical alcoholic beverages and soft drinks.
STAFF: Like I mentioned, the staff to guest ratio was phenomenal (one staff per 2 guests). Although my friend and I sat in different parts of the dining room, all of the wait staff seemed to know us and our preferences. The service was very attentive---service started within a minute or two of sitting down. The bar staff was also very attentive and often gave suggestions when we didn't know what we wanted. It was all included, so why not try something new?? Housekeeping came twice a day and every evening at turndown there was a little gift left on the bed. It was Hermes toiletries one night....a lot better than a little chocolate! I'm only saying that because there was a chocolate jar in our stateroom that was kept filled all week :)
STATEROOM: The ship had several different categories of rooms. We stayed in a middle option. The lowest priced options only have a small fixed window along the top of one wall. Those rooms don't have a view---just enough light to tell if it is night or day. Our room had a wall of window which could be lowered by an electric switch. This essentially made the room a balcony. A suite is the highest category and the main difference is that it is much bigger (the room and bathroom) and has several windows that open. The room was fairly big for a ship, but wasn't huge. There was ample closest space, but there wasn't a walk in closet. The bathroom was functional with a shower, a vanity and toilet (with a nice overhead blue night light, so you could see if you had to go in the night). I included our stateroom photos in the slideshow below, along with a couple of a suite.
OTHER GUESTS: Our sailing had guests from 12 countries. About half of the guests were American (no surprise here) and there was a large contingency of travelers from Canada, the UK and Australia. The other guests were from France, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal. While I didn't ask everyone their age, if I had to guess, the average age was around 55 years old. There were several people in their early 30's on honeymoons, several mother-daughter pairings (with the daughters in their 20's), as well as some older travelers in their 60's and 70's. There were no children under 18 years old on this sailing and that is typical except for Uniworld's family sailings. The other guests were generally fairly well traveled and probably 30% had been on a river cruise before. I thought the other guests were very friendly and open to conversation. In a nutshell, the other guests were people I would hang out with which is nice (and if you don't know me, I'm a 41 year old American).
I really enjoyed my Uniworld river sailing. I learned more than I usually do during travel because of the excellent local guides and I was very relaxed because I didn't have to plan every minute of my trip. I appreciated the balance between planned and free time and liked that nothing was "forced" on me. I could choose to spend my time as I wanted (up until the ship sailed that is...).
If a river cruise sounds interesting, please message me and we can start planning. Many river cruise lines sail this same route, so if Uniworld doesn't seem like a good fit, but the ports interest you, we can explore the other options. This is true of most European river sailings (the Seine, Rhine, Danube, etc).
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent (thanks to the recent visit to Antarctica!