|Gary Stevens aboard Uniworld’s River Royale.|
I love cruising but I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical about what the experience would be for my partner and me on a riverboat cruise for a week. We knew this is a great way to explore towns and villages up close and personal. Being wine lovers and seeking to explore more of France, we chose an extraordinary itinerary with Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, which took us from the charming Provencal town of Arles up the Rhone river into the Burgundy region village of Chalon-sur-Saône. Uniworld includes complimentary wines with dinner and many of our excursions included wine tastings and visits to wineries. We knew we would be enthralled with the destinations, but would a river cruise onboard experience be to our liking? We love nightlife and lots of things going on. Would we be bored? Would we be among the youngest, even in our 40s and 50s? Would there be the token gay couple? Suffice to say we loved this cruise. Yes, we were among the younger set of the 113 guests, but not the youngest by any means, or the youngest at heart, as it was a diverse group of fun-loving, spirited travelers, many of whom had chosen the riverboat as their preferred method of vacation after years exploring the world on larger ships.
|Wine Tasting at Château de Chamirey in Mercurey, a typical wine village in the Burgundy region of France.|
Why Uniworld does it so well? In a word—consistency. The crew delivers a uniform excellence in service. Being a small ship, the guests interacted with the staff and the team onboard River Royale brought about a true friendliness and care for each guest, always there to solve any problem and looking to go the extra mile with a smile. Much of this is attributed to the ship’s dynamic team and wonderful local guides.
Many of the guests connected with each other through the dining experiences or on the daily excursions. Meals onboard boasted one of the most consistent levels of quality and sumptuous selections, better than we have experienced on most ocean cruises. Breakfast buffets were bountiful, with an omelet station, a wide variety of cheeses, breads, fruits and traditional American and European selections. Lunch buffets were always something to look forward to, as after a morning excursion we were back at the ship around noon, eager for a hearty meal. Dinner never disappointed with thematic multicourse dishes indicative of our locale, from Provencale to Bouchon Lyonnais and even an epicurean wine-pairing meal, which let us sample various wines per course. Dessert options ranged from the decadent to more decadent in the homemade ice creams, parfaits, crème brûlée and chocolate marvels. Dining each evening was casual elegance with two nights of dress attire—slightly more formal—for the captain’s welcome and farewell dinners. With dinner an open-seating policy, guests could dine with whomever they like.
|Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in France.|
In Burgundy and Provence, several excursions centered around wine. Uniworld includes a complimentary daily excursion in every port. Additional excursions are optional, reasonably priced and not to be missed. Our week started in Arles, famed as the town where Van Gogh painted many of his masterpieces. Our guide introduced us to the sites of The Yellow House and Starry Night over the Rhone. We visited a working olive farm and were treated to samples of the olives, oils and tapenade. Additional highlights included visits to the medieval village of Les Baux-de-Provence, the walled city of Avignon, Lyon, and the Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a delectable wine tasting at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. A standout of the week was the utterly charming, non-tourist town of Viviers, a fifth-century village that captured our imagination and whimsy. Additional wine tastings were held in the towns of Tournon-sur-Rhône and Tain-l’Hermitage but the most phenomenal day was saved for last—visiting Beaune, its amazing Hospices de Beaune and its glorious open-air market, followed by a chateaux visit and meeting with the count who resides there.
I was amazed at the mighty length of the River Royale—at 361 feet (and just 37.5 feet in width). As these ships can only be built larger in length due to the Rhone river’s narrow locks, we witnessed several of our lock crossings and saw the captain navigate with just one foot between the wall and the ship’s edge. Built in 2006, River Royale is currently undergoing a fresh new “Red Carnation” makeover to match the rest of the Uniworld fleet.
We started out skeptics but river cruising won our hearts. A younger generation may be of the notion that river cruising is sedate and mostly for the retirement set. On the contrary, it is an exhilarating way to discover magnificent destinations off the beaten path at your own pace. One guest may be on a “gentle” walking tour, while another is exploring by bicycle. Same trip but a totally different experience!