Uniworld launched its brand-new Super Ship, the S.S. Bon Voyage, in April. Previously the River Royale, the ship underwent a dramatic bow-to-stern redesign to specifically reflect the Bordeaux region where it’s moored. The preview sailing of the new “Brilliant Bordeaux” itinerary was full of sunshine, French gastronomy and thoughtfully curated insider experiences. Just back from Bordeaux, here's our report.
In conversation with Luxury Travel Advisor, CEO Ellen Bettridge emphasized Uniworld’s brand elevation; instead of focusing on new builds, the company is strategically investing in ship transformations. Bettridge explained that the ship was completely gutted and rebuilt from scratch in the Dutch shipbuilding village of Druten. The only feature that was retained from its old incarnation was the mural behind the reception desk. What the design team sought to create is a deep sense of place, so that when you’re onboard, you know that you’re in the Bordeaux region of France. Decorators from sister brand Red Carnation Hotels took inspiration from designer Yves Saint Laurent’s studio and other venues and places around France.
Bettridge stressed three important elements of the Super Ship. The first is the luxurious decor with yacht-like finishes and custom-made furniture. The second is the number of suites. Previously, the ship only had one, poorly placed suite; and now there are four. Lastly, the Super Ship offers more dining venues, as customer feedback had indicated that food-centric passengers are seeking variety. In the Uniworld fleet, the S.S. Bon Voyage joins S.S. Joie de Vivre, which was the first Super Ship, moored on the Seine for sailings from Paris to Normandy, and the S.S. Beatrice, which launched in 2018 on the Danube. 2020 will see the addition of more Super Ships to the fleet, most notably on the Mekong in Vietnam and the Nile in Egypt.
The Soleil Deck
One of our favorite features on the S.S. Bon Voyage is the Soleil Deck, equipped with a new infinity pool. Freshly cut sunflowers adorn the white tables, flanked by chairs and loungers topped with bright blue cushions with a leopard motif. Soak up the sun on a lounger, or take shade under the awning while you watch the scenery go by on the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. If the breeze is chilly, you’ll find plush blankets to wrap up in. Though small, the infinity pool—unique on the rivers—is a great way to cool off. And if you’re feeling sporty, there are counter-current resistance jets for swimming (and underwater music). Before the redesign, there was a hot tub here, but warm summer temperatures deterred guests from using it.
The Soleil Deck is home to one of the new dining venues, Le Café du Soleil. Here you can enjoy casual French cuisine at lunchtime, like fresh salads and tarte flambée (similar to a thin crust pizza), prepared to order in the open-air kitchen.
Indeed there’s a big focus on the food. Products are of the highest quality and sourced locally. Le Grand Fromage is the main restaurant; the redesign created easier-to-access buffet stations along with a variety of seating options, including alcoves for privacy. Breakfast and lunch buffets are copious, while dinner showcases dishes reflective of the region. For example, you might choose a cappuccino of roasted peppers to start, followed by steamed lemon sole on a potato mousseline, or grilled veal tenderloin with a brandy peppercorn sauce. This cuisine is paired with top-notch regional wines, like a Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé from the Chateau Dassault. A fine French cheese course will follow, and desserts might include a chocolate feuillantine gateau and petit fours. There are always alternative main courses on a daily basis, plus vegetarian options. (The beetroot and walnut crumble is a big hit among non meat-eaters.)
Le Grand Fromage
Called the “Salon Champagne,” the elegant lounge is outfitted with bespoke blue and green chairs, parquet floors and objets d’art. Pots of fragrant lavender sit atop the glass tables, while leafy plants add a vibrant green pop to the decor. An area behind the bar is transformed into La Brasserie at mealtimes, inspired by the famous Bouillon Pigalle in Paris. Here, you can tuck into classic brasserie fare like French onion soup, salade niçoise, escargots in garlic butter and bœuf bourguignon.
The new Cave des Vins is the showstopper. Located outside Le Grand Fromage on the Medoc deck, this mirror-walled, private dining room is the setting for exclusive wine pairing dinners. The chef sources the finest ingredients—think oysters from nearby Arcachon Bay, regional foie gras, lobster, caviar—and shares interesting details about the recipes (a soup, for example, is a twist on a recipe from the court of Louis XV). Before pourings, the sommelier gives the background on each of the wines. These five-course culinary extravaganzas are an additional fee (195 euros) and require advance reservations.
Tip: Uniworld’s “River Currents” advisor booking tool now allows for pre-bookings of the exclusive excursions in the “masterpiece collection"; however, it's not yet available for Cave des Vins dinner reservations. Advisors can pre-book those dinners by calling the reservations team. Notably, Uniworld rolled out a technological advancement to its booking tool last October with waitlist functionality on sold-out itineraries. “We built this brand on trade support,” said an appreciative Kristian C. Anderson, senior vice president of global sales, at one of the evening events.
Need to work off all the extra calories? There’s a well equipped gym and yoga classes, while bikes and Nordic walking sticks are also stocked on board. A spa room is available for massages and other treatments.
In addition to the shore excursions that are included in the itinerary price, Uniworld has curated a selection of exclusive experiences that come with real bragging rights. For example, the eight-day “Brilliant Bordeaux” itinerary offers a chance to climb the Dune de Pyla, the highest sand dune in Europe, at sunrise, followed by breakfast at a local restaurant. There’s also a cooking class with a local chef at a chateau, an exclusive tour at Rémy Martin in Cognac, an evening open deck bus tour of Bordeaux and an exclusive visit of the château Beauséjour, which produces an exquisite Premier Grand Cru Classé wine in Saint Emilion. We were impressed with the “regular” excursions—guides for city walking tours in Bordeaux and the charming, UNESCO-listed town of Saint-Emilion are especially trained to work with Uniworld guests; the region’s chateaux serve delicious wine tastings—but it’s worth splashing out on the additional offerings, which range in price from 45 to 350 euros (approximately $50 to $394).
Booking tips: Cabins vary in size from 140 square feet (French balcony) to the Grand Suite (280 square feet), the crème de la crème of the accommodations. The Deluxe and Classic cabins measure 151 square feet, while the other suites are 210 square feet. Beds are topped with the divine bedding (Savoir of England) found in Red Carnation Hotels, and bathrooms are done up in fine marble, with super-soft towels and Asprey bath amenities. Glass carafes of filtered water are replenished regularly, as sustainably-minded Uniworld has sought to eliminate plastic. Note that there are two sets of interconnecting rooms.
A Suite on the S.S. Bon Voyage
Here’s what to expect in the suites. A dedicated butler attends to guests; he can assist with unpacking/packing, shoeshine, and more. Marble bathrooms come with tubs and Hermes amenities. A mini bar is stocked with drinks, snacks and decanters of spirits (pick your poison: whisky, brandy, vodka, etc). Fresh flowers and fruits are delivered every day. There’s also a Nespresso machine.
The average capacity of the Uniworld ships is 130 guests, and the staff-to-guest ratio is one of the highest in the industry. The investment in the crew is commendable. Salaried as full-time employees with benefits and pensions, the crew stays with Uniworld year after year. There’s also an investment in annual training—and it shows. The minute you take a seat in the lounge or at breakfast, a smiling server appears to take your drink order.