River Suites

Explorer Suites on Viking Longships have 270-degree forward and side views from exterior balconies.
Explorer Suites on Viking Longships have 270-degree forward and side views from exterior balconies.

Uniworld’s new S.S. Catherine and Viking Cruises’ new Viking Heimdal now sail the Saone and Rhone rivers—taking guests to chateaux and vineyards, quaint French towns like Viviers and Tain-l’Hermitage and Lyon, France’s gastronomic capital. Other river lines serve the region, as well.

Wine-and-culinary focused itineraries are clearly the prime reason for booking, but what’s to know about these two new ships themselves? Luxury Travel Advisor was onboard in March.

Both vessels are accurately described as “upscale.” Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s S.S. Catherine carries 149 guests and delivers what we’d characterize as a sophisticated yet relaxing luxury experience. It boasts top-end suites with butler service. Plus, it has many big-ship features, including a pool, Serenity River spa and exercise facility. It also carries bicycles for complimentary guest use ashore.

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Viking CruisesViking Heimdal, as with all Viking Longships, serves 190 guests in a deluxe experience with many touches of luxury. Viking too has top-end suites with butler service. But Viking’s Longships don’t have a pool, spa or exercise center, as the line’s philosophy is to use that space for more staterooms. That adds “value” for all guests in the overall product pricing. Viking says its concierge also will arrange such services ashore.

Another difference? S.S. Catherine is highly ornate with French-inspired original design and impeccable décor detail, while, in contrast, Viking Heimdal has modern, clean lines with an airy feel. Service-wise, S.S. Catherine’s service felt a tad more formal than Viking’s relaxed, yet professional, service.

Because the sailings we took were “inaugurals,” the superb cuisine included corporate chef creations and special menus, not necessarily typical for regular cruises. That said, we can recommend guests sample the wide range of cheeses served on Rhone/Saone voyages—everything from Saint-Marcellin to Camembert, from Brie to Ossau-Iraty. Regional wines from the Cote du Rhone appellation are freely poured with lunch and dinner.

Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine Royal Suite’s marble bathroom offers a separate tub, rainforest-type shower and secluded toilet and bidet area.

Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine Royal Suite’s marble bathroom offers a separate tub, rainforest-type shower and secluded toilet and bidet area.

More About S.S. Catherine: It’s obvious that designers Beatrice Tollman, founder and president of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, daughter Toni Tollman, and Brian Brennan, project manager, labored over every design and décor detail for S.S. Catherine. It truly shows. Printed wall coverings match high-quality fabric drapes. Guest corridors have padded wall coverings that are soft to the touch. Travelers won’t be able to keep their eyes from examining the intricacies, much as we did with the Van Gogh Lounge’s window treatments of rich blue fabric trimmed with gold tassels and velvet.

It’s easy to feel special given the fresh flowers that are everywhere. While a fully “mirrored” atrium is a bit over-the-top for some, it’s just fine for others. Unusual? The walls don’t just display usual cruise ship art. In contrast, $1 million worth of world-class art on this ship includes antique prints and even original works by Miso, Chagall and Calder.

Guests staying in the 410-square-foot Royal Suite (No. 401) will gaze upon early 20th century original prints by French artist Louis Icart. Suites 402 to 406 are bit smaller at 305 square feet, but all suites have one-of-a-kind décor and separate living and bedroom areas.

S.S. Catherine’s suites also have full open-air balconies that—with the touch of a button—raise the glass to create an enclosed conservatory, perfect in rainy weather. We’d suggest admiring the outdoor scenery from the Royal Suite’s open-air balcony, which has upholstered chairs and a small glass table with a liquor set-up. Suite bedrooms also have French balconies.

Each suite’s living room sofa pulls out to accommodate a third person. Guests in all accommodations sleep on hand-crafted “Savoir of England” beds. The Royal Suite’s bed faces its French balcony so why not ask the butler to serve breakfast in bed? This suite’s spacious marble bathroom offers a separate tub, rainforest-type shower and secluded toilet and bidet area. Guests will feel the warmth from heated floors, mirrors and towel racks.

One of S.S. Catherine’s most impressive public spaces is its two-level atrium. A waterfall cascades down one side of its elevator. An intricate Murano glass chandelier has small horse heads on its tips. We particularly liked the green-and-gold horse sculpture gracing the marbled atrium floor; it was a popular “selfie” photo spot for guests.

Favorite spot onboard? We’d highly recommend meandering to the exotic Leopard Bar. It’s fun to sink into black leather and jungle print seating and order the ship’s signature Leopard Martini. From here, an indoor swimming pool is visible via several glass walls. This pool area often glows green at night (think “jungle”) but what really wows is the glistening leopard-themed wall mural/sculpture.

More about Viking Heimdal: Created by naval architects Yran & Storbraaten, the team behind the original Seabourn ships, the Viking Cruises’ Longships are definitely cookie-cutter by design. Yet, they have a lovely aura about them. The modern look is “clean,” not edgy or cold, thanks to the soft interior color schemes.

Yes, there are a few design differences, but nothing major. For example, the large original painting at the top of the atrium staircase is different for each ship. Interior colors vary slightly and bathroom floor coverings may be light or dark, depending on the ship.

The “view” rules on these ships. As with all Longships, Viking Heimdal’s observation lounge and bar has floor-to-ceiling glass doors. The main restaurant has floor-to-ceiling windows. At the pleasant, indoor-outdoor Aquavit Terrace light fare is served. At times it seems like a picnic back home as the chef tends to barbecued chicken or burgers on an outside grill.

Definitely we’d recommend the Aquavit Terrace’s yummy club sandwiches, the best we’ve had on a ship. The fruit skewers, Asian curry, fresh fish, pasta and savory mushroom soup are also recommended. Glass roofing extends over the buffet area and some tables and the large interior lounge are just steps away. So, weather is never an issue. If it’s sunny, though, grab a table outside for al fresco dining.

Seeking luxury? Then we’d suggest reserving one of two 445-square-foot, wraparound Explorer Suites on each ship. With 270-degree (forward and side) views from exterior balconies, these ships have far forward views, thanks to the Longships’ hybrid diesel-electric engines that produce less vibration.

Longships also have 275-square-foot Veranda Suites. What’s nice is that all Viking Heimdal suites feature separate living and bedroom areas with a veranda off the living room and a French balcony in the bedroom. The Explorer Suite’s bathroom has double sinks, a shower, heated mirror and floor, and premium bath products.

When sailing through France, guests eager to learn more about the region’s art, culture, heritage, cuisine or wine should just pop into the ship’s cozy library occupying a corner of the atrium’s upper level. It has really inviting books, such as one that outlines the architecture of Paris, another the Bordeaux wine culture, plus games too.

Two of the best perks on both S.S. Catherine and Viking Heimdal? They offer large size safes (perfect for a laptop), plus free Internet/Wi-Fi.

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