Porthole‘s Five Faves
Good Things Come in Small Packages
Discovering five joys of river cruising aboard S.S. Catherine
Despite the good fortune of having experienced 500-plus ocean cruises spanning 15 years as a cruise director, I was eager to embrace the relatively new trend of river cruising. In what is described as a boutique cruise experience, a Uniworld cruise aboard S.S. Catherine in Burgundy and Provence provided an epiphany of sorts and rekindled a mildly faded passion for cruising. Here are my five favorite things that I discovered about river cruising.
A Welcome Arrival
From the moment we arrived in Lyon, we knew this experience would be different. After a personal meet-and-greet in the airport, we were whisked off to the ship by Mercedes limo. Pulling alongside S.S. Catherine, we weren’t sure we were in the right place. Where was the embarkation hall, the telltale long lines, the crowded lobby, and travel-weary guests anxious to scurry on board in time for the buffet?
The driver assured us this was where we needed to be, and in five steps to the gangway we were greeted by cruise staff waiting to carry our bags. Ten more steps and we were in a most welcoming lobby. A genuine smile from the front-desk staff said “Welcome aboard, Mr. and Mrs. Leland.” A quick photo for security and we were checked in. And that was it. We were on board, checked in, had lunch, and were unpacking in our beautiful stateroom, all within 1 hour and 30 minutes of our flight arrival.
Carrying a maximum of 160 guests, we knew this vessel would be a world apart from today’s megaships. As we were about to discover, sailing on the Rhone River is one of the finest ways to enjoy Europe’s most scenic views and fascinating destinations. The minute you board this floating palace, an intimate and exceptionally well-designed atrium elegantly welcomes you home. An impressive green crystal chandelier looks over a cascading fountain, disguising a windowed elevator.
One short deck up is the elegant Van Gogh Lounge with an array of colorful furniture spanning numerous genres of design. The public areas are tastefully and artfully decorated. At the aft of the ship is the smaller Leopard Lounge that, in addition to the full-service bar, contains a self-service coffee, tea, and ice machine. Next to the Leopard Lounge is the small, but more than sufficient, indoor swimming pool.
Accommodations reflect opulence at its finest, elegance at its best. We loved to spend time in our stateroom admiring the cinematic display of Burgundy and Provence float by from the comfort of our floor-to-ceiling French balcony. Add in LED lights with dimmers and switches that notify the cabin stewards when you are in or out; the highly appreciated (or so I am told) automated, self-lowering toilet seat; a marble bathroom with heated floor tiles, heated towel rack, and a large shower; plush embroidered towels and robes; and, the piece de resistance, a handcrafted Savoir of London king-size bed, and voila! — you are living large.
Cuisine always plays a major role on a cruise, and the open-seating, come-when-you-like meals aboard S.S. Catherine are the main attraction. The noticeable difference here is that there is no rush to clear out the dining room for the next seating. The waiters truly enjoy your company and get pleasure out of serving you. In that case, I will have another glass of wine!
Culinary experts prepare each open-seating dinner with a distinctive flair. Each day’s menu reflects the regional products and specialties of Burgundy and Provence. What would French cuisine be without exceptional cheeses, escargot, duck, and desserts to die for? Lunch is sit-down service blended with a buffet style. Menus for all meals are creative and varied, and a select vegetarian choice is always available.
Uniworld has obviously invested a great deal of time in training onboard staff to not simply appear happy, but to be genuine. No request seems out of line and satisfaction of the guests is their ultimate goal. The ship, the staff, the food, the entire experience is about a heightened appreciation for things you would otherwise overlook or take for granted. The big things one expects, but it’s the little things that set this cruise experience a world apart.
They say that life is made up of choices, and aboard S.S. Catherine, the fact that those choices are free of charge sweetens life. Each day found us indulging in complimentary excursions exclusively designed for Uniworld guests. Fascinating wine country adventures in the heart of Burgundy, nighttime illumination tours, open markets, walled cities, and activities for the young at heart are all part of the daily activities. Bicycles are provided for anyone who prefers to venture out independently. Expertly guided tours make each port fascinating. Macon with a tour to Beaune, Lyon (day and evening), Tournon, Viviers, Tarascon, Arles, and Avignon made up the week’s itinerary.
Any avid cruiser will tell you that the last day is a dreaded slap back to reality. Saying goodbye to new friends and to the staff, and, of course, packing are all chores put off until the last possible moment. As a general rule, the biggest jolt comes when it’s time to settle up your shipboard account. The tally of the week’s shore excursions, the bar bill, and gratuities can turn that cheeky grin upside down. But not this time! This is an all-inclusive cruise, so each night’s complimentary cocktails, unlimited wine, each day’s shore excursion, and a no-tipping policy makes one feel like having an extra glass of wine in celebration (which, FYI, I will).
Following this journey, I admit that I have fallen off the wagon and my cruise addiction has manifested once again. What we had envisioned and what we experienced could not have been more contrasting. No, I am not anticipating going back on board to work, but the challenge will be finding a cruise that measures up to this one.
— Steve Leland
Photo courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
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