I recently finished up another river cruise, but this one with the boutique luxury river cruise line Uniworld. Although I do plan on writing a full review, I first wanted to jot down some initial impressions while they were still fresh in my mind. As a quick caveat, Uniworld sponsored my trip with them but naturally all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
River cruising in general
While it’s technically my fourth time on a river cruise ship, my latest foray into charted waters was only my second full-length river cruise in Europe, and my first time sailing with a Uniworld vessel. I of course had some expectations going into it, but naturally I was also curious what I would think about the river cruise experience itself. My first European river cruise was in December and the focus was experiencing the Christmas markets and seeing what Europe is like during the holiday season. That’s a rare cruise naturally, and the cruise I took last week in France with Uniworld really is more representative of what the vast majority of river cruise guests experience.
My first impressions are that I understand why river cruising is so popular right now. Companies literally cannot build ships fast enough to keep up with demand, and that’s because the word is out that this style of travel really is a lot of fun. As a dyed-in-the-wool Europhile, it may not be how I want to experience the Old World every time I visit, but river cruising definitely has its place. I honestly love unpacking only once – an absolute rarity not only for me, but for most people who want to spend their vacations traveling around Europe. There’s a lot to be said for the ease and convenience that only a river cruise can provide. Also when I travel, I almost always also include walking tours of some sort. Over the years I’ve learned how valuable a well-trained guide can be and the fact that the river cruise lines include basic walking tours at all of their ports of call is another bonus. So for me, this latest trip has definitely confirmed for me that I do indeed enjoy river cruising – sometimes. It’s not a style of travel that I want to do all of them, but when done either in conjunction with a longer, more independent trip or just as another travel option, I think it definitely has its place.
The Uniworld experience
The only other river cruise in Europe that I’ve been on was with Viking River Cruises, so that’s all I have to compare my Uniworld experience to. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, and overall the two companies are fairly comparable. The layout – but definitely not design – of the company’s newest ships are similar to each other, and the flow of the overall structural design is not too divergent. Uniworld’s design though is very different from Viking’s, and it really has to do with the leadership of both cruise lines. Viking is very Scandinavian, which means clean lines and a functional design. Uniworld, on the other hand, used designers from their affiliated boutique hotel company, Red Carnation, to create the look and feel of a floating boutique hotel. Neither design aesthetic is right or wrong, it just comes down to personal preference. If I am going to be nit-picky, I think that the food and the service were slightly better on Uniworld, and I much prefer the cabin layout on Uniworld as well. But I would happily sail with either company again; the differences weren’t enough to deter me from one or the other.
What I enjoyed most about Uniworld is that it did feel more all-inclusive than Viking, which is nice. If I wanted a drink, whether Diet Coke or something else, I could get it any time of day at no extra fee. Viking restricts complimentary drinks to meals only. Uniworld also had a more luxury feel when it came to onboard service. No matter the request, I never received the answer, “No.” It’s a small thing, but the Uniworld staff did what they could in order to make every single passenger happy and content.
As I said, I plan on writing a much more robust Uniworld-only review, but all in all it was indeed a positive travel experience.
France as a river cruise destination
I love France and while I’ve been there many times, I’ve never done a full, weeklong river cruise through the country. At first I was a little concerned that we wouldn’t have enough time in each location, but turns out I was wrong. Although each stop was unique and very different from each other, the combination of organized tours and independent exploration time gave me every opportunity I needed to explore new towns and cities and to live the life of being in France, instead of just watching from the sidelines. One of my favorite days was spent in Lyon, just to provide one example. I joined a 3-hour walking tour in the morning, and then afterwards I had the entire rest of the day to explore the city on my own. I enjoyed a leisurely lunch in a trendy part of town, walked around the neighborhoods trying to learn more about the city and just had a lovely day meandering. It was perfect and by the time the ship once again left port, I felt like I had seen and done a lot in Lyon. Do I want to return? Sure, but it’s because my experiences there helped me fall in love with the city to the point where I want to go back just to enjoy it some more, not because I felt like I missed something in particular. The river cruise though also brought me closer to very small towns and villages, places I probably would have driven by on the highway, but which became star players on the river cruise. If anything, river cruising in France is a tremendous way to discover areas of the country you probably have never seen before.
My week cruising through France with Uniworld was an overall positive experience. There were ups and downs, positives and negatives, but on the whole I certainly don’t regret my decision to see what the Uniworld experience was like and indeed, it’s an experience I would happily repeat again in other areas of Europe or even the world. River cruising is changing. It’s not the playground for the old and boring, the guests onboard are more diverse than ever and the experiences both onboard and off are far more exciting and just plain fun than they ever have been in the past. This evolution will continue of course and I’m excited to see in how many more ways this style of travel will change in the future.
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