In August I joined my third river cruise, but only my second weeklong cruise in Europe. The year before I had taken a Christmas market river cruise with Viking River Cruises and had a great experience. I was curious about traveling with Uniworld though and so when they asked me to join them on a trip, I quickly accepted. Uniworld is known as a luxury river cruise company and as a luxury traveler myself, I wanted to sail with them to see if the experience lived up to the billing.
The river cruise experience
Many of the guests onboard the Uniworld ship the SS Catherine were like me and had been on river cruises before. Not only that, but more than half had been on a Uniworld trip before. Like so many others, they’ve realized the benefits that a river cruise can provide. Before last year I never thought I’d enjoy taking a river cruise, but my misconceptions were based entirely on outdated ideas of what river cruising means. In the last few years, the industry has grown by leaps and bounds and thanks to some healthy competition among companies, the ships and services have never been better.
For me personally, river cruising will never be the only way I see Europe or any other part of the world. But, it is a great travel style and option and I can easily see myself going on one every year or every other year as a nice complement to the other trips my partner and I like to take. I enjoy it for many reasons, but convenience and unique access are the two main reasons why I recommend river cruises. Unpacking once is a luxury most visitors to Europe know nothing about, but for me it’s a great reason to join a cruise. Settling into my cabin and having a home base, while still exploring different towns and cities is a luxury in its own right and shouldn’t be underestimated. The cruises transport guests usually into the hearts of these towns, providing ease of access that can’t be beat. I never felt rushed or harried and always had more than enough time in each port of call. If you haven’t tried a river cruise before, I think you’ll be surprised at how these positive attributes so very dramatically change the tone and tenor of your trip. The stress of navigating train stations or finding tour guides is gone, and in its place is a relaxing but engaging way to see the best of Europe.
Ship and onboard amenities
But what about Uniworld in particular? Each of the river cruise lines have their differences, attributes that set them apart from their rivals. I sailed on the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Super Ship Catherine. Christened in 2014, she is as modern a ship as one could hope for and provided a fantastic launching pad from which to explore Provence and Burgundy in France. The SS Catherine holds a maximum of 159 guests, meaning that the ratios are better than on some other cruise lines. My cruise had slightly less than that and the balance was perfect. Never a line to do anything, but enough people to chat with and learn more about that it made the trip interesting.
The ship’s décor was put together by a team of designers from Uniworld’s affiliated boutique hotel brand Red Carnation. The thought was to create the sense of a boutique hotel on the water. When people ask me about the major differences between Viking and Uniworld, I usually first point out the décor, as they are radically different from each other, but both do reflect the brands well. On Viking, the theme is Scandinavian with clean lines and nothing unnecessary. Uniworld is about the art, frills and opulence, sort of like a floating gallery. Neither is right or wrong, better or worse, it comes down ultimately to personal taste I think.
I was in a normal stateroom that on the whole was comfortable and roomy. There was no balcony, but instead a window side seating area. The linens were soft Egyptian cotton and I sunk into my bed every evening after a full day of exploration. The other room amenities are as one would expect, plenty of closet space, desk area and a well-appointed bathroom. A quick note on the bathroom: on Viking my chief complaint was the frosted glass bathroom that looks amazing, but if you try to use it in the middle of the night it suddenly becomes a room-sized flashlight. Luckily, Uniworld’s was tucked away behind a none-see-through door. But unlike Viking, Uniworld didn’t provide me with individual amenities, which I thought weird for a luxury cruise ship. Instead the shampoos and lotions were in large bottles permanently affixed to the wall. Both cruise lines use L’Occitane products, but on Viking I had my own personal sized bottles. The Uniworld rooms also lack individual mini-fridges, which was a little annoying at first but ultimately didn’t make a huge impact on my stay thanks to their all-inclusive food and beverage policies. Complimentary WiFi is also included, but like other cruise lines doesn’t always work well. Chatting with other guests that was everyone’s chief complaint and one that I think could be easily fixed. In 2015, everyone – no matter their age – wants to get online when they travel, if only to share photos with family and friends back home. River cruise lines must improve their WiFi if they want to remain competitive.
Food and beverage
All-inclusive is a dangerous word to bandy about since people will naturally look for ways in which you are NOT all-inclusive. But Uniworld does a pretty good job of sticking to that ethos, and that’s seen best in the food and beverage offerings. First, the drinks. Unlike some other cruise lines, drinks are complimentary throughout the day and not just during meal times. As a Diet Coke fan, that meant I could sit in the lounge in the afternoon, enjoy a few Diet Cokes and not worry about signing for a charge. If you’re a drinker, all beers, wines and hard liquors are also included, which is nice if you want to join the cocktail hour and not worry about extra fees being charged to your stateroom. Nickel and diming is a pet peeve of mine, and it’s great to see a river cruise line maintain an all-inclusive policy.
The food was excellent and amongst the best of any cruise line I’ve sailed with, be it river or ocean based. Breakfasts were large and creative, lunches were provided either buffet style or a la carte but the real culinary star was of course the dinners. With plenty of choices that reflect the areas of France through which we sailed, I was impressed by the creativity of the Uniworld chefs. I was also impressed at how flexible they were. I never heard the word no, a fact I’ll get to when I talk about service, but for a picky eater like me it was great to learn I could change or replace just about any menu item. Not only was the food delicious, but it was manageable. Several courses for dinner every night is a lot for a light eater like me, but the serving sizes were all reasonable – not too large, which meant at the end of the evening I didn’t feel overly stuffed. It showed a restraint that is oftentimes lacking and was a nice way to truly enjoy the food without the accompanying guilt.
Snacks and access to coffee throughout the day could’ve been improved. Both were present, but not conveniently located. If I wanted to sit in the lounge and read while sipping coffee, I would have to either order a fancier coffee than I wanted from the bar, or trek to the other side of the ship to get it. Again, not the end of the world but it was an annoyance.
Ports of call and excursions
I sailed on the Burgundy and Provence cruise starting in Avignon and ending in Lyon. Some of the cities I’d been to before, but many were new to me. As an ardent Francophile I was excited to see more of this country I love so much and doing it with Uniworld was a great way to enjoy my time in France. Like other river cruise companies, Uniworld includes complimentary shore excursions. Unlike some other lines though, they also offer choices in excursions. Sure, you can take a standard walking tour through a new town in the morning, but Uniworld also offered different tours based on interest. What surprised me the most were the active shore excursions; a style that quickly became my favorite. Just as cruise lines offer additional services to those with limited mobility, Uniworld also offers services to those who want to be extremely mobile. Bike tours, strenuous hikes and longer tours were all part of these Go Active excursions, including a remarkable 8-kilometer kayaking trip through the UNESCO recognized Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard. Even better was that these excursions were all complimentary. Space was limited, but if you made the list there were no additional fees when honestly, they could have easily charged us. At a few ports of call, Uniworld offers some extra-special excursions, for which there were fees. While it goes against a truly all-inclusive experience, those fees really are for the operators with whom they’re contracting and I understand the reason for charging. Plus they’re so different that they don’t at all detract from the experience if you don’t do them, they’re just something extra that’s nice to do. On my trip the extra-fee excursions included: Visiting villages in Provence and then an olive farm for tasting; traveling to a truffle farm to go truffle hunting and tasting and finally, lunch at a 12th century chateau with the owner, set in the impossibly beautiful vineyards of Burgundy. But overall I was thrilled with all of the choices offered to us when it came time to experiencing the destination, which is what a good river cruise is really all about.
Service and overall impressions
Earlier in this post I wrote that I never heard the word, “No,” and that’s true. The staff onboard the Uniworld ship SS Catherine are amongst the best I’ve seen and ultimately that’s what matters the most. More than linens or tassels on curtains, luxury is all about the service. It’s what differentiates brands and experiences, and onboard the Catherine the service was indeed luxurious. Chatting with several of the other passengers, I wasn’t alone in my thoughts and almost to a person, everyone first commented on the outstanding service they received, from housekeeping to the cruise director, and what an enormous impact that made upon their trips.
River cruising is changing and it’s changing quickly. While the majority of guests I would say are above the age of 50, more and more below 50 are also cruising. On both weeklong river cruises, I wasn’t the youngest person and each time had enough peers – fellow Gen-Xers – to make me feel less awkward. Onboard my Uniworld ship were guests of all ages and backgrounds, from disparate parts of the world creating an atmosphere that was fun and convivial. River cruising today really is for just about everyone and is I think a fantastic way to see parts of Europe and the rest of the world that you might otherwise miss.
So would I cruise with Uniworld again? Yes, it was absolutely a great experience and while I don’t think every trip for every person should be a river cruise, I do think it’s a fun travel style that should be added into the mix when you’re planning your next big getaway.