Uniworld’s fleet of river ships is known for being grand and elegant, in eye-popping ways. The 159-passenger S.S. Catherine, which debuted last week in the French city of Lyon, only raises the bar on their trademark design qualities.
S.S. Catherine has similar amenities to S.S. Antoinette, its most immediate predecessor. There’s an indoor swimming pool, a genuine nightclub, and balconies that convert to conservatories with the flick of a switch.
But the designers of S.S. Catherine, which included Uniworld matriarch Beatrice Tollman, daughter Toni Tollman, and project manager Brian Brennan, had a bit more of a challenge with this one. S.S. Antoinette has the great good fortune to cruise on the mighty Rhine, which has fewer size constraints than any other European river.
The Rhone, where S.S. Catherine is based, has low-slung bridges and numerous locks that limit the fun extras. You won’t find S.S. Antoinette’s dedicated cinema and the L’Orangerie restaurant on the top deck replicated here. Otherwise, the S.S. Catherine design team managed to fit just about everything in.
Before we start off with our hits and misses from our recent christening cruise on the Rhone, it’s important to point out that S.S. Catherine – and all other Uniworld ships – have launched a new, more inclusive policy in which gratuities and all drinks, save for special brands, are included in cruise fares.
*Lounge pool. While all river ships concentrate after-dinner entertainment in the lounge, S.S. Catherine has the dedicated Bar du Leopard for those who want to dance to live music, watch the stars from the aft terrace, or – get this – take a swim.
Yes, you read that correctly: One of the ingenuous space-saving ideas on S.S. Catherine is that a gorgeous small pool, with a jungle mosaic theme, is tucked away behind floor- to-ceiling glass walls within the bar. The pool glows emerald-green at night, adding a tropical, whimsical hootchy-kootchy ambience. It’s magic.
*Lounge overall. Beyond its room-with-a-pool innovation, the Bar du Leopard is a cozy, comfortable area, with dark wood paneling, comfortable chairs, and tables which make it easy to dine, work on laptops, or play cards. During the day, it’s a quiet gathering spot. At dinner, it’s home to a bistro, with lighter, less formal fare than is served in the dining room.
*Lobby. First impressions matter to the folks at Uniworld, so the entrance lobby is literally a art installation. The signature feature is a green, almost-life-sized horse made entirely of Murano glass. Above, a complementing chandelier, also hand-blown, is made up of smaller horses. The elevator is surrounded by a waterfall. And the walls are all-glass, punctuated with green glass trim.
*Spa. On S.S. Catherine, a passenger cabin has been converted to a spa treatment room that’s truly the most beautiful we’ve seen on the rivers. The treatments are limited primarily to massages but our 60-minute Swedish was superb.
*Cabin decor. Aside from the five suites, the cabins aren’t massive. Still, they are comfortable and perfectly outfitted, particularly in the veranda-category staterooms (which represent most of the cabins; there are only a handful of window-only options).
One highlight is the Savoir of England beds, custom made for Uniworld; they come with crisp, high thread quality sheets and duvet, along with a luggage storage area underneath. The marble bathrooms have heated floors, roomy showers and plenty of storage space (toiletries are L’Occitane in all but the suites, which get Hermes). The flatscreens have a fine selection of movies and television channels.
*Indoor/Outdoor balcony. A hit from S.S. Antoinette, the space is equipped with two chairs and a small table. It now has a button you can push to put a screen in place – a nice addition, as the Rhone often gets buggy in summer.
*Miscellaneous hits. Uniworld spent $1 million on artwork, with pieces by Chagall, Miro and the like. Loved the in-cabin safe: It was laptop-sized, came equipped with electricity for charging, and had an interior light to help prevent leaving valuables behind. There’s a free do-it-yourself laundry. All Uniworld ships are equipped with free bicycles for passenger use.
*Sun deck. Uniworld sun decks are usually as design-focused as the rest of the ships. In this case, there’s no wow effect, as the collapsible furniture must be flattened so the vessel can pass under the route’s low bridges. Still, there’s plenty of “wow” from the Rhone’s scenery as you pass by.
*This is a plus and a minus: Service is generally superb, but perhaps more formal, more European in style, than many are used to.
*Ceilings. In the otherwise gorgeous Cezanne Restaurant and the Van Gogh Lounge are lower than usual (a 6’5” colleague reports that he had about an inch to spare); again, a necessity brought on by the constraints of the Rhone rather than by choice.