My husband and I are veteran cruisers, mostly on the smaller lines like Windstar and SeaDream, a few on the mid sized Oceania ships and one each on Celebrity Eclipse and Oceania Marina just to try the larger experience. We prefer the smaller, and since we are always looking for a convenient way to travel in Europe that avoids renting a car, which we do only when absolutely necessary, a river cruise seemed like a good idea. After some research we settled on Uniworld and the recently refurbished River Royale sailing the Saone and Rhone rivers in southern France.
After four cold and rainy days in Paris we took the train from Paris Bercy to Chalon-sur-Saone where, on the advice of a Tripadvisor friend, arranged for a taxi to pick us up and take us to the ship for 12E (A.B. TAXIS www.taxi-chalon.com). They were right where they said they would be and easily recognizable as they had emailed me a picture of their vehicle. It was a short ride but not walkable with luggage.
We were welcomed on the boat and informed a light lunch would be served at 12:30 as our cabins would not be available until 3:00. After soup and a sandwich we ventured into Chalon only to discover the Sunday market was just finishing at 1:30pm. I wish I had known. The town was lovely, but largely shut down for the rest of the day. At 3:00 we were shown our cabin on the lowest deck (the least expensive) and one on the second lowest, an offered upgrade for about $400 instead of the $1000 quoted precruise. The cabins were identical except for the large picture windows instead of portholes. We opted for the upgrade and enjoyed it, especially since the weather was not conducive to sitting up on the top deck, but because much of the sailing was done after dark, and we were often docked against the pier or with another boat rafted along side eliminating any view at port, I'm not sure it would have been worth the price if paid in full.
Generalities about the River Royale:
1. First and foremost, the food was amazing, the best I have ever enjoyed on any cruise line and equal competition for the high end meals we had in Paris before the sail. The food was fresh, inventive, varied and in keeping with different French cuisines. The pastry was particularly exemplary. And, while I'm at it, the wait staff was professional, efficient and always ready to do more than was asked. Absolutely no complaints.
2. Admittedly, at about 120 passengers, the River Royale is a small ship, but I was very impressed with the constant eagerness to please, to answer any question, to help with any problem. No one was excluded. For example, the captain modeled the life vest at the safety briefing and the second captain helped with luggage on disembarkation. The staff offered to help passengers make their way with their luggage to the train station after the cruise since it was within walking distance but a bit of a challenge for older people with heavy suitcases. I though this was above and beyond the call of duty but seemed par for the course for the River Royale team. A scale was even provided so luggage could be weighed to avoid additional airline fees; so thoughtful. Although passengers had to be out of their cabins by 8:00 on disembarkation, no one was rushed off the boat and those with later arrangements were even offered lunch. When a cruise line continues to happily offer assistance once the cruise is completed and the gratuities have been submitted, well, in my opinion, that is remarkable.
3. The boat is in fine shape and plenty large enough for what it does. Due to challenging weather the upper deck was not used much and I was there only to watch us go through a lock or two. The gym was small and could have used some heavier weights, but it was a pretty lonely place anyway and I doubt the average passenger had similar concerns. Open seating during meals was delightful and meeting other passengers was a great deal of the fun.
4. Perhaps I should have studied the brochure more carefully before leaving but I was disappointed to learn that the 'optional tours' were an additional fee as I thought the Uniworld cruises were all inclusive. That being said, we very much enjoyed the included and non included tours we attended. The English speaking guides were quite good and the 'voice boxes' that allowed them to speak into a microphone straight into your ear eliminated all the jostling in groups when no one can hear. Also, some interesting twists to the tours such as an organ concert (included) or cooking lessons and wine tastings (optional) were a very nice addition to the more common walking tour. I should also mention that several "gentle" tours were offered for those with mobility issues and included more time on a bus.
5. The stops were a nice mix of smaller towns and larger cities. The boat was always docked an easy walk into town. We often came back to the boat for lunch or to grab an umbrella and went right back out again.
6. Unless all the optional tours are taken, there is a fair amount of free time, usually a half day, and I wished I had done more research on the individual ports so that our time could have been used more efficiently. Those who were big shoppers had more than enough to keep them busy.
7. The onboard entertainment was minimal, which was fine by us since we are early to bed, early to rise types and enjoy lingering at dinner with new friends. The pianist was talented and twice entertainers from shore came on board although we did not see their performances.
8. Really enjoyed Emmanuelle, our cruise director. A native of Marseille, she was funny, knowledgeable, approachable, efficient and eager to please. She is very good at what she does. Also, Marius of the wait staff was a star.
9. My only real issue regards the tipping policy which was mentioned 2 or 3 times in print and as many times verbally, making me for one, increasingly uncomfortable. In my opinion, tips should be included or, if not, should be mentioned once at the end of the voyage. For such a tasteful and refined experience, this was the one off note.
After the cruise we visited Les Baux with Sylvain of Taxi Provence Tours before he dropped us at our hotel in St. Remy. He did a very nice job and I would recommend him. Also, our transfer to the Marseilles airport was done by Delphine of Transferts Service-Roch Voyages and she was lovely -- highly recommended.
I would be more than happy to answer anyone's question regarding this cruise. My hat is off to Uniworld and I look forward to more trips with them in the near future.