For my first cruise ever, I could not have done better than Uniworld's Provence and Burgundy cruise on the River Royale from April 29-May 6, 2012. (Please note: this review will not focus on shore excursions because I have detailed them on my travel blog at http://www.riverroyale.weebly.com.)
The ship was to leave from Arles, an hour west of Marseilles Airport. Uniworld offers a pre-cruise extension to Aix en Provence, but I thought three nights was too long and it was too expensive. So I went a day early and headed to Aix for one night. There is a shuttle bus from the Marseilles Airport to Aix that is very easy to find if you ask at the Information Desk; it's cheap and nice and only takes about 20 minutes. You buy the ticket on board from the bus driver, similar to a city bus only he will make change if need be. It cost seven euros and some odd cents. It leaves you off at the train station in Aix, which is within walking distance of the city center. I stayed at the Hotel Saint Christophe, and can recommend it as a moderately priced place with small but spotless rooms, updated bathrooms, and a terrific location.
For my transfer to Arles, our point of embarkation, I made my way back to Marseilles Airport on the bus. I was worried about finding the Uniworld representative, but had no problem. The bus makes two stops; you should get off at the second stop.
When we arrived at the dock after an hour's drive, a light buffet lunch was waiting in the Renoir Lounge. The rooms weren't going to be ready until 3:00, so after a little exploring of the public areas, I went to the internet area where there are three computers and free WiFi, or like me you can plug in your own. Later I found the WiFi also worked in my room and on the sundeck. While on the topic, let me say the internet connection usually worked well, albeit with a slower speed than at home when uploading photos. Sometimes when we were sailing or in one of the locks the connection was spotty. Before using it, you need to get a user name and password from the front desk and it's yours to use for the whole cruise.
The ship is beautiful -- very elegant decor and all brand-new this cruise season (2012). There is a striking mosaic of Provence scenes behind the reception desk, lots of mirrors that make everything seem larger, and a golden chandelier. The Cezanne Dining Room is lovely, with a blue and white color scheme, more mirrors, and large picture windows. It has large round tables for six or eight, and tables for four along the windows, so you can be sociable at a big table or sit at a table for 2-4. The lounge/bar is plush with love seats and chairs. I found the love seats to be uncomfortable, with loose pillows behind your back that weren't supportive enough, but the chairs were fine. There is a piano there, and the pianist played during 4:00 tea time and in the evening after dinner. Anything you order in the lounge you pay extra for, so be careful.
My room (107) was tiny, with tone-on-tone decor, but a very plush-looking bed. It was very comfortable. Tiny rooms are to be expected I guess. I was traveling solo so the room was big enough, but I can imagine with two people it would be cramped. There was plenty of storage space though; two big drawers under the bed, a large closet with at least five shelves and space for hanging items on good wooden hangers, and a large drawer under the bathroom sink. There is an umbrella, a hair dryer, plenty of high quality L'Occitane toiletries, and a safe.
My room was on the Champagne Deck, a misnomer that I think is intended to make it sound grand. It's actually the bottom deck, but the rooms are exactly like the ones above only with two portholes instead of a picture window. I never found myself feeling claustrophobic without the picture window, and felt enough light came in. I can't see paying $500 more just for a big window.
The people at the front desk are mostly French, as is the captain, but the rest of the staff are mostly from Eastern Europe. They were a terrific group -- unfailingly polite and friendly. It doesn't seem forced or unnatural. I think they enjoy their jobs. One waiter I had the most is from Poland; his name is Jakub. He had a wry, low-key sense of humor and gave great service. The maitre d', Marius, is a real riot and full of personality, very cheerful, and hysterically funny. Our hotel manager, Aniko, was in training but did an outstanding job. Our tour manager, Alexandra, was very efficient and knowledgeable. Nothing ever went wrong.
Passengers were from all over -- South Africa, Australia, the UK, Japan, and lots of Canadians and Americans. There were two other solo women travelers at my table the first night, so I wasn't the only one. I think 99% of the passengers were over 40, which is not a bad thing, since I'm over 40 myself. Everyone was great to talk to -- as you can imagine on a trip like this, they are all well-traveled and it's great hearing their stories and telling some of my own. Many people are confirmed river-cruise lovers and repeat Uniworld customers.
Our first dinner on Sunday night was good but not as great as I thought it would be. I had regional cured ham with broccio and fresh garden herbs; cream of zucchini with toasted pine nuts soup; grilled black Bigorre pork tournedos with honey-thyme jus, fried onion rings, cassoulet of Tarbais beans, and sauteed skin potatoes with fleur de sel; and for dessert St. Tropez tart filled with a light vanilla orange-flower cream, served with a seasonal fruit smoothie in a shot glass.
On Monday, after a lavish buffet breakfast we had an optional 45-minute presentation about Van Gogh and his paintings. Then we headed on foot for the sites. You can easily walk everywhere. Uniworld provides listening devices on the tours. They are great; you don't have to stay right next to the guide but can wander through a church, for instance, and still hear the guide.
After a scrumptious and abundant buffet lunch I went along on an optional tour to an olive farm and a town perched on a rock called Les Baux de Provence. Les Baux was a great place to visit, and I highly recommend this optional tour for it alone. I believe it cost 49 euros.
Before dinner there was a Captain's Welcome cocktail reception during which the crew of the ship got all dressed up and were introduced to the passengers by our cruise manager. Then we enjoyed the Captain's Welcome Dinner. We overnighted in Avignon and in the morning had a three-hour walking tour of the city.
For dinner that night I had salad Nicoise; vegetable minestrone with pesto; homemade cannelloni filled with spinach and meat, bechamel sauce, and tomato sugo gratinated with mozzarella cheese. And dessert was once again fabulous: lemon tartlette with meringue and strawberry coulis. Uniworld has their own pastry chef on board.
I haven't described the breakfast buffet yet. Basically, it's got everything Americans or Europeans could want, hot or cold, including an omelet station. That says it all. Lunch is also a buffet and equally lavish, and features regional dishes. At dinner, if you don't like the choices on the menu, you can request a steak or baked chicken. The wine flows freely. I never had anything bad to eat; the first night's dinner could have been better, and the beef one night could have been more tender, but mostly it was all MAGNIFIQUE.
The next night we were in Viviers. Don't be intimidated about climbing the steep hill to get to the cathedral. It wasn't bad; we went slowly and made lots of stops. I joined the "gentle walking" group, but it stayed just behind the other groups so it wasn't really more moderate.
Tonight we had an "Epicurean Adventure" for dinner. It's basically the same high quality four-course meal like we've been having all along, but they serve different fine wines with every course. The waiters took turns making announcements at the front of the dining room as each wine was served, telling something about the wine. I don't drink wine, but I was told by one of my dining partners that they really were serving excellent wines.
For dinner I had: Fresh mesclun leaves with oven-baked Ardeche goat cheese marinated in thyme-honey olive oil; traditional gratinated onion soup; grilled medallion of Salers beef strip loin with St. Joseph braised oxtail, yellow string beans, and sage-buttered Roman ravioli; and local yeast cake with pralines, prepared like French toast and served with apricot compote.
The next day we made a short stop in Tournon and Tain l'Hermitage, which are on the opposite sides of the Rhone River. That morning we had a lecture about France by our tour manager.
Lyon was next, which has been a major center for the production of silk products since the 16th century. Many people on the tour were very excited about buying silk scarves. I saw many beautiful ones, but they are way too expensive for me.
There were many boats docked here, and due to lack of space they dock next to each other. The people on the outside boats have to cross through the lobbies of the boats closer to land in order to get to shore.
Lyon is located at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. This is where we left the Rhone sailed into the Saone, on our way to Chalon. In the afternoon at tea time there was a talk and demonstration about silk screening and painting, and silk scarves were for sale. Then, at 5:30, we set sail for Chalon, where we arrived by morning.
The Captain's Farewell Dinner that night was great as usual. We started with an "amuse-bouche," followed by lobster and prawn cocktail in cognac Marie-Louise sauce; consomme with truffle under a puff pastry dome; grilled bay scallops seasoned with black pepper on sweet-and-sour vegetables; seared filet mignon of Black Angus beef with sauce Choron, vegetable bouquet and Arlie potato; and for dessert "la bombe glacee River Royale" (Baked Alaska).
Before serving dessert, the lights went down, some music played, and the pastry chef, followed by all the other chefs and waiters, came marching in. The pastry chef was carrying the baked Alaska on a raised arm, and it was lit up with a large sparkler. They circled around the room and lined up at the front. Our hotel manager then introduced the crew as she did the first night. I suspect it's to remind us who they are right before we fill out our comment forms and fill our tip envelopes. Regardless, it was very cute.
That night we sailed from Lyon up the Saone River to Chalon. After breakfast, we traveled via motorcoach through the vineyards of Burgundy to Beaune (pronounced "bone". We had time for lunch on our own in Beaune and for visiting the outdoor market. Most of us felt the stop was too long.
Dinner tonight I chose Sucrine lettuce with Caesar dressing and deep-fried breaded Comte cheese with cranberry jam; cream of cauliflower soup; spinach-and-feta-stuffed crepes surrounded with herb bechamel; traditional Napoleon (butter puff pastry layered with patissiere cream and surrounded with raspberry sauce.)
All in all, it was one of the best trips I've ever taken. Traveling solo on a river cruise is no problem at all. I met lots of nice people easily. Everyone is very friendly. Uniworld has certain cruises where they waive the single supplement, which is a fabulous benefit! I don't know if they do that every year or just in 2012.
Do not hesitate to go if you are a little bit unfit; they offer "gentle walking" versions or the tours; in Avignon they offered a tram ride too, and in Lyon you can opt to take a bus tour instead of the walking tour. I did not find the walking tour to be strenuous though. But I stress: only if you are LITTLE BIT unfit. There is still a lot of hazardous and hilly walking on cobblestones.