River Cruise from Avignon to Lyon aboard the SS Catherine. 4/6/2014-4/13/2014.
Summary: We would do it again. Uniworld cannot be beat. Service: 5/5 stars. Shore tours: 5 stars. Food quality and presentation: 5 stars. Room (Suite) design and dockage: 3.5 stars. Program: 4 stars.
Our credentials: this was our first ever river cruise. We have been on 5 ocean cruises on different lines. Of those we found Celebrity to be the top, Carnival the bottom. Princess and RCL were the others. We are in our early 70s. We have experienced a range of hotels from Red Roof Inns to the Marriott Marquis on Times Square. Similar dining experience.
Background: This was the first commercial cruise for this ship. Our Travel agent recommended Uniworld over Viking because of service and passenger/size ratio. For virtually the same size ship Uniworld books a max of 160 passengers and Viking is closer to 200. Also, Uniworld fares include tips, most shore tours, and bar….including most spirits. The complimentary mini bar and carafes of spirits in your room are tailored to your preferences.
Uniworld also includes transfers even if you book alternate transportation. The only requirement is that you meet up with their “standard” transfer points; usually an airport, or possibly a hotel on their pre-post stay itineraries.
Passenger demographics: On this cruise they told us there were 114 passengers. We are not sure if that included the several Uniworld “suits” on board to check out cruise #1. Of the “paying” passengers about 30? were travel agents. They pretty much hung together and did not want to talk about their jobs or what special accommodation was made to have them on board. These were mostly women in their 40s.
Of the remainder most passengers were couples between 50 and 60. No children.
Service: Simply the best we could ever ask for. Each individual—whether one of the 2 butlers assigned to the 6 suites, a server, a housekeeper, or a sailing crew member—always had a smile and a greeting. Every one was willing to help in whatever way they could. As an example of their care, there was even a Uniworld rep at the departure airport. She greeted us as the transfer bus unloaded us at the airport, offering whatever assistance we might need to complete our departing flight arrangements.
Food: The menus and presentation were simply top notch. Breakfast and Lunch were mostly buffets. Thankful for these; we could measure our portions to accommodate our senior stomach capacities. Dinner was served with several options for appetizers and main course. The cuisine competes with the finest of any shore restaurant.
As an example: the breakfast buffet was more than a buffet. One could also order from the galley any form of eggs cooked to order; including eggs benedict.
Room design: We were booked in a regular suite. On board there is one level higher—Royal Suite. There was ample room to move around. The negatives with regard to design are two: First, the outboard horizontal up/down half of the window was clever (the upper half was powered up and down) but the horizontal frame was about at eye level when sitting in the “full” balcony. Call “full” maybe 2’X8’? Second, there are sliding glass doors inboard of the balcony. These doors separate the balcony from the inboard sitting area of the wuite. So picture a balcony 8’ wide with 4 2’ sliding sections. The maximum opening is now 4’. Very annoying to squeeze past them to sit on the balcony. We used the balcony rarely due to the obstructed view. Fortunately the weather was unexpectedly warm and sunny so the outside decks—esp the sun deck—were totally acceptable.
Dockage: For 2 of our 7 days/nights there was another ship docked against ours, on our side. Thus for privacy reasons we had the curtains closed, making for a virtual inside cabin. And since the curtains are on the inboard side of the “full” balcony its square footage was not usable.
Shore Tours: These were well organized and guided by true professionals. Our Shore Tour Director, Emmanuelle, was a vivacious bundle of energy and information. She handled the stress of the first set of tours for the season with cool and entertaining professionalism. Every night she gave a talk about what to expect on the next day’s tour, including some local sayings/language.
Our guide in Viviers ended our tour at her home, where she and a neighbor friend served bread, wine, and cheese! Be sure to try to get on Frances’ tour in Viviers!
Shore Tours: Gentle Walking:
One of the attractions of Uniworld was its offering of Gentle Walking for its shore tours. On some tours Gentle Walking was treated very well……taxis available to meet at intermediate stops for instance. On other tours Gentle Walking appeared to be an after thought. Some tours had no accommodation for Gentle Walking from the general tour. For example, Emmanuelle described the general tour as “level, with few steps”. But level cobblestone is not the same as level concrete. We rate their Gentle Walking as a nice thought but needs more attention.
Program: To our mind the most negative aspect of the cruise was Uniworld’s decision to have unannounced, private, invitation-only parties most nights in the most intimate bar—the Bar du Leopard. This usually included dinner for a dozen or two. It virtually closed that bar/lounge—and thus the general access to the indoor swimming pool—between 7 and 9 each night. Unknowingly, we received this “special” honor one night (This night was for Suite occupants.). We feel guilty because we thought it was a one night only event but now realize that 90 % of the paying passengers were excluded each night. When we complained to the Cruise Director she told us we could use the lounge because “there were only 14 in tonight’s party”. But who wants to be a party crasher?
The whole approach just seemed contrary to one of the guiding principles of France: Egalité. As far as we know not everyone was included in one of these soirees. We even know of some who got invitations to more than one. This was the only situation where we felt unwelcome and Uniworld appeared to us to be inhospitable.
It is actually sad that the hospitality offered by every Uniworld individual gets tarnished by such an organizational decision.
Tips: Even knowing tips were included we did leave some tips for the people who helped us personally the most: the butlers and the housekeeper. Certainly these were nowhere near the amounts one would leave if tips were not included. We never felt the slightest pressure to enhance the included tip schedule.