As I embarked on River Royale in the beautiful Provencal town of Arles -- best known for the time Van Gogh spent there -- I wasn't sure what to expect from my first river cruise. I'd recently come to the realization that the smaller the ship, the more likely I'd enjoy the cruise, but would a 132-passenger, four-deck riverboat be too small? And how would I fare with one or more different ports every single day, without a single "sea day" in sight?
After a week aboard, the answer is that river cruising is more enjoyable than I could ever have imagined. Few travel experiences can compare to gliding silently down France's Rhone and Saone rivers, meeting the locals, tasting their food and wine, enjoying their history, art and music while cruising in supreme comfort among the company of like-minded individuals. My previous view of river cruising -- a mildly interesting sideshow to the main event, the ocean cruise industry -- has been radically transformed. I'm certainly not about to give up ocean cruising, but I now see river cruising as equally compelling.
Since the 1990's, there has been a burst in new river cruise ship construction, and river vessels -- which had all looked pretty much the same for the previous 20 years or so -- began to look radically different with bigger cabins, more lavish public rooms and new amenities like spas and "French balconies" (glass doors that open out onto a railing for fresh air and expansive views).
Long at the forefront of river cruising, Uniworld (River Royale's owner) pioneered many of these amenities when it began building its own fleet of European boutique ships a decade ago. Founded over 30 years ago by a Serbian-born airline executive, Uniworld was the first company to bring European river cruising to the North American market. While Uniworld now has a number of major competitors, it still holds its own among its newer competitors. This is due in part to new ownership of the major tour operator (sister companies include Trafalgar and Brendan) that bought the line several years ago.
Originally ordered by another company and bought half-complete at a significant savings, 2006's River Royale is one of the most expensive and technologically advanced river vessels ever built. The extra cost -- the ship's original price tag was nearly twice that of many similar vessels -- shows in the luxuriousness of the materials and furnishings inside, with expensive wood, marble, leather, fabrics, glass and brass evident at every turn. From the padded, fabric-covered walls in the cabin passageways to the one-piece ceilings (they look gorgeous but are nightmares for access to in-ceiling plumbing and wiring) to the lighting in the cabins that's worthy of a Broadway stage, it's obvious Uniworld spared no expense in the fitting out of this ship and the result is that its interiors are uncommonly luxurious.
But as lovely as the ship is, river cruising isn't about the ship; it's about the destinations. The ports of call are the highlight of any river cruise, and River Royale's itinerary in Provence and Burgundy is no exception. On my cruise (alternating northbound and southbound itineraries visit the same ports in opposite order), we started in Arles -- which in addition to the sites of famous Van Gogh paintings, offers interesting Roman ruins -- and sailed up the Rhone river to Lyon before switching to the Saone. There we headed up to Chalon-sur-Saone in Burgundy. In between, ports included Avignon, famous as the seat of the popes for much of the 14th century; the charming town of Viviers, home of France's smallest cathedral, where we enjoyed an organ concert and then a lunch in the town hall featuring local products; the twin cities of Tournon and Tain L'Hermitage in the famous Cotes du Rhone wine-producing region; and Macon, a Burgundian wine-trading town before ending in Chalon-sur-Saone. (In 2008, the River Royale itinerary is eliminating the call in Macon in favor of arriving a day earlier in Chalon, at which passengers will take a tour into the wine country of Burgundy.)
Each port has its own charm and character, and the variety, from small towns to large cities, helps to create a complete picture of the region. Combined with the relaxed and comfortable on-board atmosphere, luxurious accommodations and excellent food and service, the variety of ports makes a cruise aboard River Royale a superlative travel experience, one not to be missed for those wanting to see this beautiful part of the world in style and luxury.