By Douglas Newman, Cruise Critic contributor
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.
River Royale Fellow Passengers
The common thread among all of River Royale's passengers is that they are English speaking and want to see this particular part of the world in a luxurious, stress-free manner.
Americans and Canadians form the largest passenger contingent, but while Uniworld once focused its marketing only in North America, sister tour operators now market the company's cruises throughout the English-speaking world including the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. As a result, passenger groups are becoming more diverse.
With the majority of passengers falling between 50 and 75, the average age is around 65 though there are certainly those both younger and older. Virtually all passengers are well traveled. Some have been on river and/or ocean cruises before, and there is often a sprinkling of first-time cruisers, many of whom would not normally consider a cruise and chose the trip purely for the itinerary. There are some passengers who have gone on organized land tours and have looked to river cruising as an alternative to that travel experience they did not enjoy. The ship's intimate size and friendly atmosphere mean that before long, everybody knows everybody, and the atmosphere on board is more like a private club than a large cruise ship.
River Royale Dress Code
There's no strict, set-in-stone dress code; the ship's policy might be described as, "anything goes, within reason." Most people wear comfortable, practical clothing for the daytime shore excursions while in the evenings, they dress in "elegant casual," the only specific noted requirement of which is that passengers may not wear shorts in the dining room after 6 p.m. The first and last nights of the cruise are just plain "casual" (again, no shorts allowed; just what the difference is between this and "elegant casual" is not clear). The first and sixth nights (Captain's Welcome and Farwell Dinners) are "formal," with a jacket suggested but certainly not required for men (most do wear them, and some wear ties and even suits).
River Royale Gratuity
The ship's gratuity policy is simple: it suggests 10 euros (about $14) per person per day to be pooled among the ship's crew and another 3 euros (about $4) per person per day for the cruise manager. Pooled tips are placed in envelopes in a box set out at the Purser's Desk the last night of the cruise; the tips for the cruise manager may be given directly to her in an envelope. All tips must be in cash; however, while the euro is the on-board currency, U.S. dollars are accepted. Uniworld will move towards all-inclusive in 2014, when most cruise fares (excluding Russia, China and Vietnam) will include unlimited fine wine, beer and spirits, as well as gratuities for onboard and onshore services, including pre- and post-cruise extensions.
I recently travelled from Lyon to Arles on Uniworld River Royale. The cruise ended April 14. The cruise was named Burgundy and Province. I had an excellent experience in regard to the ship, the staff , and the itinerary. I am writing because to ...continue
I have just entered a review on the first half of our Uniworld "Grand France" cruise. River Royale compares favorably with the River Baroness for one reason, food.
The decor of the Royale works better than the Baroness; in particular the ...continue
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I took my 12 yr old daughter on the River Royale and did the 3 night Paris post cruise extension as well. This was our first river cruise and I was very impressed by Uniworld. The ship was not the over the top boutique decor I had anticipated, so ...continue