In May 2015 we embarked with UniWorld on their ship the River Baroness (RB) on the Seine, followed the next week on the River Royale (RR) sailing the Dordogne and Garonne in the Bordeaux region. This coupling of itineraries provides an ... Read More
In May 2015 we embarked with UniWorld on their ship the River Baroness (RB) on the Seine, followed the next week on the River Royale (RR) sailing the Dordogne and Garonne in the Bordeaux region. This coupling of itineraries provides an excellent combination of the quintessential charming and glamorous Paris, with side excursions to interesting, quaint medieval towns, castles, chateaus, gardens, and to the Bordeaux region. The cruise lasted 15 days, including a land transfer from the RB to the RR using the high-speed TGV train. The itinerary of the trip was essentially as described in the UniWorld catalog.
The scenic highlights of this cruise for me were of course Paris and surrounds, Normandy Beaches, St. Emilion, and the Chateaus of Bordeaux. The land excursions were mostly excellent, and very nicely selected to provide a broad spectrum overview of the area and culture. This review will mostly focus on execution of the cruise. Please be aware that some of the descriptions in this review will be in comparison to a UniWorld cruise we took in June of 2012, sailing on the River Duchess (RD) from Vienna, Austria, through Germany, ending in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
River Baroness and River Royale
The RD set our expectations for a river ship. Never having been on a river cruise before that time, I was somewhat awestruck by the beauty and splendor of the ship; the reception, dining room, its lounge, and certainly its inimitable staff and crew. The stateroom was small, but definitely adequate. Three years later, now experiencing the RB, it is clearly an older ship in need of freshening. The reception area is tired and did not leave a great impression; neither did the lounge. The staterooms (level 100) are notably narrower than the RD, maybe a foot or two less, but that made a big difference in less ability for two persons to maneuver while dressing or trying to relax. This ship made us realize that on future cruises we need to get better informed and thoughtfully consider the ship and its accommodations. The sites where the ships docked were not necessarily in attractive or convenient proximity to their respective cities, except for Rouen and Bordeaux. But the most displeasing thing about where ships dock is that ships often tie up together side-by-side. This happened most of the time with each ship (RB & RR), resulting in no view whatsoever from the staterooms on that side of the ship. I realize none of the cruise ships have much control of this situation, especially due to the increasing popularity of river cruises. Fortunately, one usually does not spend much time in a stateroom except for sleeping.
As one would envisage, the cuisine is a delightful 5-star experience. Breakfasts, lunches, and dinners have typical, gourmet, and eclectic offerings to suit your preference. If in the unlikely case that the offerings do not meet your dietary needs or desires, the chef(s) are fervent to find something to your satisfaction. The best part of the cuisine are the dinner specials of the day, which are usually a specialty of a nearby locale; always a dining adventure. Dinners were usually five-course sumptuous feasts with fine wine selections. Moreover, much of the fare on-board is locally sourced. Of course, being in France, you can expect a smattering of interesting cheese, pate´, fish, duck, and luxuriant pastries and desserts. The soups were unique and delectable; they were on our must-have list every evening. On the RR, there was an excellent sommelier who every evening gave a short presentation of the wines selected for dinner. He also held wine education and tastings for small groups. This was a very nice and appreciated dividend indeed.
One enticing option offered is the Saveur (flavor) Dinner in the RR Sky Lounge, a sunroom-like enclosure on the top deck of the ship. This popular sign-up option was limited to 25 persons or so, for a more intimate dining experience. The down-side of this experience is that the acoustics are so bad the conversation din was headache inducing. Further, the chairs had such narrow seats it was actually painful for some of us to sit. Lamentably, the staff admitted it was a known issue. Lastly, the sun shined so brightly through the large windows that sunglasses were a necessity. It was worth it though, to enjoy the perfectly prepared multi-course tasty cuisine. Almost as good as the food was the choreographed sharply executed food presentation at each table, reminiscent of a ballet.
On the RB, the dining room staff were superb. They were omnipresent, yet nearly invisible when not needed. It seemed the very moment a glass needed refilling or plate removed, it happened instantly. The staff were all efficient, courteous, engaging, smiling and friendly. On the RR, the staff was equally efficient and worked assiduously, but apparently very understaffed, or maybe not as well trained. They just were not as attentive as the RB staff. My impression is that the staff was short due to cutbacks since the ship was obviously well below capacity.
Excursions are a main attraction of river cruising in France, and the itinerary offered on these cruises was exceptional. UniWorld’s selection of tours, sights, chateaus, castles, towns, farms, gardens, venues etc., were superb. They provided a broad overview of the region, while adding unique up-close views of past and present-day life. Because of the extent of the area, by necessity some of the tours required an extended bus trip to get to the destination, but those drives were often through beautiful scenic countryside with vineyards and charming villages. The guides were excellent, had amazing breadth and depth of knowledge, and were charming and witty, one and all.
Each night before dinner a presentation was made about the itinerary and logistics for the following day, especially about the excursions and optional activities. Sometimes these were a bit hard to follow, much due to the fact that the written next-day itinerary was not distributed until after the talk. It would be much easier to grasp details if the itinerary was already in-hand when trying to listen to someone speaking with an accent. We found these talks to be important and useful to help decide which excursions we would choose, or not.
UniWorld River Heritage Club
The Heritage Club (Club) is obviously intended to reward, and thereby entice return customers. When poorly executed, as in our case, it is a dissuasion. The Club is purported to afford a cabin upgrade if available, have a private cocktail party with Captain and crew, provide a complimentary fruit platter upon arrival, and offer free weekly laundry, among other perquisites. After receiving none of these items on the RB, at the end of the week we inquired why. The purser said there was no record of our previous cruise (on the RD in 2012). Upon boarding the RR the next week, we asked the purser to look into it, as well as inquiring with our Travel Agent. The next day the purser said the record had been corrected. Nevertheless, there were these issues with the Club on the RR: 1) Never did receive a welcome platter. 2) Cabin upgrade was not offered, even though there were only about 74 guests on the ship (maybe 2/3 capacity), and apparently empty cabins. 3) We were ignored at the Captains cocktail party; no hors d’oeuvre served us. Admittedly, we were not sitting at a table with a “Reserved” card, but the reserved tables were occupied. We were, however, sitting at an adjacent table; likewise were a few other tables with Club members, but none of us were searched out. Part of the problem was that the cocktail party was set up in the lounge, and other guests started mingling with the party shortly after it started. Of course, none of those perks really much matter except for the cabin upgrade, and we were in fact afforded laundry service. UniWorld needs to overhaul management and execution of the River Heritage Club. Until then, you should ask for what you expect, - - or you may miss out.
These combined itineraries made for a great and enjoyable cruise. If you enjoy culture, art, and history, these are definitely for you, especially on the Seine. For the Bordeaux part of the cruise, you will enjoy it more if you are a wine aficionado or at least appreciate and enjoy wine. The length of the trip seemed about right, but another week extension onto the ship in the Burgundy region would probably be well worth it, given the expense to fly to France from the US or beyond. Obviously we had a few disappointments, hopefully just an anomaly, but we do not hesitate to recommend this cruise itinerary. Read Less