(11:59 a.m. EDT) -- Scenic might not be as familiar to North Americans as other luxury river cruise lines such as Uniworld or Tauck; Crystal also entered the higher end of the river cruise market last year with built-in name recognition.
But make no mistake, Scenic has a worldwide fan base that has been steadily gaining American and Canadian converts. Part of Australian Glen Moroney's Scenic Tours empire (later renamed Scenic), Scenic jumped into river cruising in 2008 with its space ships, all-inclusive vessels featuring signature cabins with sun rooms that turn into partial outdoor spaces with the push of a button.
After a few days on Scenic Diamond, sailing the line's Bordeaux itinerary, we can see the appeal. There's a refreshing casualness onboard that belies the price tag; while service is still professional and prompt, the crew and their management are not afraid to talk to passengers (perhaps that's the Australian influence -- our cruise, which is about three-fourths full, is dominated by travelers from Down Under).
The result is you're more likely to get the kind of vacation you want. Fancy a small nosh in your sunroom? Your butler will bring it to you. Want to skip the guided tour and get a massage instead? Scenic's Tailormade devices (portable GPS locators with commentary) give you the highlights, so you can explore on your own and your cruise director will make sure you have a pass to get into the castle. A fleet of e-bikes make it easier for even the less fit to take them out for a spin.
This season, two of Scenic's space ships in France -- Scenic Diamond and Scenic Sapphire -- received refurbishments to make them more in line with the newer vessels in the fleet. Capacity has been reduced from 167 to 155, while keeping the staff levels the same. Two 506-square-foot Royal Owners Suites were added, as well as a host of other features outlined below.
The most heralded addition to the French ships is Scenic Culinaire, a series of cooking demonstrations available at no extra charge while the ship is sailing between ports. Located in the dining room (where it's used as an omelet/crepe making station during meals), Scenic Culinaire is essentially a large cooking island, where up to 10 passengers can sit and watch the chef make French dishes like merveilles provencales (beignets) with strawberries and dry apricot jam or coq au vin. There's a TV monitor, and eventually the line plans to broadcast the classes into the cabins.
We attended the beignets session. The ship's French chef, Jerome, is fast-talking, and we enjoyed watching him at work. At times, though, the experience felt dry. It's not immersive; unlike similar classes we've taken on Uniworld or Viking Ocean where you actually fill a samosa or chop some veggies, you mainly sit there and watch. Two Australian ladies next to us whispered that they would have liked to have tasted some of the more unusual ingredients the chef was using.
That being said, Scenic Culinaire sessions fill up quickly and since they are the primary enrichment activity on the ship during sea days, it's a worthwhile diversion for those who love to cook -- and eat (you do get a sample at the end).
One of the most welcome trends in river cruising is the chance to be more active and get away from the standard coach-and-walking-tour excursion. We found Scenic to be ahead of the curve with its active options, particularly when it comes to cycling. The ship has a fleet of electronic bikes, and employed them in nearly every port as a guided option (you can also take them out on your own, if you wish).
Our first tour, a bike ride to a wine chateau in Medoc, has been one of the highlights of the trip so far. The guide stopped several times to explain the region's terroir, and history, as well as take photos. Support crew were along to block traffic when necessary and fix bikes if there was a problem. After the winery visit, passengers who had biked were given the option to return on the coach or bike back; the ease of using the e-bikes ensued that almost everyone took the latter option (we noticed a decided increase in the electronic assist on the way back).
There are two more bike tours to come, and we've signed up for them all. While these simple e-bike excursions shouldn't be confused with the larger cycling partnership Scenic has with Trek Travel -- those are fully chartered, bike-intensive trips on the Danube and Rhine -- we love the chance to cover more ground and work off a teeny amount of the French wine and cheese we've consumed.
Salt Room, Spa, Gym and Vitality Pool
Another of the biggest changes to the ship is the expansion of the spa and addition of a gym and wellness facility on the bottom deck. There's a check-in desk (unmanned) as you walk down the stairs, as well as a table with herbal teas and flavored water.
Unlike some river ships where the spa is simply a darkened cabin, Scenic Diamond's new facility is larger (two cabins were taken out for it) and more high-tech. There's a sofa in the sign-in area, a shower for full body treatments and two tables in case passengers want a couples' massage. We enjoyed the space, although found our massage a bit uncomfy, as the attendant took a decidedly European approach to privacy (as in he didn't turn around when we were undressing and dressing). Spa treatments are not included in the fare, although they are more reasonable than what you'd find in an European hotel or resort; our 50-minute massage cost 72 euro, tip inclusive.
Across the hall from the spa room, the new gym will definitely please those who want to stay fit when they travel. It's a little bigger than most fitness rooms you see on river ships, with four aerobic machines and some weights. Light streams in from the windows, making it feel open.
We're not quite sure what to make of the Salt Room. While it's truly beautiful -- the walls are lined with bricks made from golden Himalayan salt, and there's salt spread on the floor surrounding the room's three loungers -- there's no aromatherapy or other component to the experience. All in all, it seems to take up a lot of space while not adding a lot of tangible benefit. We were told it was good for allergies and your skin, but we didn't notice anything after our 45 minutes there. It's also a bit noisy, as it's across the hall from the hairdressing salon.
The Vitality Pool on the sun deck is more of a whirlpool/hot tub than a real pool to swim in. Still, it's a decent size for the ship, seating six. We've found bar service on the top deck to be prompt, so if you're the kind of person who likes to soak after a day of touring -- perhaps with a glass of Champagne in hand -- you'll enjoy this new feature.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor