Scheduled Itinerary: Lyon, Macon, Lyon, Tournon and Tain l'Hermitage,Viviers, Arles, Avignon
Our first "sailing" aboard Uniworld Boutique River Cruises turned out to be a non-sailing. The seven-night Burgundy and Provence itinerary was hindered by high water levels on the Rhone River from heavy rains over several days. Although the rain had ended by the time we embarked SS Catherine, the high water remained. And, on a river, if the water level is too high, the ships cannot fit under the bridges and into the locks along the river. Nevertheless, we had the opportunity to experience Uniworld's services and most of what SS Catherine has to offer.
The 7-night Burgundy and Provence itinerary sails from Lyon, France, to Avignon, France, and does the reverse itinerary alternating weeks. Our sailing was southbound from Lyon to Avignon, so we embarked in Lyon. The trip started off with a less than wonderful experience on American Airlines that resulted in our luggage not arriving in Lyon when we did. The Uniworld staff did an excellent job of staying in touch with the lost baggage office in Lyon and our luggage was delivered to the ship the following afternoon. Crisis averted. A Uniworld representative met us at the Lyon airport as soon as we exited baggage claim. We were escorted to a waiting van for the 40-minute drive from the airport to the ship. When we arrived alongside SS Catherine (which was actually docked next to another river ship), we were greeted by Hotel Manager, Astrid, who escorted us on board SS Catherine. When we arrived at Reception, all we had to do was surrender our passports for verification. Check-in could not be simpler or more efficient. Since it was only 11:30am, we were told that the rooms would not be officially "ready" until 3pm, but that we could enjoy lunch in the restaurant and they would notify us when our room was ready.
After a quick and delicious lunch in the Cézanne Restaurant, we moved one deck up to the Van Gogh Lounge. We were pretty tired from the jet lag and an overnight flight from the US, so we were just about to pass out on one of the sofas when Petra, the ship's housekeeper, arrived with our stateroom keys and offered to escort us to our cabin. All in all, embarkation went very smoothly.
THE SHIP - SS CATHERINE
By the numbers, SS Catherine is 443 feet long and 37.5 feet wide, pretty typical for a new river cruise ship. Unlike ocean-going ships, river ships are constrained by the size of the many locks they must pass through and bridges under which they must sail. So, from the outside, river cruise ships look very similar. What distinguishes one from another is the interior decor and appointments, and of course, the service experience. SS Catherine is designed to cater to a maximum passenger capacity of 159 with a crew of 57. Compare that to the Viking River Cruises' Longships which, at the same size, can carry up to 190. The SS Catherine was inaugurated in 2014.
The Reception desk and main lobby are located on the Avignon Deck (Deck 3). This is where you typically will board the vessel, and depart for local excursions. You are greeted by a large, green and gold glass horse standing in front of the circular glass elevator that is drenched in a cascading waterfall. Curved staircases are on either side of the elevator. There's a lot of polished brass, green plants, mirrors and a huge Murano glass chandelier hanging overhead. First impression is of a 5-star hotel lobby, not a river cruise ship.
Forward of Reception (but in appearance, behind the Reception desk) you will find the Cézanne Restaurant. The restaurant has a very elegant "French" decor that stops just short of going over the top. The greens and blues really do complement each other. We will go into more detail about Cézanne under Food and Dining later in this review.
Aft of Reception you will find Category 2 and 3 staterooms. Moving up to Deck 4 (Camargue Deck) using the curved staircase, you are greeted by more mirrors overlaid in green trellis-patterned Murano glass. Uniworld must have spent a fortune on Murano glass as it is everywhere! Forward of the staircase is the Van Gogh Lounge, the ship's main meeting point, bar and entertainment venue. The French Provincial theme is carried even closer to the edge here, but again, it is so tastefully done that it avoids going "over the top" and never rises to the level of gaudy. A large bar at the back of the lounge is surrounded by leather upholstered bar stools. Around the perimeter of the lounge are small seating areas with a combination of upholstered chairs and elegant sofas that remind me of the one my mother would never let me sit on as a kid. The center of the lounge is filled with small tables, each with four chairs. There is a nice-sized dance floor about 2/3 of the way to the front of the lounge complete with a large white piano. The layout of the lounge has been very well thought out. At the front of the lounge, and completely out-of-sight is a staircase that leads down to the restaurant one deck below.
A door at the front of the lounge leads out to the Matisse Terrace which offers guests the opportunity to sit at large, white, cast iron tables and chairs and enjoy the fresh air as SS Catherine sails down (or up) the Rhone. Moving aft from the lounge, and the staircase, you will find mostly Category 1 staterooms in addition to the suites. Aft on Deck 4 is the location for the Bar du Leopard, or what is commonly referred to as "Leopard Bar". This is quite an interesting space. Decorated in black leather, leopard print upholstery and black glass-topped tables, the Leopard Bar has a very masculine appearance. It almost has the feel of a New York City cigar bar. But, there is no smoking in the Leopard Bar. Instead, this bar serves a variety of purposes. Of course, it is a "bar", where you can relax and enjoy a drink. It is also a location for 24-hour self-service coffee and tea. And, the Leopard Bar is where early risers can enjoy a selection of pastries and fruit from 5:30am to 6:30am each day. But wait, there's more! The Leopard Bar is also transformed into an elegant alternate dining venue on select nights. In addition, a Bistro Menu is available for light dining throughout the day.
Where the Leopard Bar takes a weird twist is the view of the indoor swimming pool through two large glass walls. And, although it never happened on our visits, the thought of someone walking into the bar in a swimsuit or bathrobe to take a dip while others are enjoying an intimate meal is a little troubling. For privacy, the door to the wet area triggers the electro-luminescent glass to turn opaque. Having an indoor pool on a river cruise ship is unique, but to have it visible from a bar is really "different". That said, the heated pool itself is beautiful with a green tint, a big Catherine "C" painted on the bottom and 3D aquatic-themed mosaic accent walls.
SS Catherine Indoor Pool
Aft of Leopard Bar there is an outdoor covered terrace with cast iron tables and chairs. This area is a great place to sit and enjoy a light lunch from the bistro menu, or sip your favorite cocktail while sailing the Rhone. The Leopard Bar is one of our favorite spots on SS Catherine and it quickly became my 'go to' spot for early morning coffee and blogging. My only complaint was that it seemed to be difficult for the temperature to remain constant. On some mornings it was extremely warm, while on other mornings it would be freezing cold. This was the only location on the ship where I noticed that issue. Perhaps the large automatic sliding doors to the outside terrace were playing havoc with the HVAC?
Moving up from Deck 4, you come to the Sun Deck. The expansive artificial turf-covered deck is void of any obstacles or interesting features. Notwithstanding the large shuffleboard checker game, it is basically open deck and lounge chairs, albeit very nice lounge chairs. The loungers have collapsible sun shades to protect your head from the sun. Running nearly the entire length of the Sun Deck, canvas awnings provide protection from the sun while the outer edges of the deck allow full exposure.
At the front of the Sun Deck you will find a few tables and chairs, just in case you want to sit outside on a beautiful day and enjoy a glass of wine. Or, why not bring your lunch "up top" and enjoy?
If you walk (or take the elevator) all the way down to Deck 2, you will find Category 4 and 5 cabins as well as a nicely-equipped fitness center, a full-featured laundromat available for guest use, a boutique and a 24-hour coffee/tea station. The fitness center has cardio machines, free weights and other torture devices that those in pursuit of physical fitness will surely appreciate.
The laundromat has several stacked washer/dryer combination machines and a television so you can be entertained while folding your laundry. Use of the machines is complimentary, as is laundry detergent.
SS Catherine is also equipped with Wi-Fi Internet throughout the entire ship. Internet access is complimentary and I had no problems getting a connection from our stateroom, Leopard Bar or Van Gogh Lounge. Internet speeds were acceptable and allowed me to maintain our daily blog, Twitter updates, Facebook, etc. during the trip. However, I never had the opportunity to test the Internet as the ship was sailing. It is common for river ships to lose connections when going through locks or under bridges, as satellite antennas often have to be lowered.
ACCOMMODATIONS (CATEGORY 1)
It should go unmentioned that SS Catherine's interior spaces resemble a 5-star hotel more than a cruise ship. The materials used on walls, furnishings and trim are incredibly detailed and give the ship a very rich feel. This is one of the most elegantly appointed ships on which we have ever sailed. Even the public restrooms reflect an incredible about of detail that you don't often find on a ship.
Our Category 1 stateroom was 194 sq. ft. including an "open-air balcony". The most dominating feature of the room is the king-sized Savoir® bed with the padded green scalloped headboards. And just for the record, it happens to be the most comfortable bed on which I have ever slept. The bed is covered in excellent linens. A small bedside table with three drawers is positioned on either side of the bed. One wall of the stateroom is a series of mirrored doors, behind which you will find closet space. The center closet has three large drawers for clothes and some shelves for storage. This is where you will find the safe, QueitVox receivers and charging station, complimentary slippers and bathrobes. We found the closet space to be adequate for a 7-night sailing.
Category 1 Stateroom
Across from the bed is a narrow desk with a drawer. It is more like a shelf than a desk as it is too narrow to be used as a desk. On top of the "desk" you will find complimentary bottled water, a fruit plate, a bowl with candy, an ice bucket, two metal water bottles (yours to keep) and an iPhone/iPad/iPod charging station with speakers. Rather than providing plastic bottles of water, Uniworld refills a large glass bottle with fresh water daily, or upon request. There are 4 electrical outlets along the mirrored back wall of the desk for a variety of European-style plugs as well as a US-style 110 outlet. Personally, I would prefer 4 Euro-style 2-prong 220-volt receptacles and perhaps an adapter kit in the desk drawer. However, if you travel with an adapter kit, you will have four outlets at your disposal. There are also US-Style 110 outlets "hidden" on the floor behind the nightstands.
The balcony is not your traditional "walk outside" type of setup. Instead, a narrow section of the room has been sectioned off with a sliding glass wall. There are two chairs and a table inside this "balcony" area. A floor-to-ceiling window is divided into two sections, and the top window can be electronically lowered to deliver on the "open-air" promise of the balcony. It is actually pretty ingenious and may be superior in design to a traditional balcony, which can only be used in good weather. On the SS Catherine balcony, you can sit there in the rain and enjoy the view, just close the window! An equally ingenious mosquito screen can be electronically raised and lowered to keep the flying critters out of your room.
A flat-screen television is mounted to the mirrored wall across from the bed and above the desk. Television programming includes several news channels (BBC World News, CNNi, Sky News, CNBC, Bloomberg), but no US-based news channels (such as Fox News, CNN etc), three HBO channels, Animal Planet, TLC, NatGeo, Discovery and a couple of other European channels. The system also is equipped to allow you to check your shipboard account, but I was unable to make this work. There is also a selection of On-Demand movies free of charge.
The bathroom was very spacious and well designed. The square, glass shower stall is large and comfortable. Everything worked perfectly; however, the shower would tend to hunt for the right water temperature. Thick, luscious towels are provided, and were hanging on a heated towel rack. The floor can be heated as well with the simple flip of a wall switch. The best feature of the bathroom was the tremendous amount of storage in the form of two large drawers under the sink. This is probably the best design we have seen on any ship. There is a lighted makeup mirror attached over the vanity and a hair dryer is provided. Like the rest of the stateroom, the bathroom is wrapped in sparkling clean mirrors, which also helps to make the space look larger. L'Occitane soap, body lotion, shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel were provided.
Large and deep drawers in bathroom
Overall, the Category 1 stateroom was comfortable, albeit a bit cramped. The balcony definitely cuts into the available space, but because it is actually part of the room, it is a better design than a traditional 'outside' balcony. The balcony window and bug screen are super cool and great for getting photos from your stateroom, or enjoying the sights as you sail down the river. And that bed, oh that heavenly bed! We would rate this stateroom a 4 out of 5, and the bed is a 6 out of 5!
The SS Catherine has the following staterooms available:
- Royal Suite: 1 (410 sq ft)
- Suites: 5 (305 sq ft)
- Categories 1 – 3 Staterooms: 61 (194 sq ft)
- Categories 4 – 5 Staterooms: 13 (162 sq ft)
FOOD AND DINING
We always like to offer a disclaimer when it comes to judging food. Everyone has different tastes, likes and dislikes, so take our view of food and dining with a 'grain of salt' (no pun intended). That said, we found the food on SS Catherine to be as good as any we have had on any ship, and superior to most others. Perhaps there really is something special about having a French Executive Chef!
Breakfast is offered buffet-style each day starting at 6:30am in the Cézanne Restaurant. Fresh fruit, fresh-baked breads and pastries, scrambled eggs, bacon (2 types), sausage, beans, etc., are all available from the self-serve buffet. An omelet station for eggs made-to-order is nearby. A menu with several specialty items is also available for ordering from your waiter. A variety of juices and champagne (for Mimosas) is also present at the juice bar near the entrance to the restaurant.
Eggs made-to-order on the buffet
Lunch is also served here buffet-style. A different hot soup was offered each day on the buffet, and all were excellent. Occasionally, salt was needed, but otherwise, seasoning was perfect. There was a carving station each day and vegetarian options were always available. The salad varieties changed every day, and again, all we tried were very good. One big plus for the buffet dining on SS Catherine was that everything that was supposed to be hot was hot. The chafing dishes used for the hot entrees were often so hot you could not pick up the serving spoon! If you prefer a lighter lunch, one is served in the Leopard Bar.
Dinner is served each evening in Cézanne, typically around 7pm. Seating is open, so you can sit wherever or with whomever you wish. And, you do not have to show up right at 7pm. If you prefer to dine a bit later, they will accommodate you. Dinner is full menu service with menus that change every day. There are a few items that are always available (pasta, New York Strip, chicken breast, Caesar salad, etc.). Once again, most everything we tried was in the good to excellent range. The "always available" New York Strip steak was my choice on two evenings and both were cooked perfectly and were delicious. The steaks even had a little ring of fat around the outside which added a lot of flavor. I have not seen that in 30 years! Please chef, don't trim that off! Whether at breakfast, lunch or dinner, there was one consistent hit and that was the bread. The bread served on SS Catherine is as good as we have ever had anywhere. The little olive baguette rolls were to die for. They forced me to cheat on my low-carb diet.
Always available: New York Strip Steak
On some evenings, a special intimate dinner is available at the Leopard Bar. Reservations are required, but there is no charge. The degustation menu is a multi-course extravagant meal with an impressive presentation. I highly recommend this dining experience to anyone sailing on SS Catherine as it was probably the best alternate dining we have experienced on any river cruise ship to date.
Dining room service during breakfast and lunch was excellent because, of course, it is buffet-style. At dinner, service seemed to slip a little. It almost seemed like they were a little understaffed. Wait times between courses could be quite long and drink refills were also difficult to obtain.
Sommelier, Laurentia, explains the evening's wines to Rickee
Uniworld includes wine with dinner and a different red and white were offered each evening. You don't often see a Sommelier onboard a river cruise. In fact, I don't think we have ever seen one. But, Sommelier, Laurentia, was always available to answer questions about the wines offered, and gave a great description of each wine offered. She was probably the best Sommelier we have had on a cruise ship. All of the wine choices were very good. We were disappointed to learn that no Rieslings or "sweet" wines are kept on board, as we enjoy a sweeter white wine with lunch.
We were surprised to learn that several other guests on our cruise who had joined SS Catherine after disembarking Uniworld's River Baroness the previous week, said the food on Baroness was even better than on SS Catherine! That is hard to imagine.
ACTIVITIES AND EXCURSIONS
Giving a fair review of activities and excursions is difficult given the circumstances of our particular cruise. The ship did not sail to a few of the ports due to the river conditions and we never actually sailed on the ship. As a result, we never got the opportunity to enjoy the Sun Deck, or really, even our own balcony. Also, we are not sure if evening "walk-on" local entertainment was disrupted due to the changes in schedule. We only had one guest performer during the entire week, but we are not sure if that is normal or because of the restricted itinerary. We were informed that scheduled wine tastings were cancelled due to the alternate transportation arrangements that had to be made for excursions.
The primary activity on any river cruise is exploring the cities, towns and sights along the way. The excursions and tours we participated in were all handled professionally, with excellent local guides. The use of the QuietVox sound systems makes the tours much more enjoyable than 'back-in-the-day' when guides had to yell over each other to describe various sights. All of our guides were informative, pleasant, spoke excellent English, and were more than willing to answer questions.
Excellent local tour guides
One thing that was missing was the availability of bottled water on board the tour buses. In their defense, Uniworld does provide guests with aluminum water bottles that you can fill and take with you on tours, but you can easily drink that entire bottle in half a day, so then what? I know everyone is trying to "go green", but having small plastic water bottles available on tours is really a plus. On one tour, the guide even announced that the motor coach driver had bottled water available...for 1.50 Euro per bottle! That is not something you expect to see on a 5-star, all-inclusive cruise.
Ulf provided entertainment each evening
Evening entertainment was provided by Ulf, the ship's pianist with vocals by Rowena. After dinner dancing was available in the Van Gogh Lounge. One evening, guests were entertained by Paolo Nassi, a guest entertainer.
There are bicycles available for guest use when the ship is docked (obviously). There is no additional charge for using the bicycles.
We were surprised by how many 30- and 40-somethings we saw on this sailing. We have noticed this trend over the past few river cruises. This segment is starting to appeal to a younger and broader demographic. Average age of the guests was probably 50s to 60s. Like most river cruises, dress tends to be casual as long as you don't wear shorts or sandals in the dining room after 6pm. On Captain's Welcome Reception/Dinner and Farewell Reception/Dinner gentlemen can get by with a sport coat, but several wore suits. You can leave your tuxedo at home.
Your cruise fare with Uniworld includes all gratuities, excursions in every port*, all meals on board, wine with lunch and dinner, cocktails and soft drinks.
* Uniworld does offer several "optional" excursions at an additional cost.
THE ITINERARY (BLOG)
The Burgundy and Provence itinerary is one of our favorite river cruise itineraries. The itinerary includes visits to some of the most interesting medieval cities and towns in Europe. To read our day-to-day blog, click here
STAFF AND CREW
Every member of the staff and crew we came into contact with on SS Catherine was friendly, polite and very helpful. Our stateroom attendant, Alina, did an excellent job of keeping our stateroom spotlessly clean and made up, no easy task considering how many mirrors there are in the room!
Alina, our stateroom attendant
Cruise Manager, Emmanuelle Rivron, deserves special recognition for doing an amazing job of putting together some last-minute events and group meals. She was taking a lot of heat from a few guests who were disappointed that we were not able to actually sail resulting in some missed ports-of-call. She handled the situation with grace and competence. The same is true for Hotel Manager, Astrid Veldwijk. The staff was thrown into a really tough situation due to the weather and river conditions. They did everything they could to make sure the guests had a memorable experience. In fact, they went above and beyond what I would expect.
Emmanuelle, SS Catherine Cruise Manager
In another departure from the norm, SS Catherine has two butlers for suite guests. We have not seen butlers on any river cruise up until now. When not providing service to the suite guests, the butlers could be seen helping out with bar duties and dinner service in the Leopard Bar.
Uniworld is unquestionably at the top-end of the river cruise segment. This is a 5-star brand with excellent, all-inclusive value. SS Catherine is a beautiful new ship with incredible attention to detail evident on all fronts. The service levels are as high as we have experienced on any river cruise, and higher than most.
LIKES AND DISLIKES
There is a lot to like about SS Catherine and we have to descend into nit-picking to find anything we didn't like.
What We Like:
- Food was excellent
- Very friendly staff and crew
- All-inclusive soft drinks, cocktails and gratuities
- Best bed you will find...anywhere
- Great "open-air" balcony concept
- Leopard Bar
- Good excursions
- Excellent lunches provided on tours in Viviers and Avignon*
- Emmanuelle, our Cruise Manager worked miracles
- Attention to detail
What We Did Not Like (minor) :
- No disposable bottled water available on tours
- Wait times between courses at dinner could be long
- No Riesling or "sweet" wines available
* Not sure if these are typical, or part of special, last-minute tour arrangements
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