Wish You Were Here--European River Cruise
UNIWORLD-Burgandy & Provence France
After many sailings on the big ships, I found myself wanting a more intimate experience by trying a European River Cruise. With the downturn in the economy, I was lucky enough to get my chance in May 2009. River cruising has exploded with the creation of several new boats that travel all throughout Europe,China, Egypt and even South America. It gives you an upclose and personal look at the village life for an easy and relaxed pace you just can't find on the big ships. The line I sailed with - Uniworld- is one of the most respected and highest rated and they lived up to their reputation. Our ship was the River Royale and my friend Jamie and I went for the least expensive cabin, figuring we wouldn't be in our room too much anyway. The layout of the interior cabin was excellent and afforded plenty of room, closet space and a nice bathroom area--and 2 portholes for underwater viewing! It was kind of crazy when the boat sailed...although the porthole was above the water line, when we were moving it looked like we were in a washing machine!
The River Royale's itinerary was the Burgandy and Provence region of France which meant olive oil and vineyards (aka wine tastings!). What is so impressive and cost effective on these river cruises is the fact that the shore excursions are included each day as well as wine and beer at dinner. Optional additional excursions were offered on 3 days if you wanted to participate at a reasonable $60 per person. One of the greatest inventions were the VOX systems that were used. Each participant had an earbud headphone & transmitter which connected with the tour guide enabling us to hear every word even from 30 yards away! You could control the volume and walk around an not have to strain to get close to the guide to hear what was going on--ingenious! The ship only accomodated 132 passengers and our ship set sail with just 75 onboard so we had extra personal attention from the crew. The interior of the ship is relaxed and polished with decadent furnishings in the lounge and the dining room. On the top deck are lounge chairs and a small hot tub for outdoor relaxing. Great food is what cruising is known for and Uniworld was no exception. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet style with wonderful spreads that changed daily. Dinner was ala carte and offered so many regional specialties including every selection prepared to perfection. There were so many unusual options such as "Mustard Soup" with bits of sausage which made you feel as though you were biting into a bratwurst with Grey Poupon! The French bread was the BEST (of course we WERE in France after all) and you never left the table without having had at least 2 pieces. This was not the time to think about dieting. Specialty wines and beer were free flowing during dinner and matched to the evenings menu. As dinner in Europe is an event to be savored (not the gobble down your food and go scenario) you enjoyed each course and even though you may have eaten alot, you didn't feel stuffed as you left the table. As there is no assigned seating on these boats, it was fun to sit with and mingle with everyone on the ship. It seemed as though each of us made a point to sit with someone different and by the end of the cruise we had 73 new best friends! On our sailing, we felt as though at 51 & 52, we were the "babies" on board as most guests were in their 60's.
Entertainment was offered in the large living room type lounge and had relaxing piano music, special guest singers who got on in one port and left when we docked at the next, as well as lectures on the locks, painting silk scarves and chocolate selection. Some of the best chocolate in the world is made in the south of France, and by the end of the presentation we all considered ourselves to be connoisseurs. Who knew there were so many kinds of chocolate? We always looked forward to the "Cocktail of the Day' where you could get a Cosmopolitan for 2-3 Euros. We made good use of the happy hour. Breakfast was at 7-8am and after a full day of sightseeing,eating,drinking and evening entertainment, bedtime seemed to come for everyone at about 10pm--a different enviroment from the mega ships where you can party till dawn. Our stops on the river Rhone and Saone included Arles, Avignon,Viviers, Tournon, Lyon and Chalon sur Saone/Beaune each more charming than the first. Look for future articles about our "ports of call" to whet your appetite for European river cruising...you really must try it!