River Royale’s two-river itinerary forks at the city of Lyon where the Saône joins the Rhone. Uniworld
River cruising interest, particularly in Europe, has trebled in the past decade. To appreciate why this vacation experience is gaining such impressive ground, Travel with a Challenge editor, Alison Gardner, shares her week of Uniworld cruising on the Rhone and Saône rivers in France.
Map of River Royale route. Courtesy of Uniworld
Uniworld describes its collection of river cruises as a “boutique” experience, bringing to mind a high standard of service and facilities while still retaining a sense of individuality, both in the atmosphere of the ship and among the guests. My vessel for a week, the River Royale, boarded in southern Provence’s ancient city of Arles, certainly offered that sense of maximum comfort combined with ease of shipboard orientation and a whole lot of personal attention from 38 staff representing nine European countries.
Staterooms aboard the River Royale meet the highest standard in the cruise industry. Uniworld
At each day’s stop, guests come and go from the ship by the River Royale reception area. Uniworld
Out of the five main rivers in France, only the Rhone is designated as masculine, Le Rhone, because historically it has been perceived as “powerful and dangerous”, according to our vessel’s Hotel Manager, Eric Christophe. Sailing through Provence and Burgundy south to north, in a straight line from Arles, the River Royale cruise covers 172 miles/277 km on the Rhone until it narrows and becomes more turbulent after Lyons. The remaining 99 miles/150 km of the cruise is spent on the the more gentle Saône River (La Saône, of course!). My week was in mid-October when the water levels reflected a dry Summer season already reducing the flow, but I could well imagine that the Spring waters would deliver a much stronger current.
Navigating 15 ultra-modern locks on the week-long cruise is a theme of great interest to many guests. Alison Gardner
On our route there were 15 locks: 12 on the Rhone and 3 on the Saône. Built mainly between 1950 and 1989, the Rhone locks were a successful attempt to domesticate the river in all seasons for both commerce and tourism. These are not the quaint, sometimes hand-turned, locks of a bygone era, but rather they are imposing multi-storey engineering feats that qualify more as a modern dam bristling with technology. Once in the lock, with the River Royale either descending or ascending within a tightly enclosed space, it was only a matter of minutes before the lock gates opened to send us on our way at a comfortable pace averaging 20 miles per hour.
On board there were informative pre-arrival briefings on each town, and even a crepe suzette cooking demonstration by the pastry chef. Other educational challenges that proved popular with the guests included an illustrated lecture on French icons and one on Vincent Van Gogh, a nautical lecture about the rivers, and a silk painting demonstration.
An on-board cooking demonstration … crepes, of course, are first up! Alison Gardner
The River Royale’s brightly-decorated lounge is a gathering place for up to 132 guests, and the focus of on-board lectures and musical entertainment. Uniworld
While my stateroom met every expectation of amenities and services, it was the public spaces that spoke of an intriguing originality, magnetically drawing the 130 guests to them with every on-board opportunity. Clustered in intimate groupings, the lounge’s colorful sofas and chairs encouraged introduction to strangers and stimulating conversation, while the open-seating, single-sitting dining room, bright with natural light and upbeat in blue and white, acknowledged the famous Mediterranean light associated with the southern segment of River Royale’s route. I appreciate bright colors and plenty of light any time, so I was delighted to learn that one of Uniworld’s owners, Beatrice Tollman, was instrumental in the interior decorating of this ship.
The Hotel Dieu de Beaune is a medieval masterpiece of timberwork and color, built as a hospital for the poor in 1443 and used for that purpose until 1981. Today it is a must-see museum. Alison Gardner
The two- to three-hour shore excursions were a particular treat, starting with the city of Arles where the Romans left monumental constructions, now well-restored, as witness to their mighty presence. Each of our cruising days, there was also half a day for independent exploration in addition to the complimentary tour option either morning or afternoon, or guests could sign up for a second tour option for which they paid extra. With 15th century ramparts, Beaune was a city of medieval enchantments that a week wouldn’t have covered them all. Its Hotel Dieu hospital (photos above), built for the poor by the Duke of Burgundy in the mid-1400s, is now one of the most intriguing museums in a country of fine museums. And, of course, there are Burgundy vineyard wine tastings on excursion, not to be missed.
Over more than three decades, Lyon’s love affair with outdoor mural art has transformed this industrial city into a unique art center. Some of the 60 full-building murals are breathtaking flights of fancy; others are marvelous depictions of everyday life so realistic you could almost walk into them. The murals produced by cooperative members of the CitéCréation over more than 30 years are designed not just as decoration but to help the people of Lyon rediscover their local identity, to trace the history of a particular district, and to make art accessible to everyone. Peter Gardner
River cruising allows people to experience the French countryside and history of its medieval towns and villages at a personally measured pace that land tours rarely permit. If you have already visited a town or city on a previous trip, you may choose to stay aboard and enjoy the ship’s full services. Or you may go ashore for as little or as long as you like with the attractive benefit of guaranteed moorage being in or near the center of almost every town. You virtually walk down the gangplank … et voila! And there is the absolute treat of taking your hotel cruising with you, not having to pack and unpack luggage every day or two as you would on a land tour.
With more itineraries and new vessels being added yearly, river cruising continues to attract large clienteles of baby boomers and seniors for whom exploring different regions of Europe is a perennial passion. Wherever the great waterways flow, river cruising is encouraging travelers to sample familiar and unfamiliar regions of this ever-stimulating continent in a safe relaxing manner, introducing fresh cultures, cuisines and colorful histories with each route.
Uniworld, www.uniworld.com, is a highly-respected and much-awarded river cruising company sailing 11 of the world’s most breathtaking rivers in 20 countries throughout Europe, China, Egypt and Russia … and now Vietnam and Cambodia too! Style and elegance are hallmarks of its fleet of ships averaging 130 guests per vessel. Gourmet dining and included shore excursions reveal the best of each region. Uniworld earned a spot in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2014 Readers’ Choice Awards for the world’s Best River Cruise Line. As well, Uniworld is included in Condé Nast’s 2014 Gold List as one of the “World’s Top Cruise Lines”.
In the Spring of 2014, a freshly-remodeled SS River Royale moved to a new French river route on an eight-day itinerary beginning and ending in Bordeaux. With its perfect size for navigating the Garonne, Gironde, and Dordogne rivers, travelers will visit Aquitaine Châteaux; Pauillac; St. Emilion; and the Vauban Foretresses, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In its place on the perennially-popular Rhone-Saône cruise route, the brand new SS Catherine launched as one of the largest vessels in the Uniworld fleet with a 159-passenger capacity and plenty of luxury appointments.
Guidebooks for your pre- or post-cruise travels in France:
Eyewitness Travel’s Backroads France (2010) uses in-depth local knowledge to create a series of driving tours throughout France. Its 264 pages are full of original ideas for activities, off-the- beaten-track stops, and authentically ‘native’ places to eat and to stay.
Lonely Planet’s Discover France (4th edition, 2015) is a full-color, 416-page guide compiled by 12 expert contributors with a mission to highlight “the best of France”. With 48 maps, it is ideal for planning one to two week itineraries anywhere in the country.
Rick Steves’ France (2015) is a 1,153 page guidebook offering this famous Europe travel expert’s humorous, grassroots take on the France he describes as “a multifaceted cultural fondue”. His picks for sight-seeing, eating and sleeping are all Rick-tested.
Above: Churches like this one in Lyon are a significant part of the city’s riverside history and visual pleasure. Peter Gardner
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.