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Groups on Cruises: Cruising France with Uniworld

In April I was a fortunate guest aboard Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ brand-new S.S. Catherine (S.S. stands for Super Ship) on its first public “Burgundy and Provence” cruise from Avignon to Lyon on the Rhône and Saône Rivers. Accurate descriptions of our one-week program could only utilize such adjectives as ‘splendid’ and ‘top-notch,’ happily matched by the glorious spring weather of southern France, with lush green fields and fragrant flowers in full bloom.

Uniworld’s newest generation of vessels has obviously been designed to further the line’s reputation for providing a product that appeals to the most discriminating traveler. The Catherine is a beautiful ship, at least as beautiful as possible given the need to fit under the low bridges and in to the narrow navigation locks common on waterways throughout Europe. Handsomely furnished in the line’s signature French provincial decor, the Catherine is quite spacious, accommodating just 159 guests on the same 443-foot-long platform as is frequently configured for 190 to 200.

Onboard facilities include a heated swimming pool, fitness center, spa, gift shop, guest laundry and 24-hour coffee and tea bar. Suites and top-tier staterooms have full balconies, while most other accommodations have electrically operated French balconies, and all are extremely well equipped. Exceptional food, service and programming of activities throughout belied the fact that the ship was just beginning its service, and staff members had little time to settle into an optimal routine.

Uniworld’s pricing includes almost everything for its guests. Transfers between airports and the ship, all gratuities (even those for sightseeing guides and drivers), unlimited (nonalcoholic and alcoholic) beverages onboard at all times, Wi-Fi access, special cultural enrichment programs, and use of bicycles and Nordic walking sticks are all part of its programs. Numerous included sightseeing excursions are available daily, some for particularly active guests as well as the physically challenged, although a few optional (extra cost) excursions are offered. There were four on our cruise, including a most worthwhile trip I took featuring the ancient Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard.

Beyond the ship and inclusions, however, it is the itinerary that makes or breaks a river cruise,  and the sights to be enjoyed along and within easy drives of the Rhône and Saône are magnificent by just about anyone’s standards. We began on the Rhône in picturesque Avignon, home of the 14th-century Palace of the Popes and the remains of the medieval Avignon Bridge. Nearby was charming Arles, where Vincent van Gogh created more than 300 paintings and drawings in only 15 months, and the fourth-century Roman amphitheatre is still in use today. Wonderful walking tours were featured in historic Viviers and the twin towns of Tournon/Tain l’Hermitage, the former including an organ recital in St. Vincent Cathedral and a wine and cheese reception in a lovely private home — both exclusives for Catherine guests.

Scores of vineyards line hillsides along the riverbanks, giving testimony to the importance of Burgundy as a wine-producing region. Next, our day in impressive Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, included visits to the old quarter of St. Jean and massive Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière overlooking the city, as well as time for exploring on our own. I took in a matinee concert by the Orchestre National de Lyon.

Continuing north on the Saône from Lyon, we explored the Chalon sur Saône wine center and the quaint town of Beaune, home of the famed Hôtel-Dieu charity hospital founded in 1443, as well as the bustling Saturday Farmers Market and colorful shopping district nearby. Guides were uniformly excellent.

If there were any shipmates who weren’t thrilled by their Catherine experience, I certainly didn’t find them. I’d wager that you and your group members will have very similar reactions.