As I embarked on River Royale in the beautiful Provencal town of Arles -- best known for the time Van Gogh spent there -- I wasn't sure what to expect from my first river cruise. I'd recently come to the realization that the smaller the ship, the more likely I'd enjoy the cruise, but would a 132-passenger, four-deck riverboat be too small? And how would I fare with one or more different ports every single day, without a single "sea day" in sight?
After a week aboard, the answer is that river cruising is more enjoyable than I could ever have imagined. Few travel experiences can compare to gliding silently down France's Rhone and Saone rivers, meeting the locals, tasting their food and wine, enjoying their history, art and music while cruising in supreme comfort among the company of like-minded individuals. My previous view of river cruising -- a mildly interesting sideshow to the main event, the ocean cruise industry -- has been radically transformed. I'm certainly not about to give up ocean cruising, but I now see river cruising as equally compelling.
Since the 1990's, there has been a burst in new river cruise ship construction, and river vessels -- which had all looked pretty much the same for the previous 20 years or so -- began to look radically different with bigger cabins, more lavish public rooms and new amenities like spas and "French balconies" (glass doors that open out onto a railing for fresh air and expansive views).
Long at the forefront of river cruising, Uniworld (River Royale's owner) pioneered many of these amenities when it began building its own fleet of European boutique ships a decade ago. Founded over 30 years ago by a Serbian-born airline executive, Uniworld was the first company to bring European river cruising to the North American market. While Uniworld now has a number of major competitors, it still holds its own among its newer competitors. This is due in part to new ownership of the major tour operator (sister companies include Trafalgar and Brendan) that bought the line several years ago.
Originally ordered by another company and bought half-complete at a significant savings, 2006's River Royale is one of the most expensive and technologically advanced river vessels ever built. The extra cost -- the ship's original price tag was nearly twice that of many similar vessels -- shows in the luxuriousness of the materials and furnishings inside, with expensive wood, marble, leather, fabrics, glass and brass evident at every turn. From the padded, fabric-covered walls in the cabin passageways to the one-piece ceilings (they look gorgeous but are nightmares for access to in-ceiling plumbing and wiring) to the lighting in the cabins that's worthy of a Broadway stage, it's obvious Uniworld spared no expense in the fitting out of this ship and the result is that its interiors are uncommonly luxurious.
But as lovely as the ship is, river cruising isn't about the ship; it's about the destinations. The ports of call are the highlight of any river cruise, and River Royale's itinerary in Provence and Burgundy is no exception. On my cruise (alternating northbound and southbound itineraries visit the same ports in opposite order), we started in Arles -- which in addition to the sites of famous Van Gogh paintings, offers interesting Roman ruins -- and sailed up the Rhone river to Lyon before switching to the Saone. There we headed up to Chalon-sur-Saone in Burgundy. In between, ports included Avignon, famous as the seat of the popes for much of the 14th century; the charming town of Viviers, home of France's smallest cathedral, where we enjoyed an organ concert and then a lunch in the town hall featuring local products; the twin cities of Tournon and Tain L'Hermitage in the famous Cotes du Rhone wine-producing region; and Macon, a Burgundian wine-trading town before ending in Chalon-sur-Saone. (In 2008, the River Royale itinerary is eliminating the call in Macon in favor of arriving a day earlier in Chalon, at which passengers will take a tour into the wine country of Burgundy.)
Each port has its own charm and character, and the variety, from small towns to large cities, helps to create a complete picture of the region. Combined with the relaxed and comfortable on-board atmosphere, luxurious accommodations and excellent food and service, the variety of ports makes a cruise aboard River Royale a superlative travel experience, one not to be missed for those wanting to see this beautiful part of the world in style and luxury.
Large ships may offer facilities that river vessels this size can't hope to match, but no large-ship dining experience comes close to what I experienced aboard River Royale. The excellence of the cuisine was such that I wasn't once enticed to eat on land, even in Lyon, the city renowned as France's gastronomical epicenter.
Eschewing the many dining venues of larger ships, River Royale offers a single dining room. Able to seat all passengers and beautifully decorated in blue, white and silver, the Cezanne Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner every day in a single, open seating. A surprisingly popular feature is that the big windows on two sides of the room are practically at the waterline -- you can see the water flowing past nearly at eye level when you're seated! (Your feet are below the waterline in this room.)
Each day begins with an extensive buffet breakfast. It boasts a wide variety of bread, fruit, yogurt and cheeses, along with bacon, oatmeal, roasted potatoes and a made-to-order egg and omelette station. In addition, the buffet breakfast features a daily special, such as Belgian waffles. There's a wide variety of juices, and coffee is made in dozens of French presses -- the perfect antidote for the dreadful coffee on many large cruise ships.
Lunch is again a buffet, the centerpiece of which is a different roast every day, carved to order by a chef. Every day there's also a range of magnificent salads, a hot or cold sandwich, a pasta course, potatoes, fish and vegetables. A different soup -- always a highlight -- is served every day at the table, along with crusty bread, and a separate buffet table holds a variety of desserts, fruits and cheeses.
Dinner naturally clenches the culinary spot of each day. Unlike breakfast and lunch, dinner features full waiter service; since everything is cooked to order, every course except soup must be ordered at the beginning of the meal. Five nights a week, you'll find two appetizers, one hot and one cold; a soup; three main courses -- one meat or poultry, one fish and one vegetarian -- and two desserts. At the entrance to the dining room is a long table of French cheeses with assorted breads and biscuits.
The Captain's Welcome and Farewell Dinners -- the second and sixth nights of the cruise -- offer fixed menus with an amuse bouche, a cold appetizer, a hot appetizer, sorbet, main course and dessert. On my cruise, the main course was quail for the Welcome Dinner and filet mignon with shrimp for the Farewell Dinner; vegetarians or others with special diets (the latter including my traveling companion on this cruise) need only notify the restaurant manager, and she will make any necessary adjustments.
The cuisine is classic French, with first-rate ingredients and preparation. The ship receives provisions every two to three days, ensuring that ingredients are always fresh and the best available. With five chefs for a maximum of 132 passengers, the attention to detail is amazing like the fact that a different flavor of butter is featured each night or that the plate decorations on desserts actually have flavor. Together with polite, professional service, the attention to detail creates a dining experience unmatched by anything I've had at sea, extra-cost alternative restaurants included.
Cabin service is not available, but there's always 24-hour coffee, tea, hot chocolate, iced tea and water in the Patio Lounge (outside the dining room entrance) along with big bowls of fruit in the lobby. There are also trays of delicious pastries in the Patio Lounge from early morning until night for anyone wanting a snack.
You naturally won't find much public space on a small river ship like River Royale, but what is there is stylish and comfortable. The ship's main public area, the Renoir Lounge, has windows on three sides, and is decorated in bold reds with cream accenting and dark wood; a bar is at the aft end. Comfortable groups of sofas and chairs make this the "living room" of the ship; it's used for just about every type of on-board function.
There are few other public rooms on board; the library is a cozy space on a balcony overlooking the lobby (where the Purser's Desk is located, along with the entry doors to the ship) with a modest selection of books and games and comfortable seating. One deck below, outside the dining room, is the Patio Lounge, with rattan tables and chairs; this is where you'll find the ship's two computers as well. Internet access costs 0.25 euros (about $0.34) per minute or 25 euros (about $35) for two hours.
Off the Patio Lounge there's also a small shop with sundries, logo items and a variety of local specialties including brightly colored Provencal fabrics, dried lavender and the renowned Valrohna chocolate. Open for a few hours a day and operated by the ship's laundry lady, prices are reasonable and the stock is surprisingly varied given its miniscule size.
With only one suite, cabin selection on the River Royale depends on location and whether you have a French balcony, window, or porthole. All the standard cabins are fairly small by ocean ship standards (but rather large for a river ship), but they're magnificently decorated and luxuriously appointed.
Standard cabins with windows or portholes (only the 10 cabins on the lowest deck have the latter) are 154 square ft; French balcony cabins -- a feature River Royale is the first in the fleet to offer -- are slightly smaller at 141 square ft. Opinions are divided over whether the French balcony was more useful than the extra space in the window cabins; some passengers like to keep the door open for natural ventilation (note that the air-conditioning shuts off when the door opens; it comes back on when the door is closed), while others prefer the slightly deeper cabin. Regardless, all contain the same furnishings: a queen-sized bed that can be separated into twins, two nightstands, two chairs and a cocktail table, a vanity/desk with stool, a large hanging wardrobe and a smaller one with shelves, and a fairly generous bathroom with shower.
All the cabins have flat-panel televisions with BBC World, CNBC Europe, CNN International and Sky News plus two movie channels, a ship information channel, and a "view from the bridge" channel; a direct-dial phone; a powerful hair dryer; and an electronic keypad safe. The lighting is extraordinary and consists of various types of direct and indirect lighting and dimmer switches that are backlit when turned off (so you never have to fumble for them in the dark). You'll also find both European 220V and North American 110V electrical outlets in both the cabin and (for shavers only) the bathroom.
The decor and appointments of all the cabins are first-rate. The French balcony cabins, on Deck 3, Azure Deck, are decorated in white and blue; the window cabins, on Deck 2, Burgundy Deck, in cream and red; and the porthole cabins, on Deck 1, Champagne Deck, in cream and tan. The decor may strike some as a bit overdone -- especially the red Deck 2 cabins, which have wallpaper that's far too busily patterned for a small space -- but the quality of materials and workmanship is first-rate, and continues through to things like the superb monogrammed Egyptian cotton bedding, the same featured in the five-star Red Carnation Hotels owned by Uniworld's parent company.
Bathrooms, while compact, are still larger than those on many oceangoing ships and have wood floors, granite countertops, big under-sink drawers (in lieu of medicine cabinets), magnifying makeup mirrors, soft night-lights under the sink, and fully tiled walls. The shower is a fairly spacious, fully-glass enclosure with a detachable showerhead with good water pressure and plenty of hot water. Toiletries -- un-branded but of very high quality -- come in big bottles that are refilled daily and again come from Red Carnation Hotels, including shower gel, conditioning shampoo and body lotion.
For those wanting more space, the ship's sole suite is similar to the French balcony cabins albeit with a bigger bathroom with a larger shower and a separate room for the toilet, a sitting area with sofa, and more storage space. It measures 215 sq ft and is a worthy splurge for those who like to spend time in their cabins. (This is one area where the ship differs from those designed and built for Uniworld; those have four larger suites. Since River Royale only has one, it's in high demand; book early if you want it!)
The ship's gratuity policy is simple: it suggests 10 euros (about $14) per person per day to be pooled among the ship's crew and another 3 euros (about $4) per person per day for the cruise manager. Pooled tips are placed in envelopes in a box set out at the Purser's Desk the last night of the cruise; the tips for the cruise manager may be given directly to her in an envelope. All tips must be in cash; however, while the euro is the on-board currency, U.S. dollars are accepted. Uniworld will move towards all-inclusive in 2014, when most cruise fares (excluding Russia, China and Vietnam) will include unlimited fine wine, beer and spirits, as well as gratuities for onboard and onshore services, including pre- and post-cruise extensions.
Because it is such a low-energy, destination-intensive and enrichment-oriented cruise experience, this is not a ship suitable for most families with children However, the occasional multi-generational family group does come onboard; Uniworld is now targeting this market with a number of "family-friendly cruises" with a slightly higher activity level. However, no cruises on the River Royale have yet received this designation.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Notwithstanding all the walking on shore excursions, this is not a cruise for the fitness fanatic since River Royale naturally lacks the vast spa and fitness facilities found aboard most large oceangoing ships. Nevertheless, some concessions are made to those for whom fitness is a priority.
All the way aft on Deck 3 is the ship's small fitness center, with a few treadmills and exercise bicycles. Aptly described by one passenger as a "fitness closet," it at least features nice windows overlooking the ship's wake. There's also a small, two-person sauna; you have to notify the front desk a half hour before you want to use it so someone can heat it up for you. Finally there's a treatment room for the ship's massage therapist -- who doubles as a member of the housekeeping staff! A number of passengers praised her services.
What the ship does offer is an ample amount of open deck space on Deck 4, a completely open deck at the very top of the ship. Covered -- unfortunately -- in blue indoor-outdoor carpet (this wretched stuff seems ubiquitous on river ships), this vast expanse offers spaces both in the sun and, thanks to huge white canvas canopies, in the shade as well. Notably, since the ship was originally designed for another region with lower bridges, the entire canopy system must be retractable, an expensive and complex system added after the ship's construction so that it could enter service on the Rhone. Because the canopy needs to be retracted, this area is often closed while navigating on the rivers; however, the lower sections of the deck forward and aft (in the sun) are always open and are popular spots for passengers who want to observe the ship's navigational progress. Aluminum and mesh deck furniture -- nicer than resin but not as nice as teak -- is featured throughout, including chaise lounges with nifty little hoods that you can raise over your head to protect it from the sun. The aft-most part also has a small hot tub for a few people, surrounded by a number of teak deck chairs with thick cushioned pads; this is probably the nicest open deck space on board.
The common thread among all of River Royale's passengers is that they are English speaking and want to see this particular part of the world in a luxurious, stress-free manner.
Americans and Canadians form the largest passenger contingent, but while Uniworld once focused its marketing only in North America, sister tour operators now market the company's cruises throughout the English-speaking world including the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. As a result, passenger groups are becoming more diverse.
With the majority of passengers falling between 50 and 75, the average age is around 65 though there are certainly those both younger and older. Virtually all passengers are well traveled. Some have been on river and/or ocean cruises before, and there is often a sprinkling of first-time cruisers, many of whom would not normally consider a cruise and chose the trip purely for the itinerary. There are some passengers who have gone on organized land tours and have looked to river cruising as an alternative to that travel experience they did not enjoy. The ship's intimate size and friendly atmosphere mean that before long, everybody knows everybody, and the atmosphere on board is more like a private club than a large cruise ship.
There's no strict, set-in-stone dress code; the ship's policy might be described as, "anything goes, within reason." Most people wear comfortable, practical clothing for the daytime shore excursions while in the evenings, they dress in "elegant casual," the only specific noted requirement of which is that passengers may not wear shorts in the dining room after 6 p.m. The first and last nights of the cruise are just plain "casual" (again, no shorts allowed; just what the difference is between this and "elegant casual" is not clear). The first and sixth nights (Captain's Welcome and Farwell Dinners) are "formal," with a jacket suggested but certainly not required for men (most do wear them, and some wear ties and even suits).
For the most part, the ports and scenery provide the entertainment on a river cruise; organized on-board activities do not constitute a major part of the cruise experience. Nevertheless, the auspices of the charming, energetic and ever-present cruise manager provides passengers with a range of diversions just to make sure nobody gets bored.
Most evenings the lounge houses some kind of entertainment; generally local musicians come aboard to share their talents. On other nights of my cruise, activities included an extremely informative lecture about the ship and its operation, presented with humor and theatrical flair by the hotel manager, and a friendly but competitive team trivia contest ably conducted by the cruise manager (the winning team got a nice bottle of sparkling wine presented with great ceremony by the bar staff). In good weather, many passengers go up on deck, where the bar staff makes rounds, to enjoy the scenery and conversation, while others go to bed or watch a movie in their cabins.
The historical, architectural and cultural delights of the ports provide a great deal of enrichment, but these delights are further augmented by local experts brought aboard -- usually before the shore excursion in the morning -- to provide further insight into topics of local interest. For example, a historian (and transplanted American) came aboard in Arles to relate the lesser-known details of Van Gogh's legendary time there, while an instructor from the Valrohna company's Ecole du Grand Chocolat (School of Great Chocolate) joined us in Tain L'Hermitage for a tasting of the grands crus of the company's world-renowned chocolate line and lectured on the art and science of chocolate.
As for the shore excursions themselves, a minimum of one excursion -- usually a morning excursion but occasionally an afternoon or full day -- is included in each port. This generally takes the form of a walking tour; only in Lyon did we use a bus and only then for part of the tour. Each local guide I encountered was knowledgeable, experienced and fluent in English (some were native speakers), and every excursion was interesting and fulfilling.
In some ports where the afternoon is free, there will be an optional afternoon excursion, usually a bus excursion to another town or city, or into the countryside. The one optional excursion I took was well organized, and at around 40 euros, these half-day excursions are reasonably priced in comparison with the excursions on many ocean cruises.
A new feature this year is the Quiet Vox system, where the guide wears a microphone and each participant is equipped with a receiver and earphone (for one ear, so you can still hear what's going on around you). This makes it easy to hear everything the guide says without having to stay close all the time or to constantly ask the guide to repeat things. This ingenious system makes shore excursions far easier and more enjoyable. In fact, the majority of guides and passengers praised it.
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