Uniworld S.S. Catherine

| Wednesday, 25 May 2016
A ravishing new riverboat sets sail in France
 
 
Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine sails the Rhône and Saône rivers in France
 
I snuggle into the softest bathrobe, fancily monogrammed with Uniworld initials. I find my slippers, also monogrammed, encased in a ribbon-tied bag. I pad into the marble bath, with a heated floor and heated racks lined with the thickest towels. How soothingly luxurious on a cool spring morning in France. Consider this one magic moment of a magnificent S.S. Catherine cruise, where I feel as if I’m lounging at a six-star European hotel rather than on a riverboat.
 
Of course, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection takes a radically different approach than most of its competitors. Each boat feels like a posh boutique hotel. Each has its own style – evident in décor, original art, and ambiance suited expressly for the river it plies. Wines and cuisine – even sweets – relate to the region. There is zero cookie-cutter feeling – in my mind, a critical component to luxury.
 
I’m loving my eight-day S.S. Catherine cruise from Avignon, France to Lyon, France. Although busy with daily outings, I relish my time onboard. I love the theatrical two-story lobby. It may be small – riverboats can only be so big - but its centerpiece - a glass elevator with a cascading waterfall and handmade Murano glass chandelier – mesmerizes. 
 
 
The showstopper in the ship lobby
 
My favorite hangout is Bar du Leopard, whimsically decorated with leopard-print carpeting, elephant head bar rails, and exotic animal art. Handsome chairs and banquettes are stitched from the softest leather. This Bar is exotic, cozy, and elegant, at once. 
 
Tucked into a corner of The Bar is a heated, glass-enclosed swimming pool, with underwater music and a giant mosaic of life-sized leopards and birds. It’s an art statement as much as a swimming hole. I love the quirkiness of the locale.
 
In the morning, I head straight to the Bar’s fancy Franke machine. Push a button for a worthy cup of coffee, or more complex beverages like a foamy cappuccino or macchiato latte. No plastic anything – silver spoons and fine mugs await. Nearby, silver trays are piled with croissants, pain au chocolat, and other morning enticements. Should you want a cooked-to-order breakfast delivered to this nook, request one. Saying no to guests is pretty much, well, a no-no.
 
 
Best swimming pool in a bar. Ever
 
Bar du Leopard’s has a watchful bartender preparing cool cocktails. Emil, my go-to guy, is tall and handsome with an ever-present smile. Some evenings, special set-menu dinners are presented here. I go one night and am delighted. Mushroom risotto with bay scallops and saffron oil, and beef tenderloin with Rhone red wine sauce, are standouts among the six-course complimentary dinner. 
 
 
Van Gogh Lounge is a cozy retreat and central meeting point for S.S. Catherine
 
Van Gogh Lounge is where most guests go to socialize. With ornate couches decorated in colorful floral fabrics, stunning fresh flower arrangements, and antique-style tables, Van Gogh Lounge resembles a spacious great hall in an aristocratic home. Every touch – from towering candelabras to silk fringed pillows – is lavish. And who can miss the glass jars filled with marshmallows and candies on a posh gold-and-marble table?
 
Cezanne Restaurant is another stunner. With elaborately draped window treatments, tufted banquettes, and swank table settings, this main dining room is fine dining Paris-worthy. I eat too much every day, but happily so. It’s all so good. 
 
 
Cezanne Restaurant is a stunning dining room delivering equally dazzling dishes
 
No corners cut here. Breakfast and lunch are elegant, elaborate buffets. At breakfast, a chef cooks omelets and other egg dishes to order. Platters of local cheeses and charcuterie await, as do yogurts and fresh ripe fruit. Gleaming chafing dishes – repeatedly refilled – feature egg dishes, pancakes, and assorted bacon. Gorgeous smoked salmon with bagels, and heaps of fresh-baked breakfast pastries also beckon.
 
Lunch always features a juicy roast – perhaps pork or beef – sliced to order. You could spot a whole poached salmon. Some cooks press panini sandwiches, others scoop fresh ice cream into bowls with tempting toppings waiting nearby. Desserts usually include one French tart and several types of small delicate pastries – each a little jewel. Local cheeses and charcuterie also lure, as do grilled local vegetables, seafood medley, and more. Much choice – all top quality - for just 156 passengers.
 
 
Whole poached salmon with deviled eggs is one of many splendid lunchtime selections
 
Dinner is an elaborate sit-down affair. There’s even a multi-course menu for vegetarians. The chef’s nightly recommendations are notable. I’m impressed with most everything I order – and I don’t impress easily. A talented culinary team, using premium fresh ingredients, classic culinary techniques, and elaborate garnishes, pull it off nightly. Most every bite is revelatory. The head chef stops by all tables most evenings, sometimes bringing his second in command or pastry chef. 180-degrees from a corporate experience.
 
Servers, wearing white gloves, are hyper-alert. The head sommelier, studying for the most prestigious Master of Wine certification, knows her stuff. She leads a complimentary wine tasting class one day and fills our heads with knowledge.
 
I am also enamored with staterooms. They range in size from a single cabin, just 120-square-feet, yet with lavish amenities of larger ones. Most staterooms range from 162-to 194-square-feet; all have the dreamiest handcrafted Savoir of England beds with the softest linens and fluffy pillows. Flat-screen televisions offer many movies, besides the usual satellite channels. 
 
 
A suite onboard S.S. Catherine
 
So much else distinguishes the stateroom. Twice daily, fresh water, sealed in a pristine glass bottle, is refreshed. A glass jar filled with Valrhona chocolate, local-style nougat candy, and other premium sweets, is often replenished.
 
I peek into a suite and am charmed at its size and elegant furnishings. Suite guests are pampered by butlers trained to Buckingham Palace standards. Wearing morning coats and white gloves, the butlers stride purposely through the hallways.
 
Uniworld is all-inclusive, with a generous definition of the term. Not just alcohol at lunch or dinner, but throughout the day and evening. No gratuities, even for local tour guides. Most excursions. By the way, guides are British, American, or French who speak excellent English. All live in the towns we visit and are most welcoming. And groups are small; our walking tours have no more than 15 guests. Buses are Mercedes with plush wide seats. Airport transfers and WiFi are included, too.
 
 
Chefs fuss over every display – and yes, the bread onboard is great
 
If you do pay for a tour, expect a major experience. I join a visit to a count’s castle. He is the 22nd generation living in his 13th century domain. We tour rooms straight out of Downton Abbey – replete with ancestors’ oil paintings, dating back centuries, hanging on walls. We feast on iconic Burgundy cuisine like beef bourguignon (slowly simmered meat in red wine sauce), and caramelized apple tart in a converted barn. We sip wines made from grapes growing at his estate. The count is charming, the food is delicious, his chateau amazing. I’ll not soon forget this day. 
 
What also impresses me is how much the S.S. Catherine staff cares about what passengers think. The staff is a tight team eager for constructive criticism on a daily basis – not just at the end of the cruise.
 
I do have one complaint. I have to get off the ship on day eight. I don’t want to debark and leave my idyllic French world, living large onboard and ashore. My only consolation? I’m deep into Uniworld’s web site, imagining myself on another ship again. (uniworld.com)

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