‘You Couldn’t Plan It All if You Tried’: Cruising the Rhone River in High Style

Marble floors, an emerald-green Murano chandelier, a life-size glass horse set against the backdrop of a cascading waterfall: Boarding the S.S. Catherine was like stepping into a meticulously curated room featured on the cover of Architectural Digest.

It wasn’t until I checked into my stateroom in late August and pulled back the curtains to reveal the lush green banks of the Rhone River that I remembered this wasn’t a lavish boutique hotel in Paris, but a luxury riverboat, and we were about to embark on a Uniworld cruise from Lyon through Burgundy to Provence.

Marble floors are among the flourishes on the S.S. Catherine.Credit…Ashley Tinker
The ship’s decorative items include a green Murano chandelier and glass horse.Credit…Ashley Tinker

This was my first river cruise, and as I set out for four days of the full seven-night cruise, I wasn’t sure what to expect. On my plush, handcrafted Savoir bed was an invitation to the captain’s gala dinner.

The word “gala” sent me into a slight panic over the dress code. Was this a black-tie event? Were gowns required? Or would a cocktail dress be sufficient? I poked my head outside the door, hoping to gather some clues and was greeted by a guest in her 60s wearing a white power suit with shiny green stiletto heels. “Relax,” she said when I asked her guidance. “A spring chicken like you, you’ll look fabulous in anything.”

I anticipated being one of the younger guests, but when I walked into the ship’s Van Gogh Lounge for the reception and saw all the retirees sipping Champagne, I worried that things might be a little slow. But before I could indulge those concerns, I was approached by two energetic couples, who, as if sensing my skepticism, made a case for why river cruises are the best way to explore Europe.

“We’ve done it all — planes, trains, cars hotels — and it’s a lot of hassle especially now with all the disruptions and travel chaos,” said Geoff Skilleter, a 64-year-old retired teacher from Australia, who was on the second leg of a back-to-back river cruise across France with his wife, Robyn.

Nedko Nikolov, the ship’s sommelier, pours a glass of wine at the bar. Passengers’ fares include unlimited wine and spirits, meals and excursions.Credit…Ashley Tinker

“From the second you step on the boat, you don’t have to worry about a thing,” said Ms. Skilleter, also a retired teacher. “Everything is included and taken care of, all you have to do is relax.”

This summer, Europe saw one of its busiest seasons, with demand to some destinations outpacing 2019 levels. Not unexpectedly, prices surged and sites were overcrowded. By June, many hotels were booked for the summer, and airports grappled with disruptions caused by high traffic and extreme weather events. While some travelers abandoned or delayed their plans, others embraced alternative travel methods, including river cruising, despite its expense.

A seven-night European cruise on Uniworld ranges from $3,000 to $10,000 per person, depending on the stateroom category and itinerary. But over the past year, as inflation and demand has pushed up the cost of land travel, river cruising is emerging as a high-value alternative. The fare on Uniworld includes airport transfers, farm-to-table meals, unlimited premium wine and spirits, onboard entertainment and fitness, Wi-Fi, excursions and gratuities. The line mainly attracts wealthy retirees, but even guests with smaller budgets say the packages are worth it.

The lunch buffet on the S.S. Catherine.Credit…Ashley Tinker
Credit…Ashley Tinker

“The food is really exquisite, and there is so much variety with different regional dishes and wines every day,” Mr. Skilleter said as he tucked into his seared scallops with foie gras. It was golden hour and we were sitting at a window table in the ship’s Cezanne restaurant, admiring the sun-kissed stone buildings as we slowly cruised past the French countryside. Picking a dish from the abundance of options was tricky, but it was liberating to be unconstrained by the price since everything was included. I opted for the delectable panko-crusted butter fish, which came with a root-vegetable tomato vinaigrette, roasted pepper and beetroot.

“French fine dining at its best,” said Ms. Skilleter, who, with her husband, spent around $30,000 of their retirement savings for the back-to-back 15-day cruise. “You pay once and it’s done and dusted. You don’t have to think about it and can enjoy the experience.”

In wine country

At 7 the next morning, I stepped onto my room’s balcony and beheld the picturesque city of Mâcon in southern Burgundy, where the banks of the Saône are lined with pastel-hued houses, with the two towers of St.-Vincent cathedral and St.-Pierre church piercing the sky above them.

I strolled down to breakfast — a buffet served from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. — and was immediately uplifted by the collective excitement about our upcoming excursion.

The medieval town of Beaune is in the heart of the Burgundy winemaking region. As I boarded the bus, I was surprised to see a group of guests in their late 20s and 30s. “We’re one big family,” said Mark Sullivan, a retired Wall Street hedge fund manager as he introduced his wife, four children and their spouses, and his 86-year-old mother. “There’s 10 of us.”

It was the Sullivan family’s first river cruise and they booked the trip at their travel adviser’s suggestion after struggling to find a villa rental in Southern France. Mr. Sullivan’s children had been skeptical at first, especially after seeing the older crowd, but like me, they were keeping an open mind.

Stops include Avignon, in Southern France.Credit…Ashley Tinker
The Mirande hotel in Avignon, where passengers may take a cooking class.Credit…Ashley Tinker

We started the day with a guided tour through the cobbled streets of Beaune and soon found ourselves at the Hospices Civils de Beaune, a former hospital for the poor that today hosts an annual charitable wine auction. Our tickets had been paid for in advance by Uniworld, allowing us to skip the lines and have time to explore the 15th-century building, known for its giant polyptych depicting scenes from the Last Judgment, and then roam around the town.

Then we drove through the vast vineyards up to the Château du Rully for a wine-tasting and lunch. With limited space and a tour by Antonin Rodet, the owner of the château, this part of the excursion cost an additional $160. Mr. Rodet took us through each room of the 12th-century fortress, telling us about his ancestors. It felt as if we were in someone’s home even though the château had the air of a museum.

Take a trekking pole, ‘just in case’

The next morning, after waking up alongside the idyllic town of Tain L’ Hermitage, I decided to take a “let’s go” excursion — a hike through the town’s terraced vineyards. The crew offered me a trekking pole, which I initially declined as I assumed this would be an easy trek designed for the older passengers. But when I saw our group in their hiking gear, armed with their double poles, I opted to take one just in case.

One excursion visits the ancient Pont du Gard aqueduct in Southern France.Credit…Ashley Tinker

We started off at a steady pace, strolling through villages and admiring the view. But when it was time to climb the steep vineyard of Cave de Tain, I struggled to keep up. The sun was blazing and I stopped several times. Then, leaning on my pole, I continued on. By the time I reached the top, the rest of the group had already started the wine tasting.

I felt even more unfit as we bumped into the Sullivan family on the way down. They had decided to do their own hike, a rigorous climb through steeper terrain with no sticks.

“It was great to have the freedom to do our own thing at our own pace,” said Maggie Sullivan, 28, a digital marketing manager at Coty, a cosmetics company. It was her idea to take the big family trip, but when her father relayed the travel adviser’s cruise suggestion, she was hesitant. “I was a bit worried I would feel stuck,” she said. “But,” she added, “I don’t think I would see all the places we have been to if it wasn’t for something like this.”

A seven-night European cruise on a Uniworld ship ranges from about $3,000 to $10,000 per person, depending on the stateroom category and itinerary. The all-inclusive price is attractive to some travelers, when taking the cost of hotels, transportation, meals and drinks into consideration.Credit…Uniworld Boutique River Cruises

That night the ship docked at the tiny walled village of Viviers, and the Sullivan siblings and others were excited to get off the ship, as we had been in transit on the previous evenings.

After dinner several of us, including some crew members, ventured out to a riverside bar where locals were line dancing. We joined in, but struggled to keep up. We laughed at ourselves and others laughed at us and it was the perfect dose of spontaneous fun that wasn’t on the itinerary.

Reaching out to younger travelers

Since the pandemic, Uniworld has attracted younger passengers through promotional all-inclusive rates and mystery cruises, where the itinerary is not revealed until the sailings. There has also been an increase in solo travelers drawn to the line’s wellness and outdoor activities.

Gillian Tegg, 58, a school principal from Sydney, was on her second solo Uniworld cruise in Burgundy. She made good use of the indoor pool and morning yoga classes, while still finding the energy to participate in two hikes, a kayaking trip and other excursions.

A view over the rooftops of Avignon.Credit…Ashley Tinker

“These cruises have it all, you couldn’t plan it all if you tried,” Ms. Tegg said. “When we got to Avignon, it was so hot that when we went kayaking, we all jumped in the water and I think we saw almost all of Avignon there, including children, goats and horses.”

Uniworld is also seeing more young professionals who don’t want to deal with the hassle of travel planning, said Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld’s chief executive, noting that the average weekly cruise is $5,500. “But you have all your food, drink, excursions, transfers and gratuities included. There are very few hotels you could go to for a week and not spend that much.”

Another appeal for younger travelers is the focus on sustainability, Ms. Bettridge said. All of Uniworld’s ships are equipped for shore power and it is used whenever a port offers the facility. (In terms of fuel, the company must follow the rules of the country it is sailing in. In France, for instance, the ships use a biofuel that is mandatory by law.) Cabins, she said, are free of single-use plastic, and the ships have a food-waste reduction system that aims to reduce 50 percent of food waste by 2025.

Bottom line

Looking back on my four days on the Rhone, how would I, a 30-something, first-time river cruiser, sum up the experience? Could there have been more opportunity to, say, sample local food, instead of eating just about every meal on the boat? That was one of my complaints, actually: As much as I loved the food onboard, I would have appreciated a few evening port stops to try some restaurants.

Did I miss the sometimes arduous, but often educational, aspects of travel as I succumbed to all the scheduling and the kind of luxury that might keep one from really getting to know a place? In fact, after seeing all the travel chaos and overcrowded sights in Europe in recent summers, I was grateful for the comforts of our ship and the smooth flow of our itinerary.

One thing I did learn: Never underestimate the energy of someone decades older than you.

That lesson was demonstrated the night the crew organized a 1970s-themed dance party in the lounge after dinner. I was sitting at a table with the Sullivans, and as we watched the older guests filter into the dining room in bright costumes from another era, the younger members of the Sullivan family wondered aloud whether they would be able to dance after a long day of touring, eating and drinking. The ever-attentive crew brought the siblings a round of Jägermeister shots to give them a boost and then, together with their 86-year-old grandmother, they were the first on the dance floor.

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