As I sit in the garden today finally believing that spring might be arriving I get drawn to thoughts of the South of France. My garden centre bought lavender is starting to produce its distinctive smell. Is it really warm enough, even here in the south west to experiment with al fresco dining? It really is therefore time to put fingers to keyboard regarding our trip last summer on board the River Royale, part of the boutique river cruise fleet owned by Uniworld.
Life in the south of France is epitomised by the ebb and flow of the slow moving River Rhône as it winds its way through Burgundy and Provence. When we went, in late August it was just hot enough to stop any thoughts of rushing about and we fell in with the tempo set by the wise old river. Our fellow passengers, a mix of British, Americans and Canadians were equally happy to let the river and ship’s crew set the agenda. This is the great thing about cruising in this region. The pace of the river reflects the Provençal spirit and as a frequent visitor to this area it occurred to me that river cruisers are well suited to the unhurried environment of the south. So how does the River Royale match up to its idyllic surroundings?
River Royale Boutique River Cruise Accommodation
Uniworld have set themselves the goal of providing the best boutique cruise ships for their guests. The Rhône cruise market is small compared with the Rhine for example, but it means that the river is uncrowded and the moorings for the River Royale are directly at the river bank. The River Royale has undergone a complete refit for 2012 and will be offering upgraded suites and all categories will see a complete change for its 148 passengers. Cat. 3 cabins are on the lower deck around the water line. Cat. 2 are in the middle deck and Cat. 1 on the top deck.
Fine Dining & Excellent Local Wines
It is what is described as a full board cruise and this is a major plus for Uniworld. If you choose to drink outside meal times there is coffee, tea and water available free of charge, but otherwise drinking wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner is included in the price. Whilst lunch is a buffet, dinner is a three course meal using local ingredients and specialities of the region such as bouillabaisse. You will feel that you have eaten at the best local restaurants but will only have a short walk to bed. Uniworld are also very proud of their epicurean adventurer programme which invites local experts on board to bring to life the wines and produce of the region as well as trips specifically to meet local artisan producers. Each day’s excursion information includes details of local shopping and eating treats such as Bistrot Tartine de Comptoir, in Arles where it is recommended that you first order a glass of the local Rosé wine, then a selection of the fresh bread snacks (pain Poilane), tapas or cold soup.
Dining times are important to guests and on the River Royale they fit with an Anglo-American timings rather than Mediterranean later dining. Whilst we were there for lunch with Eric Christophe, a queue quickly formed at 11.55am for the 12pm lunchtime. Once the doors were opened, there was plenty of room for all the guests to take advantage of the buffet lunch – a good selection and an easy way to dine so that everyone had enough time to eat before getting ready for the afternoon excursion. A lighter lunch is also available if you’d rather do your main eating in the evening. Evening dining however a different matter, with an a la carte menu and wines to match. The standard of the food on board is really quite excellent and is complemented by Uniworld’s Epicurean Adventurer Programme to help guests really get to the heart of the local wines and cuisine.
So if your keen to tour this wonderful part of France and sample some of the world’s finest wines and food, the River Royale is certainly one of the most luxurious ways to do so and to my mind is money well spent.
Note: Uniworld moved the River Royale to Bordeaux to operate the Bordeaux, Vineyards & Châteaux itinerary. It has been replaced on the Rhône & Saône by their fabulous ‘super ship’ the SS Catherine.