I awaken from an unexpected nap on the Sun Deck of the S.S. Catherine cruise ship. We are docked in southern France, on the Rhône River, just outside the Medieval walls of Avignon. A tarp over my lounge chair shades the sun and a gentle breeze from the dormant mistral, the famous wind of Provence, whisks away the heat. I had been replaying the morning sightseeing through groves of sunflowers and perfect picturesque villages graced with startlingly blue sky and lavender-scented air. Perhaps the dreamy glory of the moment and memory lulled me to sleep—-or maybe it was the rosé served at lunch.
We are on an eight-day/seven-night cruise titled 'Burgundy & Provence.' Our ship, the S.S. Catherine, travels between Avignon and Lyon on the Rhône River and forks along the Saône for a brief stretch into Burgundy.
Everything about this cruise delights. We dock at legendary cities and at each stop, the ship provides local guides, proficient in English and charm, to lead sightseeing excursions geared to a variety of physical abilities. We tour cities and tiny Medieval villages, as well as famous gardens, castles and UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Most cruise ships traveling the Rhone and Saône follow a similar itinerary. And most river cruise ships are similar in size, built with widths to move through locks and heights to fit under bridges. But the S.S. Catherine is the fairest of them all, distinguishing herself with both lavish decor and luscious cuisine.
Uniworld, a boutique river cruise line, launched the S.S. Catherine earlier this year, and without a designer’s vocabulary, I can only describe the ship’s decor as an over-the-top, Marie Antoinette-opulent wow!
Murano glass—in sculptures, chandeliers and lime-colored lattice work covering mirrored walls—dominates the decor. Silks and velvets cover furniture and windows in public areas and the 74 staterooms and six suites; and walls throughout wear an assortment of luxury fabrics.
Framed art (mostly contemporary purchased at auction houses) fills hallways, but particularly notable are works commissioned for the ship, such as the stunning white porcelain mural of exotic birds and fruit behind the reception desk, and the vividly colored glass and porcelain jungle scenes covering walls around the indoor swimming pool.
The Catherine holds 159 passengers and 57 staff. Staterooms occupy each of the three main decks and offer assorted amenities according to category. But even staterooms in the least-expensive category are decked out with style and feature Savoir of England beds, flat-screen TVs and marble bathrooms, complete with L’Occitane en Provence products. Suites have additional amenities such as room service (not available to other guests who must fetch their own wake-up coffee or tea from stations located at various spots on the ship).
Public rooms include an assortment of lounges and bars, a laundry area, fitness center, boutique, spa and a large graceful dining room.
We officially dine three times a day—unofficially, more. Breakfast and lunch buffets offer an assortment of familiar international foods intermixed with local specialties. The more formally served dinners dress menus with French-accented dishes of a quality and artistry that seduces one to indulge.
Wine matches the food, and the ship could be viewed as a luscious laboratory for sampling delights of the region, often only available locally.
We sometimes sail at night and sometimes during the day. Onboard activities vary, but frankly, we loved just sitting and watching the changing scenery as we glided through French landscapes celebrated by painters and poets, oenophiles and gourmets. One day, the riverbank yields green pastures with grazing Charolais cattle and picnickers worthy of Monet. Another day, steep green hills, every inch packed with grapevines. And still other days, Van Gogh and Cézanne scenes of earthy villages graced with gnarled olive trees, towering cypress and distant mountains.
The S.S. in front of the Catherine’s name is not a nautical term, but a Uniworld one meaning 'Super Ship.' Initials also could stand for 'sensational,' 'stunning' or 'sweet sybaritic'—a description of life aboard the vessel.
Travel agents will say that most tourists looking for a European river cruise first choose a destination and then a ship. I would recommend the opposite: Head for the S.S. Catherine and go wherever she goes, for the joie de vivre will not just meet your vacation dreams, but surely exceed them.
Prices for 2015 cruises start at $3,199 per person, which includes daily excursions, all food and beverages, service and tips. For more information, visit uniworld.com.