Cruise News

Don’t stop the boat ... I want to stay on!

SeaView editor David Simpson takes Uniworld's SS Catherine for a spin through Provence and Burgundy and doesn't want to get off.

I can count on two fingers the number of times I have got to the end of a voyage and wished it was about to start all over again. This was one of them.

For eight days we were shepherded with consummate ease through a succession of memorable walks, experiences, revelations, unveiling the history of some of the most important cities of Burgundy and Provence, as well as some of the prettiest villages. And all the while our home was a truly state-of-the-art vessel, launched little over a year ago, with a crew eager to grant our every wish.

 SS Catherine moored in Tain L'Hermitage
The SS Catherine moored in Tain L’Hermitage and, below, the stunning staircase that greets you as you step on board
SS Catherine lobby

The first impression of the SS Catherine is very special.  SS stands for “Super Ship” and you immediately see why. The two-storey lobby with its awesome Murano glass chandelier and whimsical life-size glass horse leads into the Van Gogh lounge where, with its ornate baroque-style chairs and furniture, you feel you have been transported to the Palace of Versailles. I have been fortunate enough to cruise like Roman Ambramovich but never like King Louis XVI. It was a whole new regal experience.

The SS Catherine was launched in 2014 and is one of the largest in Uniworld’s collection of 27 boutique vessels that cruise the waterways of the world. Offering 74 staterooms, five luxurious suites and one Royal Suite, it ensures an intimate and comfortable atmosphere by preserving a maximum capacity of 159 guests and 57 staff members.

As you cross the threshold of your stateroom you collide with everything the 21st century has to offer, with mirrored walls giving the room a feeling of infinity and an expansive floor to ceiling sash window allowing in all the beauty that France has to offer as you glide effortlessly along the Rhône and Saône rivers.

Our stateroom is Grade 1 on the fourth deck and comes with a rather unique integral verandah. Large sliding doors open onto an enclosed balcony with table and chairs for whiling and wining away the hours, but, with the push of a button, the top half of the tinted sash window lowers. Also, at the time of year when mosquitos are active, another button allows you to lower a protective net that enables you to sleep in comfort with the window wide open.

SS Catherine's Van Gogh lounge
SS Catherine’s ornate Van Gogh lounge gives you the feeling of cruising like a French king
SS Catherine's Van Gogh lounge

Step into the bathroom and the heating beneath the marble tiled floor is another luxurious touch. Then lie back on the expansive double bed and switch on the slick entertainment system that offers TV stations from across the world and the opportunity to catch up on all those recent Oscar-winning movies that you may have missed. 

Every detail on the dazzling vessel was envisioned by Uniworld’s design team led by Beatrice Tollman, the South African president and founder of Uniworld’s sister company, The Red Carnation Hotel Collection, and her daughter, Toni.

Our adventure had begun with crack-of-dawn pick-up by Titan’s “unrivalled” VIP Home Departure transfer service. It may have been 4.15 in the morning but our driver arrived on the dot to transport us to Heathrow airport for the short British Airways hop to Marseille. Titan are travel specialists and Uniworld’s UK sales agent but once in France, Uniworld’s own expertise kicks in with a meet-and-greet service to take care of everything. You don’t touch your bags again until you reach your stateroom after your luxurious coach - with an onboard loo - has whisked you the one-hour drive to the bank of the Rhone River in Avignon where SS Catherine awaits with a welcoming lunch.

After a relaxing afternoon familiarising yourself with what’s onboard, and you have been put through the compulsory life safety drill, Catherine meanders for 14 miles downriver to Tarascon while you get your first taste of the amazing food and wine that will be putting pressure on the waistline each morning, noon and night - with extra treats in between if you fancy.

The first morning either leaves you to your own devices in Tarascon, where a visit to the 15th century castle culminates with a sensational view of the surrounding countryside from the towering parapet, or a three-hour guided tour of Arles, with its abundance of Roman architecture, including its own famous Colosseum which has earned it Unesco world heritage status.

Palace of the Poes in Avignon
The Palace of the Popes in Avignon, above, and the illuminated cathedral in Lyon are two of the spectacular excursions on the cruise
Lyon at night

Then follows a succession of sights to behold as Catherine wends her way upriver, back to Avignon, with its Palace of the Popes and some excellent shopping; the tiny village of Viviers, once part of the Holy Roman Empire but more recently a Resistance stronghold during the Nazi occupation; Tournon and Tain L’Hermitage at the foot of the Hermitage Hills famed for their rich red wines; the magnificent city of Lyon, resurrected under the current mayor and famous for its textiles, especially silk; and finally Beaune in the heart of Burgundy, another of the world’s most famous wine regions.

Negotiating the 14 locks on the voyage is an adventure in itself. The Cat, as she is affectionately known, has been custom built so that Captain Pascal Rech can just about squeeze every inch of her 443ft into these marvels of engineering. And how he manages to complete the job without her even brushing the sides is simply a sight to behold. The many low-slung bridges are another matter altogether. Once again you find yourself holding your breath as, with only inches to spare above you, Catherine sails serenely on. Sometimes it is so tight that the top deck has to be closed and furniture laid flat.

By the time it’s all over you will have followed in the footsteps of Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin, enjoyed Rhone and Burgundy’s incomparable wine and cuisine, discovered many treasures, from the medieval wonders of Unesco-designated Avignon to the lively Paul Bocuse food market in Lyon, sipped the finest Hermitage at the Maison Ferraton cellars, gorged yourself at the wonderful Valrhona chocolate emporium, and marvelled at cathedral architecture in Viviers as you listen to an organ recital of Handel and Bach.

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One of the panoramic suites on board SS Catherine and the unique glass-panelled, ceramic-walled Leopard Pool
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And every step of the way expert guides bring to life the history and culture of each place you visit, shining a light into some of France’s darker corners and waxing lyrical about about the country’s greatest achievements.

Our morning spent with our guide, Frances Vardy, in the beautiful village of Viviers, with its narrow streets and charming square graced by Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche in the 2000 box office hit Chocolat, was one to cherish. Frances, from Bath but of French origin, charmed us all with her tales and anecdotes, but the invitation to explore her own historic home in Rue O’Farel, breathe in the way the French live and delve into a spread of local wines and cheeses was totally unexpected. It was an absolute privilege.

Another revelation was the revitalised city of Lyon. My annual experiences of driving through Lyon at the turn of the millennium en route to the Cote d’Azur were ones to forget. Just close your eyes and just keep driving. The bottleneck leaving the city where two motorways merge was said to be the worst traffic jam in the world, and probably still is, but the ugliness that was the legacy of a past mayor known as “Mr Concrete” has been replaced by the current mayor, favoured for the past 15 years, to produce a city of splendour and one worthy of a dedicated long weekend visit.

Uniworld lays claim to being top of the tree for river cuising experiences, but this year’s launch of Crystal’s new river cruise operation and the first of five luxury vessels holds no fear for Captain Rech, who says with confidence: “We are the best and competition is never a bad thing.”

Hence the reason there are many repeat Uniworld cruisers on board, some of them on their fourth voyage of the year. One couple was sailing the same stretch of water for the second time this year, and was even arranging a repeat performance next year, saying: “It’s difficult to improve on perfect.”

David Simpson travelled as a guest of Titan and Uniworld. Titan offer the 8-day ‘Burgundy and Provence’ river cruise in partnership with Uniworld. Prices start from £2,099 per person departing 17 July 2016 including scheduled return flights, 7 nights’ all-inclusive cruise on the SS Catherine, 19 meals, 6 excursions and visits and Titan’s VIP Home Departure Service. Titan: 0800 988 5873 or CLICK HERE for website

Posted on 16th February 2016 at 02:08 pm in Cruise News | Cruise Lines | Titan |

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