I’ve waited a little while before writing this post, as I wanted to let the dust settle on a few issues before collecting my thoughts. It’s no secret that whilst we had an enjoyable time overall on our recent river cruise through Burgundy and Provence, there were a number of issues along the way that made us question our choice of cruise company. We’d been promised a 6 star experience with Uniworld, and sadly it fell well short of that, but to be fair, there were times when we had some great experiences, and even if you’d only rate the service as 4 stars, that’s still going to add up to a pretty good experience overall.
Those of you who followed our previous river cruise along the Rhine, Main and Danube Rivers with APT via AMA Waterways might recall that there were also a few issues that arose on that cruise, mainly around the limited choices of food for anyone with special dietary requirements, but when we look back and compare the two, it’s quite clear that the experience with APT was so much better than what we had with Uniworld, and I’d like to explain why in better detail.
The SS Catherine
The SS Catherine is a stunning ship, filled with fine arts, a light-filled atrium complete with a waterfall and a Murano glass sculpture and chandelier. Along the halls you’ll find original artworks including works by Picasso. Whilst some might find the interior decoration a little on the gaudy side, there’s no denying that the materials used are all of the highest quality.
Unfortunately, that’s all as much good as putting lipstick on a pig if the ship itself is not fit for purpose. When you are paying the sort of money that’s being asked to travel on a “luxury” cruise ship through the hottest part of France at the hottest time of the year, you would expect it to have reasonable climate control. The air conditioning in the state rooms was top notch, but it was a very different story once you entered the public areas such as the Van Gogh Lounge or the Cézanne Restaurant. Here the air conditioning just could not cope, and we found that at dinner time in the restaurant it was almost unbearable, especially on some of the nights where the service was incredibly slow (more on that later).
After the first night, a token effort was made to bring two very small Dyson bladeless fans into the dining room, but these didn’t even oscillate, so unless you were one of the lucky few seated within a direct line of one of the fans, they were next to useless. One of our friends actually tried to direct one towards our table on one occasion, and received a stern (and very public) dressing down from the head of service, who threatened to remove the fans completely if any guest dared touch them again.
We also found the SS Catherine to shudder a lot when underway, certainly much more than the AmaVerde that we had travelled on previously with APT. I’m not sure whether that was to do with river currents or what, but we did find that on some nights there was a distinct shaking, and the glass door to our balcony had to be wedged with pillows to stop it rattling. In fact one of our friends made a comment that it felt like the rudder was out of alignment – whatever the case, it certainly made for a much shakier trip than we had experienced on the Rhine and Danube cruise.
Speaking of balconies, all of the rooms on the SS Catherine feature what is known as a French balcony – that is, that the windows are all flush with the side of the ship, and the top half of the window retracts down to create an open air “balcony”. On the AmaVerde and other AMA Waterways ships, many of the rooms also feature these french balconies, but others (such as the owner’s suite that we were upgraded to) feature a combination of a French balcony on one side and a traditional outdoor balcony on the other. Other companies such as Avalon also offer a fully retractable window that creates a full, floor-to-ceiling open-air balcony at the edge of the room.
We opted for what is known as a “deluxe balcony” room on the SS Catherine – it’s a French balcony, but part of the room has been sacrificed to create an enclosed glass area that can be closed off from the rest of the room. In theory, it creates an outdoor balcony, but in reality it’s far from practical, and we would have been better served spending $1000 less on a French balcony room, rather than losing that space. Why? Well, when it comes to French balconies, they are not much use in hot weather, because as soon as you open the window, the air conditioner in your room switches off. This is also true in the deluxe balcony rooms, meaning that even though you have a fully enclosed “outdoor” balcony, you’re not able to enjoy it without heating up your room.
You also can’t take proper photographs from inside the room without opening the window, as there is a glaze applied to the windows that looks clear to the naked eye, but turns your photographs blue.
The only time it was of any real advantage having the enclosed balcony was when I would wake up early (as I do often on these trips). It meant I could close myself off with the curtain drawn inside the room so that I could work on my laptop without disturbing Vanessa.
Bedding and pillows
Our bed on the SS Catherine was extremely comfortable. We hadn’t had a problem with the bed on the AmaVerde, but the Savoir Beds on the SS Catherine took comfort up a notch. The only issue was that despite the offer of a pillow menu, all of the pillows we tried I found to be extremely soft with very little neck support – eventually I tried one that was supposedly a chiropractic pillow, but it was too thin. In the end I had to settle for a combination of a couple of very thin, very soft pillows together in order to get any neck support at all. By the end of the trip we had built up quite a collection of pillows in the room, which actually came in handy as a means to stop the balcony door from shaking all night.
The deluxe balcony room on the SS Catherine was, like most rooms on any cruise ship, very limited in space. There was however plenty of storage space, with more than enough drawers and cupboards for our clothes, and ample hanging space for jackets and trousers. The bed was also cleverly raised so that all of our cases could be slid underneath out of the way. The room had a safe where we could secure our passports and travel documents and the bathroom, while tight, was certainly adequate.
The only gripe regarding the bathroom was that when we had attended the information evening organised in advance by Uniworld, the host speaker had waxed lyrical about the l’Occitane products in the bathrooms. We later found that the brochures referred to Hermès bath products, however by the time we got on board we found that those are now only available in the suites, and our room instead carried Asprey bath products, which frankly, stink like a chemistry lab. First World problems perhaps, but it meant that we had to go out and buy our own shampoo, conditioner and soap at the first opportunity.
As already mentioned, the dining room on the ship, the Cézanne Restaurant, was frightfully hot during dinner times and incredibly uncomfortable to sit in, however the quality of the food on offer was generally very high. Unlike what we had experienced on the AmaVerde, there were plenty of alternative offerings suited to vegetarians or those with a food intolerance to gluten or dairy. Meal proportions were very good, and there was no way you could ever complain about leaving the table hungry. A couple of times others dining with us complained about the quality of a particular dish, but for myself I can’t recall any dish that I didn’t like, and there were several that I found outstanding.
What was a little disappointing though is that there are very few other dining options on board. There was a limited room service available (which I believe was enhanced for those staying in the suites), as well as free tea and coffee making facilities in a couple of locations and snacks in the Van Gogh lounge.
On two out of the seven nights there was an “al fresco” dining experience available in the fully enclosed Bar du Leopard at the end of the ship. Guests were required to book in advance, and numbers were strictly limited. This was a great meal (probably our best for the whole trip), but that whole area of the ship is criminally underutilised, with no bar service at all during the day and very limited numbers of guests actually making any use of the bar at night (when the adjoining pool that is the main draw card is closed).
I contrast all of this to the AmaVerde, which featured a traditional Italian style bistro on one side of the main dining room, and more modern menu on the other side, as well as the fine dining option offered every night in the Erlebnis dining room at the back of the ship. Every guest was guaranteed at least one opportunity to book a seat for a night at this restaurant, and those of us lucky enough to be staying in the suites also received an invitation to a Captain’s table dinner there at the end of the cruise.
All of the cruise companies that operate at the premium end of the market like to talk about their service delivery, and for the most part Uniworld delivered on their claims, although we did find the fellow at the head of meal service (whose name escapes me) to be a bit abrasive at times, and there were a couple of times when the staff seemed reluctant to offer you any alternatives to the wines being offered with dinner (more on that later). As always with a cruise like this, there are many different nationalities on board that make up the crew, and sometimes there are language barriers and cultural differences that need to be overcome, but for the most part every crew member we dealt with spoke perfect English and we had little trouble explaining our requirements.
The table service in the restaurant was generally very good, but there were several nights where it became very slow and we found ourselves waiting ages between courses. One particular night, the second last of our cruise, we were among the first tables to be seated, yet after three hours we were still waiting for our desserts to be served when we heard that the entertainer in the lounge upstairs had already packed up and gone home. What was particularly disappointing on these occasions was that the captain, cruise director and head of resources were seated at a table nearby and received their meals before most of the paying customers, something I believe is inexcusable when you’re paying the sort of prices being asked for a trip like this.
The cleaning staff were exceptional for the most part, although there was one day when the regular lady that we had was on her day off and the standard of cleaning was noticeably less for that day.
If I had to be picky at all, and this is really just nit picking, it’s that the turn down service wasn’t to the same standard as that we’d experienced on the APT trip . The little gifts left on the bed each night during the Uniworld trip were noticeably cheaper than those provided by APT and there were no little extras like the towel animals that were left by the AMA Waterways staff. These are all very, very minor things, but they do add up when it comes to the difference between 4 star and 5 or 6 star service.
Like most cruises, on this trip the cruise director held an information session in the Van Gogh Lounge each night to inform us of the next day’s activities. Unfortunately, through no fault of Uniworld, we often found it difficult to hear what was being said thanks to a couple of groups of ignoramuses who just would not shut up. Several times each night the cruise director would have to stop and wait while some loud bozo finished their conversation. Chief among these were the group of Panamanian women who insisted on gabbling their way through most of the session. They would then show up to the wrong bus the next day and delay everyone else while they were sorted into their correct groups.
When we travelled with APT back in November 2014, there were no such things as travel apps for your phone, but in the years since I believe that APT have developed an excellent information application that you can download to your phone or tablet that features loads of extra information relevant to each day’s tours. Unfortunately Uniworld didn’t have anything like that to offer, but I definitely believe it’s something that they should look into.
What we also missed on this trip that we had made great use of on the AmaVerde was the cameras mounted on the front of the ship that you could view via the television in your room – as a photographer I found this extremely handy when we were cruising through the day, especially if the weather was a little adverse – it meant that I could monitor the TV for any upcoming landmarks and be ready to head upstairs and take a few snaps without having to stand out in the freezing wind for the whole trip.
Another thing that was lacking on this trip was any onboard announcements – with APT our cruise director would always have some information for us each morning and evening, and at times when we were cruising through the day, he would often announce upcoming features so that you would have a chance to get into the best spot to view them. There was nothing like that at any stage of this trip.
On board entertainment
I’m an early riser and definitely not a night owl, so to be honest, on board entertainment for the most part doesn’t interest me. Vanessa, on the other hand, loves to head up to the lounge in the evenings for a few drinks and a bit of a dance, and sadly on this trip, there were very few opportunities to do so.
There was a piano in the lounge, but unlike the APT trip where we had a pianist on board who would play every night, there was no one booked by Uniworld for this trip. On one night Ness managed to convince a fellow guest, an Englishman, to play a few tunes, which resulted in an impromptu Karaoke session amongst the other guests, but other than that things were sadly lacking. I’ve read other reviews where people have said that there was a pianist on board, so I’m not sure why that didn’t occur this time around.
On a couple of nights there were entertainers booked to come on board. One particular night we were supposed to have some dancers performing a recital of dances that had been popular in France since the end of WWII, but due to a malfunctioning lock our ship was delayed and they couldn’t meet us at the expected time. Thankfully, and by a sheer fluke, we managed to hook up with a group hosted by a guide named Pierre in Viviers the next morning and he turned out to be one of those dancers – I’ve related that truly wonderful experience here.
On another occasion there was supposed to be an entertainer in the lounge after dinner who would sing various songs from around the world and don different wigs and costumes, but unfortunately as mentioned earlier, by the time we had finished being served our meals in the dining room, he had already packed up and left. Perhaps the only night of real entertainment was one evening when a young lass whose name escapes me (but a previous finalist/winner of The Voice I believe) performed a number of songs – I didn’t see it, but I’m told it was very good.
There was also disappointingly a lack of information sessions that could have been made available during daylight hour cruising – there was one talk on silk weaving that was really just an excuse to sell some very expensive silk scarves. It would have been nice to have been given access to more historical or educational lectures, given that we were traversing an area of France that had seen massive Roman settlement, as well as many wars and boundary changes over thousands of years, and is generally regarded as the food bowl of Europe.
Again, I contrast this to the APT trip, where we had lectures on the castles of the Rhine, on the operation of the lock system of the Main-Danube, and even a Frühschoppen event, complete with beer and sausages. I know I might be starting to sound like a broken record at this stage, but these are the added special touches that take a trip from 4 star to 5 or 6 star, and which were sadly absent from the Uniworld cruise.
Our APT tour in 2014 was pretty much spent in the company of other Aussies. There were a couple of Kiwis, the odd Englishman or two and a few Asian couples, but on the whole at least 90% of the guests on board hailed from the land of Oz. They were also for the most part much older than us – I’d say the average age would have been late 60s to mid 70s.
That’s partly the reason why we decided that on this trip we would look to travel with an overseas based company – to meet different people from different backgrounds. Of course Uniworld being an American owned company, the majority of guests (about 75%) were American, but there was a healthy smattering of others including from Panama, England, New Zealand and Asia. There were three Aussie couples on board, although disappointingly we didn’t even rate a mention when the cruise director was reading out the list of nationalities on board. It seems most Americans and Europeans have a hard time telling us apart from our Kiwi cousins across the ditch!
I think on a whole the average age was a bit younger on the SS Catherine – probably mid 50s to late 60s. There were some of the really “ugly” American tourists of course, the obnoxiously loud show-offs with their plastic wives, but there were also some really wonderful people who we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know. Looking back at the APT trip, there were several obnoxious Aussies on board that one, so the Americans don’t have that market completely sewn up anyway.
Tour guides and buses
One big advantage Uniworld has over APT is that they have a fleet of their own buses that follow the tour. Generally on each day that there were buses required we had one or two buses available, although on some days that stretched to three or four. There did seem to be a bit of angst at times regarding organising them, and as mentioned previously, that wasn’t helped by certain groups who would ignore the requests to indicate what tours they were intending to do and then turn up at the last minute expecting a ride.
For the most part the guides we had were pretty good. Some of them had very thick French accents of course and were occasionally difficult to understand, but the majority of them spoke very good English and generally tried to keep us informed. Of course some guides seem to enjoy the sound of their own voice a little too much and could probably ease back a bit on the verbal overload, but I think that’s an issue with tour guides in general – we certainly had similar issues on the APT trip with a couple of guides who suffered from verbal diarrhea.
We particularly enjoyed the couple of trips we had with an English lady named Janette, who had a very dry sense of humour and was probably the most informative of our guides. In Viviers, we were so lucky to have chosen Pierre as our guide – he managed to turn what may have just been an ordinary walking tour into something really memorable. Getting a good guide is the luck of the draw, but it can go a long way towards whether or not you are going to enjoy a particular excursion.
The only guide we really had an issue with was the one we had in Arles, who I won’t name. We’d actually started the trip off with a French lady, but we found her a bit difficult to understand, so we switched groups when we got off the bus. Big mistake. To start with, the fellow we ended up with was obviously not acquainted with deodorant, and we had to stay upwind of him as we walked. We started off listening to him through the headsets that the tour groups all use, but after about ten minutes of inane rambling that had very little to do with Arles and a lot to do about himself, we switched off the headsets and just wandered ahead on our own as much as possible. We were really fascinated by Arles, but unfortunately when I look back on that day now, there’s always the regret of having chosen that guide – especially when we could have tagged along with the aforementioned Janette and maybe learned something along the way.
What exactly does “All-inclusive” mean?
“All inclusive” is a term thrown about by many of the cruise companies – in fact in Uniworld’s case they claim that they are “The most all-inclusive cruise line operating on the rivers”. But what does that actually mean?
For the most part it should mean, that once you’ve paid the fee for your trip, there is nothing more to pay once you get on board. Let’s be honest here – neither APT nor Uniworld (nor any other line for that matter) is completely all-inclusive. Generally there are always extras to pay for such as top shelf liquors, some “exclusive” optional tours and things like laundry, massage treatments etc.
One thing I’d say about Uniworld though is that their marketing department take things beyond the mere suggestion of all-inclusive and actually commit to the page a few things that just don’t stack up on closer inspection. For instance, in their current brochure, under the heading “The most all-inclusive amenities“, the first paragraph is titled “Unlimited choice of PREMIUM spirits” (that’s my emphasis on the word premium). It then goes on to say “Enjoy only the finest wines with every meal, or relax with a top-shelf cocktail, prepared with your favourite ultra-premium liquor“. This is just untrue; at least on the SS Catherine we found it to be so.
With both APT and Uniworld, there was a choice of included wine on offer at meal times. With APT, it was always a number of different reds and whites, with perhaps a sparkling or rosé thrown into the mix. With Uniworld, there was 1 red and 1 white offered with dinner, but if you wanted something else you could ask and there were usually a couple of alternatives available. Unfortunately at times we found some of the wait staff a little reluctant to offer you any of those alternatives. What we also found irksome is that out of the seven nights of a trip through Burgundy and Provence, travelling through some of the premier wine regions of France, on at least two separate occasions the wines being offered at dinner were South African wines, simply because the owner of the company is South African. And they were pretty ordinary wines too.
The wines on offer in the included list certainly weren’t premium wines, let alone “only the finest” – at best they were village wines, the sort of wine you’d expect to pick up at Liquorland with change out of $20. There were better quality wines available, at a cost, and those costs weren’t cheap. For instance, on the Uniworld cruise, a bottle of Penfolds Koonunga Hill Chardonnay ($15 a bottle here) would set you back €56 (about $91 AUD). Both companies were the same on this, but at least with APT they were upfront about it from the start, and we generally found their included wines to be more localised and of a higher standard. As for Uniworld, I think some of their claims stray beyond the realms of poetic licence and into realms more murky and fraudulent.
When it comes to the “ultra-premium liquor” claims made by Uniworld, I will say it again – that is just untrue. You could order a gin and tonic for instance, and have it with a Gordons or a Tanqueray within the included costs. But a Hendricks? (i.e. a premium spirit). That was only available at an extra cost of €10 ($16.40 AUD). The same went for anything usually found on the top-shelf – a Jamesons Irish whiskey for instance was included in the standard mix, but any of the single malt Scotch whiskys or cognacs that we inquired about were certainly not included in the “all-inclusive” price.
Included tours vs optional extras
While we’re on the subject of “all-inclusive”, let’s say from the start that APT are streets ahead of Uniworld when it comes to included tours.
It might help first if I classify the tours that are offered with these cruises into three distinct categories – standard, special and exceptional. From there, it’s easy to see just how much more bang-for-your-buck APT offers, given that their overall cost is roughly the same, or sometimes even less, than that offered by Uniworld.
Standard tours are those that anyone could do when visiting a village – generally a walking tour of the main highlights. Often they are straight off the ship, wherever it has docked, although occasionally there may be a short coach ride first. Usually in the company of a guide (although not always), you’ll get a whistle stop tour, the Reader’s Digest version of the city’s history, and if you’re really lucky, a guide who will stop talking about themselves for long enough to tell you a little bit about some of the places you’re seeing. For the most part, there’s nothing you will see or learn on these tours that you couldn’t discover for yourself with a map, a guide book and a little research, although if you’re lucky enough to strike a guide with a personal affiliation with the village you are in, you can pick up some good local insights that you might not otherwise have been privy to.
Special tours are those that you couldn’t easily arrange to do on your own, although with a bit of planning and maybe an arrangement with a company offering day tours you could still get the same experience. In other words, they’re not necessarily exclusive to the cruise company. Think visits to castles and opera houses, demonstrations at farms, dinners at gourmet restaurants, wine tasting at vineyards, skip-the-queue access to museums etc. The main factor that makes these different from the standard tours is that ordinarily if you were to do one of these you would expect to have to pay some sort of entry fee.
Exceptional tours are pretty rare on any cruise, but they are the ones that will make you remember your cruise many years after the event. They feature things that you’d probably never be able to arrange for yourself. Exclusive dinners at palaces or chateaus, cooking classes at exclusive restaurants, private opera recitals, or after-hours tours of famous museums.
So how did Uniworld fare? Well firstly, there was nothing that we did on this cruise that would fall into the Exceptional category, perhaps with the exception of the lunch at Chateau Rully, which I’d probably sit right on the line between special and exceptional. There was a cooking demonstration at the Hotel Mirande in Avignon and another at the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon which by all accounts were pretty special, but in both cases they were booked out prior to the cruise, and they were also very expensive – an additional €199 per person ($330 AUD) I believe.
In Burgundy, a number of people chose to do a wine tasting at a vineyard that set them back about something like €130 per person, which by all accounts was an absolute disaster, completely disorganised and very poor value for money. Even the Chateau Rully trip that we did cost an extra €99 ($165 AUD) each. Was it worth it? Maybe, but not when you compare it to the dinner at Burg Namedy that we attended on our APT cruise, which was a standard inclusion in the tour price.
There were a few trips that were in the special category that were included in the tour cost, such as the trip the Pont du Gard, the tour of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon (which we couldn’t do) and the trip to the truffle farm at Grignan. Interestingly, that last tour was listed as an optional extra at the start of the trip, but ended up being an inclusion later on – we think that was done at the expense of the Valrhona Chocolate and wine pairing lecture which strangely just disappeared off the agenda entirely.
The worst value for us was the extra trip to Baux du Provence, with the olive farm, that cost us an additional €56 (about $90 AUD) per person. Looking at the brochures for the equivalent trip through APT, this is a standard inclusion on their itinerary. It’s not that the trip itself was particularly bad, it just felt like it shouldn’t have been an extra cost, and seeing it listed with APT as a standard inclusion kind of proves my point.
The included trip to Viviers, that started out as a fairly standard walking tour, turned into something really special thanks to a wonderful guide, and it was certainly one of the highlights of the cruise. When you get a guide like that, you cherish the memories, because it doesn’t happen very often.
It’s when you start to look at what was included within the price of our APT trip though that you see just how much more “All-Inclusive” they really are. Admittedly, that cruise was over 15 days instead of 8, but in that time there were at least two exceptional tours (dinner at Namedy castle and a private opera recital in Vienna), as well as countless special tours (such as the wine tasting walk in Rüdesheim, the wine tasting events in Würzburg and Dürnstein, or the tours of the opera house in Budapest, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Not once did we have to pay extra for any of these tours.
So overall, the claims of Uniworld to be “All Inclusive” just don’t stack up. Given that it was these claims that initially made us choose them over APT or Avalon, who we had also been considering, it’s very hard to review them without feeling an overwhelming sense of betrayal. We were promised 6 star, and we were delivered 4 star. That’s OK if you’re paying for 4 star service, but Uniworld’s prices are definitely at the premium end of the market, even before you consider all of the extra costs for the optional tours.
We’d thoroughly recommend a Burgundy/Provence cruise to anyone, and we’d be happy to do one again at some stage in future. We just won’t be doing it through Uniworld.