A new river cruise ship features superb regional food, luxury touches and time to relax, writes Louise Goldsbury.
It's the little things. The heated bathroom floor, the insect screen on my window, the jar of chocolates and flower displays that change daily. This attention to detail on Uniworld's new river ship doesn't go unnoticed.
In other ways, it's hard to miss the upgrades on the SS Catherine, launched in March in Lyon, France. This year sees the introduction of complimentary drinks, from fine wine to spirits, as well as included gratuities. The internet is noticeably more reliable (and free, too). Also new and downright kooky is the safari-themed swimming pool inside the Bar du Leopard.
This cosy club is where the night owls congregate in animal-print booths for live music. The dark bar, aside from the glow of the lit pool, is full of ferns and leopard sculptures. Catering to the emerging breed of under-60 river-cruisers, the small and sassy venue offers an alternative to the pianist and "international crooner" in the Van Gogh Lounge.
When a ship is christened by legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve, smashing a bottle of Dom Perignon across the bow, it has to live up to expectations. In her speech at the ceremony, Deneuve said: "I am very proud that this beautiful ship will bear my name. Beauty and elegance reign on her."
The beauty and elegance start from the moment you walk onboard. Guests are greeted in the lobby by a life-size green horse, sourced from Venice, and a Murano chandelier of horse heads (which looks better than it sounds), set off by hand-carved glass trims on the mirrored walls. At the centre is a gold elevator with a waterfall cascading down one wall, reflecting the flow of the Rhone river outside.
Other pieces of original art - including several works commissioned for the ship - line the walls of corridors, staterooms and suites. Even the hand-crafted Savoir beds are custom-made for Uniworld while marble bathrooms are stocked with L'Occitane products (Hermes in the suites).
It's no coincidence that this lavish decor is reminiscent of a high-end boutique hotel. SS Catherine's interiors were designed by Beatrice Tollman, founder of Uniworld's sister company, The Red Carnation Hotel Collection (which includes upmarket properties such as London's Milestone, 41 and Egerton House), along with her daughter Toni Tollman and projects director Brian Brennan.
While the styling may be over the top for some, it's sure to please the luxury traveller or the escapist who splurges on extravagant holidays.
This is not a cruise for bargain-hunters. But the benefits of the higher fares are evident everywhere, from the blueberries at breakfast through to the quality of entertainment at night. Not to mention the cheese, the glorious, exquisite, French cheese.
We have only cruised for one day, yet the crew is already loading fresh produce at the next port of call. Crates of vegetables, meat and seafood - none of it ever frozen - are purchased from the farmers markets in every village. The ship's head chef orders the regional specialties, which appear on our plates for dinner.
Truffles, caviar, oysters, duck, rack of lamb, Valrhona chocolate and an astonishing amount of those cheeses make up one evening's meal. Vegetarians are also impressed by the page-long menu, presenting as many indulgent options as offered to carnivores.
The complimentary drinks selection is also generous. Grey Goose, Glenmorange, Glenfiddich are among the inclusions. My favourite spot for an al fresco drink is the Matisse Terrace, hidden away off the back of the main lounge. Pots of lavender sit on white tables, which overlook the water. The open-air top deck is another great place for relaxing on sun-loungers with river views.
Luxuries flow from ship to shore as we sail through the French countryside, stopping in villages to sample the local culture. In Lyon, we have three tour options: a walk around the historic silk-weavers district in the Quartier St Jean; a bike ride along the Left Bank to the Parc de la Tete d'Or; or a tea and crepe demonstration and tasting at the Ecole Institut Paul Bocuse, run by its namesake, the city's most famous chef and a highly regarded ambassador of French cuisine.
In the twin towns of Tain L'Hermitage/Tournon, we visit the home of Valrhona chocolate and then enjoy a tasting with the region's acclaimed winemakers from Saint Joseph and Crozes Hermitage. In Viviers, an organ concert is performed for our small group in the cathedral, while others take a day trip to a truffle farm in Grignan.
I set aside one afternoon for pure relaxation with a dreamy massage at the onboard spa, followed by a riverside walk, saying "bonjour" to the passing locals. Returning to my room, I tap the button that closes my floor-to-ceiling window, creating a sunny nook, and settle in with a glass of champagne and a freshly baked brioche.
Sometimes it's the decadence of downtime that brings out the best of a river cruise.
The writer was a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises.
FIVE THINGS TO DO ON A FRENCH RIVER CRUISE
Borrow the ship's bikes for a cycle to the Parc de la Tete d'Or in Lyon or past the vineyards in Viviers.
World-famous Valrhona chocolate is made in Tain-l'Hermitage, within walking distance of the dock.
OYSTERS AND CAVIAR
Uniworld brings onboard a specialist in Aquitaine Sturia caviar and Arcachon oysters to provide a freshly shucked feast.
Sample selections of the Cotes du Rhone at the Saint Joseph and Croze Hermitage wineries.
Farmer and dog demonstrate how to find "black diamonds", followed by snacks of truffle oil, butter and pate.
Emirates, Qantas and British Airways fly from Sydney to Lyon with a stop in Dubai. If flying on another airline to Paris, catch the TGV train to Lyon (two hours). For the cruise from Avignon, fly to Marseille for a Uniworld transfer to the dock.
Uniworld's SS Catherine sails the regions of Burgundy and Provence between April and November. A seven-night cruise between Lyon and Avignon also stops at Viviers, Tain-l'Hermitage/Tournon and Chalon-sur-Saone (Beaune).
Combined with land touring, the "Grand France" itinerary adds Paris, Giverny, Honfleur and Normandy beaches.
All-inclusive fares start at $4434 a person twin-share, including shore excursions, gratuities, onboard meals and airport transfers.