In France: Cruising from the Capital of Aquitaine with Uniworld

Castles and fortresses, vineyards and farmers' markets, history lessons made easy. And walking on cobbles: "nature's plantar physical therapy." It's all there on a river cruise around Bordeaux in southwest France.

Castles and fortresses, vineyards and farmers’ markets, history lessons made easy. And walking on cobbles: “nature’s plantar physical therapy.” It’s all there on a Uniworld river cruise around Bordeaux in southwest France.

River cruising as a European phenomenon shows no signs of letting up. Companies in the field (or rather in the river) report extraordinary loyalty amongst their clientele. This form of cruising is the perfect choice for those with a sense of history and small town living who enjoy the comfort of the typical cruise where passengers travel but unpack only once.

We are sitting opposite Adrian Leggate, the cruise manager of the River Royale, a river boat we’ve cruised on before from Paris down to Provence. We met Adrian on that cruise and are interested in how he sees the market some 4 years later. “People still want what they get from river cruising,” he says. “They want the intimate individuality off the beaten track and river cruising is still the great outdoors, but we’re at a tipping point. Ports like Amsterdam, Budapest and Lyon are now really busy. I would say to our river boat enthusiasts you can still follow your heart but be aware the situation in 10 years will be quite different. When the market is saturated you may want to look at canals and barges.” Readers who’d like to read how the Andersons found barging in France a quarter of a century ago click here.

Uniworld’s cruise from Bordeaux had already started when we arrived a day late at Bordeaux airport. We were flying Vueling Air from Porto to Bordeaux through Barcelona, the day our Douro River cruise ended — the same day the Bordeaux river cruise was due to begin. Our problems might be a learning experience we might later share with our readers. We will see.

Our boat is waiting for us in the twilight in Pauillac on the west bank of the Gironne estuary when we arrive by expensive taxi having missed the embarkation this morning. The bottle of wine sure looked good.

The boat runs 361 feet long and 37.5 feet wide and cabins have both 110/220 volt voltage. It carries 130 passengers. Most want to reconnoiter what will be their home for the next week. We check out the sundeck which now has, we notice, bicycles and Nordic walking poles and take a look at the monster chess board. We meet the captain, Ludovic Mercier and enjoy a club soda.

The Uniworld River Royale has white orchids everywhere — and they are always fresh. Over the boat’s bell (it’s a boat, they say, not a ship) flies the Tricolor of France. The boat is very handsome. We sailed on her about 2008 – 2 years after her inauguration – but she has been remodeled this year and looks very elegant. New to us on this boat, but not to the industry, is what it calls “Signature Dining.” This began on ocean liners as a market response to passengers’ wishes for open dining and dislike of 2 seatings for dinner at sea. When cruise lines tried to spread the load around the ship by creating new fancy restaurants (which brought in more revenue) wait staff found it had lost its bonding with diners who formerly ate always at the same table and even same seats. And when the special relationship guests had with staff was lost their tipping shrank also. The answer: include gratuities in the total price.

Uniworld realized before other river boat cruise lines that older guests resented the nickel and diming some lines imposed to increase their bottom line. It now is truly all-inclusive. The one price included all gratuities onboard and onshore, all scheduled airport transfers, all shore excursions, all beverages including specialty coffees, alcohol, including wine at lunch and dinner. We were curious about this. Would we gasp?! See drunkenness in the restaurants? Actually no. And we were attentive. Cocktails were supposedly covered; would a Uniworld waiter weasel in with a request for a cabin number for your gin and tonic in the lounge because it was not drunk during the meal but before it? No. No tricks, it’s genuine. And internet and Wi-Fi access is complimentary, too.

Those who haven’t cruised in the not-so-old days may not have experienced the ocean cruising times when the captain threw a welcoming event or the opportunity to wave to pier observers as a ship started to head out to sea and after the stewards came by with their pink drinks and little umbrellas came an assistant to get signatures, And quite recently, we’ve been on board a ship where all we can remember was, as passengers heading out into a steaming hot shore excursion, we exchanged our cabin number for a large $5 bottle of Perrier.

So a genuine all-inclusive cruise fare is really, really huge news.

And what is a constant, other river boaters tell us, is the quality of service, the kind of warm and friendly service you get from a river boat company (Uniworld calls it a boutique river boat collection that has 18 river boats all with personally trained staff in comparison to a competitor like the elephant in the room that has 52 with more coming).

One evening Adrian, the cruise manager, plays an interesting game of Hands Up Those Who Have Sailed with Uniworld Before! Fascinating! About three-quarters of the room raise their hands. Uniworld really retains its customers! Adrian then becomes methodical: Who has sailed twice before? A lot of hands go up. 3, 4…5? 6. 7? We’re not sure which we are. Seven, we raise our hands. That’s it. He goes to 8. Nobody. 9? No. Adrian knows something. He gets to 15 and pauses and a couple from, it turns out Orlando, raise their hands. That was tops on this cruise. After dinner we approach them tentatively; yes we are on a cruise but we are at heart travel writers. We tell them, we’re working; a family member once told us, “You don’t have vacations. You take trips!”

We ask the couple, “Fifteen cruises with Uniworld. Why?” and get the earnest answer, “Uniworld service. They can’t do enough for passengers.”

“Because they know you have done 15 cruises with them?,” we suggest. “Not at all,” they emphatically reply. “They are constant, it’s been like that from the beginning.” They had tried the competition but never went back. “So many of its river boats are being built every year that we notice their staff is not as well trained as Uniworld’s. How could it be?”

We ask if we might photograph them and quote their names. We are rebuffed. “Hey!” he says with a grin, “You may be taking a trip but we are on vacation.”

We know that Uniworld has some special summer and winter school holiday cruises that would appeal to families. We sit in the lounge with a 3-generation family but none are children so a river cruise has worked for them. Yet we’ve seen younger children on shore excursions having a ball mostly taking photographs with their smartphone.

The large comfortable Uniworld coaches meet passengers at every stop on the rivers. Some of the river boats take very few passengers! Fisherman’s cottages dot the river’s edge.

The brief coach trips are part of the experience.

Some of the shore excursions are so interesting we will be writing about as separate stories. Blaye Fortress (top) and St. Emilion (very bottom) Chateau Beau-Sejour Becot where a corkscrew has been made out of a vine.

And we will have a lot to say about beautiful Bergerac, a wine-producing town just outside the line of Bordeaux appellation so it is not at first glance recognized for the quality of its wines.

When all drinks are complimentary passengers surely get to know the sommelier, Liviu.

The chefs all have their specialty interests; ours was the one in the center who made all the deserts! The Claret Room is the boat’s specialty restaurant.

Entertainment on board includes lectures, local entertainment, and cooking classes.

The River Royale is really quite elegant and the days, as always on cruises, pass too quickly.

On the last night, always a somewhat sad time, passengers think back to memories, here one on the ancient village of Bourg. We will tell you about that on shore excursions next week.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.