by Vanessa Lee

A luxurious river cruise in the heart of France’s famed wine country showcases vineyards and chateaux as well as above-and-beyond service and culinary excellence.

River Royale in BlayeCourtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection - River Royale in Blaye

It was the smallest of touches on Uniworld’s gorgeous river ship, the River Royale, that made all the difference in our week-long wine-oriented cruise from Bordeaux, France. The delightful, charming staff catered to our every need and the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, with its five-star, award-winning and all-inclusive service, truly went above and beyond in every aspect. We came away from our seven-day cruise through this gorgeous wine region along the Dordogne, Garonne and Gironde Rivers  feeling very special and truly pampered.

River Royale_Gascogne LoungeCourtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection - Gascogne Lounge

I first sailed this ship almost 10 years ago and it has since been beautifully refurbished with a color palette in shades of blue with white accents. There are beautiful objets d’art throughout the ship along with stunning, colorful paintings and mirrors everywhere. The prettily decorated Gascogne Lounge is the main gathering spot on board for cocktails, musical entertainment, lectures and information sessions about the ports of call. It was there that we enjoyed a wonderful oyster tasting on our first sailing day, accompanied by a refreshing local Sauvignon Blanc wine - just a preview of all the wine-tasting we would enjoy in the days ahead. The head chef on the ship was from Bordeaux so our entire week was filled with wonderfully tasty local dishes as well as perennial favorites such as Croque Monsieur and French onion soup, which could be ordered for a more casual bistro lunch. Each day in this sunny and inviting spot was delicious!

River Royale_Cat 1 StateroomCourtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection - Category 1 Stateroom

The River Royale accommodates just 130 guests in a lovely, all-inclusive boutique atmosphere. All meals and snacks, as well as unlimited drinks on board including fine, distinctive wines – many of them from the renowned Bordeaux area – are included as are all coffees, mineral water, teas, soft drinks, juices and even gratuities for on-board staff and for the shore excursion drivers and guides. It’s a nice touch.

Because the ship is approximately 10 years old, the staterooms are somewhat small but cozy and richly appointed with ample storage, a superbly comfortable bed and a wealth of amenities including lots of electrical outlets, fresh water in a carafe, a dish of tasty bonbons, robes and slippers, a flat-screen TV with infotainment center and a make-up mirror.  Lavish L’Occitane bath amenities complement the gleaming marble bathrooms in each room.

River Royale_Claret RoomCourtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection - Claret Room

The River Royale offers several dining choices including the lovely main restaurant, Le Bordelais, which features outstanding evening dinner service, fabulous cuisine and open-seating dining so guests can mix and mingle. Breakfasts and lunches are typically served buffet style with chef service for certain dishes such as eggs and pasta. Everything is impeccably prepared and absolutely top-notch in every way. On one occasion we dined in the intimate (reservations only) Claret Room, used several evenings a week for wine tastings. Our best advice for enjoying this exclusive dining experience? Be sure to pre-book to avoid disappointment. The ship’s sommelier does an outstanding job of selecting wines especially for each Uniworld cruise to highlight the region in which the ship is sailing.

River Royale_Blue FoxCourtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection - The Blue Fox

On another evening we dined on deck, in the marvelous glass-enclosed casual restaurant called the Blue Fox - a huge highlight of the cruise. Because the Blue Fox accommodates just 30 people and is only open on certain evenings, reservations are a must. The menu is limited but the idea of dining on deck as one sails on a slow-moving river into a fabulous French sunset – well it’s utterly captivating. The Blue Fox opens for casual lunches on certain days as well and is much enjoyed by every guest.

One of the main reasons for cruising the Bordeaux region, of course, is to learn more about the wines and to visit famous wineries, known the world over for their award-winning vintages. Small towns and villages with cobblestone streets and medieval churches, castles and other fascinating buildings are in abundance.

The port of departure, Bordeaux in the Aquitaine region of France, is a great city to explore as it is relatively small and easy to navigate. The ship spends a few days docked near to the center of town as a part of the cruise experience. The evening illuminations tour of Bordeaux is wonderful and the shopping is fantastic!

St. EmilionAnna Pakutina/iStock

We particularly enjoyed the exquisite little town of St. Emilion, with its ancient monolithic church and many wine bars and tasting rooms nestled on quaint cobblestone streets and perched on steep walkways. The itinerary covered such storied regions and vineyards as Margaux, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau d’Yquem, Pauillac, Sauternes and more. If food and wine are your thing then you can indulge in a totally decadent week of eating far too much fois gras and other local delicacies and tasting some of the world’s finest wines.

Daily tours were offered to a variety of chateaux for tastings, and guests were welcome to choose to take bicycle tours from winery to winery, enjoying artisanal lunches and wine pairings. Another impressive shore excursion was to the Blaye Fortress, which dates back to 1677. This itinerary enables the ship to sail up and down several rivers close to the Bordeaux estuary, which leads out to the Atlantic Ocean. If you’ve river cruised before, this will be a different experience! The tides play a big role in the ship’s ability to enter certain parts of the river, so one has to be prepared to spend time on Uniworld’s coaches to enjoy your tours, to visit wineries and to go even further afield on market day to the gorgeous city of Bergerac and to Perigord in the Dordogne.

Our Uniworld river cruise was an exceptional experience and a wonderful way to explore this heavenly and much-lauded region of France, famed for its cuisine, gastronomic delights and absolutely superb wine - a winning combination in every way.

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Spring/Summer 2016 issue.

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