New cruiser Sally Hales discovers the delights of Burgundy and Provence on Uniworld’s Connoisseur Collection Rhône voyage

With the azure blue sky above us, Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine glides effortlessly through the blue waters of the Saône – the Rhône’s northern tributary – between Lyon and Chalon and, as we take our seats for dinner in the Cézanne restaurant, I’m reminded of the famous French pearl of wisdom: “Life is too short to drink bad wine”.

As the evening meanders on, glasses are charged delicious course by delicious course with wine carefully selected by the onboard sommelier to showcase the vineyards we sail by and complement the local cuisine on our plates. The passion for the grape is palpable: the waiters and sommelier are bursting with knowledge and eager to share.

So, despite our 3am rising and the steady supply of Champagne since we were welcomed on board early in the afternoon, we try the white, then the red and maybe just a drop more of the white to wash down the flavours of Burgundy, as the green of the French countryside slides by, punctuated with traditional towns and hilltop châteaux.

Fine wining

For this wine-loving first-time cruiser, this jaunt through the finest culinary and wine nation on earth on Uniworld’s Connoisseur Collection cruise through Burgundy and Provence constitutes nothing short of a cultural revelation – one where the wine is definitely good.

Despite an excitable first night of over-indulgence, we’re up early and surprisingly refreshed the next morning, and not just because we are desperate to sample the beauty of Burgundy. Our stateroom is equipped with decadently comfy Savoir beds, which a quick Google search reveals would set you back the price of a small car, and contact with which produces almost instantaneous and deeply edifying sleep.

Combined with the roomy waterfall showers, luxurious L’Occitane toiletries and a splendid breakfast – although we sadly skip the Champagne on offer we are well rested, revived and raring to go. Any concerns about seven nights sharing a stateroom melted away overnight; over the course of the cruise, novels go unread and the TV untouched. Between enthusiasm for our onshore adventures, the delights of the restaurant and bar and the miracle bed, we are barely awake in the room long enough to feel fractious.

A French jewel

Our first day sees us heading for Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy wine country, on a route that takes us through some of the most revered and expensive vineyards in the world. We travel through huddles of towns that ooze easy French elegance, with honeyed-stone homes lining the sun-baked winding streets.

This is where the finest winemakers in the world live, their prestigious vines creeping right up to their delightful doorways. At Puligny-Montrachet, we are afforded a photo-op and wistfully snap the rows vines producing wine that can cost a four-digit sum before the coach carries us on to the historic seat of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Fifteenth-century Beaune is everything you imagine a French wine town to be: pretty cobbled streets, ancient markets, beautiful architecture – in particular the stunning Hôtel-Dieu or Hospices de Beaune. One of the jewels of France, we discover this charitable hospital for the poor was founded in 1443, as we are led around by our friendly and knowledgeable local guide on a perfectly pitched tour that will come to epitomise our adventures. Each day, we are delivered seamlessly to a lovely location and given a good dose of knowledge and adventure, shown the sights and then let loose with some free time.

Back on board, armed with new wine knowledge and feeling a bit French, we get our glad-rags on for the Gala evening, where the ship’s quality gets its first chance to shine. S.S. Catherine’s crew delivers service at an exceptional level, while giving off an air of relaxed efficiency. And with a staff to guest ratio of around three to one, even if you haven’t opted for one of the butler-serviced suites, the experience always comes pretty close.

Impeccable service

Guests’ names are quickly learned, while tastes are noted and occasionally charmingly challenged as we’re encouraged to try the frogs, snails and quail offered on the stunning fine dining menu. There is no such thing as a cocktail menu, just name your tipple and it appears. Everything is included here and, beyond the art that adorns the ship and the little indulgences of our Stateroom – nightly gifts on our pillow, daily refills of delicious chocolates – this is the real luxury.

If you want, you ask. And, most of the time, you don’t even have to do that: an empty glass is almost an offence and a gracious waiter is soon at your side.

France’s third-largest city might not be Paris, but, by night, Lyon does a good job of getting us further in the mood. We’re whisked off to super-chef Paul Bocuse’s institute to get
hands-on with some crêpe-making before we explore the city’s little-known and recently revamped Renaissance Old Town.

Our local guide has the inside track, leading us down traboules – hidden passageways that weave between courtyards and through buildings in the old-quarters of Lyon. It’s the kind of off-the-tourist trail experience we’re delivered daily and, outside a historic church, some of our more energetic fellow guests whizz by on their bikes. They’ve signed up for the Go Active option, which offers the chance to raise the heart rate at destinations, with hiking, biking and kayaking.

Further south in the small walled city of Viviers, on the right bank of the Rhône, we get hyper-local. Our lovely guide Frances is a resident, and our tour is interspersed with her endless bonjours to her neighbours before she takes us on a surprise visit to her home for a good nose around an authentically French abode, as she regales us with tales of Gestapo-defying aunts and other local tales.

Truffle hunt

The next day, Frances is on hand again to deliver a masterstroke. We’re off to the La Rabassière truffle farm to meet its owner Serge and his dog for a spot of truffle hunting. As Serge talks us through the delights of the Black Diamond, our hunter extraordinaire, his Italian Water Dog Emy, steals the show by busily befriending every one of us.

By the time we follow her off to the oak trees to check out her supreme truffle-hunting skills, she is possibly the most popular dog in France. It’s a delightful treat topped off with a tasting of Serge’s products and the inevitable glass of the local rosé. The visit is so warm and welcoming that we’ve gone from feeling a bit French to at one with the country’s soil, and consider putting down roots next to one of Serge’s oak trees.

Infused (or possibly pickled) with the flavours of France, as we head further south, the famous colours of Provence come into their own and life on board the S.S. Catherine starts to make perfect sense. The region has long been popular with artists such as Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin, its fields of lavender, sunflower farms, blue skies and lush green landscapes delivering colourful inspiration.

Pure luxury

On the ship, the same love of colour abounds with art filling the walls, nowhere more so in the opulent two-storey lobby with its chandelier and life-size glass horse. At the stern, the gentleman’s club vibe of the Bar du Leopard is mixed with extravagant jungle-themed décor and is also home to the ship’s pool. Once we’ve established one’s modesty is preserved with some nifty auto-misting glass, we come to the conclusion that all swimming pools should be in bars.

The Bar du Leopard also hosts a lower-key but no less luxurious dinner service if you need a night off from the unrelenting glamour of the Cézanne restaurant, and the handful of diners it houses ensures conversation between guests flows as freely as the wine.

The vast Van Gogh lounge pays homage to the man’s love of colour and light, and is an airy and luxurious spot to sip a glass of Champagne and practise some newly found French poise ready to be deployed in our last two stops, magnificent Avignon and arty Arles.

Magical masterpieces

The historic majesty of Avignon’s Palais des Papes and Roman masterpiece the Pont du Gard is tempered during our visit with the vibrant month-long theatre festival, which sees the walled city’s streets teeming with performers trying to tempt you in from the sunshine,
and an afternoon drive through the vine-laden countryside towards world-famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape to sample yet more exceptional wine.

Arles, with its hospital famously painted by former patient Van Gogh, is a smaller, more laidback affair, all Roman ruins, gallery, boutiques and café bars but no less lovely for it.

As we return to Avignon to disembark and join our VIP luxury transfer home, we have had something more than a holiday. Saying our goodbyes to fellow guests and wishing the crew farewell, we steel ourselves to return to the real world where the day cannot, sadly, be marked out in glasses of wine; yet this immersive cultural experience is sure to leave its mark on our now considerably more cultured taste buds for many years to come.

GETTING THERE: An eight-day Burgundy and Provence river cruise starts from £2,099pp (19 March 2017 departure) and includes return scheduled flights, seven-night all-inclusive cruise on board Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine, unlimited beverages on board, all gratuities on board, shore excursions with English-speaking expert local guides, all transfers and the VIP Home Departure Service. The Connoisseur Collection themed departures on 4 and 25 June, 9, 16 and 23 July 2017 have additional inclusions and cost from £3,149pp. Visit titantravel.co.uk.

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