It's easy to select one top differentiator for Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. All one has to do is eyeball the river vessels in its fleet. Travelers won't find cookie-cutter ship design or interior décor look on any Uniworld vessel.
Since no two ships – nor even any two suites on a ship – are alike, half the fun of starting your cruise is discovering the design concept on each vessel.
As travelers sail along France's Seine River on the S.S. Joie de Vivre ("Joy of Living"), they'll feel as though they're staying at a luxurious Parisienne hotel. On the Danube, in contrast, the S.S. Maria Theresa's ambience reflects Austria's opulent Hapsburg era. Décor on Uniworld's ships is ritzy, at times even over-the-top.
"Uniworld's ships are each custom designed by the owners with high-end fabrics, furnishings and original artworks," emphasizes luxury travel advisor Tom Baker, president, CruiseCenter, Houston, TX, who has sailed on Uniworld multiple times. But Baker also says that the one-of-a-kind ship design is "just the start of Uniworld’s hallmark of impeccable attention to detail throughout" each vessel.
Uniworld is owned by The Travel Corporation, a fourth-generation, family-owned company, which owns and operates 30 travel brands including the boutique Red Carnation Hotel Collection, Contiki, Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, Brendan Vacations and many others. Brett Tollman is CEO of the Travel Corporation, and his mother, Beatrice Tollman, is a hospitality legend who founded the Red Carnation Hotel brand.
"Uniworld has a definite boutique feel and design to their ships," adds Ray Teet, vacation specialist and franchise owner, Dream Vacations, Palm City, FL. "If you've ever visited one of the old mansions from the past and have marveled at the amazing designs and rich tapestries displayed, you will definitely feel the same while staying aboard a Uniworld River cruise."
Teet also says the ships are characterized by beautiful artwork that "will have you thinking you are visiting an art gallery or museum." One feature we loved on one of our voyages? It's the stunning chandelier that graces the S.S. Antoinette's atrium; it formerly hung at New York City's famous Tavern on the Green restaurant.
The striking interior design of Uniworld's ships reflects the vision of Bea's daughter Toni Tollman, director of design and products for both Red Carnation Hotels and Uniworld. Tollman meticulously crafts each ship as a masterpiece with one-of-a-kind décor, hand-crafted furniture, antiques and priceless art pieces. "The floor plans and deck plans may be alike, but the furnishings, the linens, bedspreads, duvets and all other furnishings are all unique," says Teet.
That said, travelers who prefer sailing on a river vessel with a more simplistic style or clean lines might prefer a different line. It's simply a matter of personal taste.
"Uniworld cruises are known for being all-inclusive and incorporate local food, beer and wine combined with unparalleled customer service for a complete and immersive experience," says travel advisor Carolyn Langon, Travel-Lyn LLC of Orwigsburg, PA, an independent agency member of the Avoya Travel Network. She too has cruised repeatedly on Uniworld and in different regions of the globe.
As with any river cruise purchase, we always suggest doing a side-by-side comparison of what's included in the river cruise fares for several lines' itineraries. Check off what is and what's not included – and add on those "not included" charges. That can show the "real cost" of the vacation experience at the end of the cruise.
Uniworld's guests typically aren't surprised at the end of the cruise with a huge bill as the luxury line's fares cover such items as all ship-related transfers; dining in both the main restaurant and an alternative venue onboard; pampering butler service in all staterooms/suites, not just the priciest accommodations; shipboard Wi-Fi and much more.
Teet stresses that the inclusivity also extends "even to the gratuities for onboard and shore excursion guides." He also likes the line's complimentary excursions in every port with some ports offering multiple tour options. Some exclusive-to-Uniworld shore excursions visit wineries, restaurants and other savory spots.
In addition, Teet says that "If you wish to have an alcoholic beverage, you do not have to worry about paying for it, regardless of the time of day." On a recent cruise, we liked that guests could order from a selection of premium spirits, wines and beers included in the fare. Several ships have onboard sommeliers.
Since nothing is cookie-cutter onboard, Uniworld believes that should also be the case ashore. Guests have several touring options (with tours included in the price of the cruise fare). On "Village Day" tours, guests get an in-depth look at the quaint destinations visited and the people who bring them to life.
Increasingly river cruise guests want to stay active on their vacation, and to explore the destinations in an active way. Uniworld's "Let's Go" active excursions are for guests who like to walk, hike, cycle, kayak or golf. And "Do as the Locals Do" excursions might include stopping into a café for a local specialty treat or riding the subway.
"Each day is filled with stops at locations defined by art, historical and social significance and full of stunning scenery," says Langon, who also stresses that Uniworld taps high-quality tour guides for the shore excursions.
Certainly, a top reason to travel is to indulge in a personal passion – whether that's culinary, art, heritage or another special interest. Uniworld offers a portfolio of themed cruises. Most notable? For foodies who adore French food and wine, The Connoisseur Collection includes visits to such gourmet spots as Lyon's Institut Paul Bocuse, or perhaps a truffle hunting expedition in the countryside.
In addition, the line has fielded such themed sailings over the past few years as Floating Wellness Workshops, Jewish Heritage cruises, Floating Paint and Wine Workshops and more
When it comes to children sailing onboard, Uniworld believes kids under 4 years of age are not yet old enough to enjoy river cruising, and stresses that even for older children, the line has no special arrangements for little ones or an onboard children's program.
Good news, though? Multigenerational families can tap into the line's family-friendly Generations Connection cruises on certain itineraries/dates and during the winter holiday season. Special programming, activities and events are organized for families on these dates.
That said, kids under 18 must be accompanied by an adult 21 or older at all times. Kid fares typically are 25 percent off the adult fare when kids are traveling with an adult, (except in suites).
Taking a dip in a pool isn't an option on many river ships, and even if the vessel does have a pool, it's often outside. That's great in the heart of a hot European summer but not necessarily in early spring or fall in certain regions.
For those who desire to swim every day, regardless of weather, yes, one can find an indoor pool on certain river vessels. In Europe, for example, Uniworld is among the few lines (Emerald Waterways and Crystal River Cruises being others), with indoor pools on certain vessels.
Travelers will find indoor pools on Uniworld's S.S. Maria Theresa, S.S. Antoinette, S.S. Catherine and S.S. Joie de Vivre. Having personally sailed on S.S. Catherine, I loved the pool area's gorgeous green mosaic design; it has two glass walls with views to the adjacent Bar du Leopard.
Most river lines have very good cuisine, and Uniworld's culinary presentation and quality are top-notch. Classically trained chefs use fresh, locally-sourced ingredients for all onboard meals, which feature both regionally-inspired and western dishes. In addition, guests can dine on dishes created from signature recipes from the cookbook, "A Life in Food," authored by Beatrice Tollman.
"Each evening guests enjoy an over-the-top dinner with wine pairings before dropping into their plush, luxurious beds for the night," says Langon. Guests definitely won't go hungry any time onboard. In addition to the regular breakfast, lunch and dinner times, guests can set their own vacation schedule with an early-riser breakfast, afternoon tea or an all-day Bistro menu. Desire healthy dining? A Traveling Lite menu offers such choices as vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.
Onboard, Uniworld's guests are asked to wear attire reflecting "a smart-casual dress code." For dining ashore, concerts and special events onboard, Uniworld says men may want to bring a sports jacket (neckties are optional) and women a cocktail dress or pantsuit. Shorts are not allowed at dinner on the ship.
Dining in the main restaurant is open seating, so guests can dine when, where and with whom they choose. Celebratory welcome and farewell receptions and dinners add a festive aura to the voyages.
Uniworld's guests expect wellness options, so there are onboard fitness centers and certified onboard wellness instructors. The river line also offers complimentary onboard fitness classes including yoga and TRX Suspension Training.
Fitness buffs also can head out to explore destinations using complimentary loaner bicycles or Nordic walking sticks. Or, as mentioned in the themed cruise section above, guests can set out on Let's Go active excursions including hiking, golf, kayaking or other outdoor adventures.
After their first Uniworld cruise, guests are automatically enrolled in the brand's River Heritage Club loyalty program and begin receiving benefits, savings and rewards.
Those include welcome gifts, special members-only offers, complimentary laundry service, complimentary in-room fruit platter upon arrival, priority notification on new cruises and programs, the Riverviews E-Magazine and the chance to join the Captain for a members-only cocktail party.
Uniworld is one of the few cruise lines, either river or ocean, that offer cruise travelers free use of a self-service laundry. It's a nice added perk for many guests who don't want to bring a ton of clothes and prefer to wash their own clothes mid-cruise.
Frankly, in staying onboard one of Uniworld's ship I felt as though I was relaxing in Marie Antoinette's boudoir. It was a pleasing feeling, and certainly the design allows guests to "soak up" the aura of a region or destination.
The accommodations' gorgeous fabrics and furniture as well as "the marble bathrooms with their heated marble floors, will have you feeling that you are staying in a suite for royalty," notes Teet. As noted earlier, top suites are individually designed, so no two are alike.
Generally, staterooms and suites are for double occupancy; a third person is permitted only in some suites such as those on S.S. Catherine and S.S. Maria Theresa (excluding the Royal Suite). At times, the line offers reduced single supplements, making solo travel in a double-occupancy stateroom more palatable
All guests in all accommodations – not just those in top suites – also are treated to butler service. It's great to arrive after a long overseas flight and have a butler help unpack suitcases. During the cruise, the butler can also serve favorite beverages, make spa service appointments and much more.
One good thing to know? Uniworld's butlers are trained to the same standards of excellence required by Buckingham Palace, educated under the tutelage of Zita Langenstein at England's Ivor Spencer Butler School. These butlers also serve in the butler role 100 percent of the time, not moonlighting in other roles onboard.
From my personal perspective (having sailed on several Uniworld ships over the past few years), Uniworld has a service style that's a bit more formal than some other upscale lines, yet warm and welcoming at the same time. I'm not alone in that view.
"Uniworld service is a more formal European level without being stuffy," stresses Baker. "The staff have impeccable manners and each staff member is carefully selected by the company. That differs from some other lines who charter their ships and use staff as provided by the charter owners."
Uniworld has much greater control as it owns its European ships, Baker explains. Teet too told us that, noting that "every staff member aboard is a Uniworld employee and is trained to deliver customer service in the manner of fine five- and six-star hotel properties."
That said, the line does use other firms' vessels in such places as Egypt, Southeast Asia, India or (soon to come) South America. Still, staff are trained to Uniworld standards, and the line is definitely into "the details" of service. That reflects Beatrice Tollman's high service standard or what's often called a "spirit of hospitality" found both within Red Carnation Hotels and Uniworld as well. Tollman has been inducted into the British Travel & Hospitality Hall of Fame.
Defining the line's spirit of hospitality, Langon puts it this way: "Uniworld consistently fulfills their pledge of 'No request too large, no detail too small.'"
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