ONBOARD THE SS BON VOYAGE — Uniworld’s newest super ship, the S.S. Bon Voyage, has not been renovated. Indeed, Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of the all-inclusive luxury river cruise line, says ‘renovation’ isn’t the right word to describe it.
“It really is a transformation,” she says. “There’s not much left of what was here before.”
On a shakedown cruise for travel agents and press earlier this month in Bordeaux, the company unveiled the S.S. Bon Voyage, formerly the River Royale. This is Uniworld’s sixth super ship, and the second to be upgraded to a super ship (following the S.S. Beatrice).
The S.S. Bon Voyage sails on the rivers of Bordeaux – the Dordogne and Garonne – that meander through France’s wine country, on the eight-day ‘Brilliant Bordeaux’ and 22-day ‘Ultimate France.’
During the ship’s transformation from stem to stern, Bettridge visited the shipyard. “I was a little afraid when I walked around and saw nothing but metal, not even walls,” she says. Now, its transformation complete, “everything is absolutely new,” from the polished-wood lobby with a hand-crafted balustrade to the French art on the walls.
For Bettridge, what defines the S.S. Bon Voyage as a super ship is its inclusion of more dining venues, more suites and more luxurious finishes. With Uniworld, no two ships are alike, and this ship was inspired by the wine and gastronomy of France – and by customer feedback.
“A lot of customers want just two people sitting together; they don’t want to sit at big tables in a big group,” says Bettridge. As a result, Le Grand Fromage – the main dining room – has been reinvented with banquettes and plenty of seating for two, as well as a larger buffet area. “The palm trees, the hand-etched glass, the brass fittings bring to life this region [with] a look and feel of elegance,” she says.
There are also two new onboard dining venues. La Brasserie, with green décor and pops of yellow inspired by Bouillon Pigalle in Paris, has been added at the bow of the ship, seating 30 guests and serving French bistro fare such as beef bourguignon. “It’s pre-set, it’s included [in the price], and it’s a simple, very French meal,” says Bettridge.
The rooftop Soleil Deck is “my new favourite place on the ship,” she says. That includes Le Café du Soleil, a casual dining venue that opens onto the pool and serves lighter fare such as Niçoise salads and croque monsieur (at night, it’s an alternate bar location and can be used for French cooking classes).
The café offers indoor and outdoor seating, as well as poolside service at loungers with a whimsical polka-dot tiger print. The heated infinity pool, made with tiles imported from South Africa, features underwater music and resistance (for those who want to swim).
Also new is a private dining room, Cave des Vins, which evokes the feel of a luxury super-yacht. A seven-course dinner here is extra (195 euros per person), and includes local oysters, home-made foie gras, foamy leek soup with caviar crisp bread, lobster rillet, French cheese and the pastry’s chef’s sweet selections – with local wine pairings, of course.
Ingredients are sourced locally, inspired by the region. There’s a ‘travelling light’ menu option, as well as more creative vegetarian options, such as cauliflower steak and savoury apple-beet crumble – also a result of customer feedback.
Offshore, guests have access to new excursions, many of which involve wining and dining. The Médoc Châteaux route, for example, takes guests from Pauillac to the tip of the Médoc peninsula, past storied vineyards such as Château Latour, Mouton Rothschild and Pichon Longueville Baron, and through the villages of Margaux, Saint-Julien and Saint-Estèphe – followed up with a private tour and tasting of premier Grand Cru wines.
There are also optional Masterpiece Collection experiences, such as an intimate cooking class at Château Ambe Tour Pourret, where guests enjoy the lunch they’ve helped prepare (with, of course, wine from château’s cellars).
But with so much fine wine and rich sauces, the S.S. Bon Voyage offers several wellness options to counter such indulgences, including an onboard wellness coach, yoga at the historic Blaye Fortress, biking among the Médoc vineyards and a sunrise hike at Dune du Pilat, Europe’s tallest sand dune.
In addition to its new dining venues, the ship now offers four luxury suites, accommodating a total of 124 passengers instead of the previous 130. Other improvements include upgraded bathrooms (from tile to marble), a reconfiguration of the gym and spa facilities, and a reimagined top deck with banquette seating along the edges. Le Salon Champagne, the ship’s lounge, was inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s personal abode, Villa Majorelle.
As part of The Travel Corporation (TTC), the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection offers TTC’s eLearning programmes to travel agents. In February, Uniworld moved all of its Uniworld University education content to the TTC’s Agent Academy (which also includes Trafalgar, Contiki and Insight Vacations).
Travel agents must complete three courses (Uniworld University, U University and Uniworld & U) to become certified as a Uniworld River Cruise Specialist. Once certified, they’re eligible for travel benefits of up to 60% off standard Uniworld and U rates.
Bettridge started her career as a travel agent, working on the front lines. “I’m very passionate about working with agents because I believe they know how to sell the Uniworld difference,” she says. “I need agents, because we are the most expensive [river cruise line].”