Dispatch, S.S. Catherine: Experimentation and innovation


River cruise editor Michelle Baran was on Uniworld's new ship, the S.S. Catherine. Her second and final dispatch follows. Click to read Michelle's first dispatch.

LYON, France — Have you ever noticed that whenever you have a party, no matter how hard you try to keep people in the living room or at the dining room table, more times than not, they end up crowding into the kitchen?

For whatever reason, that’s just the place where people want to be. On the S.S. Catherine, the equivalent during the christening cruise was the Bar du Leopard (a.k.a. the Leopard Lounge) at the aft of the vessel.

Though the venue is smaller than the Van Gogh Lounge, which also hosted nightly entertainment, once finished with their five-course dinners, passengers migrated to the stern of the vessel to cram into the cozy space.

Perhaps they liked the intimate atmosphere, or maybe they were there to groove to the father-and-son R&B trio, the Willburns, originally from San Francisco by way of Vienna (rumors of their not-to-be-missed performance is what wooed me to the back of the ship after dinner one night).

Meanwhile, the main lounge remained far less popular, leading some to question whether the acts should be swapped, giving the Willburns a bit more space for their rapidly growing following.

Personally, I think the snugness of the Bar du Leopard is what added to its allure.

The Bar du Leopard’s surprise success on Uniworld's new ship is indicative of river cruise lines' trial-and-error approach to improving the product.

In its former incarnation on the S.S. Catherine’s predecessor, the S.S. Antoinette, the Bar du Leopard resides on the vessel’s sun deck. Those who have experienced the Bar du Leopard on both ships said bringing the alternative lounge a deck lower and into a permanent indoor space was a good move.

Another unique space where Uniworld has been experimenting is the pool area. To have a pool/Jacuzzi or not is a long-standing design debate among river cruise lines, and very few vessels in Europe have dipping pools like the one on the Catherine (and the Antoinette), let alone a Jacuzzi or whirlpool.

While pools are impressive in brochures and in concept, the truth is that the river cruise demographic has yet to fully embrace the swimming pool concept in Europe — but maybe Uniworld can help change that, one decadently designed pool area at a time.

Lastly, there are the balconies. With the launch of the Antoinette in 2011, Uniworld introduced a unique balcony concept that allows passengers to electronically lower their stateroom windows to balcony level (creating a balcony effect without sacrificing stateroom space).

I hadn’t experienced the Antoinette and had heard mixed reviews of the touch-window convertible balcony, so I was curious. It worked surprisingly well and even had a mosquito net option for those who would like the fresh air but no uninvited guests.

All of the river cruise lines have implemented an array of balcony ideas, from Ama's double balconies to Avalon's panorama windows that slide open.

As long there is some way to enjoy a balcony-type feature in the stateroom, there is no one concept that is far superior to the others, including Uniworld’s drop-down windows.

It’s fun to see and experience the different approaches to balconies — you've got to give it to the river cruise lines for their creativity and ability to innovate in small spaces.

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.

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