It’s one of those moments that bring back an almost forgotten child-like excitement. No matter how many times you have packed for a trip, a holiday, or a global experience, booking your first big river cruise is pretty exciting stuff.
The Danube was first consideration but there was that decade-ago declaration of a return to France and Paris to properly enjoy everything. So France it is, and what better place to discover France than in the lush countryside and vineyards of the south?
After a little bit of research and advice from past cruisers, the South Of France package aboard Scenic Emerald seemed to encompass what my husband and I had in mind. And, of course, it starts in Paris – perfect.
The 13-day river cruise from Chalon-sur-Saone to Arles takes in the magnificent rivers of the Saone and Rhone, and docks at some of the most romantic and historically laden cities of the south of France – Lyon, Viviers and Avignon, to name a few.
One of the great positives of river cruising is that it’s so easy. You really just have to select the cruise you want to go on and turn up at the airport with luggage in hand. Everything else is organised for you.
We arrived a couple of days early so we could spend some time in the spectacular City of Light: Paris. On the morning of our cruise, we were met promptly at our hotel by a friendly Scenic representative and transferred by coach to the super-fast TGV train, which took us from Paris to Dijon in what felt like a blink of an eye.
We are met again at Dijon and transferred to our home for the next 13 days, the Scenic Emerald, a virtual 5-star floating boutique hotel. Now that’s what I call stress-free travelling. I love it!
Scenic is well known for its 5-star, all-inclusive river cruising in Europe and I would have to concur that it's pretty impressive. Our luxurious cabin is tastefully outfitted in neutral earthy shades of taupe and mushroom. The comfortable queen bed is encased in crisp Egyptian cotton linen, while fragrant L’Occitane soaps and hair products line the shelves in the modern bathroom.
A Mac mini infotainment system keeps you abreast of all the need-to-know tour information and floor-to-ceiling glass windows showcase the breathtaking countryside. On the other side of the glass a full timber balcony with an outdoor setting awaits the weary traveller.
One of the biggest treats of the trip is having your own butler. Nothing is out of the question for this accommodating character, whether it’s unpacking your suitcase, serving daily canapes or restocking your complimentary mini-bar (oh yes, I did say complimentary mini-bar – giddy-up). Now that is luxury. We gratefully leave our butler to unpack as we head off to explore the ship.
There are three outdoor viewing decks were you can relax on a sun lounge, taking in the passing countryside and pretty river hamlets. The dining options are impressive, with choice of fine-dining Italian at Portobellos, while Table La Rive offers a tantalising degustation menu, and Crystal Dining is the main restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s also in-room dining served by your butler or if you fancy a snack, the River Cafe serves delicious coffee and tasty French pastries and cakes.
The first night on board we stayed moored in Chalon-sur-Saone and enjoyed some fine French cuisine at Crystal Dining. As it was an all-inclusive cruise, I was very pleased to see that my glass of wine was never empty and the wines were local. Let’s face it, who wants to drink Australian wine in the heart of French wine country? Mon dieu!
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It was with slightly fuzzy heads we rose the next day ready for the adventure to begin. The choice of tour today was wine tasting in Burgundy at the historic Marche aux Vins or a tasting at a local mustard factory.
There are nine ports on the South Of France cruise, with relatively short 'hops' between the towns and sightseeing opportunities at some of France’s iconic destinations. A local guide explained that the closeness of the towns is due to the Roman armies and their ability to cover up to 30 kilometres in day’s march, establishing camps that became towns and cities. The closeness of these towns probably explains why the Rhone was the principal commercial route during the Middle Ages.
For me the highlights of the cruise were Lyon and Avignon with their imposing Roman architecture and mind-blowing history. Lyon is the third-largest city in France and was once known for its fine silk weaving. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the gastronomical capital of France.
Well before the construction of the Vatican, Avignon was the Papal seat for 70 years during the 14th Century. This breathtaking medieval site oozes history out of every stone and is best done in one of the guided tours. Our tour guide was a font of knowledge and his passion for the area really made the day.
One of the hardest things to do on the cruise is choose your day trips. There is a plethora of tours on offer at each stop and they all sound wonderful, so best to do a bit of research first and see what suits your needs.
A few days into our cruise we decided to forgo the day tour and just relax on board and enjoy the cruising. The lock crossings were interesting and a very tight squeeze at just 12 metres across. In total, I was told, we went through 15 locks and dropped a total of 174 metres from Chalon-sur-Saone to Tarascon.
Although our 13-day cruise was jam-packed with sight-seeing, we still managed to relax and rejuvenate. Just being on a cruise seems to reinvigorate you.
By the end of the cruise we had made some great friends, most of whom were Australians. Some were on their third of fourth cruise.
“Would not travel with any other company,” say Maree and Kevin, who are Platinum-level travellers from Collie in Western Australia.
Australians like Scenic’s all-included cost package. With everything included (even the tipping) it makes the cruise even more enjoyable and relaxed. No brain strain on this fun vacation.
Visit your local Flight Centre or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to France.