It is early spring in southern France. The temperature is pleasant, the throng of tourists has not yet arrived and the sun-drenched vineyards, bucolic countryside, and charming towns and villages ooze romance. Rivers were once the life blood of Europe; commerce, defense, culture, and cities followed their path. Now rivers offer a unique and relaxing way to discover a country. In celebration of our 25th anniversary, my wife and I chose to journey up the Rhone aboard Emerald Waterway’s stunning new Star-Ship Liberté. This is my first cruise of any kind, and I find the pace, intimacy and delightful setting wonderful.
Although I would not describe myself as young, I am also not yet in the demographic of the usual cruise itinerary, which tends to be much more mature. These days, the river ships are chasing a younger demographic by offering guests more physical pursuits with their Emerald Active program. Options include biking and hiking through the region’s medieval towns and picturesque vineyards, though the highlight, not surprisingly, remains dining on French cuisine and imbibing the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and beyond.
The ship itself is an engineering marvel, built to get through the river locks and into ports that most vessels cannot reach. Through the ingenuity of hydraulics and design, the chairs, tables, shelters, and railings on the upper sundeck fold flat and the navigating bridge drops below deck, allowing the Liberté to pass under low bridges with inches to spare. The smaller ship, carrying only 138 guests, lends itself to a very comfortable experience, and the friendly staff exceeds expectations; they are knowledgeable, personable, and attentive — my wife marvels that her glass of wine at dinner is impossible to empty.
The Liberté’s contemporary décor sparkles with glass and chrome, and the ship demonstrates an ingenious use of space, both in our berth and in the ship’s amenities. There are stylish and cutting-edge innovations like a pool with a retractable roof which converts into a cinema at night, and a drop-down glass balcony window in the suites, offering a panoramic view of the passing countryside. There is also something to be said about not having to seek out new accommodations each evening, for our eight-day sail we unpack once.
While the ship is elegant, the journey through the South of France is enchanting. Travelling slowly north from Arles to Lyon we savor the pastoral charm and history of Provence as the Liberté cuts a course through lavender fields and vineyards. With ease we hop on and off the ship, joining informative tours through the Provencal villages, or we set off on our own, strolling through the warren of narrow cobblestone streets and alleys.
Each day brings a new, magical experience. We step back in time in Arles with a visit to the perfectly preserved, 2,000-year-old Colosseum, built by Romans to hold 20,000 spectators. The ancient city is situated at the point that the Rhone spreads out into a vast delta that bounds the Camargue region, making it an obvious site for a Roman city in 49 BC when Julius Caesar took over the area. Provence is a romantic land of remarkable beauty, which is what captivated Vincent van Gogh, whose masterworks from his year-long stay in Arles make up some of his most inspiring landscapes.
By foot, bike, and bus we explore the medieval village of Perouges (film location for “The Three Musketeers”), the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, the famed Hospices de Beaune, and the impressive Pont du Gard aqueduct, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When Rome controlled what is now southern France, the Romans were responsible for some impressive engineering feats. At 48 metres (157 feet), this is the world’s tallest aqueduct-bridge, and for being around for nearly 2,000 years it is in remarkably good condition. Another remarkable fact: the Pont du Gard aqueduct is the most visited monument in France.
We bus to what has been called the most beautiful village in the country, Les Baux-de-Provence, an ancient village built into the desolate craggy cliffs of Val d’Enfer (Hell’s Valley). In the late afternoons we would return to the Liberté for cocktails, wine or cheese tastings, an exquisite dinner and news of the next day’s adventures.
The Liberté docks in the heart of the beguiling towns of Macon, Chalon-Sur Saone and Tournon, and we enjoy the local offerings of each, including the wines of Beaujolais and Burgundy. We hike up Tournon’s steep slopes, through the vineyards of Le Massif Central, to look down at its 16th-century castle and Roman ruins. After a morning tour we take a break in the shaded terraces of cafes to sip coffee or wine and people-watch. Sleepy village squares come to life as vibrant bazaars, where vendors sell art, jewellery, woodwork, lavender, and olive oil. There’s no better way to meet fascinating locals than spending time strolling around the central squares.
The end-port on our cruise is Lyon, France’s third-largest city, a center of gastronomy and a former Roman capital positioned at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. Touring the city we reach the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere, Lyon’s hilltop church that offers stunning views over the town. The culinary theme continues in the cobbled streets of Lyon’s old town as we explore the shops to sample olives, cheeses, and fresh baguettes.
River cruising is becoming ever more popular because of the unhurried pace of life onboard, yet the experience is in-depth, intimate and exceptional. The travel between destinations is easy; we sit back in our stateroom balcony with a glass of local wine, and literally watch the world go by.
MORE ABOUT RIVER CRUISES
The Cruise: With many river cruise companies and a variety of itineraries and destinations to choose from, with the romance of Provence in mind we chose Emerald’s “Sensations of Southern France.” Emerald Waterways is young, fresh and innovative (they just celebrated their fifth anniversary) and offers eight new and luxurious Star Ships that sail the Rhine, Main, Danube, Moselle, Rhone, Saone, Mekong, and Douro rivers.
Getting There: Emerald looked after all of our travel arrangements. We flew into Nice and our transfer to Arles was included. We flew home from Lyon. Pre- and post-cruise extensions are available in Nice or Paris.
Costs: On the 8-Day Sensations of Southern France cruise, the Panorama Balcony Suites run from $3,000 to $4,300 USD per person depending on departure date. On board meals, wine and beer with lunch and dinner, and all gratuities are included. You won’t be surprised by any hidden costs.
Tours: Daily tours with knowledgeable local guides are included. Guests have their own interactive headset to easily follow tour commentary. Special “Emerald More” tours can be booked with an added cost.