The diverse cultures and rich terroir in Europe have resulted in a land of gastronomy, featuring some of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world. One of the best ways to savor the flavors is through a river cruise, as some of Europe’s finest cities line the banks of these superhighways of old.
Thus was our hope as we embarked on our Colors of Provence itinerary offered by AmaWaterways, sailing on the Rhône River in France. On a sunny spring afternoon, we boarded our 156-guest ship, AmaKristina, in Avignon and spent the next seven days reveling in haute cuisine.
Cruising the Serene Rhône River
Unlike the busy Rhine and Danube rivers, which are full of commercial freighters and other river cruise ships, the Rhône is quiet and laid back, with hardly any traffic. Picture pastoral lands, vineyard-covered hills, and Provençal towns with orange-tiled roofs and church spires. With the AmaKristina sailing close to shore, we often heard dogs barking, children playing, and cyclists ringing their bells as they rode along the trails.
We found ourselves spending most of our time on the upper deck, reclining on a lounger to river-watch or socializing with fellow travelers on the conversation sectionals. But on days when we wished for privacy, we could also catch the scenery from our stateroom. AmaKristina features double-balcony rooms where a full balcony with enough space for deck chairs and a table allows for outdoor enjoyment, and a French balcony (doors that slide open but you can’t step outside) offers fresh air if the weather isn’t cooperating. The rest of our stateroom was very well appointed — large bathroom with double sinks and a very roomy shower, a vanity/desk with extra storage space, a personal safe, a refrigerator, and an iMac desktop computer with complimentary WiFi access.
French Wine Appreciation Every Day
Our itinerary sailed through two of France’s finest wine regions — Côte Du Rhône and Beaujolais. As such, their wines were heavily featured throughout our cruise. Pours of the featured red and white wine of the day flowed freely during lunch and dinner, as well as during the daily Sip and Sail — a signature AmaWaterways pre-dinner cocktail hour. The featured wines changed daily, and if we liked something we tasted, we could ask for it for the rest of the cruise. But why limit to just one when we can try them all?
Of course, wine wasn’t the only offering on the bar menu. A large selection of cocktails, spirits, and European beers was available. And on days when we wanted to take a break from alcohol completely, we could opt for a mocktail, fruit juice, specialty coffee, tea, soda, or mineral water.
Flavors of France to Devour
Another benefit of a river cruise is the opportunity to taste regional cuisine, sourced from the very towns the ship sails through and the river it cruises on. For the entire week, we feasted on the freshest meals, such as river-caught catfish and trout, complemented with root vegetables and seasonal greens from local farms. Sauces were made with local truffles, mushrooms, and berries, and a selection of French cheeses was offered after every meal.
One evening, we were also treated to the delightful Chef’s Table — a seven-course dinner that is compliments of AmaWaterways. Onboard AmaKristina, the intimate 28-seat restaurant is located aft of the ship surrounded by glass, so we did not miss a moment of passing scenery. And when we were able to tear ourselves away from the view, we could watch the chef prepare and plate our meal through the glass-enclosed kitchen.
Short of the Argentinian beef and prawns, the majority of the ingredients on our menu came from the Rhône valley — trout, heirloom tomatoes, cauliflower, figs, Swiss chard, even down to the garlic sprout garnish. And, of course, the meal was paired with specially selected red and white French wines. The Chef’s Table dinner was presented several times throughout the cruise to ensure everyone had the opportunity to experience this wonderful meal.
A Gastronomic Cruise Journey, Even at Port
Of course, once in port, there were more opportunities to immerse in local cuisine and tipples. In Avignon and Lyon, excursions took us to the Les Halles market halls to learn about (and yes, taste) some of the fresh produce, artisan cheeses, pastries, sausages, and more.
From Viviers, we traveled to the hilltop village of Grignan to meet a farmer and his canine helper for a lesson and demonstration on the hunt for the “Black Diamond” truffles. After the outing, a tasting of oils and spreads made from the prized fungi was enjoyed by all.
Tournon-sur-Rhône was where we were torn between two equally enticing excursions. Should we learn about pairing red wine with chocolate at Le Chateau de Tournon or hike up the rolling hills of Tain L’Hermitage to visit the grape vines and enjoy a wine tasting? Wanting to work off a few calories from the week’s indulgence, we chose the latter. After an invigorating uphill climb, we sampled delicious wines of Maison Chapoutier, a family-owned producer that has been in business for more than 200 years.
On our final day, AmaKristina sailed up the Saône River (which joins the Rhône at Lyon) to dock at Villefranche-sur-Saône for a visit to a traditional Beaujolais winery and taste its offerings.
Van Gogh and More in Rhône
In addition to food and wine, art and history also featured heavily on our itinerary. In Arles, we took a walking tour that retraced the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh, who spent over a year in the city producing masterpieces — including the “original” Starry Night painting that overlooks the Rhône River.
In Avignon, our city tour took us to the Gothic-styled Palace of the Popes, the largest in Europe. Peppered throughout the itinerary were several tours to ancient castles, fortresses, and amphitheaters that reflect the colorful history and architectural style of the region that has seen occupation by the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans.
Our initial worry about being too sedentary on a river cruise while indulging in fine food quickly faded when we discovered that all walking tours had an “Active” option that featured more walking and at a faster pace. There were also several hiking and biking excursions, and whenever we felt like it, we could always take a bike out and chart our own course. AmaKristina also has a Wellness Host who leads a variety of complimentary classes that include morning stretches, core strengthening, circuit training, and resistance bands workout. A terrific way to balance all of the hedonistic connoisseur experiences enjoyed onboard.
MORE ABOUT AMAWATERWAYS
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The Colors of Provence: AmaWaterways operates this itinerary year-round beginning in March, with the ship sailing between Avignon and Lyon. There is an option to add a fully-escorted extension in Barcelona and Paris that includes transportation, hotel accommodations, tours, and most meals. Included in the cruise fare are all meals onboard, complimentary wine, beer, and soft drinks during lunch and dinner, daily Sip and Sail cocktail hour, specialty coffees/teas, and all shore excursions. Gratuities to shipboard crew and excursion guides are extra. Ask your professional travel advisors for more information.