Floella Benjamin embarks on an Avalon Waterways Rhône cruise and discovers some new skills.

Our ship is floating along the water like a swan on our Avalon Waterways Rhône cruise; we’re sailing past castles and countryside, absorbing nature, and it’s utterly blissful. This is my first river cruise, and already I’m in love.

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The experience began at the airport in Marseille, where there was someone waiting to meet us and take us to the ship. We were welcomed on board by the hotel manager, Jean Loup, and he was just the best, so helpful. I want him in my life.

First impressions of our ship, Avalon Poetry II, were that the onboard ambience was very relaxing and it was extremely clean, beautifully designed and comfortable.

And what I liked most about our room were the wall-to-wall panoramic windows, which can open completely to create a balcony; so you could lay on your bed and watch everything go by – it was a picture onto the world, and it felt as if you were part of the landscape.

We saw castles, and bridges, and people fishing and swimming, and the rhythm was hypnotic. If I ever retire I would have to live by the water. Perhaps I should live on a river boat?

It wasn’t a very big ship and with only 100 people on board we got to know everyone over the week; we made so many friends, from all over the world.

The food on board the ship was good, too, there was complimentary wine or beer with lunch and dinner, and the breakfast was particularly enjoyable, with freshly made dishes cooked to order. But what really struck us both was that the crew were incredibly dedicated; there is no tipping on board, they all just wanted to make sure you had a really pleasurable experience.

It was very refreshing. Even little things – like the head waiter was very aware at one point that the sun was coming in, it was kind of harsh, and he went straight in and pulled the blinds down. A lot of the people working in the restaurant had stories to tell, and they wanted to share their stories with us.  

There were nightly briefings, and wine tasting and a cookery class, and every evening a newsletter was left in our room telling us about the options for the next day. It was very well organised. When we were going on the excursions we took our headsets with us, so we could listen to the guide, as well as the complimentary backpacks we had been given to put our bits and pieces in. It was as though someone had thought, ‘if I was going on a cruise, what would I need? What could I provide?’ It was very well thought out.

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Our first day was spent in Arles, which is a Roman town, and walking around it I felt as though I was being transported back in time; but it was incredibly hot, so we tried to find as much shade as possible. Back on the ship there was a little Jacuzzi, and the water felt cold because I was so warm – I had it all to myself, and it was bliss.

Also in Arles we joined a painting workshop. When I was at school I had an art teacher called Bulldog Burton, who had no neck. She told me: ‘Floella Benjamin, you’re not very good at art, get out of my class. I think your enthusiasm will be better spent elsewhere.’ She took away my confidence. I could do a Humpty with a round circle for Play School or tree people, but anything like a landscape was mission impossible for me, I wouldn’t attempt it.

So when I saw that there was the opportunity to try an art class on the cruise, I thought, why not? There was a wonderful tutor, and he was the best person to teach me about skills I didn’t know I had. He showed us how to paint Van Gogh style: I realised, Van Gogh didn’t just paint the sky, he twirled the brush. And I did the most incredible sky, and afterwards I felt, ‘I did this, I did something I didn’t think I was capable of.’

And you were able to take the painting home with you, and to me, it was a major achievement. This happened quite early on and wherever we went after that, driving along through the Provençal countryside, I saw it through the eyes of Van Gogh. My husband Keith said he’s going to get me some paints, and I never thought at the age of 70 that I would finally be painting. For the rest of the cruise I was in seventh heaven because I had made a major step forward. 

And there was fabulous entertainment on board, including a Spanish band. I’ve always wanted to be a flamenco dancer: this was breathtaking and I fell in love. And they also had a jazz band, and a resident musician. 

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In Avignon we went to Châteauneuf-du Pape, and that was wonderful. We learned how to taste wine, how to look at it and tell the age of the wine. This cruise really awakens the senses. I’m not a great red wine drinker, but now I would be able to tell you if it was a young wine or an old wine, or a wine from a particular region. Just in the space of a few hours I felt I’d learned so much which I could take away with me. 

We also went for a walk in the city in the evening, and sang Sur Le Pont D’Avignon; we would have loved to have spent more time in Avignon. One of our favourite ports of call was probably Viviers. It has narrow little streets, and it feels like something out of Harry Potter; unfortunately it’s been mostly abandoned as the young people all moved away. 

There were some unexpected highlights. We sailed through the deepest lock in the world, Lock Bollène, and it was thrilling, everyone stood on the decks to watch. Afterwards we visited the hydroelectric power plant, which was astonishing. It was built just after the war, designed by Théo Sardnal, and it has an Art Deco façade, which is stunning. The engineering here is
mind-boggling, and I can’t recommend a visit to the site highly enough. 

I told you all my senses were awakened on this river cruise, and I couldn’t wait to visit the Valrhona chocolate factory in Tournon. It was a short walk from the ship, and we got there early, and they gave us the history of cocoa – how it’s grown, where it comes from; I put my hand up and told them that the best cocoa in the world comes from Trinidad, which is where I’m from. And then we went into the room where we made our own chocolate, and we felt like Oompa Loompas. It was truly wonderful. 

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Our final port of call was Lyon. Here we went on the guided culinary walk, and the highlight for me was the cheese. In France they’re very protective about what they make in their region. When you taste the cheese it’s like magic on your tongue. You have that first taste, and then you get the aftertaste, and it’s like a symphony, and then you get this grand finale; we had about 12 different types of cheese that we tried, but I kept going back for the Saint-Marcellin. We also wandered around the Presqu’île district, with its cobbled streets and secret passages. You see a door and you think something Machiavellian might have happened inside the building.

In the afternoon we went on a tour that took us high above the city, to Fourvière Hill, and it was incredible; we stood admiring the scenery, absorbing the architecture. And in the evening we went on an evening drive, so we could see the city illuminated, the lights glittering below us: it was captivating, the perfect finale to our cruise.

Before I went on a river cruise I didn’t think it was for me; but I came away feeling fulfilled and happy – because of the crew, how they treated us, the people we met during our travels, and the excursions. This kind of cruise is good for the body, soul and your mental wellbeing; I would highly recommend it for anyone who has a stressful life, who wants a bit of peace and quiet, who just wants to be at one with themselves. No one on our ship wanted to leave, and we all took a little bit of French secret with us. Magical.  

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Getting there

Avalon Waterways offers the eight-day Active & Discovery on the Rhône itinerary from £2, 248 per person including return flights and transfers, based on departures on 28 July 2020, and calling at Arles; Avignon; Viviers; Tournon; Tain L’Hermitage and Lyon. For more information go to avaloncruises.co.uk.

For more travel inspiration, check out the best luxury river cruise lines or find out Floella’s favourite destinations.