Wendy Turner Webster sets sail on a Tauck voyage along the Rhône and falls in love with river cruising

The first night of any holiday has an air of anticipation, but the first night on board a ship which is about to set sail surely has the best atmosphere of all. The Moët had started flowing from the time we boarded Tauck’s Swiss Emerald, and the lounge was buzzing with excited guests absorbing every word of the Cruise Director’s welcome speech, enticing us with the delights of our excursions yet to come.

As this trip was my first river cruise, I was looking forward to an intimate and serene holiday experience. And I wasn’t disappointed – in fact the week-long adventure floating calmly down the Rhône surpassed expectations on every level.

Picture-perfect views

The Rhône boasts many picturesque and historic towns and villages along its banks, and of course we were looking forward to the wine tasting at some world famous vineyards along the way.

Luxurious Swiss Emerald is the perfect vessel to explore this stunning region, because when it comes to the wow factor it has it in spades. The polished gold, mustard yellow and royal blue tones of the decor simply oozed opulence and we were pleased we had brought some of our best clothes to wear in the evenings.

Our stateroom on Ruby Deck came with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors – perfect to watch the banks of the Rhône go by and so close to the water itself you could almost touch it. The large flat screen TV kept us entertained with news and movies, and we enjoyed the constantly restocked fridge and generous supply of Molton Brown toiletries.

Plain sailing

The journey itself was so smooth that we often didn’t even realise we were on the move; in fact there wasn’t one point during the whole week that we felt the ship rock or sway, so if your sea legs are a little unreliable, this could be one distinct advantage of river cruising.

Champagne was included in the package price, along with every other conceivable drink, cocktail, wine, beer and spirit one might be tempted by.

All the excursions were included too; in fact if you didn’t want to indulge in a massage or snap up some bargains at the onboard shop, it was virtually impossible to part with any money – an aspect of the cruise everyone appreciated. Giving tips was not allowed either.

Checking my beautifully presented (and personalised) itinerary booklet on the first night, I noted that it invited us to join the Captain’s welcome reception and dinner, and suggested we might want to take an after dinner stroll in Lyon. This tickled me as the Moët had been flowing as fast as the Rhône itself and an after dinner stroll back to our stateroom seemed like a much better idea.

We also noted with interest another recommendation listed in the booklet: “Dine with as many different people as possible, and chat with everyone.” It wasn’t long before we broke our British reserve and chatted and smiled to our fellow guests at every opportunity, swapping life stories, jokes, opinions and, by the end of our cruise, email addresses.

A taste of Rhône

The shore excursions were incredible. In Lyon, after the party the night before, we were driven to the renowned Beaujolais wine-growing region where there was a fascinating priory to explore and some stunning wine to taste.

Our first port of call was Viviers, a medieval town with a wonderful 12th century cathedral perched on top of the hill. The winding cobbled streets were a photographer’s dream and even the torrential rain couldn’t dampen our spirits.

The next day we moored up at Arles where Roman monuments, including a gladiators’ arena, made for an interesting tour. Arles was also home to Van Gogh at one time and there is said to be a quality of light here that inspired his work.

Tours galore

On a general note it’s true to say that the tours were very well organised affairs; groups were small and there was always a slightly different option for those that wanted to avoid steps and steep slopes. And in two of the places we visited there were ‘train tours’ around the town, which offered a fun way to explore whatever your physical condition.

Following the downpour at Viviers we were welcomed back on board the ship by hot towels and warm cherry schnapps (reached for not necessarily in that order), and when the weather was warm and we returned sticky, we were presented with cold towels and glasses of fresh fruit juice.

By this time the story swapping with all our newfound friends was well under way and we were told many times that in the US Tauck is considered to the ‘Rolls Royce of river cruising’. And we couldn’t find any reason to disagree.

Next we arrived at Avignon, the seat of the Catholic Church in the 1300s and famous for the nursery rhyme Sur le Pont d’Avignon – a song about people dancing on the bridge. The day here was a treat and included a visit to the Palais des Papes, an enormous palace that the Popes built for themselves, and an excursion to the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct over the River Gardon.

Our day was rounded off brilliantly with a ‘Festive Avignon Wine Party’ back on board the boat. By this time we had teamed up with George and Mary, a couple from New York, and spent many a happy hour with them supping cocktails and standing on the top deck of the boat as we navigated some of the Rhône’s deepest locks.

Treat for the tastebuds

Having hit it off so well we found ourselves dining with George and Mary too, all of us fascinated by what the chef would create for me, a vegan. At first I think the kitchen found me rather challenging, but very quickly Chef Alexander got into his ‘meat and dairy free’ stride and produced some of the best food I have ever tasted.

Now, I’m no wine buff, but even I had heard of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so it was a delight to visit the place itself, taste its various wines and see a stone bath where Romans crushed grapes with their feet. A bottle of the famed wine made a wonderful gift to take home to my husband – a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape being about the only white wine he actually likes.

On the last full day of our river cruise we stopped at the medieval town of Tournon-sur-Rhône, an area famed for its acres of hillside vineyards and superb views of the river – again, a photographer’s paradise. There was the option to go to Valence to have a cookery demonstration at a Michelin awarded restaurant, but due to my diet we passed on that. Instead we enjoyed Champagne on the Sun Deck and watched the world go gently by.

Unforgettable memories

As I finish writing this review I am glancing at my feet. I tell you this because I am looking fondly at my Swiss Emerald logoed slippers (oh, come on, don’t tell me you’ve never revelled in a pair of souvenir slippers), and I’m enjoying fond memories of the places we visited and people we met.

Just a glance at the gold lettering brings it all back: Champagne brunches; cobbled streets; afternoon tea; the scent of the grapes; the drama of the river’s locks; and linking arms with newfound friends who we still keep in touch with. It was my first river cruise and I hope it will not be my last. Seven days on the Rhône gave me memories to last a lifetime.

GETTING THERE
Tauck’s French Waterways cruise departs Lyon, France, on 24 October 2016 and starts from £3,080pp. For more information and to book, visit tauck.co.uk.

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