I had heard about the growing popularity of river cruising for years but as a first timer, until I stepped aboard my riverboat in France for a trip on the Rhône, I really didn’t know what to expect. Did I have any preconceptions? Absolutely. I imagined a slow moving boat, confining cabin space and an older crowd among them, thinking that sightseeing would be more of the sedentary kind… like from a deck chair on board the boat, cup of tea or glass of wine in hand, and maybe the occasional shuffle board game as the scenery passed us by.
Did I expect to find a travel experience that I continually find myself recommending to travelers of all ages who engage me in a conversation about “luxury” travel? As an active traveler, both literally and figuratively, I imagined enjoying a picturesque parade of non-stop scenery but never realized I would have an equal number of opportunities to connect, intimately and actively, with the people and places I so look forward to becoming a part of when traveling.
Should you be undecided or unsure if river cruising is right for you, you may find my take on my first Tauck river cruise trip in France will take you on yours. (There are lots of European river cruises to choose from depending on your interests – think fairy-tale castles along the Rhine, romance and waltzes down the Danube, windmills and Bavarian beauties on inland waterways from Amsterdam to Basel, along with French flair on the Rhône, Seine and Saône rivers!)
The boat was unexpectedly wonderful
At first glance, riverboats are long and lean, flat bottomed and often non-descript, much like the barges that ferry cargo to and fro without attracting much attention. But on closer inspection, you’ll discover, as I did, a red carpet reception that embodied the grace and gentility of another era… making a great first and lasting impression on me.
After spending two nights immersed in the glamour of Monte-Carlo, I boarded Tauck’s custom designed ms Swiss Emerald a few hours drive away in Arles, in the exact same setting that inspired van Gogh to paint the Starry Sky Over the Rhône. I stepped off Tauck’s motorcoach (another surprise for me, this coach was anything but the kind of utilitarian tour bus I had envisioned… rather it was like relaxing in the comfort of your favorite armchair, on wheels, and looking out a picture window, all your own, with ever-changing views…) only to walk up a gangplank into a handsomely decorated lobby awash in etched glass, teak, brass and marble akin to what you’d expect in a fine hotel. The boat’s captain and crew, attired in crisp white seafaring uniforms, posture perfect, stood at attention to officially welcome us aboard. I would quickly learn that the entire staff on board was all about providing impeccable, attentive service, anticipating my needs before I did!
As a solo traveler, my cabin was on the lower deck, where a port hole, eye level with the water, afforded me a sneak peek at life along the river. I intended to use my cabin just for sleeping so the size, (150 square feet, and small square window) did not deter me from booking it instead of a larger suite with a walk in closet and a French balcony or two. Ample storage and closet areas allowed my clothes to stretch out like I could… and my bed? Suffice it to say that after that first night when I reluctantly climbed into bed at the end of a wonderful day, I reluctantly left it in the morning. I remember thinking that I had to inquire about buying that mattress for home after the cruise, along with my sink-in soft pillow, ooh la la L’Occitane amenities and the fluffy bathrobe I found in my marble (!!!) bathroom.
They had me at hello
I enjoy being pampered. Whenever I emerged from my cozy cabin to greet the day, I was greeted with enthusiasm by the same crew members who welcomed me aboard. And once I had eaten in the ship’s dining room, also elegantly dressed for our cruising delight, the wait staff remembered my name and choice of beverage from the get go, even discreetly passing me more freshly baked baguettes once they discovered my weakness for this indulgence and keeping my wine glass full (all included I might add!). The boat, built to American standards to accommodate up to 118 guests with room to spare, was never crowded. There was always room to sit and talk in the lounge, in the bistro, on the sun deck. No lines at the bar, in the dining room or getting off the boat. I loved that!
Learning about daily life, past and present, was a shore thing
Unlike ocean cruises where you are often required to sign up and pay extra for shore excursions, river cruises include sightseeing in the price. Lined by land and controlled by water leveling locks, the rivers offer a chance to walk back in time at virtually every stop. It was nice to stroll right off the boat through different places in history with a guide who knowledgeably pointed out the sites.Tauck takes that one step further by combining guided shore tours in riverside towns with exclusive opportunities to mingle with the locals… during a game ofpétanque, glass of pastis in hand, in Viviers… at a pâtisserie in Chalon-Sur-Sâone to sample the finer points of candy making and baguette baking… inside a private 900-year old family wine estate with the noble home-owning host himself treating us to tales and a taste of his wines and cheese gougeres on a tour of his personal residence… at a tasting in a papal vineyard outside of Avignon, where we sipped and savored wines the vintner described as “godlike and dressed in velvet trousers”… and during a Provençal feast on a private ranch in la Camargue that started with a line up of the owners astride their prized white horses, a guitar serenade and a farm fresh banquet and ended with a heart-pounding game of dodge and dare between fearless young cowboys and the feisty black bulls they raise here.
As my riverboat cruised the Rhône from Arles to Lyon, I had the unique opportunity to watch a skilled equestrian and her beloved steed demonstrate the art of dressage near Cluny Abbey at the Haras Equestrian Centre way out in the country. To get there, we rode one of those comfortable coaches through out-of-the-way places I never would have seen on my own. I toured the papal palace in walled Avignon to see where reigning popes ruled the religious world and directed the production of that exalted Châteauneuf du Pape wine during their exile years away from Rome. I posed in places immortalized by van Gogh in paintings hung in world-renowned museums and replicated the world over. I sat down at sidewalk cafés and ordered café au lait, lunch and carafes of locally produced wine… in French. I listened to the echoes of gladiators and their fans in a Roman amphitheater dating to the 1st century and still hosting public events today. I walked atop a pont with the tune of a French children’s song dancing in my head and explored in awe an early medieval hospital where spirituality was part of the cure and tapestries graced the walls.
My river cruise included leisure time each day too so I could wander and wonder on my own, returning to the riverboat to a warm towel, warm cookies and a warm welcome back. I soaked it all in to remember for a lifetime. And at night, after an onboard feast of regional French fare and after-dinner fun with new friends that included piano playing and special entertainment, I retired happily to my cloudlike bed for yet another heavenly sleep. Each day I longed for a longer trip!
Once christened, forever a fan
I experienced my first river cruise during the first weeks of spring when rain flirted with lovers on storied bridges in April in Paris and the sun peeked out from parting clouds to illuminate French landscapes I had dreamed of exploring. That I was able to do, see, discover, and relive scenes played out for centuries as I traveled from town to town aboard a riverboat built for smooth sailing comfort (no seasickness to spoil the day) and genuine camaraderie was more than I expected. It changed the way I viewed cruising. It changed me.
I have been christened a river cruise fan. If you’re looking for the best river cruises, look no further than Tauck.