Drinking Beaujolais in Beaujolais, lunching on quaint terraces, wandering through medieval townships—cruising the south of France reveals all this and more
By Doug Wallace
I always knew the baby boomers would “de-geezer” the luxury cruise industry and actually make it cool. And while the big ocean liners are undergoing a certain “degrampification” of their own, it’s the small-ship experiences that the cool kids are booking, both on the seas and down the world’s celebrated rivers. Australia’s Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours is a case in point, and a journey down the Rhone River in France confirmed that cruise-going is more hip than people think.
Stepping on board the Scenic Sapphire in Chalon-sur-Saône, the first things that registered were the tasteful touches of luxury, things that say “five-star” in a heartbeat: a cold towel, a glass of actual Champagne, marble everywhere, and a butler who gave me his number. “Call me any time,” he said. “I like it here,” I said quietly to myself.
Riverboat life is simple, in that you’re never going to get lost on the ship. There’s the top deck, the lounge, the restaurant, the cabins, and that’s it. You unpack, say hello to your neighbours and get on with the relaxing. It’s just intimate enough for you to get to know a few people (167 people in this case), but still big enough for a hint of anonymity. You don’t have to know everybody’s first name—a simple nod will do—and if you feel like tuning out and reading a book rather than chatting, no one will think you’re stuck-up. The ship docks in a different town every day, so you wake up with a fresh region to explore (either by bus or on foot), different wine to guzzle and new locals to terrorize with your touristy ways. Guests who don’t feel like following the crowd can strike off on one of the ship’s e-bikes, with the help of GPS-assisted self-tour gadgets.
Small cruises manage to conjure up some extremely interesting people, too: those who wouldn’t be caught dead on a ship with more than 400 guests. Generally well travelled and reasonably well off, these travel mates will skew older to be sure, but there will also be a fair share of chic “achievers” with their tans and linen shirts, as well as young marrieds and a few families—all fascinating cocktail companions. Scenic attracts mostly Australians, Brits, Americans and Canadians, so language is never an issue.
Sure, renting a nice French villa and using it as a home base for a week of adventuring is fun, but a river cruise lets you see a lot more, and from the comfort of a lounger on the top deck. And with someone getting you drinks while you peruse the pillow menu and take shot after shot of the scenery flowing by. Speaking of which, there is nothing quite as photogenic as the south of France, and she loves having her picture taken.
Time slows down on a cruise
My week on the Rhone took me from the quaint city of Chalon-sur-Saône in east-central France down the Saône River to Mâcon, where I hopped on a bus tour through the Beaujolais Golden Stone region, so named after the bright yellow limestone buildings. I spent the morning at Château de Montmelas (a winery run by descendants of the Marquis de Montmelas since the mid-17th century), drinking in their offerings along with the gorgeous countryside.
Down the river in Lyon, the Saône forks with the Rhone, and my fork got a real workout; this is the gastronomic heart of France, after all. The places to hit are the traditional Lyonnaise bouchons, bistros that serve French classics like creamy pike dumplings in crayfish sauce, perfectly spiced steak tartare and succulent Bresse chicken. (This is France, so even the chicken has an appellation.) The chef’s tasting menu at Michelin-starred La Mère Brazier put me right over the edge, and that was long before they wheeled out the cheese trolley.
I was able to walk it off on a hike the next morning through the city of Vienne, a major centre of the Roman Empire, noted for the Temple of Augustus and Livia that was built at the end of the 1st century BC. Cruising later to Tournon, we arrived just in time for five o’clocktails on the terraces of the medieval Château de Tournon, just up the street from our dock. Très convenient!
The next day’s walk through the quiet town of Viviers was followed by an evening spent docked in picturesque Avignon, which was for a time the seat of Catholic popes. And despite submitting to this city’s carnival-like atmosphere—complete with carousel and Ferris wheel—we still managed to work in some history the next morning on a tour to the ancient Roman aqueduct at Pont-du-Garde, near the charming town of Uzès.
The last stop, at Tarascon, set us up for visits to the Instagram-friendly medieval villages of Les Baux-de-Provence and St Remy-de-Provence, and the Roman Amphitheatre in Arles, an incredible, 2,000-year-old arena still in use today. This is the essence of visiting the banks of the Rhone: You can do nothing but wander in and out of shops full of gorgeous things, darling, and fill your suitcase with lavender soap and handmade bonbons; or you can patio-hop to your heart’s content, going from breakfast to second breakfast to lunch to tea to dinner; or you can dive into the history, visit the castles and climb the watch towers.
Or you can sit on your rear and watch the swans. This is your cinéma vérité—do as you please.
With a solid mix of great food and wine, rich history, enchanting surroundings and a pampering crew, my week on the Scenic Sapphire flew by, and I could easily have signed up for another. The little Scenic extras made the biggest differences: things like a cooking demo, a castle cocktail party, a classical concert in a centuries-old palace … I wrote home about it all. And who doesn’t love day-drinking?
In the end, river cruising is as cool as I had predicted it would be in this day and age. I came home with more pictures of wine labels and handsome butlers on my phone than riverbank vistas, but that’s just me.
DOUG WALLACE is the editor and publisher of the new travel resource, www.TravelRight.Today.