Explore southern France with a river cruise along the Rhône

Are you ready for a European vacation, but want to stay away from the bustle of big cities? The leisurely pace of a river cruise might be the ticket for you.

You can visit other historic cities and enjoy the local culture, arts, and cuisine with guided tours or on your own. But if you want multiple onboard options for dining, nightclubs, casinos, entertainment, and bars, a river cruise might not be right for you.

River ships are smaller than sea cruise ships; they typically carry fewer than 200 passengers, and you are likely to see and socialize with the same people day in and day out.

Last month, my best friend and I visited six thriving cities and towns along the Rhône River during an eight-day cruise with Emerald Waterways.

Our ship, the Emerald Liberté, carries 138 passengers plus crew, has a single dining room and one main lounge where light meals and entertainment were served. We got to know many of our fellow passengers by name as we shared meals and adventures together.

The cost of a river cruise is also typically higher than a sea cruise but includes guided tours at each stop, soft drinks, wine and beer with meals, wi-fi, tips for the guides and crew, including the massage therapist, among other things. Optional paid tours are available.

We sailed along the Rhône from Arles to Lyon, the third-largest city in France and by some accounts, a better city for gastronomic delights than Paris. Some ports were only hours away by car, but meandering the river at a leisurely pace allowed us to enjoy the sights and sounds of life along the river banks, where individuals — and caravans — camped out, and kayaked, fished and relaxed on the water.

The slower pace of travel, however, didn’t mean that we weren’t on the go. Every morning after breakfast, we joined the guided tours through towns thousands of years old with Roman ruins and remnants of city walls built in the Middle Ages to prove it. In the afternoon, we explored on our own or opted for one of the paid tours to nearby destinations.

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In Arles, we visited the “Yellow Cafe” made famous by Vincent van Gogh; in Avignon, the Pont du Gard – a Roman aqueduct; in Cluny, the remains of the Cluny Abbey, the largest church before St. Peter’s Basilica was built (most of which was destroyed in the French Revolution); the Valrhona chocolate shop in Tournon, and so on. We saw castles, palaces, churches, and white cows (the Charolais, the most common beef breed in France). We ate crêpes and mussels and frites and gelato, and drank cappuccinos and local wines in cafes along sidewalks and in plazas.

On board, we relaxed on the Sun Deck or the shaded terrace with cold drinks, books and Kindles in hand, as we watched the life of the city unfold along the riverbanks. In Lyon, an outdoor gym and bocci ball courts drew players and fitness buffs from early morning to late night.

The lounge was the entertainment space where games, wine- and cheese-tastings were held in the evenings, and then the disco lights came on. Well, not really, but there was a Disco Night and yes, YMCA and the Macarena filled the dance floor.

About day five, a certain sense of deja vu started to set in, but spending eight days being served great food and wine, lazily strolling through history and observing life along the river never got stale.

If you want a more relaxing cruise where you won’t get sticker shock from all the add-ons and where you can get guided tours but still have plenty of time to explore on your own, a river cruise may be just right for your next shipboard vacation.

Related story:  London and Paris, the second time around, still delight



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