From truffles to wine and architecture, France’s waterways are centre stage, writes Louise Goldsbury in the SUN HERALD.
All the main players in river cruising are expanding their French waterway itineraries to meet growing demand. Australia’s Scenic Tours classifies France as its ”new frontier”, this year relocating one of its vessels, the Scenic Emerald, from its popular Rhine, Main and Danube river cruises to take passengers on France’s Saone and Rhone rivers.
Next year, the company plans to launch the custom-built Scenic Gem and deploy it on the Seine River. This new ship is specifically designed to navigate the waterway from Paris through northern France towards the open waters of the English Channel. The itinerary, which is not offered by any other operator, involves cruising along a stretch of tidal water between Rouen and Honfleur.
A 14-night south-of-France cruise is priced from $7095 a person, twin share, including flights from Australia (for bookings made by October 15, 2013), airport transfers, unlimited complimentary drinks, all meals, private butler service, shore excursions, events and entertainment, Wi-Fi and gratuities. scenictours.com.au.
LYON TO ARLES
APT has also stepped up its sailings in France, moving the luxury AmaLegro vessel to the Seine. Encouraged by the success of its Rhone and Rhine cruising packages, which increased 95 per cent on the same time last year, APT knows guests are seeking further regions to explore in Europe, with France topping the wish-list. An eight-day Paris and return journey on the Seine is priced from $3745 a person, twin share.
A cruise from Lyon to Arles on the Rhone aboard the AmaDagio starts at $3995 a person, twin share. Free activities include a bicycle tour in Tournon and a visit to a truffle farm, where passengers can join farmers and their dogs in a hunt for the black delicacy. Other ports of call on this itinerary include Avignon, Viviers and the Beaujolais wine region, where a private tasting session takes place. aptouring.com.
Next year, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises is adding a fourth French destination to its itineraries: Bordeaux. The Vineyards and Chateaux cruise, aboard the River Royale, plies the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne rivers. Passengers will visit Pauillac, Libourne, Blaye and Cadillac and Saint-Emilion, Bergerac and Perigord by land.
A highlight is a visit to a castle where the winemaker will host a tour of the vines and cellar. The eight-day cruise is priced from $3645 a person, twin share, including all meals, drinks, excursions, transfers and entertainment, plus plenty of samples at wineries.
Replacing Uniworld’s River Royale in Burgundy and Provence in 2014 is the newly built 159-passenger ship SS Catherine. Sailing between Lyon and Arles, the trip takes in three UNESCO World Heritage sites. Meanwhile, River Baroness, presently on the Paris-to-Normandy route (and the two-week combination with the Burgundy cruise), will have a cruise next year linking Paris, Normandy and Bordeaux. uniworldcruises.com.au.
HISTORY AND ART
Avalon Waterways is likewise increasing the number of cruises it offers on the Seine and Rhone rivers. Avalon Creativity’s eight-day Paris to Normandy’s landing beaches itinerary is priced from $2781 a person, twin share.
The cruise takes passengers to key villages along the Seine, including Conflans, Giverny (where artist Claude Monet lived) and Vernon. Passengers can take an expertly guided tour from Rouen to the World War II landing beaches, or spend a day on a foodie adventure exploring the Normandy region’s cuisine.
Avalon Scenery’s 11-day Burgundy and Provence cruise starts at $3453 a person, twin share. Booking a combination of both itineraries can be done at a discount price, with fares from $5535 a person, twin share. Fares include guided excursions, Wi-Fi, regional wines and beers at on-board dinners, premium coffees, and sparkling wine with breakfast, if you so wish. avalonwaterways.com.au.
Next season, Viking River Cruises is introducing the eight-day Chateaux, Rivers and Wine cruise on the recently christened Viking Forseti. The vineyards that cover the rolling hills along the rivers of Aquitaine have for centuries produced France’s most remarkable wines: Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Sauternes, Medoc and Margaux are just some of the appellations that make Bordeaux wines famous.
At the region’s heart, the city of Bordeaux invites visitors to explore its grand architecture, cafes and museums.
This year, Viking Pride is sailing a Paris-to-Normandy itinerary and will be joined next year by Viking Spirit. Two other French offerings are the Portraits of Southern France and the Treasures of Southern France, to be operated next year on Viking Buri and Viking Hermod. The 2013 program is virtually sold out but a deal is available for 2014 cruises.
Bookings made before the end of this month attract an early-bird discount of $2000 a couple as well as an airfare credit of $995 a person. The new Bordeaux voyage is priced from $2995 a person, twin share. vikingrivercruises.com.au.
WHAT NOT TO MISS
Most itineraries on the Seine include an overnight port stay in Rouen, renowned for its architecture and as the place where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake in 1431. Overland excursions are also offered from Rouen to the historic World War II Normandy landing beaches. Most cruise vessels on the Paris-Normandy itinerary also stop at the village of Vernon and at Les Andelys. The latter is dominated by Chateau Gaillard, once the stronghold of Richard the Lionheart. Completed in 1198, exploring the chateau ruins on foot brings a chapter of French-English history alive.
At the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers, the bustling metropolis of Lyon has an exceptional gastronomic scene, with restaurants to rival Paris, including the celebrated Restaurant Pierre Orsi (pierreorsi.com). Lyon’s old town is impressive, with striking buildings such as the hill-top Basilica de Notre-Dame Fourviere, where a funicular takes passengers to cobblestone streets lined with shops, cafes and hidden passageways.