France: A bon voyage down the river

By Pamela Wade

French wine and food fuel a luxurious cruise down the Rhone, worked off by ambles through scenic towns, writes Pamela Wade.

Pont d'Avignon on the Rhone river. Photo / Getty Images
Pont d'Avignon on the Rhone river. Photo / Getty Images

It was the very essence of a First World Problem: I'd just got comfortable on my lounger on the boat's top deck as it glided along the Rhone through the captivatingly pretty scenery of Provence, when I realised I'd left the nail buffer below in my stateroom. Zut alors! Once on board a Uniworld Boutique River Cruise ship, life's ordinary irritations are swept away and replaced by a different class of problem altogether.

No more menial tasks, no deciding how to fill the day, no taking responsibility of any sort, other than not falling overboard or - and this was a surprise - trying to open the shower door the wrong way and trapping myself inside it.

Hotel manager Eric, at our briefing on the first day, was emphatic about this: "You'd be surprised," he said darkly.

He and Laurent, the cruise director, were quite the double act as they introduced us to life aboard the River Royale when the cruise began at Arles.

We sprawled on sofas in the clubby Renoir Lounge as they worked through their welcome, Eric concentrating on the house-keeping - "It's regular two-way glass in your picture windows: remember that when you open your curtains in the morning" - while Laurent took a wider view: "We French don't smile, you mustn't take it personally. Just look upon us as unhappy Italians".

They both urged us to beware of the gypsies running the funfair on the riverbank near our mooring.

"We have the world's best pickpockets up there," they said, with a refreshing disregard for political correctness.

The welfare and comfort of the guests were top priority for all the crew, from Irena who flitted into my cabin each morning to do her magic while I dithered over the breakfast buffet, all the way up to the baby-faced captain, Emmanuel, who was as likely to be spotted helping to haul goods aboard as sitting in front of six TV screens in the wheelhouse, fingers on the joystick, looking exactly like a 12-year-old gamer.

All of them had, a little unsettlingly, learned our names by the next day - it implied an all-nighter with our mugshots on flashcards, barked questions, possibly mild violence - and the waiters were already noting preferences for brown rolls or white at dinner, cheese or dessert, coffee or tea.

Typical was Todor, pale-faced with dark-rimmed eyes who claimed to be Bulgarian but, we suspected, really hailed from Transylvania. Cheerful, friendly, efficient, professional and thoughtful, he was a superb waiter, and so far from being obsequious that there was no way we could bring ourselves to call him "Tody", as requested.

On all cruise ships the food and wine are important, but never more so than when traversing a premium wine-growing region in France. It was a heavy responsibility taken equally seriously by both the kitchen staff and the guests, whether it was stepping up to the challenge of the three different cheeses each night - that's 21 altogether - or tasting all the wines selected from the different vineyards we passed, or simply working through the three or four courses of a differently themed dinner every evening.

Luckily, river cruising offers the ideal opportunity to work off all those calories. There is a gym on board, and I even looked inside it one day; but far more appealing is to get real-world exercise exploring the stops along the route.

Every day the River Royale docked in the centre of cities like Lyon and Avignon, or absurdly pretty little towns like Viviers, where yellow and pink-painted houses with lavender shutters faced each other across narrow cobbled alleyways.

Cats watched as we ambled along behind a local guide, listening - or not - to the commentary through our earphones and marvelling at the savagely pruned plane trees, admiring the buildings, dipping into the shops.

We learned about palaces, popes and painters, aqueducts and amphitheatres, nougat and nuclear reactors; and also where to find the best patisserie or wine cellar.

Later it would be time to return to our haven on the water, welcomed back with a smile, a drink and a warm, wet towel to wipe away all vestiges of the harsh outside world. Then I would retire to my stateroom with its super-fine sheets for a restorative nap; and afterwards, but only if I felt up to it, a little personal maintenance with the nail buffer.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Etihad Airways code-shares with Air NZ and Virgin Australia across the Tasman, with connections through Abu Dhabi to 18 European destinations including Paris.

The cruise: Uniworld's eight-day Burgundy and Provence cruise is priced from $3830pp twin share with payment discounts available. Price includes stateroom accommodation, all meals on board, complimentary drinks with meals, transfers, excursions, lectures and entertainment. The route, which includes Arles, Avignon, Beaune, Lyon and Chalon-sur-Saone, features wine-tastings and the art, cuisine, scenery and history of the area.

Bookings made before October 31 can score significant savings: for details ask your travel agent or visit uniworldcruises.co.nz.

Pamela Wade was a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and Etihad Airways.

- NZ Herald

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