Alexia Santamaria lives life of a bon vivant aboard her first river cruise
I would be lying if I said I wasn't slightly apprehensive about boarding my first river boat cruise in France last month.
I was aware that, in my mid-40s, I might be a good deal younger than most of the people on board, but that wasn't all. I mean, what if the food was awful? A week is a long time to smile your way politely through average fare. And how big can a cabin on a river-going boat really be? (I know they use those wide angle lenses for brochure pictures).
Considering this trepidation it's as big a surprise to me as others that I am now banging on about this mode of travel to anyone - and I mean anyone - who'll listen. Welcome to the new generation of "active" river-cruising, a holiday I was thrilled to be proven wrong about.
We boarded our Avalon Waterways boat, the Poetry II, in Arles with a final destination of Lyon. This relatively new itinerary is called an Active and Discovery cruise and the focus is on offering a range of daily excursions to suit all levels of fitness and enthusiasm. This could mean anything from leisurely city walking tours to painting classes to more sweat-inducing rail-biking and kayaking.
The process of selecting my included excursions (there are extra optional ones too) was way more harrowing than I imagined. Did I want to do wine tasting in an underground cave? Ermm, yes. Visit the Valrhona chocolate factory? Well that's a big fat tick. E-bike through wineries and picturesque villages of Provence, learn to cook in Lyon, kayak through a stunning canyon? I like to think of myself as a fairly decisive individual, but this was really taxing. FOMO lurked on the flipside of every choice.
I needn't have worried, because every excursion was a total winner.
It would be hard to pick an absolute favourite but the visit to Carrieres de Lumieres would be right up there. After a short hike in the Alpilles, to enjoy panoramic views over Les Baux Village, we were taken to a covered limestone quarry which ceased operations after the First World War and was eventually repurposed as the venue for the most incredible enormous moving projections of large scale artworks.
It changes every year: Gaugin, Monet, Klimt, Picasso have all had their time; but this year it was all Van Gogh. It's impossible to truly convey how utterly spectacular this dwarfing multimedia experience was. We all stood gobsmacked like stunned ants as the familiar tableaus of this master blended and morphed seamlessly in gigantic projections 14 metres above us on Flinstone-esque slabs of rock.
The accompanying soundtracks, ranging from opera to jazz to haunting ballads completed the immersion and it was fascinating to look around and see so many people in the same speechless stupor.
Other excursions were also once-in-a lifetime experiences. I felt like Charlie in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory when I went to Valrhona (which has always been my favourite international chocolate house); was mesmerised by a flock of flamingos near the pink-tinged salt marshes of Carmague; thought I'd found paradise kayaking the breathtaking Gorges de L'Ardeche; giggled incessantly on the night-time ghost tour in Viviers; lost myself in the gastronomic delights of Avignon's markets, and was astounded at the tour of its Papal palace - one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe.
Many excursions also provided opportunities I wouldn't have had as a regular tourist. Avalon appeared to be the only company that had a relationship with a lovely guide called Anne who somehow had special access to the vertigo-inducing heights of the roof of Lyon's Basilica. We climbed higher and higher to see different vantage points of the glittering mosaic-lined interior, finally popping up on the top for sweeping views of the whole of Lyon and its charming terracotta rooftops. Everything exceeded all preconceptions of what this trip might, or might not, be.
And my fears about food? Unfounded too. Breakfast and lunch were always buffets, monitored by kitchen staff to ensure impeccable food safety. I got used to carving my amber honey, directly off the jewel-like honeycomb slab at breakfast to put on my creamy bircher and fresh fruit with a side of pastries baked fresh every morning on the ship (I am now finding my cornflakes at home deeply disappointing). Dinners were five-course, a la carte affairs with delicious accompanying wines but there was also the choice of a lighter, quick meal in the bar upstairs if you were keen to get ashore.
Speaking of getting ashore, I was very surprised to find we had so many nights to explore ports at our leisure. The distances are much less than with ocean cruising and it's so smooth that sailing can occur at 3am or 2.30pm or anytime really. The nights in port gave us a wonderful opportunity to get to know the cities we had toured during the day and my friends and I soon developed a habit of checking out the local Aperol spritzes as soon as we got ashore (Arles provided the best pour, if you're interested). I loved the flexibility these varied sailing times provided.
And while our activities on shore were truly outstanding, I enjoyed my time on the boat much more than I anticipated. The active nature of the cruise attracted a mixed and vibrant crowd, from the 90-year-old Canadian couple with admirable hill-climbing ability, to the laid back Hawaiian family with older kids, to the teacher from Seattle and a group of French friends travelling for a big birthday.
There were no stuffy dress codes and everyone I met was friendly and interesting. Much to my surprise, I swapped numbers with more than one person and will definitely be looking them up if I'm ever in their part of the world.
With around 90 people on the boat (the maximum is 128) it never felt crowded and solitude was easy to find. I loved the room out the back which always had a fresh supply of cookies and pastries, and an excellent coffee machine which became my new best friend when suffering from jet lag.
The whole experience was the perfect mix of activity and relaxation. I spent many a moment lying on a comfortable chair on my own on the roof of the boat, watching castles and villages drift by, but equally enjoyed the more social nights, especially when we had one of the original Gipsy Kings come on board with his group to wow us with the vibrant Spanish melodies I remember so clearly from the 90s.
Looking back, I can't believe I was fortunate enough to go to sleep for eight nights in the most comfortable bed ever, opening my eyes to a new French port or river view every day. The rooms were really cleverly designed so you could pull the floor-to-ceiling glass doors right back creating an open-air balcony situation without losing any room size.
The bathroom was great and I never felt squished, like I thought I might have. The only problem was the bed was so comfortable I was often late for my excursions because I spent too long gazing at the sparkling river water, contemplating just how different this was to waking up at home, making school lunches and hustling small versions of me out the door.
Cruising the Rhone on a river boat is an experience I will never ever forget, and one I would recommend to anyone considering it. With options like the Danube, or even the Mekong Delta, it's a truly unique way to see many parts of the world, and this new active spin means the time on shore is just as enjoyable as the time on board.
Avalon Waterways' eight-day Active & Discovery on the Rhone, between Port-St-Louis and Lyon is priced from $3888pp, twin share, based on a July 28 departure and including Earlybird discount. Cruises depart May to September.