Halfway into my river cruise through France's subtly seductive countryside, I can stop myself no longer. Mon dieu, I say, what has happened to the French?

I was last here 20 years ago on my OE. I remember flat fields of wheat and vineyards, stone cottages, grand chateaux and, incongruously, nuclear power stations ... and the legendary French indifference to tourists.

This time I have done some homework (and brought along a French phrasebook). I am ready to ask for food, not just point to it. But I needn't have worried.

While the French still appreciate being spoken to in their native tongue, a generation has grown up who are not only able but willing to speak English, even in rural towns. It's almost un-French and may say something about globalisation, but it is no bad thing. Especially in restaurants, where menus increasingly are translated in English.

There are other distinctions: last trip I was driving and so worried about which side of the road to keep to that the scenery sometimes took a back seat. This time, I am on a cruise boat with 120 other tourists, anticipating long hours in a deck chair watching the countryside scroll slowly by.

Our trip on the MV Avalon Scenery will take in the wine regions of Burgundy and Cote du Rhone along the Saone and Rhone rivers until we reach the south. It's an ideal way to appreciate the slower pace of provincial France, for the most part avoiding the busy highways.

After short cruises on the Murray River in Australia and the Douro River in Portugal - and watching several repeats of Rick Stein navigating French canals on Food TV - I have definite, if cliched, expectations of what we are in for. They revolve around the aforementioned deck chair, admiring a moving postcard of ancient ruins, charming villages, vineyards and wheat fields, stopping only to sample scrumptious peasant fare or plunder markets laden with cheeses, seafood, pastries and olives. First glimpse of the MV Scenery does nothing to dampen my expectations: the top deck beckons with bar, jacuzzi and deck chairs.

First, however, we get to spend a day in Paris, starting with a greatest hits bus tour taking in Notre Dame, the Louvre, Place de la Concorde, L'Opera, Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel tower. In the afternoon, I can think of nothing better than to cover the same ground on foot, stopping for fuel at roadside stalls offering quality crepes or fresh baguettes. There's similar fare in moderately priced cafes and bars.

By the time I grab an outdoor table at a St Germain bar, I've already encountered so much politeness that it is something of a relief to find a taciturn waiter. When the beer arrives 20 minutes later, it tastes all the better. Mine may be a cliched tour of Paris, but I can't think of a better one. This will become my verdict for the entire trip.

Our boat is a four-hour coach trip away at Chalon on the Saone River, which flows into the Rhone. Our route takes us through flat croplands until the countryside grows steeper and the soils stonier. We have reached Burgundy where the first green shoots are appearing on low-slung vines. There's a stop in Beaune for the first of several wine tastings I will undertake in the interests of research, but that is another story.

Finally we reach the MV Scenery and, while I am ready to head down-river, the crew are in no hurry to move. The boat, best described as a super-sized canal boat with three levels, is the biggest on the river but this can have its drawbacks. Ours is the first cruise of the season and, after an ice-cold winter, the Saone and the Rhone rivers are in full flood, carrying the melt from the French Alps. Even with its retractable wheelhouse lowered and top deck cleared, our boat is unable to get under some bridges.

Leaving Chalon, we just scrape under the first bridge but further on are even lower bridges, forcing us to wait for the river level to drop. But our cruise director, Jean Loup Domart, seems almost to relish such complications. While a couple of excursions are cancelled, others replace them.

Domart is a cliched Frenchman of 'Allo 'Allo proportions. He has the alluring accent, the gestures, the philosophical shrug, the endearing modesty. He's worked in the industry for 32 years and his daily "port talks" are a comedy routine. "Every day is a good day because I want it to be. It's a very simple philosophy," he explains. The weather is never cold, "it is fresh".

The early-spring "freshness" brings another adjustment. While the mist lends atmosphere to the passing parade of hilltop fortifications, ruins and abbeys, it is too cold most days to lie back in that deck chair and take it all in. Nor is all the countryside postcard-perfect. There are industrial zones and ports, and places where the flood plain is obscured by the ubiquitous poplars with their light green leaves.

But there is also a succession of quaintly preserved towns: stone fortifications dating from Roman occupation; churches and buildings from the Middle Ages. It starts with Beaune's historic walled town in Burgundy and ends at Arles, with its Colosseum-like arena and half-round amphitheatre. Even the major cities of Lyon and Nice retain an architectural uniformity that makes any attempts at modernism stand out like eyesores.

With their narrow, cobbled streets, statues, fountains and pastel-painted shopfronts, some of these riverside villages risk the tourist-trap cliche. But among the fashion boutiques, bars and tourist restaurants are places where the locals shop - patisseries, charcuteries and cafes. To me, they're a chance to channel Rick Stein: terrine and cheese become my French food reference points.

In Beaune, a lovingly prepared window display of seafood and chicken pastries and quiches tempts me to try my French. After a long wait behind locals who seem bent on buying the entire stock, I emerge with a salmon and veal terrine in a pastry crust. They are, to employ a cliche, divine.

Markets at Chalon and Tournon have vast arrays of cheeses, smoked meats, fruit and vegetables, freshly baked breads, seafood, olives, white asparagus and mushrooms.

Not that there's anything lacking in the banquets served up by the MV Scenery's well-run kitchen, a triumph - as are our comfortable cabins - of economical design. The daily menu includes tempting French fare: consomme, red meats braised in red wine and garlic sauces, fish in cream sauce, coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon ...

But a group of us are tempted by Domart's enthusiasm for frog legs and snails. At Lyon, we slip away from the ship for a night of "authentic French food" at the Brasserie Georges.

A big, bright room with mirrors, chandeliers and brass, it started life as a brewery in 1836 and recently started brewing again. The beer is well-suited to the tangy peasant fare: calf-foot salad with herring, lentils and potato; a rotund pork and tripe sausage with mustard sauce; extra large Burgundy snails; marrow bone with Guerande salt and toasted bread; chicken liver cake with mushroom and madeira sauce. We baulk at the calf's head with caper and herb sauce.

The hillside town of Viviers comes as a welcome chance to work off all this food. A seat of Catholic power dating from the 5th century, the old town climbs up a granite hillside to its cathedral, which is flanked by centuries-old fortifications and a sheer granite cliff. The town is off the tourist trail, with many buildings in serious need of a makeover, which makes it terrifically atmospheric.

In somewhat better repair is Tournon, across the river from the Tain l'Hermitage wine district, a region of steep terraces where the syrah grapes produce a much mellower wine than our "new world" syrahs. Tournon Castle on the banks of the Rhone dates from the 10th century. We wander narrow, labyrinthine streets and come across a market. More terrine is purchased, a pork and mushroom forestiere. Avignon, home to several popes during the 14th century when Rome was in political turmoil, is yet another walled city, which has aged as well as the vines first planted for the popes, Chateauneuf du Pape.

For many tourists Avignon means an essential pirouette on the Bridge of St Benezet (also known as the Pont d'Avignon).

Too soon, it seems, we reach Arles, our final port before the river spills into the Camargue delta and the Mediterranean. But there is more. Just as we had a day in Paris, our trip will end with a day in Nice on the Cote d'Azur after a bus ride across the south of France. There's an evening visit to Monte Carlo, spotting the mansions of the extremely rich and famous along the way. It's the ultimate glitz and glamour cliche, but what a way to go out.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Emirates offers the only A380 service right through from Auckland to Paris, with daily flights through Dubai.

Cruising: Avalon Waterways' 11-day Burgundy and Provence cruises begin in Paris, include seven nights on the Saone and Rhone rivers, visiting scenic towns such as Beaune, Lyon, Tournon, Viviers, Avignon and Arles, and end in Nice. Cruises start from $5525 per person twin share and include cruise gratuities, all on-board meals, drinks at dinner and a wide range of tours and activities. See your travel agent.

Geoff Cumming cruised the Rhone as guest of Avalon Waterways and Emirates.