A river cruise in France has been on my wish list ever since my first river cruise experience in Europe. With its varied landscapes, famous wine regions, picturesque towns and mouthwatering cuisine, I figured France is perfect for a river cruise as travellers will get to experience the country at a leisurely pace from the comforts of a mobile floating hotel. I gleefully ticked that item off my wish list when I received an invitation from Avalon Waterways to join them on an eight-day Active & Discovery Rhône River cruise from Lyon through Provence to Port-Saint-Louis (near Marseille). I’d previously been on an Avalon Active & Discovery Danube River cruise so I knew I was in for a treat!
My Avalon Waterways Rhône River cruise
On my previous cruise with Avalon Waterways, I found the luxurious staterooms, as well as the facilities, food and service absolutely top-notch. What I especially loved about these Active & Discovery cruises was the sheer number and variety of excursions available to the guests, with a clear focus on active immersion in the destination. In my opinion, that really sets Avalon apart from the competition. When I received my itinerary, I knew I was in for some tough decisions as the excursions all sounded terrific!
The Rhône River cruise itinerary
The Rhône River flows from the Alps through southeast France, past some of the country’s most famous areas such as the scenic Beaujolais and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine regions, the spectacular gorges of Ardeche, the charming Provence and the wild marshes of the Camargue, before reaching the Mediterranean Sea. This Avalon France river cruise started in Lyon, continued through Provence and ended in Port-Saint-Louis at the Rhône River delta. Read more about the itinerary of this France river cruise.
I was thrilled to see in the itinerary that there was ample time to explore cities like Lyon (often called the gastronomic capital of France), the historic cities of Avignon and Arles and the port city of Marseille. In between were a multitude of excursions where guests could hike, bike, kayak, walk or simply sit down for a food or wine-tasting to enjoy the natural, historical and culinary highlights of southeastern France.
Onboard the Avalon Poetry II
On this Rhône River cruise, I travelled on the Avalon Poetry II, one of Avalon’s European Suite Ships. This fleet of Avalon Suite Ships offers arguably the best river cruise cabins out there. The Panorama Suites have wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows which can open up and turn the suite into a massive open-air balcony!
Their beds are also some of the most comfortable I’ve slept in, and the best part is, they face the window, which allows guests to laze in bed and enjoy the passing scenery.
There are various lounge and dining areas onboard. On the rooftop is the Sky Deck where guests can relax in the sun, sit in the hot-tub or enjoy meals on sunny days. The main deck below houses the reception area, bar and Panorama Lounge (at the bow of the ship). The elegant Panorama Restaurant is on the lower deck.
There’s also a small gym and my favourite space, the Club Lounge, located in the ship’s stern, where guests can read a book or play board games while enjoying a soft drink, coffee or hot chocolate with fresh pastries.
One other thing I appreciate about Avalon ships are the water refilling stations, where guests can re-fill their water bottles. In addition, refillable glass water bottles and toiletries are provided in the suites. These are just some of the measures that eliminate single-use plastics onboard.
COVID-19 safety measures
This was my first group trip since the pandemic so I had some concerns. However, Avalon clearly communicated beforehand their requirements and protocols onboard. For instance, all guests are required to show proof of vaccination when they join the cruise, an Avalon policy (valid till end-2022) that’s made clear during the booking process. Before I boarded the ship, my suitcase was thoroughly sanitised and I was instructed to wear a mask for the check-in process. During the cruise, masks were not obligatory (though preferred), except in the dining areas where guests were required to wear them when not seated.
When I checked in, I had to show my vaccination status. I felt reassured knowing that everyone (all 77 of us) on the ship was inoculated. Maintaining the safety protocols was easy due to the relatively small number of passengers (128 is the maximum). Furthermore, Avalon reassured us that all staff were fully vaccinated and required to wear a mask at all times.
Every morning, my temperature was taken before I entered the Panorama Restaurant for breakfast. At other mealtimes, staff stood at the entrance to ensure guests disinfected their hands before proceeding to their tables.
At the end of the cruise, all North American passengers were tested before their departure, confirming that there were no positive COVID-19 cases on the ship.
Meals on the Avalon Poetry II
All meals were served in the Panorama Restaurant. Breakfasts and lunches were a buffet affair whilst dinner was a four-course meal served at the table. In addition, there was always a small buffet in the Panorama Lounge for those who simply wanted a light lunch or dinner.
On certain days, weather permitting, a (grill) lunch was served on the Sky Deck. Consistent with my previous Avalon cruise, the quality of the food and service was excellent. On this Rhône River cruise, the chef onboard was a friendly Portuguese chap who specialised in fish and seafood dishes. His menus were varied and reflected the cuisine of the regions we sailed through, accompanied by locally sourced wines.
The service onboard Avalon Poetry II
The crew were absolutely wonderful, from the warm welcome we received from the receptionists and the lovely cruise director, Gayle, to the friendly housekeeping and attentive restaurant staff. They always went out of their way to make the guests feel cared for. I especially enjoyed Gayle’s lively ‘port talk’ every evening before dinner to inform the guests of the following day’s schedule.
It was great to return to my stateroom after an excursion and find my clothes neatly folded or hung in the closet. My room attendant often had a little surprise: one day, I found my sunglasses polished, and on another day, he left a sheet of smiley stickers on the desk, which I promptly stuck on my face masks. Upon our return from an excursion one day, the crew welcomed us onboard with champagne. These little touches certainly made the cruise more enjoyable!
The choice of excursions on this Avalon Active & Discovery cruise was amazing. I had a hard time selecting them beforehand but I was glad that I could tweak some of my choices once I was onboard. There was literally something for everyone; from hiking in the hills of the Rhône-Alpes to making chocolate at the world-famous Valrhona chocolatier, kayaking in the Ardeche Gorge to wine-tasting in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and learning to paint like Van Gogh and visiting the spectacular Carrieres de Lumieres show to visiting an oyster farm in Camargue! In between were walking tours of the cities we visited, such as Avignon, Arles and Marseille, and ample time to explore on our own.
Commitment to local communities
Avalon Waterways’ commitment to supporting local communities is admirable. I noticed that local guides were always utilised and that the tour and activity providers were primarily small local businesses. Some examples include the modest winery we visited in Beaujolais, the family-owned oyster farm in Camargue where we learned about sustainable oyster farming, and the pastry chef who came onboard one day to teach us how to make typical French pastries.
I had a fantastic time on this Avalon Active & Discovery Rhône River cruise. I felt safe the entire time, and I loved the experiences offered by the excursions, as well as the company of my fellow travellers (a good mix of different age groups who were obviously excited to travel again). In addition, the great food onboard and wonderful service definitely made the cruise a delightful experience.
If you’re thinking of a river cruise in Europe with a more active and immersive focus, I highly recommend Avalon Waterways Active & Discovery cruises! This Rhône River cruise in particular, with its amazing variety of experiences, is one I won’t easily forget.
Note: this post is a result of the #AvalonAD project, a collaboration between iambassador and Avalon Waterways. However, all views expressed above are mine, and mine only.