I’m not quite sure if there’s anywhere else you’d see waltzing Frenchmen together with a waiter sporting a furry shark’s head hat and a group of cynical journalists practising tai chi on the dance floor of a luxurious cruise ship floating down the Rhone River. But life on CroisiEurope river cruises in France is anything but ordinary.
When my friend Anne asked me if I’d join her and a group of women travel writers on a 3-night cruise from historic Avignon in Provence to the foodie city of Lyon, I wasn’t sure it was for me. Aren’t river cruises for old people I thought. But, I love Avignon and I’ve never seen the gorges of Ardeche through which we would pass – so I said yes.
What a surprise I got and how wrong I was. These cruises are fabulous for friends, couples and groups of all ages. Though it was a short trip, just three days, I felt as refreshed as though I’d had a much longer break. With drinks and nibbles on offer from 10am to 1am, tea, coffee and water are available 24 hours, seriously good food, brilliant excursions and lovely rooms – we were spoiled rotten.
If I had to describe my CroisiEurope trip from Avignon to Lyon via the Rhone River in just three words: fun, fabulous and (very) French. In fact, us uptight Brits made a pact to do another trip before we even disembarked…
Who are CroisiEurope cruises for?
Though predominantly French and older people on my cruise, there was a real mix of guests – groups of friends, couples and honeymooners. Kim and Jenny from Australia threw themselves with gusto into the whole thing. They danced every night (there’s always dancing and music at night) and took part in a dance competition plus the crew show.
There were also guests from Malaysia, Canada, America and the UK.
There are specific CroisiEurope cruises which cater for families with stuff to do for children, including kids clubs. And other tours are targeted at non-families (they’re clearly marked on cruise listing details).
I had a smart upper deck cabin with floor to ceiling windows. The bed was super comfy and the bathroom was lovelywith an invigorating shower. Drifting down river, lying in bed with an early morning cup of tea, watching the stunning scenery pass by is one of the most relaxing experiences I’ve had in a long time.
There are optional daily excursions. I did three in three days and I could have done more but I wanted time to chill out on board too. Relaxing in the bright airy salon or on the sun deck with a book was a great way to unwind. We visited the wheel room, enjoyed aperitifs and made new friends. It’s a real blend of relaxing and exploring, eating great French food and having a lot of fun.
Friendly, fun and festive
On one night there was a touch of Strictly Ballroom in the salon. Think waltzing Frenchies and tango dancing Malaysians mixed with disco dancing octogenarians. A lady called Evelyn who came from nearby Avignon refrained from dancing on account she said, of breaking her leg doing the cha cha cha at a party a while back. She did however, don a wig to mime to Edith Piaf belting out La Vie en Rose, at the crew Show. We all joined in the chorus and gave her a huge round of applause.
The crew show is a tradition and it’s clear that they love doing it. The French guests especially love it though it’s probably not what US and UK holiday makers are used to.
In fact for a group of cynical women travel writers we found it remarkably easy to let our hair down and join in. Who can resist Mama Mia or Le Madison? The latter has been a line dance favourite in France for more than 50 years. And if you don’t know it before your CroisiEurope trip, you certainly will by the time you’re finished. Sure it’s a little bit kitsch, but it’s great fun. And I reckon if your holiday makes you laugh, then it’s a good holiday!
The crew are part of the fun
There’s a lot of laughter on this boat. On day 1 the crew are introduced one by one. Anis the Purser strolled in to the sound of “I’m sexy and I know it”. The bar staff paraded to “The Eye of the Tiger”. The guests clapped everyone enthusiastically from the captain and his brother the deputy captain, to the chefs and housekeepers and Lilla the laundry lady (Pretty Woman if you must know).
You’re drawn into the “family” of CroisiEurope crew and it’s up to you if you want to or not. But on this trip, everyone loved it, whatever their age or nationality.
The crew are part of the journey – and by the way, they all speak English.
It’s a bit Dirty Dancing for oldies
The staff, whether bar, wait or cleaners are also the entertainers. At dinner on the first night, the lights were turned off and the staff, one of them sporting a fluffy shark’s head hat (we never did find out why) sang happy birthday to evergreen Evelyn, whose 86th birthday it was. She was delighted and managed to blow out a candle and sparkler with ease. We all sang to her again. The ice was by now well and truly broken. The crew say they get a lot of groups celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, it’s a good place to celebrate.
By day two, strangers chatted to strangers. There was camaraderie at the quiz event. And when we were on a tour, people noticed if someone didn’t get back on the coach!
The tours are part of what make this such a fabulous holiday. CroisiEurope have been at it a long time and they’ve perfected things. They know what their audiences want and they have many types of audience. Boats cater for several types of guest – from once in a lifetime trips to the Antarctic, to river cruises in Europe.
Slow travel and food, glorious food
You can do as much or as little as you like. There are excursions available every day – sometimes two. They’re designed to take in the best of the area where you visit. On my trip we had a terrific guided tour of the Palais des Papes in Avignon. We took a thrilling coach ride through the Gorges of the Ardeche with stops at key observation spots such as the Pont d’Arc. Did wine tasting in Vercours and toured the Roman town of Vienne, either by Segway or on foot.
CroisiEurope’s cruises are all inclusive (except for some off-boat tours), from breakfast buffet to 3 course lunches and 4 course dinners plus traditional gala dinner. Wine and cocktails, spirits and soft drinks are included – with the bar open from 10 am to 1am. When you return from tours you’re handed a refreshing drink. Rooms are cleaned, beds made, the staff, every single one of them, were unfailingly friendly and welcoming.
The food is superb and served at table (we had one buffet lunch). Classic French dishes are their speciality. And, the chefs work as much as possible with local producers to source fresh, seasonal, local food. You don’t get a menu to choose from. The attitude is very much “maman cooks, the family eats.” But, they do vegan, vegetarian and gluten free alternatives. And if you don’t like a dish (menus are circulated the night before), just let the reception desk know and they’ll ask the chefs to make you something different.
The inclusive wine is excellent. A choice of reds, whites and rosés is on offer at lunch and dinner, plus a daily cocktail and shorts.
A great way to cruise
My conclusion was, a CroisiEurope river cruise in France is a trip that makes you smile. It’s perfect for couples and friends. You’ll relax, laugh, eat like a King, get to visit some beautiful places and experience slow travel in the best possible way.
CroisiEurope offers a number of Rhone itineraries from April to October. They also have itineraries across France including Paris to Honfleur, Provence and many more routes. For further information and reservations visit: www.croisieurope.co.uk
For loads of ideas for visits to France see: uk.france.fr/en