Thursday: My first European river cruise experience began with an easy journey by rail with Eurostar from Ebbsfleet to Lille where I connected with a TGV to Lyon.
On arrival Lyon Part Dieu railway station I was met by a chauffeur (all part of Tauck’s seamlessall-inclusive* package) and transferred to “Swiss Emerald”, which would remain berthed at Lyon until 1830 the following day.
* A very important point to make is that Tauck pays all its employees a living wage – so tipping is not only unnecessary but discouraged!
Within five minutes of boarding I was ensconced in my Category 3 stateroom which, with its floor-to-ceiling windows was more comfortable and better equipped than most accommodation I have experienced aboard large ocean-going cruise ships.
I was then free to explore this beautifully furnished ship until the Champagne Welcome Reception at 1800 in the Panorama Lounge where we met the Captain, the Cruise Director Nick, our Tour Directors, Aurore and Denise, and were introduced to senior members of the ship’s various departments.
After which, following the customary safety briefing, we made our way to The Compass Rose Dining room (open seating) for dinner – our first experience of the amazingly varied gastronomic delights that were to be such a feature of our river odyssey.
The En-suite televisions have two movie channels and two different films are shown several times a day – including, on this cruise) such classics as “Marie Antoinette”,“Chocolat”,“Skyfall”, “War Horse” and “Les Miserables”.
And there is live music in the Panorama Lounge every evening.
The ship has a Bistro with a smaller, but nonetheless delightful menu, open for Luncheon and dinner every day (it was here that I had the best burger I have ever tasted and Crevettes Provencale that were to die for!).
For those not wanting the sumptuous breakfast offered in the main dining room 0700-0900), The Bistro provides continental breakfast from 0600-1000 daily.
Friday: A guided sightseeing tour of Lyon by coach included visits to the mediaeval Vieux Lyon, the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere and a chance to explore some of the old town’s secret pedestrian passages (traboules). The tour finished with a tour to the amazing Les Halles (market) for a food and wine-tasting.
All Tauck guests are provided with portable listening devices to take on tours – which enable one to hear every word spoken by the guide, without having to be huddled together in a crowd.
After Luncheon aboard ship, there was a guided excursion (one hour by coach) to the Beaujolais District for a wine-tasting at Chateau de la Chaize, followed by a tour of the Priory of Salles.
For those not wishing to take part in excursions, Tauck provides bicycles for those who prefer to explore on their own.
“Swiss Emerald” left Lyon at 1830 for the 166 km journey to Viviers (passing through a total of 8 locks) arriving at 0615 the following morning.
Entertainment this evening was provided by a wonderful French jazz singer, Yasmina.
Different guest musicians, artists and lecturers join the ship at various points throughout the cruise.
Saturday: A guided walking tour of Viviers (one of the best-preserved mediaeval towns in France) was followed with an introduction to (and had the opportunity to take part in) the French national game of Petanque (similar to Boules).
The ship left Viviers at 1330 for Arles (118 kms and 4 locks) – one of which, the Bollene Lock, is the deepest on the Rhone with a fall/rise of 76 feet! It was an amazing experience sitting on deck in the sun as the water level dropped and the ship descended into the vast concrete cavern
This afternoon Aurore gave an extremely interesting presentation on the history and origins of “Nougat of Montelimar” – complete with delicious samples!
After dinner, the Bar Manager, Gabor, treated us to a cocktail making demonstration in the Panorama Lounge – displaying talents that rivalled those of Tom Cruise in “Cocktail”!
Sunday: A guided walking tour of Arles visited the Roman Arena and places where Vincent Van Gogh lived and painted.
After Lunch on board, the energetic had the opportunity to power-walk 2 miles to the Alyscamp Roman Necropolis (the final section or ancient Rome’s famous Aurelian Way) or take a leisurely bicycle ride.
A fascinating presentation by Denise this afternoon took us back to the Paris of the 1920s.
This evening we left the ship at 1700 for a one-hour coach trip to the Duchy D’Uzes where we dined at the 11th-century home of the Duc d’Uzes. On arrival at the chateau we were greeted with an open-air reception where cocktails and canapés were served to the accompaniment of an accomplished string trio.
A truly magical experience.
While we were dining at the chateau, “Swiss Emerald” travelled the 40 kms to Avignon where we rejoined her after dinner.
Monday: This morning we were taken on a guided tour of the historical walled city of Avignon culminating with a visit to the Palais du Papes (the city was home to the papacy from 1309-1377). For those not interested in visiting the Palais du Papes there was a 45-minute mini-train tour of the city.
After luncheon we left by coach for a guided tour of the Pont du Gard – a remarkable example of ancient Roman construction and hydraulic engineering. The three-level bridge spanning the river Gardon carries the longest surviving portion of the 50 Km aqueduct built by the Romans to supply the ancient city of Nimes with water.
With the ship remaining in Avignon overnight many of us took the opportunity to take a leisurely stroll through the city after dinner.
Tuesday: .This morning a coach tour through the scenic hills of Luberon- passing through the quaint hilltop town of Gordes en route to Roussillon – famous for its large deposit of ochre. Although no longer mined – the open cast ochre mines have been preserved as an historical site. Walking among the richly coloured outcrops of brilliant red, orange, yellow and brown ochre deposits was well worth the effort.
At 1300 the ship left for Chateauneuf du Pape – 28 miles away passing through just one lock en route.
A local accordion player was on board during the trip entertaining us on the forward sun deck with music that captured the essence of France.
Later in the afternoon our cruise director gave a short presentation, with the aid of a fascinating vintage slide show, celebrating Tauck’s 91 years.
This was followed by a short 2-hour coach trip to Les Vergers du Papes for a wine-tasting.
Dinner was served slightly earlier this evening to allow the crew to prepare for the hugely entertaining Crew Show (the best show on the Rhone!) which took place in the Panorama Lounge. It really was hilarious to see the people who were looking after us so well throwing themselves into their ‘performances’ with such gusto.
We passed on dessert at dinner as, prior to the Crew Show, Bettina, “Swiss Emerald’s” accomplished dessert and pastry chef was cooking and serving delicious Crepes Suzette in the lounge!
The ship sailed through the night to Tain l’Hermitage.
Wednesday: This morning we travelled from Tain l’Hermitage by coach to Valence – the home of “Scook” – the renowned cooking school owned and operated by France’s only 3-star female chef, Anne Sophie Pic – where we took part in a cooking demonstration and learned about cheese and wine pairing.
On the way back to the ship we were dropped off at the famous chocolate store “Chocolatier Valhrona” – just 650 metres from the ship – where we able to sample (and purchase) from a staggering array of confectionery.
Before the ship sailed at 1630 to return (all too soon!) to our starting point, Lyon (91 kms and 4 locks), there was an opportunity to work off lunch with a walk across the bridge to Tournon and visit the Garden of Eden with its wonderful views of the valley or take a last bicycle ride along the banks of the Rhone.
Before dinner this evening there was a farewell reception in the lounge with a chance to thank the entire ship’s crew from Captain to dishwasher for looking after us so well.
Thursday: We disembarked after breakfast and were taken by private car to Lyon Part Dieu rail station for the train journey home. Guests flying home were transferred to the airport and those extending their stay in Lyon were transferred to their hotels.
I have been in the travel industry for more than half-a-century and this trip with Tauck was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my peregrinations.
Tauck’s organisation is second to none and every little detail is taken care of – all I had to do was relax and enjoy being pampered by some of the friendliest people I have ever encountered.
Senior Travel Consultant