Dennis and Rosamund Knill takes Verve on a cruise of a lifetime to the scenic waterways of Southern France on board a luxurious river boat.
Our arrival into Paris looms as a bright spot for two weary travellers from the other side of the world. Arriving two days before the start of our Tauck tour gives us the opportunity to recover from jet lag with two days devoted to sightseeing on foot. From the Bastille to the Eiffel Tower, to the Opera House to the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre and on to the Notre Dame—this is Paris at its best
Masterminding the complexities of dealing with 80 guests at our hotel is the role of our tour directors as they mingle with fellow travellers for a welcoming dinner at the renowned Fouquet’s Brasserie. Soon everyone is chatting freely, most are Americans so it’s very relaxed and friendships quickly form. This is going to be a unique experience for those that enjoy good food, good wine and good company.
Transferring to Lyon is theoretically simple. A two-hour leisurely journey on a high speed train to the dock. First glance is a typical modern mega river boat, she is long slender and sophisticated and her name is MS Emerald. Recently refurbished, this five-star, 110-metre floating palace comes with indescribable luxury that is light years away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world.
The forty-nine air conditioned cabins are fitted out with superior bedding and linen, pillows, duvets and towels. The décor is rich but not gaudy with a sense of spaciousness including a writing desk, Wi-Fi, cable TV, safe, mini bar, floor to ceiling windows, balconies, en-suite bathroom (complete with Molton Brown toiletries), hairdryers, bathrobes, slippers and plenty of wardrobe space to accommodate all your belongings.
The ships amenities include two restaurants with cuisine spoilt for choice, a fitness centre, jacuzzi, health centre and spa, putting green and a large covered sundeck where you can watch the passing scenery or while away the time with kindred spirits. Gratuities and shore excursions are all inclusive in the package.
Lyon is the food capital of France with the most extraordinary history. We find ourselves walking along narrow cobbled streets and hidden medieval passages. But the city’s focal point is the Basilica of Notre Dame, with stunning views over the city. Within the commercial hub of Lyon is the Paul Bocuse Les Halle’s Market selling the region’s most famous high end food produce, air dried meats, sensational cheeses, gateaux, pastries, pates, chocolates and fresh fruit.
We renew our acquaintance with the region’s wines and cheeses with a visit to La Logere, one of the oldest vineyards in the famed Beaujolais wine region for a wine tasting before stopping stopping of at Oingt. Dubbed one of the most beautiful villages in France, we wander through the narrow cobblestone streets lined with 16th-century dwellings, vine-trellised courtyards and flower filled tubs—so picture perfect!
Finally we bid adieu to Lyon, the bow nudges the calm waters as we begin our epic journey gliding majestically down the Rhone. Pressed up against the rails of our balcony admiring the view it could well have been a masterpiece painting by Claude Monet.
Viviers is our next port of call, an episcopal town dating back to the fifth century. Its old quarter clusters at the foot of a massive but unfinished Romanesque cathedral with a rather beautiful interior, terraced with superb views that alone are worth the climb.
Following a delicious lunch relaxing on the top deck we learn how the Rhone has been tamed by a series of locks that fill with amazing speed. As much as a novelty passing through the first one it soon becomes a non-event.
As the morning mist clears we dock at Arles, a place Van Gogh immortalised in his paintings and where regular bullfights are staged in the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre. The more adventurous opt for a 20km cycling tour through the country while others meander through the winding streets and shady squares. In the afternoon we travel by the coach to Camargue, a 780-sq-km delta famous for its rice fields, white horses and thoroughbred bulls. We are lunching at a private Spanish ranch owned by the Laurent family. Our arrival is met by the entire family mounted on white steeds looking resplendent in their traditional costumes with the gypsies serenading us.
Next port of call is Avignon. It’s mid-evening and we install ourselves on the Sundeck with a cognac and berries flambé as the captain heads the boat towards the famous Pont Saint Benezet, the illuminated wall of the city and bridges is spectacular. “Anyone for a free ride on the ferris wheel where you will have amazing views of the city?” asks our tour director. A few of us are brave enough to take the challenge. This is just another treat that Tauck surprised us with, just like the bottle of truffle oil we found in our cabin and many other gastronomic delights.A new day looms and we take a mini-train tour through the streets of Avignon for an orientation tour. The city is encircled by a 4km imposing wall complete with parapets and towers dating back to 1360. Apart from the massive medieval palace of the Palais des Papes the pleasure is wandering the narrow cobbled streets lined with buildings crammed together like old books on a library shelf and the café filled squares and classy boutiques.
After a chocolate truffle presentation we head off to Uzes where our coach is taking us to the restored Chateau Duchy D’Uzes for a cocktail reception and dinner. In the courtyard we sip champagne and nibble on canapes while a string quartet plays in the background before making our way to our candlelight dinner in an enchanted walled garden. Tables set with white tablecloths, the mingled scents of flowers, the soft night air is hauntingly beautiful, this will be a night that no one would ever forget.
The next day we travel by coach through the Luberon. Before we arrive at Rousillon we have a photo stop to capture a view of one of the most stunningly beautiful villages in France. Gordes is a little village that seems literally to have grown from the cliff on which it stands, this tiered village is crowned by an 11th-century chateau and is a photographer’s dream. Then onto Roussillon, population 1200. It’s ochre earth originally used as a pottery glaze and as we note, the colour of the earth dictates the colour of the houses. We stroll down the narrow streets of the very pretty old quarter experiencing the texture of life as lived by the locals and stopping off to peruse the Provencal crafts spilling out from the cute shop.
Following the course of the upper Rhone the grandeur of the landscape is breathtaking. From the highest peaks the terrain slopes sharply towards the river in a terraced cascade. And there are pastures of grapevines for as far as the eye can see. No surprise as 60 percent of the world’s wine is produced from the region of Chateauneuf-du Pape.
Ms Emerald moors alongside a private jetty and a coach ride to Le verge de Papes located on the terrace above the ruins of an ancient castle for another wine tasting. Having tasted some of the best French wines since we embarked on this adventure we have become connoisseurs. Our final day is at Tain l’Hermitage and we are primed for a busy morning. The town sits like an amphitheatre descending from the hills above and as the petit train winds up and around the steep hills forever scorched by the sun with their verdant grapevines the show of nature is spectacular. The valley scenery is striking and one can imagine how the farmers tending the vineyards spend entire days outdoors in this peaceful agricultural setting.
Back on the coach and we travel to Valence home of the cooking school Scook, owned by Anne-Sophie Pic, a Michelin-star chef, where we participate in a cooking demonstration and a wine and cheese pairing.
It isn’t easy saying au revoir to MS Emerald. This magnificent ship had been our home for seven memorable days. We wonder what the French meaning for unrivalled is? Sans égal seemed altogether too purposeful.
Need To Know
Getting There: Travelling to France can be a long and arduous journey so in terms of wellbeing, comfort and service, Singapore Airlines go to the extreme when flying their passengers to the other side of the world. Their aircraft are new, the choice of food and wine exemplary as is the entertainment system. Singapore Airlines operate a daily service out of Auckland to Singapore and beyond.