Just Back From French Wine Country

Our writer is just back from a French river cruise aboard the S.S. Catherine.

The pope’s palace in Avignon

Photo: Debbie Selinsky

I expected a French river cruise through wine country to be glamorous. I mean, who wouldn’t get caught up in gorgeous châteaux surrounded by lush vineyards and the aromatic, complex wines produced at nearby wineries? And don’t forget Van Gogh’s work in Arles, or hand-painted silk scarves.

And I was right. It was glamorous. And enlightening. And fun.

The only thing that could make an eight-day cruise from Avignon to Lyon better? How about a luxurious ship boasting an eclectic art collection, like the unique and colorful works by South African artist Richard Scott and a life-sized horse made of green Murano glass whose twin resides in Japan’s Imperial Palace. Or how about a staff of charming, sophisticated Europeans who remember your name and your favorite beverage, mouthwatering meals that reflect regional cuisine and include wine pairings, or staterooms and suites with cruise ship amenities like top-of-the line bedding and heated marble bathroom floors?

Toss in daily excursions led by local English-speaking experts, and you have the “Burgundy & Provence” cruise on the S.S. Catherine, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s second Super Ship. (The third, the S.S. Maria Theresa, launched in 2015; the fourth, the S.S. Joie de Vivre, sails out in 2017.)

Debbie Selinksy

Photo: Debbie Selinsky

The 159-guest Catherine illustrates that the distinct pleasures of river cruising are no longer the best-kept secret in the travel world. Because of the intimate size of river vessels and their increasingly luxurious accommodations—not to mention the inclusive fares—ocean cruisers are finding their way to voyages along some of the world’s most interesting rivers.

In the case of my spring French river cruise, we sailed on two rivers: the busy Rhone and the Saone, which meet near Lyon, the food capital of France. During our six-port journey, we went through 15 locks and enjoyed views from the sun deck. When not in port, guests enjoyed cooking demonstrations, enriching lectures, dips in the indoor pool, and treatments in the ship’s spa.

The land highlights of this French river cruise are too numerous to list, but one had to be a visit to the village—yes, it’s a village—of Viviers, which is reminiscent of the village featured in the movie Chocolat. Our outing took us to France’s smallest cathedral, 12th century Cathédrale Saint-Vincent de Viviers, for an organ recital by Valéry Imbernon.

A special surprise followed. Tour guide Frances Vandy, a native Briton who moved to Viviers in 1990, invited us for a visit to her home—a large, three-story brick structure that backs up to the former bishop’s palace. The older part of the home dates to the 1660s, and the “newer” part to the 1700s, she said. After wandering the Vandy’s mind-boggling home, we reached the kitchen at the top, which opened to a lush garden, where she and a cousin had set up wine, cheese and fruit for our group.

A sampling of the goodies at Lyon’s massive food market

Photo: Debbie Selinsky

Other notable excursions included visits to Avignon’s medieval Palais des Papes, part of the historic city center, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site; and the enticing Les Halles de Lyon-Paul Bocuse food market in Lyon.

Back on the ship, we relaxed and watched life in French wine country unfold along the rivers’ shores. We smelled the earth, sipped our wine and waved to locals—something we couldn’t have done from the ocean.

Float through France on a Uniworld Boutique River Cruise. Call 877-396-7159 to contact a AAA Travel Counselor or book online.

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Janice Yip-Hudson, AAA Travel Counselor, Daly City, Calif.

Today, people's lives are so busy. We're thinking three days ahead just to get through our to-do lists. I love helping my clients plan vacations where they have nothing to do but relax; where time stands still, and you're just on vacation.

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