Can you imagine anything more romantic than a luxury French river cruise on the Rhône? Immerse yourself in the sheer beauty of the French countryside, the alluring little towns full of historic and cultural sights or the endless charming vistas of Provence. This is South of France at its finest.
Like an enchantress, France pleases all the aesthetic senses. Add its food and wine to the mix, the sound of its bewitching language and the sight of its seductive landscapes, and you can envision France as one of Europe's most indulging destinations. And what can be more indulgent than a luxury French river cruise with daily activities included in your itinerary so you can experience an all-rounded romantic trip?
Avalon Waterways got us on board of their Active and Discovery river cruise on the Rhône, so we can experience South of France in a magical week. Here's the overview of our trip to help you understand what to expect from a French river cruise.
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What to expect from a French River Cruise
In one single sentence: expect a memorable holiday! A river cruise is a unique experience, where you get to visit several cities and towns located along the river.
Portrait this: having dinner at sunset while admiring the beautiful river banks in France. Or imagine being in bed with your loved one, looking out throught the large windows of your panorama suite as the cruise is sailing. You will see quaint towns, stunning bridges and sometimes, you'll see the moon reflected in the water. With the windows fully open, you'll feel the cooling breeze on a hot summer evening, while you'll be sipping wine. It's not just a romantic feeling, it's a transcendent experience, where you feel connected with your surroundings.
So why should you go on a river cruise? Because you'll be in a charming and cosy environment with other like-minded passengers from all over the world. It's a chance to make connections, meet new people, exchange ideas and ultimately, make new friends. We know we did. A river cruise to us, personally, was like a fun road trip around South of France, but without us having to drive. We woke up in new places, discovered new locations and participated in group activities.
On a French river cruise with Avalon Waterways, you have to expect good service, good food and good wine. You'll be spoilt for choices and be well taken care of. What was great for us, were the included activities we had on a daily basis: to be active, to discover or to just chill on the ship. We could socialise with others, or have a quiet, romantic afternoon, just the two of us. We could dance and sing along in the evening, or just cuddle up and admire the quaint French towns located along the river bank as we glided on the water.
French River Cruise with Avalon Waterways
Avalon Waterways was our first river cruise so we had no idea what to expect from this experience. If you don't know, Avalon Waterways is a river cruise company offering cruises in Europe, Southeast Asia, South America and the Galapagos. They are well known for their active itineraries which are included in the price.
Avalon Waterways differentiates itself from its competitors with its incredible suite views, featuring jaw-dropping Panorama suites with the widest opening windows. Excited for impressive vistas, we couldn't wait to see how our river cruise looks like. Turns out, it's like an intimate, luxury boutique hotel on water. We immediately knew we were going to have a fantastic week together.
Overview of the ship
Our ship on the river Rhône was called Avalon Poetry II. The ship was built in 2014 and it features 12 staterooms and 52 suites. The ship features two full decks of suites, a fitness centre, a spacious Sky Deck with lounge chairs, a whirlpool, the gorgeous Panorama Bistro and the Sky Bistro so you can mix and match where you enjoy your breakfast and lunch.
The river Rhône is quite tamed, featuring several locks along the route. Where possible, we recommend going on the sky deck to see how incredible human engineering really is. It's a unique river cruising experience. And if you have the chance, why not create a quick time-lapse of it on your phone. It will be a nice little memory.
As previously mentioned our ship featured 12 staterooms and 52 suites. We stayed in one of the panorama suites which is candidly recommended for everyone who wants a magnificent view. Avalon Waterways has designed a wall made of windows, offering an incredible floor to ceiling view. It is 30% larger than its competitors, making the panorama suites worth every penny. Of course, they open to some of France's most inspiring views so get your camera ready.
Unlike other cruises, Avalon Waterways offers what they call an open-air balcony, essentially not separating your stateroom from an outdoor patio. Your views are not obstructed in the slightest as the furniture in the room has a low profile. You can be in bed and look out at the wall to wall view. If you fancy some privacy when you arrive in a port, simply pull the heavy curtains and dance naked in what we think it's the most beautiful, moving hotel room ever.
There might not be such as thing as Alladin's magic carpet, but Avalon Waterways sure thought of making a magic hotel room which just sails you around in luxury and comfort.
The food and drinks
When river cruising in France, you can expect an array of amazing dishes which you can savour day after day. French wines, French cheeses and meals carefully crafted with local ingredients by a talented chef. We were spoilt.
At the beginning of the cruise, we were told that our chef will be available to take any special requests to ensure everyone's needs are well catered for. We were told we'll have a daily vegetarian option on the menu, but we can discuss with the chef if we need vegan meals as well.
Breakfast is served in the dining room or on the Panorama Bistro. You can decide where to eat. There is a breakfast buffet available with options to suit all tastes. There is an egg station where one of the chefs will make the eggs according to your liking. There are teas and coffees available, as well as vegan drinks or lactose-free milk for those with special dietary requirements. You can enjoy bacon, hash browns, salads, cheeses, a variety of pastry items (including fluffy French croissants) and cereals. Almost daily, you can order waffles or special poached eggs if that's more suitable for your taste. For those who want a touch of glamour, champagne breakfast is available every morning.
Overall, a great breakfast experience to get your day started.
Lunch is served in the dining room or on the Panorama Bistro, same as the breakfast. There are printed menus for the lunch options, alongside the daily wines. You can pick between a local white, red or rose. Most wines were specially curated to match the food on the menu. If you happen to not like the wine, you can ask the staff to provide you with an alternative. There is always an option to satisfy your taste.
A buffet lunch is served with a daily special offered at the chef station. There is also a carving station with ever-changing meaty options for carnivores and salads with local dressings for herbivores. The menu changes every single day, so no two lunches will be the same. This gives guests the option to explore local culinary delighted, crafted with love by the expert chefs.
The real gastro experience on the French river cruise is the dinner. Dinner is slightly more formal, where guests are seated and served a full course from the a la carte menu. There are whites, reds and rose wines to pick from, alongside other non-alcoholic options.
Dinner starts with Hors d'oeuvre, consisting of fresh bread and various dips. Expect tapenade, butter, vegetable spreads and more. Every evening you will have two options to experiment with. One of the waiters will provide you with a menu so you can pick three courses: a starter, the soup and the main.
The starter is usually a small salad with local cheeses and fruits. You can find fruit cocktails on the menu as well. The soup is either a creamy dish or a consomme for those who prefer their soup lighter, clearer. The main offers a choice of fish, meat or vegetarian.
If for any reasons the menu doesn't inspire you, there are back-up options: for starters, you can order a caesar salad and for the main, you can go for chicken breast or steak.
Once you finished your dinner with free-flowing wine, there is also a choice of indulgent desserts. Pick from fruit salads, local cheeses served with nuts and crackers, ice cream or the healthy choice of the day.
Allocate around two hours for your dinner, relax, socialise and admire the gorgeous evening views.
There are 37 crew members of the ship and you will get to meet most of them at the beginning of the cruise. The service was fantastic and we really enjoyed talking to them. We liaised with the Maître d'hôtel and talked to him almost on a daily basis which was very pleasant and informative as we got to learn quite a lot about how the cruise operates. Turns out, it's quite a lot of effort that goes into making the river cruise as seamless as it is for guests.
We appreciated the candour of the cleaning staff, who always smiled and wishes us a happy good morning on a daily basis. The waiters were clearly well trained to deal with the guests, as very apt in making conversation with us on a variety of topics.
The reception (especially during late evenings) were great at dealing with requests to ensure we enjoy our stay and we have a fantastic night sleep.
The daily program
Included in the Active and Discovery river cruises with Avalon Waterways, there are daily experiences to suit all tastes, requirements and fitness levels. On a daily basis, you can pick from an active venture or a more mellow classic discovery of the local port. We wanted to do a combination of both.
In the evening, there is free time to explore on your own, or sometimes, you can opt-in for some optional excursions which offer something truly unique.
Some afternoons, before dinner you can participate in some light activities on the sky deck with the head of adventure lady, who will guide you in some soft yoga, for example.
After dinner, there is dance and live music daily to further social bonds and have a bit of fun.
Whatever your desire, you won't be starved for activities as you will have plenty of things to do. And just in case you truly wish to simply sit back and relax doing your cruise, you can absolutely do that as well. There is wifi available throughout the ship, so you can catch up with work on the go, or you can chill with your loved ones in the quiet lounge, where you can indulge in tea, coffee and sweet delights while playing a game of Trivial Pursuit or good old Monopoly.
Active and Discovery French River Cruise Itinerary
Still not entirely sure about how the active and discovery river cruise works? Let us tell you a little bit about it. Every single morning, after breakfast, you will have the chance to pick a suitable activity to enjoy. It can be something active, like hiking or riding a bike, or it can be something cultural, like a food tour, short city walk with a guide or a cooking class. The choice is absolutely yours.
Before you board the river cruise, we recommend that you download the "Avalon Go" app so you can familiarise yourself with all the options. You can (and should) prebook everything in advance, including any optional excursions. If for any reason you are unsure about something, on the second evening on the cruise you can watch an in-depth presentation given by the cruise director, who will explain more about each activity. You can then simply pick what you want to do for the rest of the week.
We created an itinerary to suit our time together, with a mix of both active and discovery experiences. Here's what we did on our French river cruise, with a day by day itinerary.
Day 1 - Lyon (embarkation)
This is the day we've been waiting for! Boarding the superb Avalon Waterways river cruise. It is recommended that all flights arrive in Lyon before 3:30 pm as all guests should be on the ship by 5 pm. You'll enjoy a welcome drink and a presentation from the cruise director to introduce the ship, the experience and the staff.
Have the first dinner experience on the river cruise and get to know other passengers as well. After dinner, you can join a quick evening guided tour by bus around Lyon, which is included in your itinerary. You'll be docking in Lyon for the night.
Day 2 - Lyon
Lyon is a colourful city, known as the gastronomic capital of France. With that in mind, you can expect narrow streets lined with eateries and bistros, as well as shops selling mouth-watering French produce.
After breakfast, you can join one of the following included activities:
Active: A guided urban hike through Lyon's secret passageways
Discovery: A guided culinary walk where you get to experience some of Lyon's special produce
Discovery: A cooking class where you can learn how to make something truly local.
We wanted to indulge in the local food and drinks, so we did the guided culinary walk around the streets of Lyon. It enabled us to take an array of fantastic photos and try a few things we didn't even know about. We learned about local cheeses, meats and surprising wines and beverages. Lyon is meant to represent a festival of aromas and tastes and that's what we wanted to discover.
After lunch, you have some optional activities which can be booked at an extra fee.
Optional Activites: Lyon rooftops or mountain bike excursion through the Beaujolais wine country.
We opted for the Lyon rooftops as we couldn't wait to see the city from above. We love taking drone photos but given that Lyon is a huge residential area, we, of course, couldn't fly our drone. Thus, we decided to climb a few private and public terraces and enjoy a bird's eye view of the city from the celebrated Basilica de Fourviere.
Day 3 - Tain L'Hermitage / Tournon
What is beautiful about this location is that our river cruise was literally in-between these two towns, separated by a bridge. So in one day, you can explore both places and take a myriad of beautiful photos around.
Vineyard hills adorn the horizon of both these towns, making them the perfect escapade for French wine lovers. Should wine not be on the radar today, worry not, as Tournon is famed for its Valrhona Chocolate Factory which offers a unique chocolate making experience.
Active: Guided excursion on a rail bike along Gorges du Doux
Active: Join a guided hike in the twin cities of Tournon and Tain L'Hermitage (in pursuit of vineyards and wine tasting)
Discovery: Have a chocolate experience and learn how to make your own bar of chocolate. Then join a tasting experience and discover how to properly taste chocolate in four simple steps.
Classic: Take a guided sightseeing tour in the twin cities of Tournon and Tain L'Hermitage and discover its 16th-century castle and Roman ruins
On this day we decided to mix two activities: we did the chocolate experience first thing in the morning, then we took an hour to ourselves to explore both towns. We did so at a brisk pace, but it was enough to see some of the highlights.
After lunch, you can join an included discovery cooking class demonstration on the river cruise, hosted by a local chef. You'll be sailing towards Viviers in due course.
After dinner, Avalon Waterways had another included activity: a guided nighttime ghost story tour around Viviers. You can discover its legends, tales and some of its ghosts (quite literally).
Day 4 - Viviers
Viviers is a very cute town with quaint narrow alleyways and cute townhouses. Viviers retains an important heritage from its rich past, including many listed monuments.
Active: Take a guided kayak trip in the Gorges de l'Ardèche
Active: Take a guided hike around the region to discover some incredible natural reserves
Active: Join an underground wine tasting and meet a speleologist and an oenologist. Taste local wine ages in this very cave.
Discovery: Visit a crocodile farm and walk around gorgeous botanical gardens
Classic: Visit the water facilities at Bollene and tour the power plant with Europe's deepest Lock.
We really wanted to participate in the kayak trip, but sadly it was all fully booked. We were a little disappointed as we wanted something active and fun on the water. However, in the end, we decided to take the morning off for ourselves and explore Viviers in all its splendour. We took some pictures, learnt about its history and took some footage around the town. We hiked up to the ruins where we could get this incredible vista of Vivier's rooftops.
We heard feedback from people who went on both the kayak trip and the underground wine tour and both groups had great fun. Next time we are on the French river cruise, we'll make sure to book these particular activities in advance. Overall, we couldn't fault our day in Viviers as we had a lot of fun together, taking romantic strolls and basking in the sun.
Day 5 - Avignon
Avignon is the designated capital of Provence, so we couldn't wait to meander around the city and explore some of its markets and shop in the little boutiques. We docked right in the centre, with incredible views of the city's old town. The whole old town is surrounded by a well-preserved wall, making us feel like we are about to enter King's Landing.
Active: Join an e-bike ride through the Gard region. You can enjoy a wine tasting experience during the tour.
Discovery: Visit an authentic farmhouse and learn how essential oils are created.
Classic: Take a guided sightseeing tour of Avignon including to the world's largest fortress and explore Les Halles covered market.
For the morning, we decided to join the classic tour at another passenger recommendation who visited Avignon before. We learnt about local history, the gorgeous fortress and the old town. We also explored the covered market, where we could purchase local produce and try a few specialities. We bought a big bouquet of lavender which was beautifully wrapped in paper for us. Avignon was a spectacle to our senses, especially first thing in the morning when we had all the narrow alleyways to ourselves.
En route back to the cruise, we went to visit Pont d'Avignon, the famed ruins of a medieval bridge.
After lunch, you have three optional excursions you can join for a small fee. You can visit the Châteauneuf-du-Pape for a wine tasting experience followed by a beautiful promenade around Châteauneuf-du-Pape town. Alternatively, you can take a kayak excursion through the waters of Pont du Gard which is the highest of all Roman aqueducts.
We joined the Châteauneuf-du-Pape excursion which is an absolute must on this river cruise. I cannot express how much we loved it. We learnt about wine blending techniques and we tasted some lovely wines. Of course, we were shown how to do a proper tasting of French wine and what are the key elements we should look out for.
After our wine tasting, we went to Châteauneuf-du-Pape to visit a beautiful village with stunning vistas, surrounded by endless vineyards and romantic sights. It was a truly enjoyable summer afternoon in Provence, with the right elements, views and company.
Day 6 - Arles
There is a good reason why Van Gogh decided to reside in Arles and that's because this stunning city is absolutely fantastic. Walking around town was such a pleasurable experience, seeing all those cosy streets, the little bistros and the souvenir shops. To us, Arles was the real soul of Provence, as we always imagined South of France.
Take a stroll around the city and visit the gorgeous, well preserved Roman Amphitheatre. Every summer since 1970, the Rencontres d'Arles is the first international festival of Photography hosted in Arles. So as you walk around the city, expect to find an array of stunning photographs as well as exhibitions which are a must-see.
Active: Guided Hike around Val d'Enfer with its unique limestone formations and stunning vista points. The guide is followed by a magical audio-visual experience of lights and images at the Carrières de Lumières. Carrières de Lumières is a former quarry, now transformed into a canvas for art-based multimedia shows, projecting images of famous paintings. When we visited, there was the Van Gogh year followed by Japanese projections. Every year there is a new painter to be celebrated here at Carrières de Lumières.
Discovery: Attend a painting workshop and learn how to make your own Van Gogh masterpiece.
Classic: Take a sightseeing tour around Arles to get to know this charming town.
This morning, my husband and I were very undecided. We both wanted to attend the painting class but we also wanted to experience an active hike and enjoy the Carrières de Lumières. In the end, after serious consideration, we decided to go for the active tour. Wow, the best decision ever, as the hike itself was fun, refreshing and rewarding, with some seriously stunning viewing points. The Carrières de Lumières was so magical, we can't even find the right words to describe it. Imagine yourself walking into a famous painting. You can see it, hear it, live it. It was phenomenal.
The evening offered two optional excursions available to book for an extra fee: A guided excursion around the natural salt marsh of Salin d'Aigues-Mortes with the gorgeous pink waters of the Camargue. Alternatively, you could join an olive oil tasting experience with a visit to a charming local town Les Baux-de-Provence.
We wanted to experience a French olive oil tasting so we went for that optional excursion. We learnt about how olive oil is made and what is the difference between virgin and extra virgin olive oil. We tasted several oils with a clear explanation about how they are made and what makes them special. We couldn't resist not buying a whole litre of extra virgin olive oil from Provence.
Les Baux-de-Provence was also outstanding. A small, quaint town, located on the top of the hill with incredible vista points all around it. Lines with shops and boutiques, Les Baux-de-Provence is the perfect place for a souvenir from France. You can purchase oils, wines, special soups, lavender essential oils and all sort of sweets. The visit to Les Baux-de-Provence was a trip to remember, and it looked like a true small town from Provence. En route back to the river cruise, we passed a series of small, gorgeous towns, one of which is known to have various movie stars as residents including the quirky Englishman, Hugh Grant.
Day 7 - Port Saint Louise
Oysters, flamingos and endless fine beaches, Port Saint Louise has long been on people's bucket lists due to its incredible location in the Camargue Natural Regional Park. The Regional Natural Park of Camargue is located on the edge of the Mediterranean, inside the Rhone delta, mainly between the two arms of the river. In the morning, you have a few activities to pick from.
Active: Join a guided walk through the Camargue National Park. You'll have the chance to see marshlands and a variety of flora and fauna, including flamingos.
Active: Take a guided bike tour through the Camargue National Park and enjoy the morning breeze as you see all those beautiful bird species all around you.
Discovery: Indulge in the local culinary life and visit an oyster farm where you'll learn about oysters. Of course, your visit will be rewarded with a fantastic feast of oysters, clams and delicious local wine.
We are big oyster lovers, so we absolutely couldn't miss the chance to visit an oyster farm and learn how these delicacies are grown. We were happy we did so, as our tour started with a visit to the local delta where we got to walk on the beach and breathe in the gorgeous air of the Mediterranean sea. It was a relaxing morning, where we all stretched and dipped our feet in the sea. Refreshed, we made our way to the oyster farm to learn about oysters and, of course, taste them!
During lunch, the ship made its way back to Arles. As an optional tour, guests could join a guided bus tour of Marseille. Since we were pretty tired from the morning, we decided to take some time to just relax on the sky desk, sunbathe a little and just simply be with one another.
Alas, we couldn't believe that was our last evening on the ship, so we made sure to allocate some extra time to really take it easy during dinner and reflect on this fantastic experience.
Day 8 - Arles (disembarkation)
Last day on the cruise ends with breakfast on the ship. We had a set time to vacate our staterooms, although the staff kindly offered to either help us get to the airports or to store our luggage until lunchtime. Since our flight was due to leave from Marseille late in the evening, we left our luggage at the reception and decided to walk around Arles one last time.
For lunch, we found a small bistro which specialises in oysters and seafood and ended up ordering as many oysters as we could possibly eat. We ended the morning with a stroll around the city and a few stops in some fashion boutiques. Well-fed, and with shopping in France completed, we made our way to the river cruise to pick up our luggage and say our goodbyes.
We wouldn't have thought, in a million years, that we'll ever join a French river cruise. But what a missed opportunity that would have been. This river cruise might have been the first-ever cruise we ever took, but it was, most certainly, not the last.
To book your cruise visit the official Avalon Waterways website. They offer a variety of active and discovery cruises so you can pick the country of choice.
If you are wondering what type of cruise clothing to get for your trip, click here for a detailed post.
For more information about practical information, please read this documentation kindly created by Avalon Waterways.
Avalon Waterways partnered up with You Could Travel in order to take professional photographs and create videos, as well as promote Avalon Waterways on our platforms. Avalon Waterways hired us on a basis that we will provide honest, unbiased opinions of their services which is exactly what we've done. We were very much impressed with our French river cruise and couldn't stop recommending it to family and friends since. We are now inviting you to book your next adventure with Avalon Waterways, in order to experience the true spirit of what is like to embark on an active and discovery European River Cruise.