One of Europe’s great waterways, it meanders through ancient cities, amazing landscapes – and the local wine isn’t bad either.
Lazing on the bed in my cosy cabin aboard A-Rosa Stella, I am momentarily puzzled. It’s getting darker and darker and yet it’s midday here in the South of France as we make our way down the Rhone from the Roman town of Orange to Avignon. So what’s going on? And then it sinks in (almost literally, you might say): we’re in a lock and going down to the next level.
I have been in locks before but never on the scale of this one. It’s rather thrilling: my cabin has a wide French balcony from which I’d been admiring the view and now I have a close-up of the stonework. I could touch it if I reached out. It’s like being in a gigantic elevator.
This proved to be just one of many new experiences during my trip on the Rhone, not least of which was the wonderful river itself. But the fun started before I even left home, thanks to the A-Rosa limousine that turned up at my front door and whisked me to the airport (all included in the fare).
Feeling suitably spoiled, I arrived at Lyon in time to enjoy lunch on board. As we passengers walked up the gangplank, each of us was handed a rose by a member of staff. This is A-Rosa, after all, and the eponymous bloom is everywhere (the decorated bow is not just a pleasing bit of branding, it helps you find your way back after an excursion ashore).
A rose by any other name would still be a nice ship, but touches like this do help you feel at home.
Speaking of which, my cabin proved a lovely place to be, with a comfortable double bed, en-suite bathroom and that lovely balcony from which I could watch the world float by.
Those who simply want to admire the scenery need never leave the ship: there is a bar-cum-lounge, a restaurant and a spa (though if you use the sauna, be aware that A-Rosa is a German company, and they’re a people who love to get their kit off whenever possible). There is also a pool and sun deck, which closes when the ship is approaching a low bridge (almost as exciting as those locks).
Cruising aboard Stella felt like an incredibly soothing way to travel, though when we passed famous landmarks the sound system would perk up, telling us where we were and what we should be looking at. Announcements were made in English as well as German – a sign of the company’s desire to broaden its customer base.
Tempting as it was to stay on board, this is a beautiful part of the world and numerous excursions were laid on. The first of these was to Orange, which, if I’ve got my history right, gave us William, Prince of Orange, aka William III. Today the town is famous for its beautifully preserved Roman theatre, which is said to be the finest in Europe, and which is still in use for an annual opera festival.
Orange is undoubtedly lovely, but for me the highlight of the whole holiday was Avignon. Nothing beats your first glimpse of the famous bridge, though anyone hoping to stand “sur le pont d’Avignon” should note that only four arches remain, and the structure comes to an abrupt halt about a quarter of the way into the river. But never mind – it’s still beautiful, and a magnet for selfie-snapping tourists.
The town itself is charming – redolent of history and full of cobbled alleyways, chic shops and agreeable cafés. Dominating them all is the stunning Palais des Papes, a gothic masterpiece and UNESCO World Heritage Site that was home to the Pope in the fourteenth century. Our walking tour included too many landmarks to describe but I enjoyed a promenade along the medieval city wall before a quick aperitif at the Hotel d’Europe – one of the oldest in France – and a rummage through a vintage shop, where I found a lovely Chanel necklace.
The city has a famous food hall, too, packed with fresh produce and specialities of the area such as lavender, honey, the most delicious chocolate and, of course, wine (don’t miss the local rosé).
But Avignon is not the only attraction around here. From the same mooring you can take off in the opposite direction for a Land Rover safari into the Camargue, that vast and wild wetland south of Arles.
You’ll soon see the area’s famous white horses (they’re actually born brown or black but turn pale with maturity). The area is a bird-watcher’s paradise, too, and there was great excitement as we saw our first pink flamingo (full marks to me for being the only person to know that they’re pink because of their diet of shrimps). With lush green foliage and the deep blues of sea and sky beyond, every view was like a painting. It’s no coincidence that so many artists have lived around here.
We ended up at the pretty village of St Marie de la Mer, the capital of the region, whose population swells from fewer than 3,000 to around 50,000 in the tourist season.
Our final day brought yet another wonderful landscape: the Southern Ardèche, where the limestone forms spectacular gulleys, fields of lavender bake in the sun and ancient grottoes house the oldest cave paintings in the world.
We admired the scenery from a bus, which took us along the river, past plunging cliffs and spectacular natural caves – though a spot of mountaineering might have helped burn off the calories we’d been consuming on board.
The food on board Stella is first class. Breakfast, lunch and a light supper are served in the normal dining room but every night there is also a more formal, themed four-course dinner, for which you have to book. The emphasis is on local produce (at Avignon the chef went ashore to buy oysters in the market, and there was a tasting of Champagne and oysters later in the day).
Afternoon tea is provided, as well as after-dinner entertainment, details of which can be found in the newsletter circulated to every cabin in the morning. And if you really take your food seriously, A-Rosa also offers cruises specially geared to the pleasures of the palate.
For me, however, their “Rhone Route Classic” itinerary proved the perfect recipe, combining fine food with beautiful scenery, historic towns and comfortable accommodation. In fact, I can’t think of a nicer way to see this lovely part of the world.
Rhone Route Classic, 7 nights’ aboard A-Rosa Stella, round-trip from Lyon via Macon, Chalon-sur-Saone, Avignon, Arles and Viviers, departures from 7 April 2018. Fares from £1,186 per person based on two sharing, inclusive of all meals and drinks, private VIP home pick-up service within 50 miles of departure airport, return flights and overseas transfers. Book before 31 July 2017 and Cosmos will extend the VIP pick up to within 100 miles of your UK departure airport. Call 0800 440 2797 or visit www.cosmos.co.uk.