Cruise & Travel Lifestyles

Splendour in the Heart of Provence

Splendour in the Heart of Provence

THERE’S NOTHING LIKE springtime in Provence, where vibrant bougainvillea explodes over wrought iron balconies, and the mistral winds usher in fresh air and clear skies.

I have come to the marvellous Provençal town of Avignon to embark on the AmaKristina, a sleek vessel of white and blue operated by the award-winning river line, AmaWaterways. After spending the past few days in Nice, an early TGV train brought me to the ship before 11 am. Check-in isn’t until 3pm, but my concern about being turned away quickly evaporates when I am warmly welcomed onboard by Head Waiter André, who proudly shows me around the vessel. After enjoying a light lunch in the lounge (a choice every day) and a stroll along the river bank, I return to find André ready to escort me to my room, with a glass of Champagne at the ready.

My home for the next seven days is beautifully appointed with a large, river-facing bed, a writing desk, a spacious bath with double sinks, and a roomy rain shower. There’s not one but two balconies – one allows me to sit outside to admire the river, while the other is Juliet-style with a sliding glass door to offer views and fresh air in case of inclement weather.

Stateroom on the AmaKristina. Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways.

Although I take advantage of my spacious abode, one of my favourite river cruising pastimes is sitting up on deck to admire the passing scenery. On the Rhône, it is idyllic as ever, with hardly another vessel in sight. We sail mainly near the shore, within earshot of laughing children, barking dogs, and cyclists’ bells. Electric trains whizz alongside, whistling as they pass through tile-roofed villages and disappear into tunnels. Rolling hills are terraced with vineyards, and the occasional castle ruin peers through the forest. This is the glorious French countryside at its best, and I, along with the other guests, am in my element as we absorb all the sights and sounds of France.

But the real reason I’ve come is to savour the enchanting Provençal towns and indulge in the gastronomy along the Côtes du Rhône. Sailing from Avignon, we make port in Arles, Viviers, Tournon, and Vienne before arriving in Lyon. History abounds here, as the river naturally served as a conduit for exploration, colonization, and commerce. The stone walls of lovely Avignon lead to the grounds of the Palais des Papes, the 14th-century palace that played as important a role in the Catholic Church as the Vatican does today. Castles and ruins are here, too, in medieval Tarascon and Roman-occupied Vienne.

Arles, which Vincent Van Gogh called home for over a year, also houses a treasured past. The Rhône river bank, the yellow house he rented, the arena where he watched bullfights, and the Café du Forum – now Café La Nuit but still sporting its signature yellow awning – all became subjects of Vincent’s masterpieces and a significant chapter of his storied life.

Beyond the academics, there is fun too. On the outskirts of Grignan, we go hunting for the prized “black diamond” truffles, led by an adorable Lagotto Romagnolo pup with a curly white coat and floppy ears. There is a steam train excursion through the Doux Valley and a light projection show inside a limestone quarry in Les Baux. In between are a smattering of market tours, wine tastings, hiking and biking adventures.

The lounge area. Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways.

As with all cruising, food and drink are plentiful but with AmaWaterways, menus are curated to highlight regional cuisine. They are an esteemed member of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a prestigious International culinary society. As such, we feast on river-caught fish, locally farmed meats, artisan cheeses, and vegetables in season. A treat one evening is the seven-course Chef’s Table dinner served in a cozy restaurant tucked at the back of the ship. With an open kitchen, we can watch the Chef prepare our meals before André delivers each course, explaining its origin and creation. On the menu are fresh walleye, Argentinean beef striploin, and grilled tiger shrimp, complemented with heirloom tomatoes, wild broccoli, and root vegetables sourced from the Rhône valley. The wines, of course, are delightful. Rhône valley vintages and blends created from Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, and Rousanne grapes are carefully chosen to pair with every meal, complemented with varietals hailing from nearby Bordeaux and Beaujolais.

All that good eating could spell danger for the waistline, so it’s good that all our walking tours feature an “active” option, taking a longer route with more steps and at a faster pace. (There are also options for those who prefer a more relaxed exploration). Erni, the ship’s Wellness Coach, also runs an impressive roster of fitness classes every morning, before lunch, and in the afternoon. Alas, there are too many distractions (or perhaps, excuses) to prevent me from attending any. I do, however, manage to take two fantastic cycling excursions. In Avignon, we bike around the quiet Île de la Barthelasse, strewn with farmers’ fields and fruit orchards. In Lyon, our guide leads us through the scenic Parc de la Tête d’Or before crossing over to meander along the adjoining Saône River. And in Tournon, I pride myself on eschewing the red wine and chocolate pairing tour for the Tain L’Hermitage hike. Although it does end with wine tasting, the reward feels justified after a vigorous climb on the vineyard slopes.

As I disembark in Lyon at the week’s end, I feel like I accomplished what I came for. I’ve sailed nearly 150 miles upriver, immersed myself in history, and walked in the footsteps of Van Gogh. The Mistral winds refreshed my mind; my body is sated by the extraordinary flavours and vintages of the Côtes du Rhône and the excellent service and delightful onboard atmosphere created by the staff and crew of AmaWaterways. Now onward, to tackle those fitness classes and make Erni proud.

Written by Ming Tappin for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles (Winter/Spring 2023)