…because it’s a great combination of many good things: truly beautiful and varied scenery, a plethora of historic sites and medieval architecture, including innumerable chateaux that have been restored for both public and private ownership; charming villages that have barely changed for hundreds of years; excellent localised gastronomy; a sunny climate varying from extremely hot in August in the South to more or less the UK climate in the North; and the expertise, care and attention of a reputable cruise company. All these combine to provide a good mix of relaxation and interest.
A huge percentage of all cruising holiday-makers do it again, choosing a different river/region of France to explore. There are four main river routes, eight cruise companies, seventy-nine different cruises and thirty-eight river boats (2014) – testament to the success of this type of vacation, its affordability and value for money. .
River cruises may not offer the grandeur of a big sea-going liner but their smaller scale means that the cruising experience becomes much more immediate. At the most obvious level, on a river cruise ship you’ll rarely experience any sense of motion, save that of gliding gently forwards along the waterway, whether it be a canal or river. The big difference of coming inland is the view which is changing all the time – different types of countryside or city-scapes. You are not just looking at it, you are in it. A river cruise is also more intimate than a sea-cruise; there are simply fewer people, and there’s more to do as daily excursions to explore the latest port of call are organised for you. There are no ‘sea-days’ when one has to rely solely on on-board entertainment.
Unlike hiring a smaller vessel yourself – the self-drive hire boat option – you do not need driving or mooring skills, and there’s no self-catering, nor planning of the itinerary – your cruise company and crew will take care of everything.
A cruise may start at one place and finish at another, or it may conduct a round trip – there and back. Interestingly, some river vacation cruises actually include other modes of transport, taking the first part of the trip by train, for example, and the final part by coach. These tend to include a few nights in a land-based hotel, whilst you take in the city sights and some nightlife.
Most river cruises are ‘all-inclusive’ but some are not. Some will offer the classic cruise, where the primary purpose is to help you relax and unwind while being waited on hand and foot. Others will encourage and help you to get out and explore as much of the surrounding area as possible –you can see up to three different places in just one day.
River cruises are offered by long established and highly experienced operators, some of them having very large fleets, operating throughout the world. Ships are regularly inspected to ensure compliance with strict operating regulations. The operators’ continuing success comes from understanding how to thrill guests time and again, with excellent excursions and entertainment, delicious food and wine and service par excellence. Cruise companies are currently expanding the number of cruises they provide and also upgrading and adding to their fleets. The latest ships are superbly fitted with staterooms, top deck night-clubs, panoramic sundecks and al-fresco dining areas. Some have indoor pools and plunge pools on deck.
The distinguished English chef Rick Stein made an entire, highly acclaimed, series of television programmes for the UK based around the cuisine and produce local to hotel cruise routes in France. The vast majority of cruise ships pride themselves on the quality and reputation of their on-board cuisine, often superior to the local three and four star restaurants. The general standard of river cruise ship food and drink is of high quality, combined with excellent service from stewards and hostesses.
Most cruise ships provide all meals, from breakfast to lunch to dinner, on-board and, unlike an ocean going liner, seating is ‘free’ so you can sit with different people each time at any table you want. Provision includes a welcome cocktail party, the last evening’s Captain’s table dinner and the hosts will try to go that one-step further for a special celebration if required. Special diets can usually be accommodated with prior notice.
River cruise ships carry an average of 140 passengers on two or three decks, with a sun deck on top. Cabins, or staterooms, some of which are spacious, are all outward facing, some with floor to ceiling picture windows, all with en-suite bathrooms, some with private balconies. Some ships also offer single cabins and 3-4 person suites. Facilities aboard will vary, but you can expect a bar and dance floor, one or two restaurants/dining areas, a boutique, a library, TV in your cabin and (limited) WiFi. Some ships may also provide laundry services, a hairdresser, bicycles for hire and lifts to upper floors. Most ships are also air-conditioned throughout. Public spaces offer a mixture of open and covered deck areas, for sun-bathing and relaxing, and in the evening a piano bar for an early evening aperitif. Some cruises offer live entertainment – a jazz evening, for example – after dinner. Standards range from 3 star to luxury class and prices vary accordingly.
This depends on the length of your cruise, the itinerary, the ship and the operator. As with most things, you get what you pay for, and cruising is no exception. It is up to you to read the cruise details carefully and ask for further information if you need it from your agent. Cruises in France generally last from 3 nights to 15 nights, and some include many excursions, so the range in prices is also quite large, from €350 to around €5800 per person. Remember that the lower fares may not include costs of excursions, sundries aboard ship or tips. Also, you may not want a cruise of top class standards, preferring instead to opt for the one with most excursions and the most time spent off-board. Each operator will want to fill every cruise, so whilst you may want the peace of mind of having your holiday booked early in the year, you may be able to find a bargain last-minute cruise.
A huge variety of cruises are available, to suit every taste, so it’s a sensible idea to take stock of three things to start with. How long do you want your trip to be? Where do you want it to start and end? And what is your budget? You may also already have chosen a particular region of France to explore so this will help you narrow your selection. Cruises can go from point A to point B, or make a return trip, stopping at different places at the way back. Nearly all cruises provide fascinating excursions by coach as integral features of your holiday – to nearby chateaux, vineyards and historic attractions – and these may influence your choice substantially. They are usually included in the cruise price but may sometimes be added extras. Some cruise prices include transfers from the UK, and some have no-fly options. Some will also be ‘themed’, providing a week of jazz, for example, for music lovers, or country walks for those who like a more active holiday.
Whatever the itinerary, whatever your choice, you’ll have an unforgettable holiday experience along these great waterways.