In Celebration of Wine: Cruising on France’s Enchanting Rhone River
“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
What is it about a river that evokes both poetic and philosophic wonder? Paradoxically, rivers speak of time and timelessness, of constancy and change. Heraclitus, an ancient philosopher, proclaimed “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Whatever our fascination with rivers might be, there seems to be a powerful urge within us to connect with this source of great power, beauty, movement, and exhilarating freedom. It feels as though it must be in our very DNA, as if from it we are to understand more of whom we really are. Another thinker, Thales of Miletus, to whom Bertrand Russell and Aristotle credit the origin of Greek and eventually Western philosophy, suggested that water was the ultimate substance from which everything—life itself—derives.
We learn at an early age that the world’s first great civilizations were fluvial, vitally connected to rivers: Indus, Yellow, Euphrates and Nile. Even the Genesis account names four great rivers, among which are the Tigris and Euphrates.
A timeless force of life, at times tranquil, at others a hydrological dynamo capable of destroying villages and re-creating boundaries, fills us with awe of its terrible beauty. I live near the Grand Canyon. Standing on the edge, it’s beyond our comprehension to gaze downward into that enormous abyss and try to grasp what modern geologists tell us: “The Colorado River did THAT?!”
So when you come to a great European river and spend an entire week fascinated with the life that it brings and nourishes, The River becomes the sustaining backdrop of an unforgettable experience. Key to this kind of experience—and we’re talking European River Luxury Cruise—must be a company possessing brilliant cruise ship acumen coupled with the resources and dedication required to execute every detail flawlessly. And the company you want to choose for this Great Adventure is AmaWaterways.
AmaWaterways knows rivers. And it also knows how to provide the best in luxury cruise travel. Though anyone might settle for an ordinary, bargain cruise, the choice of AmaWaterways guarantees an extraordinary, memorable event.
“I am an intelligent river which has reflected successively all the banks before which it has flowed by meditating only on the images offered by those changing shores.” Victor Hugo
We chose the Rhone River Cruise for several reasons, all of which, as it turned out, were the right reasons. Like all travel, selecting a destination for a cruise is a highly personal matter, which may help to explain the variety of options available out there in the Wide World of Cruising. Having settled on a few criteria at the outset meant that we could be more discriminating in the array of choices set before us.
The AmaWaterways destinations were immediately appealing. In our way of thinking, ocean-going vessels were relegated to a lesser status, largely because a bumpy ride is a serious emotional and physical distraction After all, you’re going to be paying for and expecting some pretty remarkable grub, so it makes sense that even though you might regret a few extra calories later, you don’t want to engage in a kind of involuntary bulimia when onboard. We determined we wanted a smooth ride. For this reason river cruises ranked high, not only for the calmness of the water, but for the immediate availability to get off the ship and visit new places. Our particular style of travel has always been to sort of “cram in” all the experiences available when on the road. “Hey, we may never get back this way again—so we might as well see and experience all this place has to offer while we’re here.” Though some may prefer to lounge in their cabin or poolside all day, we get pretty intense about maximizing our exposure to what a particular area has to offer. AmaWaterways made sure one could be as engaged as possible without feeling rushed or obligated. Those who wanted to hang out on the ship were welcome to choose their pace of interaction.
“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” Norman Maclean
Size of vessel is another consideration. The ships on AmaWaterways cruises have a maximum capacity of up to 164 persons. That’s a very comfortable number. What’s the sense of living in a moving megalopolis when you can maneuver within a friendly village? You want a vacation away from traffic—not getting stuck in the middle of it.
Depending upon your age and prior travel experience, you’ve probably visited (I hope) a good number of places on your “bucket list.” A river cruise, we found, expands your breadth as well as your depth. We’d been to France before, although it has been several years since our last visit. But rather than getting the experience of a country mediated by its trains, subways, and cars, a river cruise allows you to experience the serenity of a quiet mode of travel, linking you with more of the heart and soul of a country than its industrial and commercial strengths. Ocean cruises take you to a country; river cruises guide you through a country, allowing you the opportunity to become immersed in the culture of environs sometimes off the beaten path. Here we found the ideal combination of boutique-style cruising coupled with the very best of cultural travel.
Today, for example, we hopped off the ship and visited a truffle farm. Trained pigs and dogs are used to sniff out this subterranean fungal delicacy (I believe this is the first time I’ve ever used the words “trained” and “pigs” together!) Summer truffles fetch 100 Euros per kilogram but Winter truffles (we were gloriously visiting in this particular season that begins mid-November) are valued at 10 times as much—1,000 Euros for 2.2 lbs. (Incidentally, some Italian truffles cost up to 2,000 Euros per kilo—an astonishing amount). Where can you get this kind of experience? There’s just no way you can land in a major airport and scan about for truffle farms. We followed Serge and his trained dog Amy around his farm, watching her sniff about and dig up black winter truffles (Tuber Melanosporum) just a few inches from the surface. Once she pawed away the dirt to snatch a dark tubercle, Serge quickly intervened with a cookie reward for his nosy employee. Later, glasses of wine and samples of truffle-infused hors d’oeuvres were served.
Another priority we have for the kind of travel we do is to aim high, not only in the area of hospitality in general, but in food and drink in particular. AmaWaterways sets a high standard and we were pleased with the fine quality of their culinary offerings. We were particularly delighted to join a wine-themed cruise—one of several In Celebration of Wine trips in their series that includes European standouts such as the Seine, Danube, Rhine and Douro rivers. Our journey took place in the world-renowned Rhone Valley, where the river’s route reads like a Michelin-star restaurant’s wine list. Ironically, just a few months ago a Swiss friend from French parentage visited us in the U.S. and regaled us with tales of a very famous wine region near Avignon, known as Chateauneuf du Pape. Though I’d never tasted the wine before, I instantly fell in love with the charm of it, simply from the way my friend kept pronouncing Chateauneuf du Pape. (It means “new chateau of the pope”—referring to a time when the popes lived in France and not in the Vatican). I couldn’t wait to visit this place and kept practicing saying the name until I could do it in my sleep.) Our tour there proved to be one of the highlights of the entire cruise experience.
Le vin nait du ciel et de la terre…de l’amour qu’on lui porte.
Wine is born from the earth, the sky…and the love one carries for it.
–Caveau M. Chapoutier, Tain L’Hermitage
As this cruise was a wine-themed event, AmaWaterways enhanced our experience further by inviting a discriminating California wine-maker to give a series of talks on his wines, providing bountiful samples as well. Steve Ledson of his eponymous Sonoma wine label treated us to thorough explanations of the wine-making process, fielding questions and treating us to a wide variety of his superior wines with generous pours! The combination of an American expert on wines, coupled with visits to Rhone Valley vineyards and the free-flowing, complimentary wine onboard for our gourmet lunches and dinners was truly an intoxicating experience. (Metaphorically speaking, of course.) At first we wondered how an American wine-maker—wearing cowboy boots quelles horreurs!—would fit in the context of the sophisticated and legendary world capital of vin magnifique. In fact, it proved to be a brilliant idea, not only in the minds of many of our fellow cruisers who belonged to Mr. Ledson’s wine club, but it served as clear demonstration that California wines can truly stand on their own laurels in world-class comparison.
Another indication of AmaWaterways’ clear superiority in luxury travel is its membership in one of the world’s most prestigious culinary organizations, La Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs. Originally chartered in the 13th century as the Royal Guild of Goose Roasters, the organization thrived for four centuries until, like many aristocratic institutions, the French Revolution guillotined it. Today the society has achieved a renaissance and grown to include professional chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers around the world. The entire fleet of AmaWaterways’ vessels in Europe is the only river cruise line ever to be inducted into this extraordinary and elite collection of world-class culinary experts.
Here’s the menu for our “Welcome Dinner”:
Freshly Baked Bread with plain butter and condiments
Amuse Bouche: Marinated Mozzarella Pearls with Sun Dried Tomato Coulis and Pesto Cream
Appetizers: Avocado Crabmeat Cake with Mussel and Basil—Olive Bruschetta; or, Tossed Green Salad with Chopped Greens, Shredded Carrots, Zucchini, Beets, Croutons, Tomato Wedges, Cucumber Slices and Vinaigrette
Soups: Beef Consommé with Sherry and Pistachio—Meat Dumplings; or, Cream of Spring Onion with Puff Pastry Fleuron
Sorbet: Refreshing Lemon Sorbet with Champagne
Main Courses: Grilled Fillet of Butterfish with Tomato Salsa, Broccoli and Saffron-Cilantro Rice; or, Tranche of Beef Sirloin and Marinated Tiger Shrimp Tail, Sauce Béarnaise, Vegetable Bouquet and Mousseline Potatoes; or, Aubergine and Mozzarella Timbale on Zucchini-Capsicum Caulis and Fresh Broccoli
Desserts: “Mousse au Chocolat Blanc et Noir en Sauce Caramel et Chocolat” (White and Dark Chocolate Mousse with caramel and chocolate sauce); or, “Cherry Jubilee” (Vanilla Ice Cream with Cherry Ragout and Whipped Cream); or, Petit Fours; or, Fresh Fruits; or, Selection of French Cheese and Biscuits
In the event these choices (or any of the daily dinner selections) were not desirable, the menu indicates the following choices as “Always Available”:
Grilled Entrecote Steak, Salmon Fillet or Chicken Breast; Caesar Salad, Coleslaw and Potato Wedges with Sour Cream; French Fries on Request.
Also available: Tossed Green Salad with Chopped Greens, Shredded Carrots, Zucchini, Beets, Croutons, Tomato Wedges, Cucumber Slices and Vinaigrette
Macon Village AOP Macon Georges Duboeuf: French Burgundy Chardonnay. Characteristics: A bright golden color, fresh aromas dominated by white blossom with a scent of honey on the finish. The palate confirms this delightful bouquet offering fruit, elegance, finesse and distinction.
Beaujolais Villages Georges Duboeuf AOP: French Beaujolais from Gamay. Characteristics: Full of Hints of Strawberry, Raspberry and Cherry fruit aromas, it has a bright and youthful wine with a fresh finish.
Breakfast choices included a special of the day (such as waffles, Eggs Benedict) in addition to a sumptuous buffet of juices, fruits, yogurt, cereals, smoked salmon, bagels, a wide selection of pastries and breads, an omelet station, bacon, sausage, hash browns, and a bevy of other specialty foods. For lunch, a printed menu—much like the dinner menu–provided the daily selections that were served by waiters to your table. Should you be interested in the daily lunch buffet items as well, there awaited a substantial number of tasty choices.
The dining room was set up in such a way as to allow private tables for two persons or tables accommodating four or more persons. There were times when it seemed desirable to sit peacefully by the window, enjoying breakfast with just your mate while gazing out at the Rhone River, docked at a quay on the edge of a small village or a small city like Avignon or Arles. On other occasions, we chose to dine with our fellow travelers, exchanging stories about the events of the day and making new friends. Waiters in coats and ties attended our elegant table set with starched table cloths, silverware and ceramic dishes and chargers. Great service was the rule of the day for every meal. The ever-changing menus meant we were blessed with variety of food items—all excellently prepared. The constant dilemma was the excruciatingly difficult choice one had to make for each meal, knowing that each selection was worth sampling.
“Here on the river’s verge, I could be busy for months without changing my place simply leaning a little more to right or left.” Paul Cezanne
Each evening a copy of “The Daily Cruiser”—a four page newsletter—was delivered to one’s cabin, providing the details of the next day’s activities. On Day Three of our cruise, for example, some of us chose to take a coach tour to the World Heritage Site Pont du Gard Roman Aqueduct outside of Avignon. In the 1st century AD this aqueduct, consisting of three tiers of arches standing 160 feet high, was built by the Romans to carry fresh water over the Gard River to Nîmes in southern France. Some 44 million gallons of water a day were delivered to the fountains, baths and homes of the citizens of Nîmes. This tour left the ship at 9:00 am and returned at 12:30 pm. Others onboard might choose a walking tour of Avignon and guided tour of the Popes’ Palace during the same timeframe. After lunch, there was a wine tasting tour to the world-famous vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape that included a walk out in a vineyard, a tour of a winery and, of course, wine tasting. This tour—one of the highlights of the trip for so many wine aficionados—was conducted between 2:00 pm and 5:30 pm. At 6:00 pm, wine host Steve Ledson gave an onboard wine lecture on California’s Zinfandel, including yet another wine tasting. Dinner that night was the Chaine des Rotisseurs Dinner, featuring the menu selections that were prepared when AmaWaterways’ chefs were contending for membership in this exclusive honorary designation. In all, this was a full and satisfying day—one of my most memorable—yet also representative of the kind of activities available every day. There were no special fees or requirements to meet in order to be included in any activity. A consistent effort was made to provide for those who preferred to be in the “Gentle Walkers” category, allowing them to enjoy the tour at a slower pace with fewer steps to ascend.
AmaWaterways takes care of their guests even before the cruise begins. Soon after booking the company mails its clients logo-marked suitcase tags to be used later in speeding up luggage handling during transportation changes. In addition, we found in our welcome package a nifty 140-page Destination Guide with color photos, detailing the major sites we were to see, along with their history, maps, and attractions. Talk about whetting one’s appetite! AmaWaterways also takes care of cruise pre-embarkation and dis-embarkation travel arrangements, if you’d like. For example, though we’d signed up for a 7-night cruise on the Rhone River, our particular package was to begin in Barcelona, then travel to Arles in southern France where the cruise was to originate. AmaWaterways made it possible to stay at a hotel in Barcelona and provided transportation to Arles for a fee in addition to the cruise cost. Then, at the conclusion of the cruise, the company offered to transport its guests from Lyon to Paris (with accommodations) for an additional optional fee. In all, you simply have to book your round-trip flights—but Ama Waterways can help you with that as well. You are also given the flexibility to make your own arrangements before and after the cruise. In our case, we met AmaWaterways’ highly professional and talented Cruise Manager (along with the tour group in Barcelona), then hopped on the motor coach that whisked us to France to begin our cruise.
Here’s another reason to trust AmaWaterways with your next cruise: They follow through with their promises! What happens when you pay for a particular itinerary but a major glitch shows up? In our case, before our cruise was to embark, an extreme amount of rain in northern France caused the level of the Rhone River to rise so dramatically it meant that ships could not pass under bridges. Moreover, the AmaWaterways vessel we were to board in Arles was a few hundred kilometers away to the north—stuck in Lyon—the last stop on our journey. What to do? Ama took care of it. Here’s how: At AmaWaterways’ cost, we were transported by TGV—the super fast French train—to Lyon, where we embarked on our vessel, The AmaDagio. In the meantime, the water level subsided enough for us to begin our cruise immediately. However, this meant our cruise was to cover twice the planned distance (Lyon to Arles and back to Lyon), but Captain Danny Baucher made up for it by traveling at night. In all, though it meant Ama Waterways had to use twice the fuel and cover twice the distance than it had planned (along with re-scheduling our tours, buses, and adding other costs which they absorbed) our cruise landed at every stop that had been planned with no loss of any itinerary locations. Passengers saw a flawlessly re-directed itinerary pulled off with absolute aplomb and courtesy by smiling AmaWaterways’ staff who never displayed a hint that there had been a major overhaul in their plans. Kudos to these professionals who showed not a trace of worry or anxiety—only sheer pleasure to serve us!
The family-owned and operated company was launched in 2002 by President Rudi Schreiner and two other travel industry pioneers who quickly made AmaWaterways the standard in luxury cruise travel. Built in 2006, our ship, the AmaDagio (now one of 20 vessels in the fleet) was 360 feet in length by 38 feet in width with 3 decks for cabins and a Sun Deck for recreation, whirlpool and lounging. She has a crew of 41 serving passengers in 70 staterooms, each having 170 square feet of space and another 4 suites, each measuring 255 sq. ft. Staterooms and suites boast plush linens, first-class toiletries, and towels, as well as multi-jet showerheads. Most rooms have a French balcony with sliding glass door, allowing Daily, our room accommodations were freshened up and complimentary bottled water was replenished by excellent housekeeping service. A flat-screen monitor provided in-room infotainment (movies, television) while free high-speed internet allowed us to stay in touch by email with friends and visit websites online. Each room was provided with a pair of Quiet Vox wireless audio systems for guided tours. During tours, our guide would speak into his or her microphone while small radio receivers with earpieces, carried by each tour guest, would allow us to listen to our guide’s voice.
The high staff-to-guest ratio meant that each traveler was provided the best of service in all areas. Most staff members were quick to learn our names and discern our proclivities. On most evenings there was some form of entertainment provided in the Lounge. We were treated to “The Culinary Delight History of Nougat,” “Le Guitars des Camargues” with flamenco dancing, “La Strada” performed by violins, an evening of French songs by Adele Bracco, and an evening of songs from all over the world by Paolo Nassi. Along with onboard wine lectures, tastings, and daytime opportunities for motor coach tours, walking tours, bicycle riding (the ship’s crew set out a fleet of bicycles whenever we landed), and exploring on our own (or simply resting in one’s cabin!), there was never a dull moment or expectation for something more lively than what was being offered. We were anxious to take in everything, but like most folks, we just ran out of energy sometimes and needed to grab a few moments of rest and relaxation. Each day, however, was filled with new opportunities to taste, explore, learn, question, search out, discover, and enjoy. As added benefits, our weather was perfect the entire week and our traveling companions on board were delightful, amusing and good-hearted.
Les rivieres sont des chemins qui marchant et qui portent ou l’on veut aller.
-Blaise Pascal, Pensees (VII, 38)
[He who does not know his way to the sea should take a river for his guide.]
Finally, it should be mentioned that a cruise may be likened to a concert, consisting of many players, each doing their part to make beautiful music together. When all the members of an orchestra work together, when their timing is right and their skills have been honed with hours of practice, the result is highly appreciated by those for whom they are playing. In addition, it is the skill of the conductor who brings everything together, who elicits the very best from each musician, each player. In this regard, the AmaWaterways’ Cruise Manager is a key performer in conducting the cruise “symphony.” Our brilliant and wonderful Ms. Kriss Stallabrass was the quintessential Cruise Manager who made herself available to each guest throughout the day and tirelessly served us day and night as though it made her deliriously happy to make this cruise all about us. Her excellent communication skills meant that we were always informed about every aspect of the cruise and that no question would go unanswered. We could say as much about all the staff of our cruise, that each member performed his or her role admirably and happily. It’s easy to tell whether people enjoy their work or not. In the case of our cruise, you only had to look at the smiling faces waiting upon you throughout the day, whether it was the young woman in housekeeping who made a toy swan out of a towel and set it on your bed with a piece of chocolate while you were away from your room, or the waiter who poured you another glass of your favorite wine, or the young woman who handed you a hot face towel as you ascended the gangway to board the ship after an afternoon excursion into a medieval village. Every staff member provided the very best in service at all times, treating us courteously and attentively, anticipating our needs and desires. In a sense, we were treated better than family members, a bit like royalty, but with exceeding kindness and joy. That’s what makes a cruise so very enjoyable—that guests are treated with professional courtesy and kindness at every step of the way. The AmaWaterways staff and management made this cruise one that we will never, ever forget.
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