If you’ve long been curious to explore France’s storied southeastern region — from the lavender-filled fields of Provence to the hilly wine country near Lyon — consider doing so by boat. A Rhône river cruise gives you time to shop at bustling farmers markets, marvel at medieval palaces, and meander through vineyards while getting you to your next location by night. Rather than fretting about early check-outs, train schedules in French, or car travel down small winding roads, you can sleep in and wake up to find your boat docked right alongside the next cobblestoned town. Here’s what a Rhône cruise can look like — and how to make the most of it.
Choosing your river cruise operator
My husband and I chose an Emerald Waterways cruise, which took us over eight days from Arles in Provence north on the Rhône river to Lyon and finally to Salon-Sur-Soâne in Burgundy. We flew into and out of Nice and had transfers to and from the boat that are complementary on embarkation and disembarkation days. We opted for Emerald, which started offering its first cruises in 2014, because it looked like the best value for money.
Emerald Waterways has eight ships, which offer all-inclusive pricing covering all meals, on-board gratuities, and daily morning tours plus their gratuities. With a three-to-one ratio of guests to crew members, service is top-notch. It’s also the only river cruise line that comes with a heated pool under a retractable roof. Come evening, though, the floor rises through the pool’s surface and transforms the area into a movie theater serving complimentary popcorn.
Optional “DiscoverMore” tours offered at the ports of call cost extra, but you can easily launch out on your own instead. Onboard classes range from yoga on the pool deck to water aerobics and Pilates. Besides free WiFi, wine, beer, and, of course, soft drinks are also offered with your meals at no additional charge.
If you fly into Nice, take time to explore France’s second city
Nice is France’s top tourist destination after Paris, so it’s worth taking a day to enjoy this vibrant Mediterranean coastal city before taking your complimentary transfer to Arles. Nice was under Italian rule until 1860, and you can see French and Italian traditions intermingle in the architecture, boutiques, and authentic “Cuisine Nissarde” restaurants. Restaurants that use the ingredients and recipes of the region’s imitable cuisine receive Cuisine Nissarde certifications that they proudly display in their windows. Once such establishment, A Buteghinna in the heart of Vieux Nice (Old Nice) uses only seasonal ingredients from small, local producers to make dishes like summertime stuffed zucchini blossoms or a baked cod with aioli.
At Cours Saleya, one of the country’s most renowned markets, you’ll find fresh flowers, spices and soaps, olives, Corsican cheese, and sausage and lavender products from Provence. You might want to sample traditional crepe-like socca, a dish that’s Italian in origin and made with chickpea flour, olive oil, salt, and water; it’s grilled streetside and served piping hot.
After the market, you can stroll Nice’s famed Promenade des Anglais, a lovely boulevard running alongside the seriously blue Mediterranean. Climb the steep steps up historic Castle Hill for bird’s-eye views of the coast. If you have time for even one of the city’s 19 museums and art galleries, the highest concentration after Paris, you’ll barely have scratched the surface of this remarkable city.
Stand where van Gogh painted, seeing what he saw
You’ll get in the ship at Arles, a city best known for its renowned former resident, artist Vincent van Gogh, who left Paris and painted prolifically from 1888 to 1889 while living here. After a fight that severed his friendship with fellow-artist Paul Gauguin, van Gogh infamously cut off his own ear and delivered it to a prostitute. Reproductions of van Gogh’s paintings are displayed at the approximate spots where he set up his easel, including well-recognized “Starry Night over the Rhone,” painted from the river embankment, and “Garden of the Hospital in Arles” where van Gogh checked in after the ear incident.
Beyond van Gogh, Arles is famed for its well-preserved Roman ruins, as it was one of the Roman Empire’s early conquests in 125 BC. Among the ancient relics are a coliseum with some 60 arches that originally held 26,000 spectators, although the third-tier seating didn’t survive the elements. From April to mid-October, the arena still hosts bullfights that began during the Roman era.
In Avignon, see France’s turn as the seat of the pope
For nearly 75 years during the 14th century, Avignon — with its legendary half-bridge, Pont d’Avignon– belonged to the popes, not the French. Evidenced by the sprawling UNESCO World Heritage Palais des Papes, a stunning Gothic structure that was added on to by each successive pope. For another 39 years, competing popes lived in both Avignon and Rome, although Rome eventually held onto the papacy. You can visit the Palais de Papes on your own with an iPad audio tour that’s included in the price of entry or take part in a guided tour. Back in the 14th century, water was not very clean,