Louise Goldsbury finds a gourmet swing down the Rhone is a chance to eat, drink and see plenty.
A wine cruise by river is no holiday for the liver. Barely 24 hours in Burgundy and I'm in a hospital. It's the morning after a night of French reds, five types of cheese, fish stuffed with truffles and a Grand Marnier souffle. The Gothic room is lined with wooden beds, divided by red curtains, facing an altar. Forgive me, France, for my sins.
Passengers have been taken to the Hospices de Beaune, founded in 1443 to provide care for the poor, disabled and orphans. As far as I know, we're none of the above; nor are we sick. This is the first shore excursion of Uniworld's itinerary, with our ship docked overnight at Chalon-sur-Saone, allowing a day trip to the mediaeval walled town of Beaune.
In the 15th century, the hospice's monks were given vineyards so they could make wine to raise funds for charities. For more than 500 years, this tradition has grown to the point where the annual event is now the primary wine auction in France. Many world-famous producers have their cellars in Beaune as the surrounding region is home to prestigious wineries such as Pommard, Corton-Charlemagne and La Romanee-Conti. Later in the week, a tasting session is held in Tournon at Saint Joseph, whose wine was a favourite in the French court of Louis XII. But the hot-ticket tour (for an extra fee) is to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the most renowned appellation of the southern Rhone Valley.
I'm travelling with my mother, who is sampling her first cruise, and the food-and-wine theme is certainly easing her into it. The good news is our next stop is Lyon, regarded as the gastronomic capital of the country. The bad news is the local speciality is offal. At one restaurant, chicken is cooked inside a pig's bladder; several others serve calf's head, tripe, tongue and trotters. For more familiar dishes, Lyon chef Paul Bocuse owns Le Sud brasserie, a short walk from the river, where salads and spit roasts are served on a terrace in summer.
The included tour takes us to Vieux Lyon, the old-town district, founded in 43BC by a lieutenant of Julius Caesar. The coach passes La Tour Metallique ("known as the Eiffel Tower's little sister", our guide says) and some of the 100 buildings that are painted with huge murals.
Small groups explore Fourviere Hill, with its imposing basilica and panoramic views, before riding the funicular back down to the city's car-free passageways and cobblestone courtyards.
When it comes to river cruising, people usually start with the most popular itinerary from Amsterdam to Budapest, followed next time - and there's usually a next time - by France. In response to this demand, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises is set to launch a second French itinerary next year.
The new cruise begins and ends in Bordeaux, exploring the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne rivers. Shore excursions include visits to Aquitaine chateaux and Pauillac, the gateway to the Medoc wine route, and Saint-Emilion, the oldest wine area of the region.
Back on the ship, the French delights continue in increasingly impressive destinations. In Tain-l'Hermitage, we enjoy a morning walk through the vineyards and, in Viviers, a private organ concert in a cathedral. Avignon, another historic highlight, is enclosed by a five-kilometre wall, fortified with 39 towers. It was the papal residence for 70 years when Pope Clement V controversially abandoned Rome in 1309. We spend a couple of hours in the immense Palace of the Popes, which overlooks the city.
My mother breaks off from the pack to stroll around the Doms Gardens, which she declares the most beautiful sight of the trip. Adjacent to the hill-top cathedral, the shady gardens provide unbeatable views of the Rhone, all the way to Mont Ventoux.
In the afternoon, we borrow two of the ship's bikes for a brie-burning cycle along the riverside, and then reward ourselves back on board with a glass of bubbles.
The writer was a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises.
FIVE MORE FRENCH RIVER ROUTES
Paris & Normandy
This itinerary often includes two nights in a Parisian hotel and a city tour before a Seine river cruise. Shore excursions visit the D-Day beaches.
The newest destination for river cruises, this UNESCO World Heritage city is famous for the wine of Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Sauternes, Medoc and Margaux.
Canal du Midi
Increasingly popular is the tree-lined canal between Beziers and Carcassonne. Most barges, self-skippered or crewed, accommodate four to 12 people.
Along the River Marne, Canal de l'Aisne a la Marne and Canal de la Marne a la Saone. Tours can be arranged to Moet et Chandon and Meaux.
Beneath the Vosges Mountains. Barges depart from Strasbourg, with 15 locks along the way.
Fly to Paris, then take the high-speed TGV train to Lyon or Avignon to board the ship. raileurope.com.au.
Priced from $3545 a person, the eight-day cruise runs from April through to November. Save up to $800 a couple when paid in full (or $600 a couple when paying a deposit) before July 31, 2013. In 2014, Uniworld’s Burgundy and Provence river cruise will be operated aboard the newly built SS Catherine, which has been equipped with a small swimming pool and an outdoor dining terrace. Also starting in 2014, Uniworld will have all-inclusive pricing, with fares including all tipping, on-board meals and drinks (wine, beer, spirits, soft drinks), scheduled airport transfers, shore excursions led by local experts, evening entertainment, lectures, internet and Wi-Fi, and use of bicycles and Nordic walking sticks.