Emerald Liberte: Cruising southern France at an affordable price

No butlers, no free booze before dinner and cabins that veer more towards snug than spacious: a recipe for river cruising disaster? Au contraire.

Cruising aboard Evergreen's new ship, Emerald Liberte, is a delightful way to explore southern France at a more affordable price.

Known in Europe as Emerald Waterways, Evergreen Cruises & Tours operates a small fleet of Star Ships on the Rhine, Danube, Rhone and Saone Rivers. Emerald Liberte, launched this year, is the fifth vessel in the fleet. With capacity to carry a maximum of 138 passengers, it's not as big as some, and as a result delivers an intimate, relaxed ambience.

Owned by Scenic, Evergreen's cruises offer many of the same luxury inclusions and high standards of service, food and excursions. What they don't offer are perks that, in fact, are considered non-essential to many travellers: personal butler service, all-day unlimited alcohol and hang-the-expense fancy cabins. Many people would rather have the extra Euros in their pockets for shopping, hotel nights or their next cruise. There's the option to upgrade to a suite if personal concierge service and a complimentary minibar are non-negotiables.

Greeted by an Evergreen representative at Marseille Provence Airport, we are the last to arrive for the one-hour coach transfer to Arles, where we will board the Liberte. Our fellow passengers, a mix of Brits, Aussies, Canadians, Kiwis and Americans, are mainly over-60s couples, frequent cruisers with a thirst for the new.

At the start of our voyage, the ship is moored on the Rhone River's edge in Arles, the town immortalised in Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone and Cafe Terrace at Night. She looks right at home next to the Avalon and Tauck ships pulled up beside her.

Thoughtful planning and considerable expense was obviously devoted to the Liberte's creation. The public areas are instantly impressive, with recreational facilities including a resistance pool, cinema, massage room, hair salon, elegant dining room and an inviting bar.

The sun deck up top is expansive and fitted out with more than enough recliners, chairs and tables for the passengers: we breathe a sigh of relief; there won't be any need to wake up at dawn to claim dibs. With an unfailingly sunny, blue-sky forecast for the week ahead, the sun deck will become a favourite reading spot.

Our cabin at  15.8 square metres, is  smaller than many other river ship cabins and the decor is almost monastic in its absence of any  decoration but a visit to the fresh flower market in Avignon fixes that.

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As the saying goes, you can't please all of the people all of the time. To our personal taste, the beds are  hard, the pillows  soft, though this is rapidly improved with extra bed toppers and a firmer pillow from the selection normally reserved for the premium suite guests. Other passengers tell us they found the beds to be just right.

One thing we can all agree on is the superior quality of the food. A wide and delicious buffet selection for breakfast and lunch includes European cheeses, local specialties such as coq au vin and salmon rillettes, and ice cream sundaes in more flavours than is recommended by doctors. Dinner is an elegant three-course affair with numerous choices, including pan-fried fillet of sea bass, roasted chateaubriand and a filet mignon of black Bigorre pork doused in a honey-thyme jus. Vegetarians are well looked after too.

A special treat is the Chef's Dinner presented by Top Chef France finalist Fabien Morreale. Fresh Provencal produce is served up with flair and love by the popular chef who owns two restaurants in the region. We feast on delicately dressed crunchy green vegetables, Sisteron lamb confit and a deconstructed strawberry tart bursting with the taste of summer. Evergreen has scored quite the coup in signing the busy celebrity chef to work the pans one night a week.

Quality wine, beer and soft drinks at lunch and dinner are included in the cruise fare; reasonably priced drinks packages are the way to go for those who like to start the day with a Bloody Mary and carry on drinking from there.

Brand new and fitted out with the latest tech toys, the Liberte impresses with wall-length LED screens in the reception area, constantly updated on a loop of world news, world times and daily itineraries. We clock on and off the ship with unique bar-coded cards, and relax in our room with a gargantuan choice of latest movies on a flatscreen TV.

One of the first cruise lines to introduce the new-technology Quietvox headsets for use on shore excursions, Evergreen's guests benefit from the absence of radio static interference that can occur when many guides and their groups converge in the same area.

Included in the cruise fare is an expertly guided morning tour of each new town we visit. And what a wonderful place to explore is this region of Southern France. In Arles, we marvel at Roman ruins, including an amphitheatre that to this day hosts bullfights. In Avignon, the sun shines brightly as we wander the cobblestone streets past Gothic palaces and abbeys built during the Middle Ages. Tournon tempts with excellent wine, while across the river, its sister town, Tain-l'Hermitage is home to Valrhona's Cite du Chocolat. Has a match ever been more heavenly?

Lazy days in Chalon and Macon are the perfect excuse to sit in town square cafes and watch la vie en rose pass by. And in Lyon, the cuisine capital of France, time is our enemy as we long to taste all the incredible biscuits, cheeses, sausages and potatoes that our eyes and noses greedily feast upon.

Guests who want to delve deeper can sign up for the Discover More shore excursion program to such places as the Popes' Palace in Avignon, the Roman aqueduct magnificence of Pont du Gard or a premium wine tasting in Tournon. Others are satisfied with afternoons spent pottering around local markets, exploring on one of the ship's bicycles or soaking up the sun on the roof deck.

Gratuities for guides are included, and there is no expectation of tips for the onboard crew of cruise director, room attendants, waiters and front desk staff. While this sits well with Australian passengers, who tend to feel awkward or put upon when the question of gratuities is raised, they might find they want to show extra appreciation to outstanding crew members. Uniformly polite, attentive, and efficient, they work together as a cohesive team that always puts the needs of passengers first. In my opinion, that's one of the greatest inclusions of all.

MORE WAYS TO SAVE ON YOUR NEXT RIVER CRUISE

1. DON'T DELAY

The best offers are always available at the brochure launch time to reward guests for booking early. Popular river ships and itineraries book out early, so don't hold your breath for a last-minute deal.

2. CRUISE IN THE SHOULDER SEASONS

Pack an umbrella for April or October in Europe, and pay less than peak season departures.

3. SAIL WITH A VALUE CRUISE LINE

Try CroisiEurope, The River Cruise Line or Amadeus River Cruises. Don't expect a luxury all-inclusive experience (gratuities, excursions, transfers and drinks might not be included), but do enjoy the same stretch of river as the luxe lines.

4. CONSIDER THE COST OF AIRFARE

Look for cruises that embark and disembark near airports with many flight options. Even better, take advantage of cruise deals that include complimentary or subsidised airfares.

5. HUNT FOR THE BEST DEALS

River cruise lines occasionally offer special incentives to book on select sailings, such as complimentary fares for kids, two-for-one promotions, or waiving of single supplements.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/france

evergreentours.com.au

FLY

Evergreen's eight-day/seven-night Sensations of Southern France river cruise departs alternately from Lyon and Arles. Fly to Lyon, or take the train from Paris. Transfers to Arles can be arranged from Nice Cote d'Azur Airport or Marseille Provence Airport. See raileurope.com.au and skyscanner.com

CRUISE

Evergreen Cruises & Tours is offering seven-night river cruises on the Rhone and Saone Rivers in the South of France. Emerald Liberte, which launched in 2017, cruises through the heart of Provence and Burgundy to Lyon, Avignon, Arles, Tournon and more. Fares start from  $3895 a person twin share for a seven-night cruise departing Nice Airport on September 22, 2018, including six shore excursions, 20 meals, wine and beer with lunch and dinner, transfers and all tipping and gratuities.For more details contact Evergreen on 1300 383 747, or visit evergreentours.com.au. Emerald Liberte sails weekly between April and October and cruises can also be combined with Rhine River or Portugal's Douro River cruises.*Subject to availability, conditions apply.

STAY

Extend your stay in the beautiful South of France with a night or two in Arles and Lyon pre and post-cruise. Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus Arles is a chic 1920s boutique hotel in the Place du Forum. See nord-pinus.com. Designed by Philippe Starck, Mama Shelter Marseille offers modern rooms with some quirky inclusions. See mamashelter.com

Kristie Kellahan travelled as a guest of Evergreen Cruises & Tours.

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