It’s not always plain sailing on river cruises when water levels rise, but as Sara Macefield discovers on one such trip with Emerald Waterways, well-organised contingency plans ensure guests still enjoy a memorable holiday.
It’s said that all good things come to an end, but I wasn’t expecting my sailing along France’s Rhone river to come to a halt quite so abruptly.
On joining this Emerald Waterways’ voyage partway through, amid the medieval splendours of Avignon, I’m looking forward to exploring this picturesque corner of Provence with its torrid history of wars and revolution as full-bodied as the wines it produces. After all, this is Chateauneuf-du-Pape territory.
The grand walled city of Avignon is a highlight of any Rhone cruise with its vast Palais des Papes, an imposing ecclesiastical trophy that dominates to this day, and surrounding maze of stone streets lined with shops overflowing with Provencal flavour.
It could not have been a better start, and the feel-good factor continues on our arrival in Tournonsur-Rhone the following morning as we stroll across the cobbles on a walking tour. We admire the closely packed rows of vines on slopes so steep they have to be tended by hand, and the ruined castle where unfortunate souls in centuries past were literally hung out to die.
But unbeknown to us, trouble is brewing. Namely rising water levels that scupper our chance of sailing northwards on the Saone river into Burgundy thanks to a low bridge in Lyon that hinders our passage.
The captain announces apologetically that once we arrive in Lyon during the night, that’s where we will be staying for the rest of the week, so while the cruise experience continues, our sailing days are over.
It is not the end of the world. After all, if you are going to be stranded anywhere, as France’s third-largest city with a long list of attractions to boot, Lyon is the perfect place to be. But I’m sorry that our chance to sit and watch the scenery float by is no more as the moving tapestry of riverside scenes adds such a special ingredient to mealtimes, when my friend Pip and I are always able to bag a window seat.
However, we are not deprived of planned visits to Macon and Beaune in Burgundy as a well-ordered operation swings into action with the crew organising coaches to take us instead.
It’s a good compromise, but after a morning walking tour of Macon, we’re whisked back to our ship, Emerald Liberte, for lunch. We’ve enjoyed a fleeting flavour of the town, but I miss the convenience and flexibility of revisiting it in the afternoon.
When we are told the trip to Beaune involves a four-hour roundtrip, Pip and I instead decide to soak up the homespun comforts of our floating hotel, which only joined the Emerald Waterways fleet in April.
It was the first of three new Star-Ships to be launched this year, and was built specifically to offer the mid-market line’s first cruises along the Rhone as part of a natural expansion.
Global brand curator David Winterton says the first season has been well received, though points out that it offers a different experience to Rhine and Danube cruises, with more overnight sailing.
“The only unexpected challenge we faced is the number of visitors from the US who were reluctant to sail in France,” he explains, referring to the downturn in the US market following recent terror attacks in the country.
“However, this itinerary has proved particularly popular with our UK guests, who have more than made up the numbers.”
As for itinerary alterations caused by changing river levels, Winterton cautions that both high and low water can be very unpredictable and impact sailings, with two departures affected this year.
“In many cases, we will only be aware of potential issues a short time in advance, or during the sailing itself. However, we make great efforts to ensure the experience and enjoyment of our guests is affected as little as possible,” he adds.
Whatever happens, there are suitable diversions onboard this 138-passenger vessel, from the wellness area and gym to the large sundeck, which proves to be a wonderfully relaxing haven when the sun shines.
But my favourite by far is the swimming pool at the stern with its retractable glass roof and floor-to-ceiling windows offering inspiring views to swim to.
In the evenings, this becomes a quiet bar area called the Riverview Club, but the masterstroke is its transformation into a cinema, taking just a few minutes as the pool base rises to floor level and the water drains away underneath.
We spend several evenings here watching feel-good movies and munching complimentary popcorn, foregoing local musical groups that come aboard to perform in the main Horizon Lounge.
While lunch and breakfast onboard lack some of the expansive choice of other cruise lines, the four-course dinners are up to the mark with delicately flavoured pates, delicious dishes, such as duet of duck served with raspberry vinegar sauce, and flavoursome risottos, all beautifully presented and served with complimentary wines and soft drinks.
On one evening, the bar is raised further with a gala dinner menu prepared by Top Chef France finalist Fabien Morreale who has partnered with the line.
Our cabin is a contemporary haven, all minimalist chic with flatscreen TV and a giant floor-to-ceiling window that opens halfway to become a French balcony. Its compact size does mean there’s not a huge amount of space between the ensuite bathroom and the beds but with so much to explore ashore, we do not spend much time here.
Armed with outsized green Emerald Waterways’ umbrellas from the cabin, we brave the rain and head for Lyon’s Old Town, where the tall narrow buildings set along winding cobbled streets instantly transport us to its Middle Ages heyday.
Our walking tour also ventures into the maze of 500 secret passages known as Traboules, their entrances cleverly hidden behind anonymous doors, which served as secretive routes for the French Resistance during the Second World War. Only around 10 of them are open to the public, but these dark, narrow walkways are fascinating to behold as we creep quietly through, often passing enclosed courtyards before popping out on to another street. Not only do they provide perfect shelter from the downpours, but prove to be yet another silver lining of our extended stay in this most compelling of cities.
Book it: Emerald Waterways offers week-long Sensations of Southern France sailings between Arles and Lyon with regular departures between April and October. Prices are from £1,795pp, including flights, based on an August 11, 2018 departure.