Sam Ballard explores France’s beautiful winemaking regions with a honeymoon cruise on Uniworld
What could be better than a honeymoon cruise on board an ultra-luxury line sailing through France’s southern vineyards? As our plane landed in Lyon, the country’s third biggest city, I couldn’t think of a single thing. However, being the curious being that I am, I was more than willing to find out.
Our home for the next week is the SS Catherine, property of a certain Uniworld Boutique River Cruises. The company, is renowned for its elaborate, slightly ostentatious, décor. Anyone who has been on board will know, Uniworld is hardly known for its subtlety. Having seen one or two ships at Clia’s River Convention, I was intrigued about what to expect. I knew that the line sat right at the top of the ultra-luxury market for river cruises, but little else.
Our cruise would first take us north, to Macon and Beaune, before heading south. We would then stop overnight in Lyon (we wouldn’t be spending our first night here) and further on through the Rhone Valley and eventually to Avignon.
First impressions are an incredible thing. This could almost be a mantra for Uniworld. The ship’s foyer is dominated by an emerald Murano glass chandelier, which hangs above a large glass horse. The walls in public areas are covered in mirrored glass and decorated with criss-crossed green piping. The upkeep of the surfaces alone must be a nightmare.
The SS Catherine is a ship which wears its luxury like a queen wears her crown. And its market — predominantly Americans and Australians — love it. They are spending good money on these trips, which often form part of a longer holiday, and many of them find it reassuring to see the heavily decorated ship after they’ve made the long hop over here.
We check in and have a quick buffet lunch with the other early arrivals, as well as the late leavers who were trying to cling on to the last remnants of their holiday. They looked at us jealously — always a good sign — and joke around with the crew like old friends, proving their old-hand status.
While Lyon was feeling decisively autumnal, the sun was making a decent fist of it. We opted to take a couple of Catherine’s bicycles — which are free on a first come first served basis — for a ride alongside the Rhone River.
Unsurprisingly, given France’s cycling heritage, Lyon is a very safe city to ride in. As somebody who braves London’s roads on a daily basis, it’s a welcome change to have a lane free of cars, buses, motorbikes and pedestrians. We rode for a couple of miles along the river before reaching the huge and imposing iron gates of Parc de la Tête d’Or, and its 117 hectares of lakes, rose gardens and greenhouses. After we explore the park, we head back to the ship ready for our cruise to begin.
As we sail towards Macon, a town around 50 miles away, I am reminded of everything I love about river cruising. Put a customer on a river ship and they develop a far closer intimacy with their fellow passengers; there is a camaraderie between guests. Personally, I like nothing better than sitting on deck and watching the scenery go by.
We pull into Macon and board a bus for Beaune, getting our first glimpse of the vineyards that make this region famous around the world. They stretch as far as the eye can see. Luckily we arrived during harvest season and gangs of grape-pickers are dotted around the landscape.
We are now in Burgundy. A region famous for its pinot noir and chablis, and many of the vineyards we pass through have been awarded the exulted ‘grand crus’ certification, the highest rank possible. These aren’t bottles you can pick up in Aldi for a Friday night in.
Beaune, a small town nestled among some of Burgundy’s best vineyards, is known as the wine capital of the region. However, if you Google Beaune, it isn’t the wine that comes up, but the beautiful 15th century Hospices de Beaune. Built in 1443 as a hospital for the poor, the building is one of the finest examples of medieval French architecture in existence.
The night before we arrive in Lyon, our cruise manager runs through some tour options for the next day. We can take a bus ride through the city, visit the ancient cathedral on a tour designed for slow walkers or take the active option, and cycle through the city. There is also an after-dinner open top bus ride to see the city at night. As well as these excursions, which are included in the price, there’s also a paid for visit to the cookery school of Paul Bocuse, the father of modern French cuisine.
We spend the afternoon cycling through the town and learning about Lyon’s silk weaving heritage. We are led through the secret traboules passageways that proved so useful during occupation in the Second World War. These alleyways provide a secret city, by linking up Lyon’s streets with a network of tunnels, that the Nazis never managed to quite comprehend.
We make it back on board, famished, in time for the lunchtime buffet, served in the Cezanne restaurant. Speaking as a man who has married a (fussy) vegetarian, I can say that the Uniworld buffet gets the thumbs up. Salads, pastas and sandwiches were served alongside joints of meat and beautiful soups, all made on board.
Lyon is beautiful by day, but stunning by night. The city, which is the real city of lights according to our guide, is overlooked, and according to legend protected, by the Virgin Mary, who stands on top of the basilica. The 19th-century church dominates the skyline, and imperiously looks down upon all it surveys.
Having left Lyon, and the confluence of the Saone and Rhone rivers, we take the latter south towards the Rhone valley. Our day is spent in Tournon and Tain-l’Hermitage, tiny villages that sit either side of the river and are accessible by a rickety wooden bridge. The region is beautiful at this time of year and a warm, early summer, coupled by some decent rain, has helped create what many experts are predicting to be an exceptional vintage.
We hike through the steep vineyards of Tain-l’Hermitage before crossing the bridge and finishing with a wine and cheese tasting on the opposite hill in Tournon. Wine runs through the arteries of the Rhone valley: everywhere you look there are the perfectly ordered flanks of the vineyards, which capture the sun for most of the day. The tiniest variance in sunlight, wind or rain has a butterfly effect on the wine — and the price.
Our tour guide walks us through the tiny village of Tain-l’Hermitage before turning up a rocky hill and beginning the steep trek into a vineyard. We are told about different appellations of grape, the grower’s calendar and why wine is such a big business. The excursion finishes on the opposite side of the river in Tournon. By this point we have picked up a local expert who owns a wine shop in the town, and are treated to a couple of bottles from her private stock. We are taught how to enjoy the wine while we gaze at the heady views of Hermitage Hill and the valley below. Back on ship, we are delighted to hear that dinner that evening will be served with wines from the region itself.
The next day we dock in historic Viviers, all winding, medieval lanes, period houses and ancient cathedrals. Our tour guide teaches us about famous residents, past conquerors and the avenues of trees planted by Napoleon’s marauding armies. Its cathedral — the oldest functioning one in France — is a testament to the church’s regional importance. We are treated to a short concert using its creaking organ. Puccini and Bach are interspersed with modern renditions from the world of cinema, which goes down well with the ship’s American contingent.
Our most renowned call of this saunter through Burgundy and Provence is Avignon, famous for a song that I had never heard of (Sur le’pont d’Avignon) and a palace that I have, Palais des Papes. My wife tells me I should get my priorities right. We dock right outside Avignon’s old city walls. Inside we find a strange contrast, as both museum and functioning city coexist. For most of the 14th century, Avignon was the capital of the Christian world after the church moved its Holy See to the south of France when it became apparent that the troubles in Rome were too close to the Vatican for comfort. Over the following decades the palace became a metaphor for indulgence and excess. What’s left is certainly something to behold.
Our visit to Avignon coincides with the night that their famous light show is to be narrated in English. That evening we watch the castle’s walls be torn down and rebuilt as images are projected onto the real palace walls. It’s a really rather clever way to get the ancient city’s history across.
Over the past few days we have cycled, hiked and explored on Uniworld’s active excursions. Today we will be kayaking. As a virgin kayaker, my wife and I decide to take a two-person kayak and use her expertise to help guide us down the river. It soon becomes apparent that a two-person kayak is a test for the most sturdy of relationships.
Accusations fly as we serve off course. Halfway through it turns out I’ve been steering incorrectly. We capsize; although the water is barely above our knees. About two thirds through we pass under Pont du Gard, a huge Roman aqueduct, which was built in the first century. The bickering stops as we pass underneath the vast structure. Despite our sulky moods, it’s the highlight of the entire trip.
We always knew that the south of France — especially at this time of year — would be the perfect destination for a honeymoon. Uniworld, in all of its bells and whistles glory, has been the perfect host. The fact that the cruise includes hiking through vineyards, cycling through Lyon and kayaking through Roman aqueducts in the price makes it all the better.
For anyone asking whether a cruise is a good honeymoon option, we can safely say that the answer is yes. Both river an ocean cruises have brilliant qualities. While both are technically within the same class of holiday, they couldn’t be further apart. Probe a little deeper with your customer and find out what they are really looking for.
You may be surprised with the amount of people that would quite naturally fit onto a river holiday.