Paris - Day 1
Sadly our cruise ended this morning but the good news is our Avalon vacation isn't over yet. We booked a package that included 2 nights in Paris after the cruise. Since it is all one package we will have the wonderful Avalon service even while off the ship. Last night we were told when to have our luggage ready and the color tags we needed to put on our bags. After some breakfast in the dining room we boarded a shuttle to the train station while our bags were transported by car so they will take a bit longer but we won't have to lug them around so that is nice. It was a quick ride to the train station where our Avalon cruise director, Barbara, is joining us and lead us to our train and we were all seated together for the 3 hour ride to Paris. It went by pretty quick and we were met at the train station by our bus that took us to the Paris hotel that would be our home for the next 2 nights. We were very close to the Paris Opera House which is a nice central location. Our lunch and dinner are not included in this part of the package so while we were waiting for the official check in time of 3 pm we went off and found some lunch nearby. We were able to get into our room after lunch so we took a short break before going out to explore Paris on our own. We headed towards the river and walked around the outside of the Louvre and then headed up the river towards Notre Dame. We couldn't resist walking across Pont de Arts, which used to be the love locks bridge but all the locks have been removed. I think we heard there were over 13 tons of locks that removed so that was a lot of extra weight for a bridge that really seemed to be barely standing without all that. It was a great spot to enjoy sunset though. When we got to Notre Dame it was getting late and you cannot get close as it is all gated off and guarded.
Paris - Day 2
Breakfast is included with our stay so we started with that before meeting the group for our included city tour. We are a small group of just 18 which is nice. Our included tour was a bus tour around the city with a stop at the Pantheon. At first I thought it was really odd that they would include the Pantheon on a Paris tour but when we got there I realized why. We went all the way up to the roof of the Pantheon which gave us a spectacular 360 view of Paris. Definitely worth a visit! We also drove by all of the other main sights and our driver did a great job of going slow enough for us all to get the photos we wanted. Our tour ended just before lunch. Avalon also offered a Paris foodie tour that was an optional excursion. Some of our group chose to do that so they were off on that as soon as we got back to the hotel. Food is not my thing so we opted to find our own tour for the afternoon and went off to Versailles. I chose a small group tour through Project Expedition so we were picked up directly from our hotel and went in van with just 6 other people and after dropped off right at our hotel. Our driver was also our guide through Versailles and she was wonderful, even with how crowded the palace was inside. She guided us through each room and pointed out a lot of interesting things. After walking through inside we had some free time in the gardens. I would have liked more time in the gardens and I could see why our guide said you really need 2 days to see Versailles. I guess next time we will just go and explore the gardens which we also learned is free to do. This was our last night stay in the city of Paris but we our vacation still isn't over yet as we head to Disneyland Paris in the morning. How could I go all the way to Paris and not go to Disneyland!
When you think about a river cruise you might envision a small floating retirement home where everyone onboard is 80 years old and all you do is visit old churches. I know a few years ago when we took our first river cruise and I told people what we were doing they laughed and said we would be the youngest by at least 40 years onboard. Ok so a few years ago they were not too far off on that guess as most of the guests onboard our first river cruise were probably 70 and above but we still had a great time. Everything about that first river cruise was just wonderful so I thought it was a shame that most younger people were not aware of what a great vacation it could be.
Things are changing though and the river cruise lines have been doing a lot to try and attract a younger market. The main thing almost all the river lines did was to start offering shorter cruises. They realized that younger people really do not have 2 weeks to take off so they started offering 7 night sailings and there are even a few shorter itineraries. Shorter cruises also meant the pricing would be a bit lower which helps too. They still needed to do a little more to shake the image of river cruises being boring. It is true you won't find a lot of extras onboard a river cruise ship that you find on some of the ocean ships these days but a river cruise is more about the destination than the ship itself.
Avalon Waterways started offering Active and Discovery cruises where they are including some more adventurous options at some of the stops. I had already sailed Avalon on a previous cruise so I knew I liked their ships and the service they provide so I was excited to try this new Active and Discovery. We just got off the Avalon Poetry II that did an Active Discovery on the Rhone. It was a 7 night cruise from Arles to Lyon and they did a great job of offering some fun active options like biking, hiking, and kayaking. There were also some interesting Discovery options where you got to do some more in depth things like a foodie tour, wine blending, or make your own chocolate bar. Since they were offering multiple included options each day our groups for each excursion were nice and small with some only having about a dozen people. Since this was the first time they were doing these Active and Discovery things on this river there was a bit of a learning curve such as we didn't know the bike ride would be 20 miles or what Avalon called canoeing was actually kayaking but we still enjoyed it all. I am sure once they tweak it a little and are able to set the right expectation ahead of time the guests will really love all the fun options available to them. One thing I can say for sure was that I was never bored! If you want to read more about our adventure I did a short blog each day you can check out.
Here is why I love river cruising on Avalon Waterways -
- You have a nice size ship with only about 110 guests (maybe more on other lines but Avalon stays around 110).
- 3 meals a day included onboard so even if you are picky eater like me you can visit foreign countries and not have to worry if you will be able to find something you like to eat. Wine and Beer are included with meals on Avalon as well.
- An excursion at each stop is included (most times you will have more than 1 to choose from) and Avalon even takes care of tipping all of your local guides and drivers for you.
- You get to visit multiple cities or maybe even multiple countries and only have to unpack once.
- Most times you ship will be docked right in the heart of the town so you won't have far to go to explore the main sights.
- Avalon staterooms are a nice size and the balcony rooms offer a nice feature of a bed that faces the view instead of sideways. Also the balcony is part of the room so you don't lose room space like you might on some of the other lines that have the typical balcony.
- Avalon will now let you go right to the ship at whatever time you arrive on embarkation day so you can get checked in and if the rooms are not ready yet you can grab a snack and store your belongings and go explore or hang out in the lounge until the rooms are ready. The same goes for the end of the cruise if you have later flight you will have to be out of your room but you can hang on the ship or at least store your belongings onboard until it is time to go to the airport. I think this is one of the best bonuses!
- Little things as well like free wi-fi onboard, 24 hour coffee and drink station offering juices and tea and cookies, and bottled water waiting for you to take out on each adventure everyday.
If all of this sounds good to you then you really should give river cruising a try!
Today is a full day in Lyon which is a pretty big city and also our last stop for the cruise. We will overnight here and disembark tomorrow morning. We chose the Active excursion which was an Urban Hike through the Traboules. The traboules are the sort of tunnel like stairways in the old city that used to be part of the old silk work that Lyon was famous for. The tunnels helped the worked and merchants get the silk products easily to the river. I am not sure I would call this a hike as it turned out to be more of a classic city walking tour than a hike but I guess all the stairs made it a little more active. Our guide was very informative and explained that the traboules are private and for awhile they were all locked so that the public couldn't use them anymore but in the 90s the city was able to convince about 10% to open back up so the public could explore. Our guide said that families will come to visit on the weekends and go on a hunt to find which gates will open. They are really just shortcuts through the city but I guess it is fun to see if you can find all the ones that will open. The other options for today were a Discovery which was to be a French Chef for the day and learn to cook a Lyon specialty. The Classic option was a foodie walking tour. There were also a couple optional excursions that had an extra fee - a wine tasting at a private vineyard or a Rooftops of Lyon excursion.
It was sad that our river cruise had come to an end but it is not the end of our vacation yet! We added 2 nights in Paris to our cruise package and after that we are headed to Disneyland Paris so stay tuned for more on our visit to France!
Tain L'Hermitage / Tournon
Today was a short stop of only about 6 hours. We arrive at 6 am and pulled out by noon. I am thinking part of that was because it was Sunday and nothing in these small towns would be open (except the best shop anyway which is the Valrhona chocolate factory). The river is pretty narrow here so on either side was Tain L'Hermitage or Tournon and it was easy to do both no matter which side of the river your ship docked.
It was raining a little when we got up but we were hopeful our excursion would still go. We chose the Active excursion to rail bike along the Gorges du Doux. The rail bike looked like a little car that you pedal along the train rails. We got to the small train station about an hour from the boat only to find that the tour provider said it was too rainy to ride the rail bikes. We were very disappointed since the rain was really only a drizzle. We instead rode the train and honestly didn't see too much of anything. The only good thing was that we got the bus to drop us off at the Valrhona shop. There were a couple other excursion options for today and the Discovery one was to go to Valrhona and learn more about chocolate and make your own bar. I almost chose that excursion but I really thought the rail bikes would be something you really don't get to do too often. Of course being the only store open Valrhona was packed but it was just a 10 minute walk back to the boat which was nice. There was another Active excursion which was a hike to a vineyard. The people that did that one said it was a pretty steep hike but worth it. There was also a Classic option that was walk through Tournon which is one of France's oldest cities.
We left port and started making our way to Lyon. While sailing there was a cooking demonstration that was fun to watch and participate in. We arrived in Lyon while we were having dinner and after dinner there was a bus ride around town so you could see the city at night. This really is the first big city we have visited on the cruise.
Our ship left Avignon at 4:45 am to make our way to Viviers. Along the way we passed through the deepest lock on the Rhone - the Bollene Lock. When you go through the locks on a river cruise your ship really fits snugly in the lock so if you were to open your balcony you really only have a couple inches between you and the wall. When you enter in low if feels like you went into a tunnel and then you slowly rise up and see sunlight again.
We arrived in Viviers after lunch. When we docked it was easy to see that Viviers is a very small and old village. There was even a Renaissance faire going on so the townspeople were dressed for the occasion which made it feel even more like we had stepped back in time. Today we chose the Active option and are "canoeing" again but just like yesterday we learned that canoeing actually means kayaking. Today's kayak was an included option so we had a few more people going but it was still a nice small group. However when we got to the river we quickly realized it was a Saturday and that definitely changes the crowd. Even though the weather was overcast and only in the low 60s the river was very crowded. We were kayaking through the Gorges de l'Ardeche. Our guide said that during the summer there is usually around 5,000 kayakers on the river each day. There were only a few hundred today and that seemed too crowded for me. I guess we got spoiled yesterday having that river all to ourselves. Our guides did a good job keeping us together and made us aware of what was coming as there were a few rough patches but it was really fun. The gorge was really impressive with lots of great walls of limestone. We all got wet but no one flipped over so it was all good. Today there were a lot of included options to choose from. There was another Active that was a hike through gorges so they saw a lot of the same things we did but from a different perspective. There was a Discovery which was underground wine tasting. There were 2 Classic which were either to the Lock Bollene or to a crocodile farm.
After dinner we were all treated to a guided walk through town to learn more about the history which was very interesting. The town of Viviers floods a lot but it sounds like the townspeople adapt. Viviers is home to the smallest cathedral in France about 1/8 the size of Notre Dame. I love getting to stop in these cute little places!
Last night we arrived in Avignon pretty late at night but we were able to catch a view of the half bridge of Avignon under an almost full moon. We pulled up next to another river cruise ship which happens a lot with the river cruises because there is limited docking space. Unfortunately for us the ship we pulled up next to had neon green lighting that ran the length of the ship and they did not turn it off at all so our room now had a green glow overnight. I thought it was pretty rude that they wouldn't turn that off when a ship tied up next to them so I quickly made a note on which cruise line that was and will remember not to book them. Personally I wouldn't want to cruise on a ship that was lit up like that every night.
Today we were in port long enough to not only choose an included morning excursion but also there are some afternoon options that you could purchase. We really enjoy kayaking so I signed us up for the afternoon option to do that. This morning I chose the Discovery option which was described as going to discover more about Essential Oils at the Musee des Aromes et du Parfum and it said we would get to create our own scent. I really enjoy using essential oils myself so I liked the idea of learning more and making my own scent. Being in the lavender capital of the world and that being my favorite oil I was thinking this would be an interesting excursion for me. Unfortunately it wasn't really as described and we didn't get to create a scent and really didn't get to do anything with essential oils. The museum had some neat collections but I would not call this a Discovery or hands on excursion at all. The only saving thing was we also stopped in St Remy which was a totally adorable French Village that I enjoyed wandering around. We were there too early in the morning though so most of the shops were not open yet but I actually enjoyed getting photos of the empty streets and cafes. The Active Adventure for today was an ebike ride through the Gard with a little wine tasting included. I heard that was a very good excursion and a much better bike ride than our first one. The Classic excursion for today was a city tour including the Palace of the Popes and a picnic. It sounds like the picnic was more of a tasting of a few samples but it sounds like everyone that went enjoyed it.
I was glad that I had booked us on the optional afternoon excursion to kayak on the Pont du Gard. It was a little chilly and raining a little but I was excited to go kayaking. We were a small group of just 10 guests going kayaking (I am thinking the weather had a few change their minds). It was raining for the first few minutes but it cleared up and turned into a great day and we had the river to ourselves. We paddled right under an old Roman Aqueduct which is the highest of all elevated Roman Aqueducts. The river did most of the work so it was an easy and enjoyable paddle down the river.
This morning we woke up and it was nice and sunny with less wind. Today we have our second Active excursion. We boarded a bus to head over to Val d'Enfer for our hike. The name comes from the unique white limestone rock formations. We learned that this location was the inspiration for Dante's inferno. The hike was so much better than the bike ride! It was a nice climb with lots of wonderful views to stop and see along the way. At the end we visited the old quarry which now hosts the Carrieres de Lumieres which was just amazing! You entered what seemed like a cave with lots of perfectly flat walls and many square columns. The show started and it was a moving collage of Van Gogh paintings set to music that were projected all over the walls, ceiling, and floors. You felt totally immersed in the experience and I just couldn't stop looking everywhere to take it all in. I could see how some people might feel a bit dizzy though. Our guide mentioned that the show changes every year so make sure to visit again next time we are in the area. I really enjoyed the Van Gogh theme since it really seemed to tie in with everything else we have been seeing in Arles. The Discovery option for today option was a painting class where you got to paint in the same spot as Van Gogh once painted. The Classic option today was a tour of Arles with a bullfighter who took them into the Roman arena and explained the games they do there with the bulls.
We arrived back at the ship for lunch and since it was so nice the ship offered a bbq lunch on the top deck which was just perfect. After lunch we headed back into Arles to do a little shopping and exploring. Arles is a very old town with lots of Roman influence. We explored the arena which looks like a mini colosseum and they still do bullfighting in there. We learned that it is not the same as the Spanish bullfighting though in that they do not kill the bull but instead it is more of a game where were are pulling the ribbons from the bull. There are plenty of shops and cute French cafes to enjoy. We did have to be back onboard before dinner time because the ship was moving onto our next stop, Avignon. On the way we did go through our first lock and it is a tight squeeze but we made it.
We only had the one night in Marseilles, and the transfer to the ship left at 10:30 am so we didn't get a lot of time to explore here and I am a little bummed about that. I would definitely go back to Marseilles. Our transfer to the ship was included with our pre-night stay we booked as part of our package which was nice since it was about an hour ride. We are boarding the ship in Arles where we have free time that first day and we set sail at 4:30 am. Our first stop is Port Saint Loius and this will also be our first active excursion choice.
Let me back up a little to explain what makes this cruise different from an ordinary Rhone Cruise. This is an Active Discovery cruise and it is the first time Avalon is doing this type on the Rhone. For all my Disney fans Adventures by Disney is doing something very similar next year (so I am sort of giving you a preview of what that might be like). On your typical river cruise you will have maybe 1 or 2 included excursions to choose from each day and most times they will be a pretty basic walking tour of the city you are stopped in. On the Active Discovery cruise we had at least 3 included options, and most times more than that. There is always the Classic type option similar to what is offered on the regular cruises. We also had Discovery options where you are doing a bit more hands on and in depth learning about something in the area, such as painting where Van Gogh painted or making your own chocolate bar. There is also an Active option which includes things like Biking, Hiking, and Canoeing.
Our first Active choice was for biking in the Camargue Regional Nature Park. I was expecting a scenic bike ride along the nature park where we might see the pink water along with the flamingos and wild horses. I was wrong, it turned out to be a rather strenuous 15 mile ride in total. We biked to a ferry that took us across the river over to the park and then we biked pretty much to the end of the park which was close to the delta of the river. Here we got off the bikes and walked through some areas of the park to see birds and learn more about the landscape. It was interesting to learn that the land we were standing on came down from the Alps and really is only a few hundred years old. Before that the area we were standing on was under the Mediterranean Sea. After that we hopped back on the bikes to go back the same way we came. The wind was not cooperating at all and actually seemed to shift just in time to be in our face both coming and going making the ride less enjoyable. After this ride I am not sure I would sign up for another Bike Ride on an Active cruise without asking how far we will be going. Some of the other options for today were a hike around the nature park which we heard was about 5K and doesn't sound like they saw much more than we did. Another option was a visit to the Oyster farm on the nature park.
After lunch the ship headed out for us to sail through the Camargue a little before going back to Arles. It sounds like we are one of the only ships to do this. We arrived back in Arles in time for people to opt to eat dinner in town if they chose. We headed to bed early after that exhausting bike ride and a hike on the schedule the next day.
Greetings from France (technically I am writing this in the Orlando airport while I am waiting to board my flight but by the time you get this email I will be floating on the Rhone River). I was going to write about how traveling with a group is always more fun and it got me thinking about this group cruise I am taking now. When I chose this cruise to be my first attempt at taking small groups on a trip I chose this cruise because it was one of Avalon's new Active Discovery cruises. Having already done a river cruise I knew how amazing they are but Avalon has taken it up a notch. I will write more about that in my next blog so stay tuned. After getting a few people to join me on this one I already started looking ahead and have set up 2 more small group cruises set up for 2020.
I just had an Oprah moment when I realized all 3 of these cruises have one thing in common - they all include some of my favorite things. This French River cruise includes 3 of my most favorite things - Chocolate, Lavender, and Disney! OK so it won't be lavender season in France while I am there but still excited to visit the area where it grows the best. Disneyland Paris was an add on I chose to include at the end of the trip so while it wasn't part of the river cruise package that is one of the perks of traveling with your own agent - she can take care of setting up a unique package for you so that everything is stress-free and as seamless as possible.
The February 2020 cruise in the Sea of Cortez includes my favorite animals - whales (and even better baby whales). Growing up I always dreamed of becoming an marine biologist so this will be my chance to be one for a week. The April 2020 river cruise includes my favorite flowers - tulips (yes it is even called Tulip Time cruise so we will see tons of them). Do you have a favorite thing that you would like to make a part of your next vacation? Let me know and we can look into setting something amazing up.
I wish I could have another Oprah moment and say - " You get a cruise, and you get a cruise, and you get a cruise!" but I cannot do that but the next best thing I can do is say you get your own personal travel agent to travel with you if you pick one of my group cruises.
We flew out of Orlando at 9:30 pm and connected in Amsterdam on our way to Marseille. We took advantage of an airfare promotion through Avalon and I have to admit I usually don't go for those kind of offers because it tends to limit your ability to choose your flights and I am always afraid of having too many connections. Avalon's air deal was really good because they let me look over all the possible flights for that offer and choose the one I wanted. I was very happy to find we could take advantage of the promotion and have just the one connection.
After our last flight to Europe where we were delayed getting out of Orlando and missed our connection in Newark and had to change our plans I was very happy that our first leg at least got us to Europe. Our flights went smoothly and we arrived in Marseille without any problems. We arrived the day prior to our cruise which is important on a trip like this in case of any flight delays and also to deal with the jetlag. I added our hotel and airport transfers to our cruise reservation so it was all one seamless package which it totally worth it. I know I maybe could have booked a less expensive hotel and set up our own transportation from the airport but having it all as part of the package means you really do not have to think at all after getting off your long overnight flight where you most likely didn't get much sleep. We simply got our luggage and rolled through immigration and there on the other side was an Avalon rep holding a sign ready to take our bags and lead us to the van. We were the only ones arriving at the time so it was our own private van.
In about 30 minutes we pulled up to our hotel and I have to say it was a WOW moment as the hotel was beyond what I was expecting. It was a large impressive old building from the 18th century and to me it looked like a palace. I was very happy I chose to go with the cruise package hotel since I probably never would have booked this hotel on my own. Even though we were tired we figured best to just push through and go see some of Marseille now since we do not have a lot of time tomorrow before we have to head to the ship. We found some great pizza and gelato and then headed up to the church on top of a hill that looked down over the city. It wasn't an easy walk but we made it to the top just in time for a beautiful sunset. It was the perfect start to our French Adventure!
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