Over the years I have been on a number of river and ocean cruises, and have found that both have their selling points. However, for me, when it comes to destination immersion, a river cruise takes some beating.
To pull up on Uniworld‘s SS Catherine and be right in the middle of Lyon is fantastic. The same can be said of Amsterdam, Cologne, Paris and a number of other beautiful cities around the world. Once you are based in the middle of the city (on the river no less, undoubtedly of its biggest landmarks), the world is your oyster. See the museums, palaces and shopping areas while knowing that your hotel is only a short walk away. If you’re in one of the bigger destinations then there’s a good chance you’re doing an overnight too. You are part of the action. Suddenly, you’re not going on just one city break, but a series of them, as you conquer an entire region.
Having left Lyon, and the confluence of the Saone and Rhone rivers, we took the latter south, towards the Rhone valley, one of the most famous wine-making regions in the world.
Our day would be spent in Tournon and Tain-l’Hermitage, tiny villages that sit either side of the river and are accessible by a rather 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 year for the wine harvest. The 2015 vintage, we are told, will be one of the best in decades.
Having been given a taste for the active excursions in Lyon we opt for the same again here. Today it will be a 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. The mountainous terrain of the valley means we are equipped with Nordic walking sticks and are told to wear “sensible shoes” for a hike that will take about four hours.
Wine runs through the arteries of the Rhone valley like rivers run through a country. Every place you look there are the perfectly ordered flanks of the vineyards, which capture the sun for most of the day. The tiniest difference in sunlight, exposure to the wind and rain has a butterfly effect on the wine, not to mention 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. As with each excursion, the tour is done through microphones that Uniworld has provided, meaning you don’t have to strain to hear – or attempt to keep up with a guide who climbs the hills like a mountain goat. You simply tune in and pay attention.
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, stretching out below.
Our first real introduction to the wine of southern France has not been a disappointing one. We head back to the ship and are delighted to hear that dinner that evening will be served with wines from the region itself.
It is a small, but great touch that goes some way to showing the quality of Uniworld’s product.
We just need to make sure that we enjoy our wine responsibly…