Destination focus: France
From bucolic rivers to the beautiful Riviera, France is a country that offers something for everyone. France cruises
From the white-chalk cliffs of Normandy down to the cobblestone fishing villages and exclusive beach resorts of the south, and everything in between, France is a country of remarkable diversity, in both scenery and culture. Paris may be the world’s third most popular city for tourists (after Bangkok and London, according to most recent figures), but there is plenty more to enjoy, whether that’s in the pretty boulevards of Lyon, the vineyards of Burgundy or the medieval lanes of Alsace. It’s not always acknowledged, but France is almost two and half times the size of the United Kingdom, giving it a geography that offers everything you could possibly want from a holiday.
A customer who wants to visit France has any number of options when it comes to cruise. Many mini-cruises, transatlantic voyages and even itineraries ostensibly focused on the British Isles, will call at Le Havre, the gateway to Paris. The port is actually 210km from the capital (a good two a half hours’ drive), but is an increasingly popular port of call, and a good no-fly option. Then there are river cruises on the Seine that usually start and end in Paris, a two-hour train journey on Eurostar. It’s always worth remembering that when customers ask about no-fly cruises, you’re not restricted to focusing on ex-UK departures, because of this high-speed rail link. It’s the reason why Tauck combines Paris cruises with a pre or post London stay (usually in the Langham, one of the finest examples of a grand hotel). Most itineraries head to Normandy, many with a focus on the poppy fields, 100 years on from the horrors of World War One. Uniworld has just added a ship, the Joie de Vivre (see Cruise Adviser’s June issue) on the Seine, which, with its ornate interiors, is a suitably luxurious way to enjoy the City of Light (particularly while sat at the gingham-clothed tables of Le Bistrot). With a length of 125m, rather than the more typical 135, the ship is able to dock nearer the action in the centre of the city, with the Eiffel Tower in full view.
It may be one of the best cities in the world to wander around, but those that embrace the excellent Metro system will be best rewarded. On a sunny day, the opulent Palace of Versailles (and particularly its gardens) is well worth a visit, although the delights of Paris are enough to hold one’s attention for a lifetime. Exploring the sprawling and magnificent Louvre could fill a week, and, given the queues, is often best saved for those who are rich of time. Of course, Paris would be a highlight of any itinerary, but there are other delights on the Seine: Giverny, home to Claude Monet’s house and garden, preserved since he was painting it around the turn of the 20th century.
The most popular rivers in France, however, remain the Rhône and Saône (although the Garonne and Loire are magnificent, too). The towns that line them may not be as famous as, say, Amsterdam or Vienna, but for bucolic charm, there is perhaps no better river cruise in Europe. Often these itineraries, which sail from Burgundy through lavender fields to Provence, are badged as food and wine specials, and there are no prizes for working out why. Again, with any cruise to France, it’s worth remembering the country’s excellent railway system makes getting to Lyon or Avignon, where these cruises call, incredibly easy (and, of course, customers can fly, too). Those who want more than just a casual enjoyment of the world’s most famous wine region can book trips that include in-depth vineyard visits, wine tasting, with onboard food and drink that is locally sourced.
Less well known are trips that take in Strasbourg, in the Alsace region, an area fought over by Germany and France for centuries. The result is a city where two cultures collide, and the language and cuisine are unique. Riviera Travel, for example, offers a cruise that begins over the border in Cologne and heads back to France on the Rhine.
For ocean-goers, ships call at Cherbourg, Rouen and Villefranche-sur-Mer (Nice) as well as Marseille. MSC Cruises runs a number of itineraries out of the latter, which usually take in the likes of Genoa, Civitavecchia (Rome) and Valencia on the round-trip. Marseille may not have the glitz and glamour of some of the towns and villages it shares the French Riviera with, but still has plenty to offer, not least incredible seafood, including bouillabaisse, which originated in the city.
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