The 500-mile-long Rhone-Saone river, which wends its way through Provence and the heart of French wine country before flowing into the Mediterranean near Marseilles, provides one of the world's most memorable cruise experiences.
Named originally by the Celts, who called it Rodo ('that which rolls'), this mighty river starts its course in the Saint-Gotthard massif, near the Rhone Glacier in Valais, Switzerland. It eventually flows west through Lake Geneva before entering France.
At Lyon, the Rhone and Saone rivers meet (or 'kiss', as those incorrigible old romantics, the French, like to put it). But the river divides again at Arles, becoming the "Grand Rhône" and the "Petit Rhône" - both of which course down to the Mediterranean via the Camargue, a spectacular river delta famed for its distinctive horses and bulls.
As the only major European river that ends in the Mediterranean - the Rhine River empties into the North Sea and the Danube River into the Black Sea - this ravishing French waterway shares many characteristics with that sunny sea's warm, scented shores. A cruise along the Rhone-Saone's stretch of navigable waters will carry you past verdant vineyards, lush olive and orange groves, and fields of fragrant purple lavender.
It will also take you through spectacular locks (known locally as ecluses) and introduce you to world-famous wineries, ancient walled towns, atmospheric monasteries and magnificent Papal palaces which once lay at the epicentre of medieval Christendom.
And for bon viveurs, a Rhone sailing is quite simply a trip to heaven and back, for this river provides a magnificent introduction to all that is great about la vie Francais, from the fine wines of Beaune, Macon and Chateauneuf du Pape to the spicy mustards of Dijon and the fabulous maritime cuisine of southern France.Rhone River Cruise Lines
The Rhone is a popular and very busy river; more than 320 cruise departures will take place in the 2015 cruise season, which stretches from March until December.
Companies offering Rhone and Saone cruises on owned or chartered vessels include CroisiEurope, Riviera Travel, Tauck, A-ROSA, Titan, Viking River Cruises, Uniworld, AMA Waterways, Avalon Waterways, Luftner Cruises, Fred. Olsen, Saga Cruises and Swan Hellenic.Choosing a Rhone River Cruise Itinerary
Itineraries range from three- and five-night hops to seven-, eight- and nine-night sailings, with a week on board being the most usual option.
A good introduction to the Rhone would be a simple seven-night sailing round-trip from Lyon, featuring the main Rhone river ports of Macon (in the heart of the wine country): Chalon-sur-Saone (gateway to the historic wine capital of Beaune, and to Burgundy's beautiful medieval villages), Avignon (historic medieval seat of Popes) and Viviers (entrance to the spectacular Ardeche region).Best Time to Go on a Rhine River Cruise
The Rhone river cruising season stretches from March until December. Southern France is at its most gloriously sunny in the summer months (June to late September). Its proximity to the Mediterranean means even late spring and autumn can be balmy, provided the Mistral does not blow fierce.
This wind - whose name means 'Master', as the locals believe it can master their moods and make them depressed or irritable - funnels down the Rhone Valley from the Swiss Alps. It can make the river both chilly and choppy, as Mistral winds can reach up to 95 miles an hour as they stream from the Alps towards the French Riviera and the Gulf of Lyon.
In the winter months, the Mistral can blow for weeks at a time and its icy flow can seem never-ending, but it can also strike in the spring and autumn months; in Provence, it blows on average on 100 days in every year. So always pack a warm jacket if cruising the Rhone in the shoulder season, just in case.Rhine River Port Highlights
Lyon: Known in France as La Ville de Gueule (Gourmet Town), Lyon may be the country's second city after Paris, but is very much the first in culinary circles. And it's the absolute highlight of a Rhone-Saone cruise.
Set in the heart of Beaujolais country and endowed with a 1st-century Roman amphitheatre, a beautiful medieval-to-Renaissance Old Quarter and a striking 19th-century Basilica, Lyon is a delight simply to stroll or cycle around, thanks to its beautiful bridges, imposing squares and peaceful parks.
The city's atmospheric Old Quarter is a definite don't miss, as is a stroll up Fourviere Hill to take in its panoramic views spanning Roman ruins, the Basilica and La Tour Metallique, Lyon's (smaller) version of the Eiffel Tower.
Lyon is easy on the eyes both day and night. The downtown area is embellished with myriad trompe l'oeil murals and frescoes depicting the city's history, some of which are painted on a vast scale, stories high. And at night, more than 150 of its most beautiful buildings are lit up by the magical 'Lyon Illuminations', which include color and image projections.
Many tour options are available in Lyon. Some river operators offer gourmet tours around the stalls, bars and restaurants of the city's Les Halles food market. Other tours will show you the secret passages of the silk weavers' Vieux Lyon, ending with a demonstration of their art on a Jacquard loom.
The city is also perfect for cycle tours, as it's laced with cycling paths suitable for all levels of ability. If you want to explore further afield, it's also an option to tour to the vineyards of Beaujolais.
Avignon: The glorious City of the Popes - the medieval heart of Christendom - is as important a call on the Rhone as Lyon. Must-dos here include a stroll around the city's medieval ramparts and a tour of the multiple galleries, chapels and chambers of the magnificent Papal Palace. (There's an excellent multilingual audio-presentation to go along with your tour.)
A visit to the 12th-century Pont St Benezet (which inspired the charming French nursery song Sur le Pont d'Avignon) is another highlight. And Avignon itself is worth exploring for its quaint cobbled alleys, offbeat shops and stately squares.
For repeat visitors (or those who prefer the Great Outdoors to history trails), alternative tours offered from here include kayaking expeditions along the nearby Gardon River.
If you have the time, don't miss a visit to nearby Chateauneuf-du-Pape, home to the world-famous wine which has been cultivated here since Pope Clement V, former Archbishop of Bordeaux, relocated the papacy to the city of Avignon in 1308 and decided to develop viticulture in the surrounding region.