France’s rivers flow past vineyards, scenery immortalised by Monet and cities ranging from Paris to Lyon to Carcassone and French river cruises sell themselves on an onboard experience encompassing top-notch gastronomy and wine.

“Clear trends in French river cruising are for more wellness amenities, varied dining options, themed itineraries (not least art) culinary and wine and a wider array of excursions in a bid to draw younger and/or more active travellers”

ALBERT AIRD, RIVER CRUISE TOUR DIRECTOR

Epicurean delights

Burnt toast? Surely not, for this intimate gourmet hotel barge cruise on the Canal du Midi has a Michelin-trained chef on board.

Fortunately, chef Vivien isn’t at fault. Burnt toast is one of the answers in a fun wine quiz organised by Sandra, the sommelier, who puts our noses to the test, sniffing out the delights of truffle, lemon, and blackberry.

At each meal she highlights the origins, grapes and complexities of Languedoc’s excellent wines and others from France (naturellement) that accompany each dish. It is fine dining at its best.

Cocoa foie gras is served with citrus confit, blue lobster with avocado and the tenderest hay-smoked beef tenderloin comes with candied potatoes.

Mornings are spent pootling along the 17th-century Canal du Midi at 2-4 km an hour, past neat vineyards, wading waterfowl, charming chateaux and ancient locks, including the steep flight of seven locks at Fonserranes. Captain Laurent navigates Anjodi through with ease.

On afternoons, our guide, Fabian, takes us in search of Cathars and Crusaders at fortified Minerve, where 140 Cathar martyrs were killed, before guiding us around Carcassone, with its fairy-tale turrets.

Back on board, I relax in the hot tub and await yet another gastronomic feast.

The good life

“The main drivers for our French itineraries are gastronomy, wine and culture,” says John Fair, UK Sales Director at CroisiEurope. And they took centre stage during my journey with European Waterways too, but wellness, cookery classes, cycling and art are also on the menu to attract younger travellers.

Albert Aird, River Cruise Tour Director and a CLIA UK & Ireland contributor, says: “Clear trends in French river cruising are for more wellness amenities, varied dining options, themed itineraries (not least art), culinary and wine and a wider array of excursions in a bid to draw younger and/or more active travellers.

“We also expect to see wider pre- and post-cruise extension options as more guests look to extend their destination-focused travel experience beyond the core cruise itinerary.”

CrosiEurope’s Fair agrees: “The French rivers are selling very strongly for 2019, particularly the Loire and the Rhone, where we’ve added a fourth ship. Our Seine and Bordeaux cruises are also proving popular while our six hotel barges that operate on the French canals have almost sold out.”

Guests are demanding more from their culinary experiences too. Ellen Bettridge, President and CEO of Uniworld, whose revamped Super Ship SS Bon Voyage has been inspired by the gastronomy of Bordeaux, says: “There was a time not so long ago, when one would never dream of bringing the chef front of house to cook with guests, but today our guests want to know where their food is sourced, about the local producers and to understand how a dish is prepared.”

Andy Harmer, CLIA UK & Ireland Director, says France’s famous rivers attract cruisers who have ‘done’ the big two – the Rhine and the Danube.

French waterways

The Seine: Begin and end in Paris. France’s second-longest river offers landscapes, the Palace of Versailles, Rouen, D-Day landing beaches and golf courses in Rouen and Étretat.
Book with: Riviera, Newmarket, Avalon, Viking, Uniworld, Amawaterways, APT and Scenic.

Rhone and Saone: Joining in historic Lyon, Saône cruises travel through Burgundy’s wine-growing region to Macon and Chalon while Rhône guests sail south through Provence. Highlights include Arles painting classes, wine-tasting in Beaujolais and Burgundy, and the UNESCO World Heritage Papal Palace in Avignon.
Book with: Riviera, Avalon, Viking, Emerald, Uniworld, APT, Amawaterways, Shearings Holidays (A-ROSA).

Garonne: The river flows through south-west France and into the Atlantic at Bordeaux, where the city’s hi-tech La Cite du Vin wine museum sits on the river bank. The Gironde Estuary is dotted with carrelets - traditional fishing huts on stilts with square-shaped nets which are lowered into the sea at high tide.
Book with: CroisiEurope, Viking, Shearings (CroisiEurope), Uniworld, APT, Amawaterways and Scenic.

Loire: The longest river in France, the UNESCO listed Loire Valle has vineyards and more than 1,000 chateaux on its banks.
Book with: Shearings, CroisiEurope, European Waterways and Le Boat.

Canal du Midi: Connecting the Atlantic with the Mediterranean, the region is famous for world-class vineyards and gastronomy, cathedrals, châteaux and medieval cities. Around €4million has been invested in the infrastructure following flooding last October.
Book with: European Waterways and Le Boat.

Itinerary add-ons: Suggest a pre- or post-cruise barge trip for a day or half-day and package it with an overnight hotel stay. These eco-friendly barges are popular in Picardy, Champagne and Burgundy.

Suggest Paris as a pre- or post-cruise stay for customers sailing on the Seine, plus there’s Disney Land Paris if they are travelling as a family.

Visit acclaimed chef Paul Bocuse’s three Michelin-starred L’Abbaye du Pont de Collonges in Lyon with APT or suggest a pre- or post trip.

Tour Monet’s extraordinary house and gardens in Giverny, Normandy and walk under weeping willows to the lily pond where he created his Water Lilies series.

What’s new

Ships: CroisiEurope has a new ship on the Rhône this year. The Rhône Princess is the line’s fourth ship to sail on the river. Cruises are all-inclusive.

Uniworld’s newest super ship, SS Bon Voyage, will sail on the Dordogne and Garaonne rivers from spring 2019. The upgraded vessel includes four new luxury suites, marble bathrooms a reconfigured gym and spa and a new outdoor swimming pool.

European Waterways is investing more than £400,000 on upgrading its hotel barges. Bedrooms have been redesigned on L’Impressionniste in Southern Burgundy and a new bar added to Enchanté on Canal du Midi.

The Horizon fleet of luxury river boats is now available across Le Boat’s operations in France.

Onboard activities: Scenic has introduced Scenic Culinaire, onboard cooking classes which enable guests the immerse themselves in the cuisine of the Rhône and Bordeaux region.

TV chef Luke Nguyen will host a cooking class on APT’s Grand Bordeaux cruise, and cook in an open kitchen at an exclusive dinner at the La Terrasse Rouge in Saint-Emilion.

Activities ashore: The interactive Cité du Vin wine museum in Bordeaux which opened in 2016, is new to AmaWaterways’ shore excursions.
Packages: Newmarket Holidays is working with A-ROSA this year. An eight-day all-inclusive Paris, Normandy and Seine cruise starts from £1,439pp including flights and transfers, for an April 13 departure.

Where to book it

Uniworld’s 22-day Ultimate France cruise aboard SS Bon Voyage starts from £8,599pp with accommodation, all meals and unlimited beverages onboard and excursions.

Riviera Travel has an eight-day Seine, Paris and Normandy cruise from £1,499pp which includes return flights or Eurostar and transfers, nine guided tours, full-board accommodation, and complimentary tea, coffee and wifi.