A seven-day, six-night river and canal cruise takes passengers through the Camargue’s unique delta landscape. This is slow travel at its very best, a sedate voyage through the Grand Rhône, the Petit Rhône and the Canal du Rhône à Sète. Cruisers take in the Camargue’s big sky views as the wetlands slide towards the Mediterranean.
The Camargue is like no other region in France, let alone Europe. Flamingos wading in shimmering ponds, pink-tinged salt flats, storks nesting in trees, white horses galloping through the spray, marsh reed thatched cottages and black bulls grazing – all of these mark out the Camargue as a remote and hauntingly beautiful landscape.
One week, the epic Charming Provence cruise sails south-west from Arles, known as Little Rome, for its well-preserved amphitheatre. The next week, the hotel barge sails from Sète on the Mediterranean coast, heading north-east to Arles.
Purpose built as a small hotel barge in 2014, the MS Anne-Marie is the very essence of French life. Carrying a maximum of 22 passengers in just 11 cabins, there is a friendly, intimate atmosphere on this floating French hamlet. Cabins have panoramic windows, though, as the design is barge inspired, the rooms are compact. En-suite bathrooms have showers with good water pressure and room to dry off after a shower.
By the bow, sun-umbrellas shade half-a-dozen bistro style tables. Drinks are included, so some passengers rise early to sip a coffee at this impromptu café as morning mists rise from the river, while others enjoy a night-cap long after the sun has set. If there is a chill in the air, perhaps even a touch of the famed and feared Mistral, guests gather in the indoor lounge by the bar.
By the sun-loungers on the top deck there is a mini-Tour de France style bike-park. Often the MS Anne-Marie moors up by a tempting towpath of easy scenic cycling, and when the ship moors up alongside any area of gravel that could pass for a court, the purser is always keen to whip out the boules set.
Next to the café-bar, a hot tub provides a decadent way of watching the Provencal countryside slip by and the sun set.
Food and drink
Aperitifs, served before lunch and dinner, become a much-loved part of the day’s routine and ritual. As a former wine-taster, purser Hans has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the aperitifs which he shares in immaculate English and French. Hans even has two names for a tasty blend of two parts burgundy wine and one part blackcurrant: Communard from red-wearing lefties or Cardinale from crimson robe-wearing clergy.
This is a culinary voyage through the tastes of Provence, and before lunch and dinner, chef Jonathan Nicoise announces the menu in the elegant light restaurant.
A four-course lunch always starts with a crisp salad and the day’s chosen dressing. Close to the Med, seafood from France’s largest fishing port at Sète, often provides the main course. A choice of red, rosé and white wine is offered with both lunch and dinner. Lunch always includes cheese, obviously served before dessert in these parts. Every day, with two cheeses offered, diners take a tour of France’s great cheeses. Ossau-Iraty, an award-winning Occitan-Basque cheese made from sheep milk, was many diners’ favourite.
Breakfast is buffet-style with plenty of fresh fruit, croissants and pain au chocolat. A waitress is on hand to pour coffee and take orders for eggs.
There is a culinary theme to some of the excursions too. Before the trip calls in on Arles, cruisers are introduced to the art of blending different species of olives into olive oil at the Moulin de Coquille: a farm where over 10,000 olive trees are shaken for their olives every autumn.
Arles’ link with Van Gogh and its annual international photography competition make the town a magnet for art lovers. Although Van Gogh’s house was obliterated in 1944, his strong blues and yellows still feature throughout the town.
On the coast, an excursion, takes in the lagoon at The Étang de Thau which farms some of France’s finest oysters. Guided oyster tasting, on one of the most serene stretches of France’s coastline, is an optional experience.
Through the ages, salt has been key to both preserving food and providing taste. A tour of the salt flats, with a backdrop of the sturdy ramparts of Aigues-Mortes, is a photographer’s dream. Photos capture salt hills reflected in the pink algae tinged lakes.
Walled by 1.6 kilometres of well-preserved medieval ramparts, the name of Aigues-Mortes literally translates as ‘waters dead’. After the river silted up, the town found itself five kilometres from the Med, until a new canal restored sea access.
Back in the 13th century, the port was a departure point for Crusaders heading to the Holy land but nowadays life around its pedestrianised cobbled streets, cafés and restaurants is far quieter.
One memorable excursion takes in Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, classified as one of the most beautiful villages of France.
In a nutshell
A gourmet cruise through one of France’s most beautiful, but often over-looked, regions. Small-ship cruising on the MS Anne-Marie is quintessentially French, taking cruisers through charming French towns to a spectacular Mediterranean coastline.
Departing 15th October 2022 or on various dates between March and August 2023, prices for the seven-day cruise between Arles and Sete start from £2,380 per person for the cruise with all meals and drinks, all excursions, use of onboard bicycles and port taxes. Price excludes flights.
Call CroisiEurope on 020 8328 1281 or visit croisieurope.co.uk