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A Tale of Two Wanderers on a Drive and a River Cruise


Some initial musings about our Burgundy and Provence trip.
A friend asked me how EJ (my wife) and I enjoyed our April trip through Provence and Burgundy. My instant reply was, “It was fabulous!” Thinking about how shallow that answer might have sounded, I tried again to find words that best described our marvelous two-week driving and river cruise vacation... I blurted out, “Splendiferous!” Not much better.

After composing myself a bit, I went on, "It was one of the most rewarding trips we have ever experienced: romantic settings, historic villages, Roman influences, stunning scenery, all the great things that are so unique to traveling in France — remarkable food, great (and cheap) wines, a marvelous rivership, and some of the friendliest people one could ever encounter.

As I talked more with my friend about traveling through Provence & Burgundy, I thought: Premier does not as yet blog about things, maybe we should start here. I hope you enjoy reading about our journey. I hope you, too, will think about taking an amazing, easy trip to the south of France. This region is so different from Paris, you'll feel like you're in a different, less hurried, truly warm, and inviting part of the world.

We didn't really wander. We were on an exciting mission
to experience rivers, restaurants and chateaux.

One thing that is important to understand: this trip, including the river cruise, travels through two very distinct regions of France: Provence (in the south) and Burgundy (just to the north of Provence) (Map). Each region is unique unto itself: their own foods, wines, accents, history, and so on.

We decided to begin our adventure in Nice. Upon arrival, we picked up a rental car (more on that topic in a moment) and set out on our five indescribable nights in Provence. During our visit we indulged almost every sense a body can enjoy ultimately waddling into Arles to board our river ship the brand new, stunning Emerald Waterways Liberté. The ship overnights in Arles then sails north to Lyon, the reputed food capital of the world (It may just be!)

Before we go into details of the trip, I have to confess: I am a self-described “foodie.” My wife and I are not food snobs, more the “diner and dives” type folks who simply enjoy very well prepared, good food in a nice setting. My hobby is cooking and my wife is delighted I have taken control of our kitchen. I must also say, while we have enjoyed many fine meals around the world, we had never dined in a Michelin-starred restaurant before this trip. Our goal was to try three of them. We did and they were flat-out sensational in every way, but pricey. However, with a stronger dollar the prices were actually reasonable. Our second goal was to take a river cruise aboard the new Liberté on its first-ever sailing. The ship is outstanding and the crew well-trained — that was self-evident as they delivered outstanding service at every level (In fact, they had only been together for about 10 days!). They really nailed every service component during our fun-filled seven nights on board. Remarkable to say the least.

Our drive across Provence. A funny thing happened on the way to the Chateau.
We love driving trips and felt exploring the south by car was a perfect way to start our vacation. Our third vacation goal was to indulge in a certain type of lodging that we also enjoy: country inn-style hotels or, as they call them in in Europe — a Chateau or Manor home.

Upon arrival in Nice, we picked up the rental car and set out for a small town named Grasse (pronounced grass). All started out well, but as they say experience is a great teacher! We tried to save money and got a car without a GPS system. DO NOT do that! The 25-mile drive to Grasse appeared simple and it would have been except for the road repair work where many of the highway signs out of the airport had been removed. I won’t bore you with the details, but some three hours later we finally arrived in Grasse looking for our first chateau — the impeccable Bastide St. Mathieu (View Gallery).

Grasse is a smallish place and while we had great Google driving instructions, we were LOST!
We kept driving in circles looking for a specific street, but after passing the same corner four times, I gave up and found a local policeman. With his halting English and my wife’s failing French, we showed him our Chateau on the iPhone map. He rolled his eyes (over and over), laughed and motioned us to follow him. He mounted his jazzed up police scooter and took off in a cloud of dust. While hard-pressed to keep up with him through the many turns, some 10-minutes later we arrived at the gates of our chateau. We thanked him profusely as he took off waving good-bye. Lesson learned, pay for a GPS in your car even if you have a Wi-Fi enabled smart phone.

The Bastide (which means country home) had 14 stunning, large rooms with varying views of the grounds and surrounding countryside. It’s a 15th-century manor house owned by a fascinating lady of Dutch ancestry named Soraya Colegrave. As it was off season, we were the only guests in the manor. We loved exploring the grounds and other open rooms; befriended the house cat; then drove down to the local market to pick up a fresh baguette, meats & cheeses, and a delightful, local Rhone wine. We enjoyed our picnic dinner on the patio of the immaculate chateau, just the three of us. One of the reasons for choosing this chateau is that we also wanted to explore the Gorges du Verdon (Frances version of the U.S. Grand Canyon). The next morning we set off for the canyon which was really interesting, but does not compare in size or grandeur to the U.S. Grand Canyon. But, it is beautiful and one can actually drive through it stopping along the route in about 2 hours. It’s well worth a visit.

On the road again. Oh boy, were we happy with our adventure!
Now, let’s talk about the next four splendiferous days we enjoyed traveling from the Gorges to when we boarded the Liberté in Arles. While we could talk for hours about the places we visited and the mind-altering hotels and meals we enjoyed, we’ll try to use just a few words and a few images. If you look at this MAP of the region, you can trace our drive from Grasse to Arles through some of the most scintillating sights, picturesque villages and hilltop towns in all of Provence. We selected all of the chateaux based on their location, the quality of the accommodations and, of course, their cuisine. Our selections did not disappoint!

In April, there were so few tourists that we truly did it all; never waiting in any lines for anything, not even a baguette. Our route to Arles began by heading west into the Luberon, one of the most picturesque areas in Provence with its plethora of vineyards, orchards and fascinating “perched” hill-top villages. We stayed in the tiny 16th-century village of Gordes at the impressive Ferme de la Huppe (View Gallery) chateau. The Luberon region is almost unknown to North American travelers and we found it to be a wonderful introduction to life in Provence. Our scrumptuous evening meal was taken in a local bistro where we interacted with the locals as the only Americans (every one spoke English) and the three course meal was a mere $16 or so per person including wine.

Leaving Gordes we headed for Avignon or should I say a little village just outside of Avignon called Villeneuve les Avignon and the Relais de Chateau for the evening, Le Prieuré (View Gallery). For those who have not visited the ancient Roman walled city of Avignon, it’s very busy and not a place to stay. We chose this Relais not only because it had a Michelin-rated restaurant, but because it is in a serene village just 5-minutes across the Rhone, totally away from Avignon's hustle and bustle of. The rooms were astounding, many with nice balconies upon which to enjoy an afternoon cocktail before heading downstairs to the Michelin-rated restaurant overseen by Michelin Chef Fabien Fages. The restaurant is the personification of French provincial flavors. Each and every course elicited an “OMG” from EJ and me. We felt like we had landed in the private kitchen of Paul Bocuse himself! The service and meal presentation was beyond words. At this point, it was the most impressive dining experience we had ever enjoyed, including their choice of wine pairings for each of our six courses. WOW, double-WOW!

Looking back, our location was perfect in all ways and allowed us to easily soak up a full day of touring the Avignon sights, best known for the Palace of the Popes. Avignon is a historic, very interesting city with so much to see and do. Again no lines; no waiting to go through the Palace. For lunch, we enjoyed another “unique experience” — one of France’s finest baguette sandwiches eaten on the steps of the Popes Palace where we were entertained by pigeons and serenaded by strolling musicians. Life is good, and this was truly special! (Lunch with water, about $10)

Three years of unique experiences all rolled into one evening.
After seeing most of the sights of Avignon, we took a short drive through the countryside to the charming hilltop village of Les Baux. This area and the village of Les Baux is described by many travel writers as the most beautiful in all of France and it may just be. We found Les Baux a fun place with many quaint restaurants (lunch), shops, street fairs, and again, no crowds; lots and lots of new, unique experiences.

We spent the evening at the Baumanière Les Baux de Provence (View Gallery) which has been owned by the Charial Family for over 50 years and is nestled in a beautiful valley just below Les Baux. As extolled by experienced France travelers, Baumanière is reputed to be the finest hotel in all of France. From what we experienced in our brief visit, they are most certainly right. Imagine being the featured “celebrity” on the TV show, "The Lives of the Rich & Famous," and I think you’ll get the picture. But, it’s so unpretentious and incredible that from time to time you have to remind yourself where you are. Fortunately, the strong dollar makes it a truly affordable stay. The chateau is more like a spa-resort than a hotel, with multiple buildings and casitas spread over some 100+ acres. They even grow their own veggies for their Michelin 3-star restaurant, L’Oustau de Baumanière (View Cuisine) which is overseen by Master Chef Jean-André Charial whom we met at dinner.

Now, not sure how to proceed in describing what was most certainly the “best meal of our lives,” so I’ll give you a short synopsis and a few images of our eight-course extravaganza. The restaurant is unpretentious but elegant; the tables comfortably spaced, not crowded together. Totally unexpected for such a world-renowned venue. After being seated and served a glass of champagne, Chef Charial came to our table, introduced himself, and engaged us in a very nice chat about our travels in France. He then proceeded to ask us about the types of food we liked and disliked, the kinds of wines we enjoy, and did we have any food allergies? He then thanked us for visiting his “home” and told us he would see us later. His personal attention and interaction with us was so cool!

Words cannot describe our next three hours and eight-courses of the most incomparable food you can imagine. All of the courses were accompanied by champagne and two bottles of wonderful, exquisitly paired local wine. It was like enjoying an 8-act play where each scene outdid the last and the finalé leaves you speechless. After sampling an array of mini-desserts, we reluctantly left the dining room ambling ever so slowly back to our room where we collapsed in a food coma. All I can say is: If you enjoy food and this place is not on your bucket list, you should throw away your list and start over!

Let the river cruise begin!
We selected Les Baux as our last stop for many reasons, but one was that it is only 30-minutes from Arles where we were to board our ship. Driving in other countries can be perceived as daunting, but this turned out to be a very easy driving trip. After our first day issues, the rest of the drive was a breeze. The French are not aggressive drivers and we traveled on exceptional, uncrowded back roads that were well-marked. The drives averaged about 3-4 hours which was very manageable, allowing time for plenty of leisurely stops. Upon arrival in Arles, we checked in on the ship eaving our luggage, then left to turn in the car. On the way back to the ship, we had a nice local lunch then returned to the Liberté (Deck Plan) to freshen-up in our spacious, well-appointed French balcony stateroom. We soon left the ship again to explore Arles, a historic, medieval and smallish city. It is a very easy walking city with lovely, narrow cobbled streets, Roman ruins, beautiful parks, and really nice local restaurants. The ship was docked a mere 5-minute walk from Arles most important sight: their Roman Coliseum which is modeled after Rome's, but about a third the size. Arles' is almost completely intact and makes for a nice easy tour. By touring the Coliseum on our own that afternoon, it opened up other touring options offered by the ship for the following day. We loved Arles and all of the stops that our river ship made along the Rhone and Saone rivers.

One of the best take-aways of this trip is that it enabled us to completely revise our "Premier Thoughts" on Burgundy and Provence. Every customers booking this cruise will receive the new, expanded version (25+ pages!). Our Burgundy and Provence "Thoughts" is a must for anyone traveling this region and, of course, free to all of our customers. In this "Thoughts," we highlight all the best tours to enjoy, some great local restaurants for lunches off the ship and many interesting tidbits you’ll want to know while enjoying your river cruise.

A few highlights about the stops we made on our 7-night river cruise.
Avignon is a sensational stop and offers touring of the old walled-city including the Papal Palace and Pont Saint-Benezet, but you can also journey out to the incredible Pont du Guard Roman aqueduct.

Tournon is in the heart of the wine district and offers wine touring of Glun and if you're lucky to have some spare time, visit the chocolate factory as well.

Macon, in the Macon region of France offers not only wine lovers sightseeing, but a complete walking tour of Macon and its fabled General Hospital, plus an afternoon tour up to the Abbey at Cluny that is a must.

If you like photography, the photo museum in Chalon-Sur-Saone is also a must and one of the best in the world. It is a wonderful walking city, and you'll have a chance to visit Beaune in the afternoon. Here, you can visit the impressive Hospices de Beaune (now a museum), one of the most unusual and enlightening places you will visit during your cruise. The city is a hub of local activity and wine auctions and offers incredible lunch opportunities and the chance to buy their delicious local mustard.

Our cruise concluded in Lyon, the food capital of France. The ship overnights, so you can explore and tour this outstanding city at your leisure. It’s also the place where the Rhone and Saone rivers converge at a triangle near where your ship will dock. All river ships overnight in Lyon so that you can experience this truly remarkable and historic city. We believe you are best served by extending your visit for 1 or 2 additional nights as there is so much to see and do.

View Emerald Waterways "Sensations of Southern France" river cruise day-by-day-itinerary.

After our cruise, we just had to stay at one more incredible chateau!
At the conclusion of our cruise, we indulged ourselves yet again at the Cour Des Loges (View Gallery), a breathtaking 15th-century hotel perched right in the center of Lyon's medieval, Old Town area. We could wax on poetically about Lyon, but suffice it to say: we toured, we ate, ate some more, and loved this great historic, easy to walk city. A few of the must see sights of Lyon are the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere, the hilltop church that overlooks all of Lyon and abuts the cities Roman Amphitheatre and ruins. Another must and well-covered in our Premier Thoughts is the indescribable Paul Bocuse Marketplace which is an easy walk from the ship. Not only does the chef have a cooking school there, but within the two-story complex are some of the most unusual food stalls and restaurants you can imagine. You MUST go here for lunch! We’ll tell you which ones to try, as it has over 100 different types of food emporiums to choose from, and there jus isn't enough time to sample them all. If you're a foodie, like we are, it will be the highlight of your visit.

All-inclusive Emerald Waterways and Premier.
Emerald’s included tours covered all the bases. Their tour guides were some of the most knowledgeable and well-spoken we have ever enjoyed. Emerald Waterways does a great job at a very affordable price, and you won't want for anything on this or any other Rhone and Saone river cruise. The cruise operates (as do all lines) in both directions, and a pre- or post-cruise hotel stay in Nice or Paris can easily be added.

I've really enjoyed sharing our April drive and river cruise adventure with you. If you would like to have us arrange a similar dream vacation and driving trip, Premier can do it all: destinations, restaurants, chateaux, and river cruise itineraries featured in this article. Just a footnote here: while this trip is absolutely for anyone who enjoys fun, wonderful touring, incredibly warm locals, beautiful rivers and gorgeous riverships (View our Liberté Photo Gallery)... it’s even better if you enjoy good food. We do suggest it is best enjoyed by two or more couples and if possible, plan for the Spring or Fall to avoid the crowds.

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