In May 2023, Natalie – part of our Marketing team in New Zealand – said ‘bonjour’ to France on our 8-day Active & Discovery on the Rhône river cruise with Avalon Waterways. Our Active & Discovery itineraries include a variety of excursions ranging from energetic experiences to interactive discoveries. Read on to see which were Natalie’s four favourite excursions from her time on the Rhône with Avalon.
1. No bull
Type of excursion: Discovery
For our first full day onboard, I chose to head into the nearby Camargue Regional Natural Park to a local bull ranch. It was a popular one as 40 other guests and I left the Avalon Poetry II promptly at 8:30am via coach with our fantastic guide, Aurelien. It was a fascinating route as Aurelien provided an informative and funny commentary along the way, from the small town of Port-Saint-Louis into the countryside. I learnt that the Camargue is perfect for growing wheat and three types of rice (red, black and white), and that the region holds three animals dear to its French heart – flamingos, horses and bulls. We only managed to spot a few dusky pink flamingos in the salt marshes, however it was much easier to spot horses roaming in the fields. Previously wild, this breed of horse is born brown, black or grey but turn white at around 4-5 years. A white coat gives them greater resistance to the hot summer sun, complete with long hair to protect themselves from mosquitoes and flies, and strong legs and wider-than-normal hooves to navigate walking through the marshes.
The Camargue region is home to 100 bull ranches, all manned by local cowboys and girls – manades, a name only used in this area. The bull ranch we visited is found just by Salin de Gerard, historically a salt factory town. Our coach parked in the middle of some charming farmhouses where five families used to live. One family now remains so the other farmhouses have been turned into guest accommodation which I thought would be a fabulous spot to enjoy a long French summer. This bull ranch farms rice, wheat, cereal grains, horses and bulls – of which we were lucky enough to see all! After a translated welcome to the ranch, we climbed onboard a carriage where we spent the next hour or so touring their land to see bountiful crops, some of the 200-odd bulls they own, and a mustering of the bulls. Finally, we finished with a tasting of homemade pate, tapenades, cured sausages and organic wine.
2. Heading for the hills
Type of excursion: Active
Day 2 saw us heading for the hills of Les Baux-de-Provence, ready to conquer the Val d’Enfer. Literally translated as the Valley of Hell, our Cruise Director (the witty Tony) told us that despite the name, the walk is not as arduous as you may think. Its name is inspired by the limestone rock formations in this area. The hike wasn’t easy nor hard. We walked a rocky path for about 45 minutes uphill so you do need a solid pair of walking shoes and to have an average level of fitness, however you can take the hike at your own pace. Our Adventure Host, Andrezito, was more than happy to stick with those who preferred a more leisurely pace. The views from the top of our hike were magnificent with green trees juxtaposed against the grey limestone formations. We even saw a castle built on top of an outcrop, supposedly owned by the Prince of Monaco.
Once we had descended, we walked to an old disused quarry to see the Carrières des Lumières – something I had been looking forward to since we booked this cruise! It was a truly magical audio/visual experience watching 17th and 20th century artwork by van Gogh, Vermeer and Mondrian projected onto the walls and floors, accompanied by the perfect soundtrack. Whilst I could have spent hours watching the show on repeat, we had just over an hour. This was definitely one of my favourite excursions from the cruise!
3. From palaces to produce
Type of excursion: Classic
Avignon is a quintessential south of France city. It has less small-town charm than Arles but is still well worth exploring. Its street signs feature both French and Provençal translations, even though Provençal isn’t a language anymore. Avignon is a fully walled city with four kilometres of impressive stone walls surrounding it.
I had seen many photos of the Palais des Papes, the historic Palace of the Popes, so it was only fitting that I chose the Classic walking tour of Avignon to see it in the flesh. Those who had opted for this excursion were split into two groups so we could easily make our way through Avignon. The tour took us on an easy loop from our ship to the Place de l’Horloge (the main square), the Palace of the Popes, Sant Didier church, Les Halles market and back.
Rounding a corner to find the Palace of the Popes in front of me was surreal. Our Local Guide, Cami, took us through its fascinating history. The French King had too much power so the Pope at the time decided to move from Rome to Avignon – a prime location to move between the two cities given its proximity to the Italian border. Two Popes lived and died in Avignon before the third, Pope Benedict XII, decided to begin construction of a palace in 1335. The following Pope (Clement VI) built a second addition so what you see today is made up of two Gothic builds. The Palace of the Popes became one of the largest, and most important, Gothic buildings in Europe. We literally walked through history through the palace’s banquet hall, the Pope’s bedroom, his office and an acoustically pleasing, high-ceilinged chapel.
To round off the walking tour, we had a brief stop at Les Halles market where local vendors sell fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, meat and baked goods. To whet our appetite for the daily lunch buffet onboard our ship, we were given a takeaway lunch box with a bread roll, bread sticks, three types of tapenades, cheese, charcuterie meats, sundried tomatoes and olives. Bon appetit!
4. Cooking up a storm
Type of excursion: Discovery
Given Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, it would have been amiss not to partake in a foodie-related excursion. Unfortunately, the Bites & Highlights food walking tour was at capacity by the time we embarked however, there was still space on the Lyonnais cooking class Discovery excursion which I was still excited about.
It was a fairly long excursion (almost four hours) but given the amount of food we made, it was understandable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to go through it any faster. Our chef, Matthew, was charming and patient, flitting back and forth between those prepping, blitzing, mixing and cooking without breaking a sweat. By the end of the class, we had made:
- Two types of light-as-a-feather choux pastry (a sweet choux topped with craquelin, filled with Chantilly cream, and a savoury cheesy choux)
- A trio of dips: beetroot hummus, olive tapenade and the classic Lyonnais specialty, cervelle de canut (a cheese-based dip with shallots, herbs, garlic and olive oil)
- Savoury pancakes (a cross between a crepe and galette) which we individually filled with the dips, rolled up and sliced
- Moreish crackers to go with the trio of dips (or equally as delicious on their own)
- A perfectly seared beef tataki with teriyaki dipping sauce (not quite French, but the perfect accompaniment to the beef)
Suffice to say, we came back with very full stomachs and no room for lunch!
I thought the included excursions to choose from had a wide range, from catering to those who wanted a more hands-on experience to those who were keen to add movement to their exploration to those who liked to get a feel for the port we had docked in. Whilst the river cruise was 8 days long, these were my four favourite excursions from my time on the Rhône with Avalon. I highly recommend the Active & Discovery on the Rhône cruise so take a look for yourself today!