For six nights and seven days, the 22 berth MS Anne-Marie, a luxurious hotel barge, departs from Arles into the rivers and canal that run through Europe’s largest delta.
This is France’s Wild West with its very own cowboys. The gardian, leathered and wearing their own take on a Stetson, sit astride their white horses to round up the black bulls grazing in the Camargue. Exploring a hauntingly beautiful land sliced by the Grand Rhone and Petit Rhone rivers, the purpose-built hotel barge sails from Arles to Sète.
Excursions pass reed-thatched cottages with Mistral weathered blue and green shutters. Flamboyances of flamingos feed on shrimps in the rose-tinted pools. Drawn to Arles by the light and vibrant colour, artists Gauguin and Van Gogh quarrelled over how best to represent the vivid colours of the Provençal palette. Small and intimate, the 11 cabin Anne-Marie, sedately cruises beneath egrets and ospreys to show guests the highlights of Provence.
Six crew meet us quayside to take our cases onboard and guide us to our cabins. Speaking impeccable English, the purser welcomes us aboard with a toast of Kir Royale.
Canapés of saucisson d’Arles, a sausage made with local pork and beef, signal that this will be a gourmet voyage.
Large windows in a smart and compact cabin give panoramic views of the river and the passing Provençal landscape. Above the two single beds there is a wall-mounted satellite television.
A small desk is ideal for writing postcards home as the rivers meander toward the Mediterranean. Every cabin has a thermostat to regulate the temperature to personal taste.
A bright white bathroom provides a spacious shower and white towels. Toiletries are by Croisi.
Essentially, the Anne-Marie is a floating French village. Beneath the sun parasols, on the bistro-style tables, are pots of pink geraniums.
As the day lengthens, the café transitions into a bar and some guests take their prosecco into the jacuzzi. As French as the pain-au-chocolat for breakfast, the ship even carries a set of boules for onshore evening games.
An elegant waiter-service restaurant is at the heart of the ship. Once a week, a meal is served al fresco. Before lunch and dinner, Jonathan Nicoise, the chef, proudly announces the menu in both English and French. His menu, adapting as the seasons develop, introduces Provence on a plate and through its wines. Seafood comes fresh from France’s largest fishing port at Sète. Beef for the gardianne de taureau – a red wine, beef, onion and orange casserole – is sourced from the region’s famous black bulls.
When moored at rampart-walled Aigues-Mortes, the only possible dessert is the town’s famous fougasse speciality: a light focaccia-like dough served with crème anglaise. At lunch and dinner, guests are introduced to a selection of the region’s wines. Although there is a choice of red, rosé and white, deep in the sunny south of France, the rosé is often the diners’ choice. As long as he is given notice, the chef can adapt to meet individual tastes: catering for vegans, vegetarians, allergies or simply tastes.
Before the ship sails from Arles, a morning excursion heads to a farm where every autumn over 10,000 olive trees are shaken to harvest the crop. Tasting olive oils reveals the subtle differences the blend of olives makes, sometimes slightly bitter, sometimes with spicy notes.
A guided tour explores the ancient limestone town of Arles, known as Little Rome for its amphitheatre and surviving Roman relics. Van Gogh blues and yellows have helped make the town a destination for international photographers.
The next day the ship heads into the remote salty marshes of the Camargue. White horses gallop past and bird song carries from bank to bank. Prawns feed on the pink algae in the water. When the flamingos consume those prawns their plumage turns pink, particularly as the mating season approaches.
An excursion heads to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a coastal town that celebrates two Maries. One Marie, tragically died of heat-stroke in futile pursuit of her love. Below the fortified church’s altar, there is an unofficial shrine to the Gypsy Queen with worshippers asking her to make their wishes come true.
Sailing on into the Rhone – Sète Canal, the MS Anne-Marie heads for picturesque rampart-walled Aigues – Mortes. A central statue remembers Saint Louis, the pious French king, who made the town his departure port for the Crusades.
The “waters dead” have silted up and the town is five kilometres from the coastline, though now there is a canal to the Mediterranean. A tour of the town concludes with a train through the otherworldly landscapes of the salt flats and the spectacular photography displayed in the salt museum.
As the voyage continues another excursion takes in the manades where bulls are bred. A visit to a string of lagoons at Étang de Thau showcases oyster farming.
Other nice touches
Every wardrobe hosts cycling helmets. Bikes, parked on the top deck, are available to cycle along the towpath for a few miles.
Pre-lunch and pre-dinner aperitifs bring guests together to talk over their adventures.
Departing 15th October 2022 or on various dates between March and August 2023, prices for the seven-day cruise between Arles and Sète start from £2,380 per person. That price includes all meals and drinks, all excursions, use of onboard bicycles and port taxes but excludes flights. For an additional charge, CroisiEurope can provide transfers from airports, usually Marseille or Montpelier, and railway stations.
The best bit
A CroisiEurope river cruise takes the stress and strain out of travel. Whilst guests eat, sunbathe or sleep the ship serenely sails on to the next destination.
Carefully planned excursions show cruisers the very best of the region, with experienced English speaking guides providing fascinating commentary.
The final verdict
French through and through, CroisiEurope brings Gallic style and panache to river cruising. Guests relax into the gentle slow-travel rhythms of a journey through some of France’s most spectacular landscapes. This is a cruise that explores a beautiful French region that is often overlooked.
Disclosure: Our voyage was sponsored by CroisiEurope.