A better class of booze cruise: The joys of wine tasting on the Rhone

A better class of booze cruise: Grape picking and wine tasting on the Rhone make a vintage break

  •  Lesley Bellew boards MS William Shakespeare on the River Saone for a cruise with Riviera Travel 
  •  She stops for a wine tasting in the Burgundy wine capital of Beaune, sampling young whites and fruity reds
  •  Lesley gets the chance to explore Arles and Avignon when the cruise meaders on to the Rhone River

Harvest time in Burgundy and the grape pickers are taking a morning rest from their toils with the help of baguettes and wine.

The sun is high and music blares from a radio but not as loudly as the banter. Working in pairs, one trims the vine leaves while another fills a basket, harnessed to their back, before emptying bunches of chardonnay grapes into a small trailer.

Here in Puligny Montrachet, in eastern France, it is precious cargo — only wine from hand-picked grapes can carry the Grand Cru label. It’s a rare opportunity to watch the centuries-old harvest on the 50-mile Route des Grands Crus, which runs along the foot of the Cote d’Or escarpment.

Lesley passes through Avignon on the banks of the Rhone River, pictured, on Riviera Travel’s tour 

Lesley finds that the passengers on Riviera Travel’s river cruise ship MS William Shakespeare, pictured, are all from the UK and full of joie de vivre

Passengers on Riviera Travel’s river cruise ship MS William Shakespeare are all from the UK and full of joie de vivre, joining an array of daily tours (included in the price). We stop for wine tasting in Cellier De La Cabiote, in the Burgundy wine capital of Beaune, trying young whites and fruity reds in the 17th-century cellars before walking in the market to find stalls overflowing with colourful late-summer produce.

Chestnuts, almonds, plums and tomatoes are piled high but the longest queue is for the truffle stall with shoppers tripping over Rae, a truffle-sniffing border collie, lazing on the pavement, while his owner, Gerauld Theibaut, and son Jordan do swift business selling seasonal nuggets of the black gold.

Across the road from the market is the Hotel-Dieu de Beaune, a former hospital for the poor, and one of the finest examples of 15th-century Burgundy architecture with glistening patterned roof tiles in black, green, red and gold.

We leave the beauty of the River Saone to sail on the Rhone, Europe’s most powerful river which rises in the Alps and empties into the Mediterranean. The glacial water is beautifully green and, as the river widens, Cotes du Rhone vineyards cling to the hillsides.

According to Lesley, the Hotel-Dieu de Beaune, pictured, is ‘one of the finest examples of 15th-century Burgundy architecture’

Lesley’s river cruise stops off in Arles, where the river divides into Great Rhone and Little Rhone. Pictured is the city’s old town

Our main entertainment is going through the locks. We count 18 from Lyon to Avignon, all masterpieces of engineering with the highlight being Bollene Lock, part of the Donzere-Mondragon hydroelectric dam. This fine example of 1950s Brutalist architecture is one of the deepest locks in Europe and we descend 75 ft into darkness.

With spotlights shining and the sound of water running down the walls, we enter what feels like a James Bond film set as Captain Michel Cartier navigates the ship within 8in either side of the lock walls. It’s nerve-racking to watch, let alone steer.

Capt Cartier, 36, from the Camargue, says he could ‘virtually steer a boat before walking’. His father was a fisherman and Cartier has spent his life on the Med and the Rhone, where he knows every bridge and lock ‘like the back of my hand’.

This is a relaxed cruise and we enjoy plenty of space as the 140-guest ship is half full while travellers take time to return to holidays on the Continent. Many are enjoying overseas travel for the first time since the pandemic and lapping up the opportunity to socialise and bask in sunshine. Most are ‘Riviera regulars’, having travelled on the company’s land tours and are now trying a river cruise. They are a friendly bunch and love the ship for its welcoming crew.

Lesley toasts the day with a glass of Cotes du Rhone at a pavement cafe in Place du Forum, pictured, where Van Gogh painted Starry Night

In Avignon – the tour’s last port of call – Lesley and her group spend a morning exploring the Palace of Popes (pictured) 


Lesley sailed on Riviera Travel’s Burgundy, the River Rhone & Provence cruise. The eight-day cruise on MS William Shakespeare on September 29 starts from £2,149 pp including flights, wifi, seven tours, all meals and a captain’s dinner (rivieratravel.co.uk, 01283 523431).

There’s a daily diary of outings, quizzes, dancing, port lectures and evening entertainment from a pianist.

‘Every lunchtime I promise myself salad but fail because there are so many temptations,’ says new-to-cruise passenger Lesley D’wan, from Lee, South-East London.

In Arles, where the river divides into Great Rhone and Little Rhone, we find the Saturday market. It’s a heady experience with scents of lavender, lemons, garlic and cheese while a jazz band plays and, bizarrely, cheers echo from crowds in the Roman amphitheatre where the French National Beach Volleyball championships are taking place. We toast the day with a glass of Cotes du Rhone at a pavement cafe in Place du Forum where Van Gogh painted Starry Night (Cafe Terrace).

For our last port of call in Avignon, we have our own starry night over the Rhone, a magical sail in to see the 14th-century city walls and towers bathed in golden light, reflecting on the river. In the morning, we walk to the Palace of Popes.

And that’s the true beauty of river cruising; you can step off the ship to discover Roman ruins, vineyards, markets, palaces and gardens, galleries and museums — or simply settle at the nearest bar to raise a glass to being back on the river. 

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