We chose the Avalon "Grand France" cruise, which is a somewhat misleading term for a combination of two discrete cruises which are also sold separately. The first goes north on the Seine to Rouen on the Creativity, with bus excursions to the Normandy beaches, then back to Paris with stops at smaller cities along the way. The second heads south from Beaune on the Saone and Rhone Rivers to Arles on Creativity's sister ship, the Scenery. It end with a bus trip to Monte Carlo at the end for one night and an option to spend two nights Provence after that. Most of us went to Monte Carlo, then flew home from the nearby Nice airport.
The combination occupied two days of our trip on buses, one between ships on our return to Paris from Normandy, and the other from Arles to Monte Carlo for what amounted to only a few hours in that fabled but claustrophobic principality. Having already been to Paris and Normandy before this trip, we probably should have eliminated the northern cruise on the Seine and taken the southern cruise with the extension to Provence. Given Avalon's premium prices, this would have been a better use of our vacation time.
Unfortunately, while the itineraries were interesting and the side excursions were generally worthwhile, we can't recommend either of these ships.
The main problem was the dining rooms. Most likely because of their low ceilings, they were so noisy that it was virtually impossible to hold a conversation without shouting, which can be enervating on a long trip. It ruins what is normally one of the pleasures of river cruising, a leisurely dinner in the evening, when beautiful scenery is rolling by and there are none of the distractions of large, oceangoing ships. There was virtual unanimity about this problem among the passengers -- and the only help our tour director could offer was to ask us to talk more quietly! Unlike breakfast and lunch, which offer "light" versions in the lounge, there is no alternative for dinner, a single seating at 7 p.m. A couple of our companions actually stayed in their cabins rather than brave the noise. In addition, on the Scenery, as the weather grew warmer in the south, it became apparent that the air conditioning in the dining room was no match for the ambient temperature. So basically, dinner became an endurance trial of noise and heat, made worse by the fact that the kitchen and hard-working, friendly dining room crew seemed understaffed. It rarely took less than 2 hours to serve a meal.
This is a double shame because the food itself was well-prepared and beautifully presented, with a choice of beef or chicken, fish, vegetarian and "healthy" entrees every night. Unfortunately, most dishes were a bit bland for my taste. Avalon did try to mix things up by having a guest chef from a local cooking school come in one night on each half of the cruise (it was more successful on the Scenery). But one of the ironies of a river cruise in France is that you miss out on the opportunity to sample one of the world's great cuisines, prepared by local chefs from local ingredients.
Breakfasts and lunches were standard buffet fare -- although my wife complained jokingly that the only thing missing at breakfast was French toast -- and this on a French river cruise. We also learned that French fries are actually Belgian in origin, although the French don't give their neighbors credit and merely call them "pommes frites."
The ships themselves are virtually identical -- one is seven years old, the other a year older. The Scenery recently had a makeover in the lounge and dining areas -- a bit too retro for our tastes but still attractive. The lounges were generally comfortable -- the small rear lounge had one of the world's great coffee machines (it dispensed almost every kind of coffee drink, perfectly brewed). Cookies and fruit were also available at any hour. It was a popular spot.
The cabins are beautifully designed and attractive, but let's face it, this is a riverboat and they're cramped. Avalon picked up a little extra room by substituting sliding glass doors with railings for a balcony on the topmost two decks, but one person still has to lie down if the other is moving about. There's no opportunity to get a longer cabin no matter what vessel you're on because the ship has to be able to pass through the narrowest lock on its river -- and there are lots of them (It was great fun to watch our skilled captains maneuver the ships into locks with only a few inches to spare on either side). The only way to make cabins bigger is to make them wider, which means fewer cabins or a longer and more expensive ship. There are obviously some length limitations, too. So even with a suite, you'll likely feel cramped compared to an ocean liner. The bathrooms were likewise tiny but efficiently designed (as long as you don't try to bend over in the shower), and there was plenty of storage throughout. A flat-screen TV provided a variety of news and entertainment. Given the space constraints, I was pleasantly surprised by our accommodataions.
Although WiFi worked reasonably well on the Creativity in the north, it was very spotty on the Scenery in the south despite Avalon's boast that it had improved communications over the previous year. Most cabins had no WiFi signal -- to get connected passengers had to go to the lounge or upper deck. We did get great WiFi reception in our cabin twice -- when we were tied up in docks next to Viking ships and hopped onto their systems. So it is possible to get Wifi right -- Avalon just didn't do it here. It's something most travellers are comfortable with and have come to expect.
Speaking of double docking, one of the pitfalls of riverboat cruising is the relatively tight docking facilities available in most cities. This means riverboats tie up next to each other (we saw private boats stacked up five deep in one port). For us it meant passengers on the outside boat had to walk across a gangway through the main lounge of the inside boat and use its gangway to reach the shore. More importantly, if you have a cabin on the water side of an inside boat and another ship pulls up alongside overnight, it's possible to throw open your curtains in the morning, and instead of the river view you had when you turned in, you're staring at people in the stateroom directly across from you on the other ship. It can be embarrassing.
Aside from their ability to dock in small cities and towns with only a short walk to the major sites and shops, riverboats offer a spectacular view of the scenery as it passes by, particularly so for us at sundown along the banks of the Rhone in the south. On the sun deck, at the bow of the ship, the noise of the engines virtually disappears, and on a quiet evening you can hear the birds chirping and the wind whistling through the trees on the banks as you pass by. The may be no more relaxing or pleasant way to travel.
The major disadvantage here is a combination of high water and low bridges, which go together. We were lucky this year -- the rivers in France were passable, so the boats could get under all the bridges on our itineraries. Under the best of conditions, this can be a close thing. That's why all the structures on the Sun Deck are removable or collapsible; even the control house is on hydraulic lifts so it can be retracted. When we reached a particularly low bridge, the captain would clear the deck, or at least make us all sit at the very bow, which was a few inches lower than the rest of the deck. It's quite an experience to sit up there and clear the underside of a bridge by a foot or two. If the water is abnormally high, Avalon may have to bus its passengers from one city to another in some areas. In Eastern and Northern Europe this spring, the flooding has been so bad that no boats couldnavigate portions of many of the largest rivers. Our cruise director said only three boats out of Avalon's whole fleet (including the two we sailed on) could even operate while we were there. Fortunately, we had only one day of rain, a couple of overcast days, and the rest were sunny. Temperatures ranged from blustery 50s in Normandy to the high 80s in the south.
There were one or two excursions included at each stop, mostly walking tours, but there are more extra-cost excursions, usually by bus, which adds considerably to Avalon's premium price tag. Outside of a bus trip to the landing beaches in Normandy on the northern end and a tour of Money's lovely summer home in Gierny in the south, most of the included expeditions were walking tours. These varied in quality from a strenuous but rewarding 1,000-foot climb up to the Chateau Gaillard in Les Andelys on the Northern half to a long, hot walk through Arles that glossed over the town's main historical artifact -- the ruins of a Roman colisseum. Overall, the local guides were well-informed, understandable and usually opinionated. Our best experience, however, involved a guide in Viviers who was born and raised in England but had married a Frenchman and was fluent in both languages. A native speaker really makes a difference.
All things considered, the cruise was an enjoyable and informative experience marred by a hot, noisy dining room. You can find similar itineraries on other boats -- I'd suggest looking there first until Avalon can find some way to make dining less of an ordeal.