After an 18-month hiatus from international travel due to the pandemic, a seven-night cruise on Avalon Waterways' Poetry II on France's Rhone river was nothing short of a reawakening.
Who, after all, would not find pleasure in a landscape highlighted by pink flamingos, rice paddies, cowboys and a beloved dried sausage named Jesus? Or revel in the ship’s graceful 102-mile journey from Lyon to Port-Saint-Louis? Poetry in motion, indeed.
I had some apprehension about traveling internationally in COVID times. But here’s my takeaway: I felt more secure onboard Poetry II and on Avalon's robust array of shore excursions than I do at my local grocery store. All passengers, staff, crew, tour guides and drivers must be fully vaccinated. Essentially, Avalon Waterways has created a cocoon onboard and off. It's no stretch to say a river cruise like this one may be the best way to experience Europe right now.
Currently, Avalon is operating at two-thirds capacity on Europe's rivers. One sign of pent-up demand: The fourth quarter is nearly sold out. Next year, the cruise line will have all 14 of its Europe-based ships back at work, including a new ship, the 160-passenger Avalon View, which will begin sailing on the Danube and Rhine in April.
After a long pause, Poetry II resumed operations on the Rhone, which sails through southern France, at the end of August. I talked to one passenger who had had five ocean cruises canceled due to the pandemic. This was her first international outing. "It's been seamless," she said. "I feel very welcomed, very taken care of, and very grateful."
One of the nice things about a river cruise is the pre-trip hand-holding -- a value that can't be overstated at the moment given the patchwork of rules and restrictions travelers must navigate.
Before my trip, Avalon helped me apply for the French digital health pass and directed me to Sherpa, an app that tracks the latest travel and health protocols in countries across the globe. The line also recommended I get a negative COVID-19 test in advance of the cruise given the fluid nature of entry requirements and reminded me to pack my all-important vaccination card. The day I flew, I had to show my vax card to Air France personnel in order to get a boarding pass -- the first of many times I was asked by authorities for it.
Not surprisingly, health and safety protocols have also impacted the onboard experience. Passengers must wear masks when collecting food at the buffet, and signs on chairs in the two lounges and in the dining room encourage socially distant seating. We were also required to mask up on the bus when traveling to and from shore excursions.
And I won’t forget anytime soon the pre-Happy Hour rapid result COVID-19 test the ship's receptionist, aided by my cabin attendant, administered up my nose in the Club Lounge 48 hours prior to my departure. Talk about a multi-tasking staff. A negative test result or documentation of recovery from COVID is required of all air passengers entering the U.S. The test itself is an Avalon perk -- again, hand-holding.
For me, travel is about drinking in new experiences (Merci, all of that fabulous Rose wine), and living a bit on the edge. This "Avalon Choice" itinerary, launched in 2019, was the perfect fit. There are three types of tours – one explores "classic" sights, another involves "active" excursions like kayaking, e-biking and hiking, and the third encourages "discovery" through hands-on cultural and artistic experiences shared by locals.
The three that wowed me the most: a discovery tour to Camargue Coquillages, an organic oyster and mussel enterprise that served us mouth-popping oysters the size of my palm, and two active excursions, one a caving expedition that involved wine and the other a hike up to a mountain top followed by a digital art and music installation in an old limestone quarry.
The active excursions definitely lifted me out of my comfort zone. The cave was muddy, wet and slippery and the climb up the mountain was on shifting rocks and roots. But ooh la la, such rewards: a wine tasting in absolute darkness that was a remarkable and unexpected sensory experience and an illuminated exhibition of works by Paul Cezanne and Wassily Kandinsky, also in darkness, set to music ranging from David Bowie to Vivaldi. Images of their famous paintings floated across the cavernous ceiling, walls and floor of Carrieres de Lumieres, enveloping observers in the artwork. It was, in a word, extraordinary.
With as many as five shore excursions on offer each day, I had to remind myself to slow down at times – and there’s no better place to do that than on the sky deck or in the cabin. Avalon’s 200-square-foot suites are known for their unique floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall panoramic windows, creating river cruising’s only open-air balcony. As Avalon rightly frames it: “a view with a room.”
Poetry II can accommodate 128 passengers and, with just 90 of us on my cruise, there was plenty of shipboard real estate to relax in: the chaise lounges and whirlpool on the sky deck; the Panorama Lounge with its attentive bartenders and daily drink specials; and the Panorama dining room. True to the itinerary, we were served some terrific French fare such as Burgundy-style escargots, smooth chestnut soup, grilled veggies marinated in Herbs de Provence, and a grilled sirloin steak a la Bordelaise.
For such a small ship, Poetry II offers a surprising number of dining options. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style in the dining room but my favorite by far were the long, lingering four-course dinners accompanied each evening by a selection of four wines that change with every meal. A light lunch and “bistro” dinner are available in the Panorama Lounge most days and, twice, we were treated to a grilled buffet lunch on the top deck. Shipboard activities include a stretching class, yoga, power-walking, mini-golf and cooking demos but I have to say that the activity that animated most of us was connecting with one another and experiencing for the first time in a long time that happy place that travel creates.