Rivercruising on the Rhone in December with Vantage : River Discovery II Cruise Review by Choppywater

River Discovery II 5
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Rivercruising on the Rhone in December with Vantage

Sail Date: December 2013
Destination: France
Embarkation: Other

INTRODUCTION: Since there seems to be a scarcity of reviews for Vantage Deluxe World Travel river cruises I’d like to add some reflections on our recent cruise and a few comments on the company and their new offering: "French Waterways Holiday Cruise: Highlights of Burgundy, Provence & Paris" on the Discovery 2 beginning December 1 . Before I begin, let me say that while my husband and I have lived abroad and traveled for business and pleasure throughout our lives we are not particularly experienced with river cruising. This was our first Vantage cruise. Our only other river cruise was with Avalon on the Danube. We are in our early sixties.

VANTAGE MARKETING: I admit that at the outset I was concerned about signing on with Vantage because there is so little information about it on Cruise More Critic or other sites, our travel agent didn’t know of the company, and pricing for the French Holiday Cruise seemed rather low for what they were offering. Apparently Vantage doesn’t advertise much in travel magazines or on TV and they don’t market through travel agents, so the line doesn’t get a lot of mentions or reviews in the press or on blogs. They rely on ‘Word of Mouth’, direct mail, past passengers, or their online site to attract business. I think this keeps their pricing very competitive or somewhat less than other river cruise lines like Avalon, Uniworld, Tauck and Viking. In fact, while on the cruise we learned that the Vantage ‘Affinity’ program of ‘friends recruiting friends’ accrued big discounts and ‘bonuses’ for participating returning passengers and was very popular.

I found out Vantage is family owned by Hank Lewis, and has been around for thirty years as a tour operator featuring land tours and cruises on mostly leased ships. It shares a tenuous link with Grand Circle Tours (the two companies are owned by (estranged) brothers). Only in the last few years has Vantage advanced beyond being just a ‘tour operator’ and has contracted to build and own their own river cruise ships and is now a bona fide ‘cruise line’.

THE PASSENGERS: An extremely high percentage of passengers on our cruise seemed to be veterans of Vantage tours—it was not unusual for passengers we met to have cruised or toured five, ten or fifteen times with the company, so there is a very loyal following and the Word of Mouth marketing and affinity plan seems to be a big success. We felt like we were two of just a handful of ‘first time’ Vantage cruisers (we could tell because veteran cruisers had variously colored name tags). It seemed to us that the Vantage cruise attracted a more mature and almost exclusively American traveler; whereas our Avalon cruise attracted perhaps 25% of its cruisers from other English speaking countries and a higher percentage of cruisers under age 60. The Vantage cruisers seemed to be retired singles and couples, many over age 70 to age 85, who were teachers, homemakers, managers, and others retired from law enforcement, government and business, among other occupations. Otherwise there was not a lot of diversity among the passengers. We are age 63 and felt like we were among the young cruisers.

BOOKING: We knew no one who had cruised with Vantage though and found Vantage through googling, so I had no clue what to expect. In September, three months before the cruise date, I was looking around on line for a winter river cruise to celebrate our anniversary. (One note about shopping for a Vantage cruise: on the online catalog page for the French Waterways cruise I found a “Compare & Save” page link on the right hand side that outlined on a chart the differences between the Vantage cruise and similar cruises on Uniworld, Viking, etc. Whether the info is wholly accurate, I don’t know, but it was helpful to me nevertheless.) So I did some comparison shopping and also signed up for the Vantage ‘E-mail alerts’ on deals and news along with other companies’ alerts. I received regular blurbs and one day this French trip was featured at an extremely attractive reduction; I suppose to fill out the passenger roster since it was just ten weeks or so till embarkation. I called to inquire and it sounded so good I was dubious. But the agent said ‘What’s not to like? It’s wine and chocolate and Christmas in France?!’ And I had to agree, and we signed on to this French Holiday Cruise featuring a new 2013 winter itinerary.

Booking with Vantage is exclusively online or by phone with the home office: the company has no travel agent partnerships. I requested that the included airfare would get us a non-stop to Paris and they did. After Vantage bought the air tickets we called Delta ourselves, gave them our frequent flyer numbers and asked for the ‘Economy Plus’ upgrade for a minimal payment to ensure more spacious seating and free drinks on the plane. We did not have any problems or frustrations with the Boston home office. The customer service agents were courteous, efficient, and answered my inquiries in a timely manner. The Vantage on-line ‘trip portfolio’ e-mails kept us up to date on our timeline. (I think the ‘higher ups’ at Vantage have made better home office customer interaction a priority in the past year or so and this initiative seemed to have worked in our case).

I will add that there was a Vantage disclaimer in our contract that changes may be made in the itinerary and tour plans, and well there should have been, because indeed weather caused some changes in itinerary and events. (Weather necessitated changes in our Avalon cruise, too.) For example, the advertised ‘Can Can’ evening in Paris, morphed into a ‘Illuminated Night River Cruise’ and the visit to Dijon was dropped because of weather complications. We bought the trip insurance, including medical, from Vantage, but I understand there are better deals out there if one wanted to check around.

SHIP ACCOMMODATIONS: Overall the trip was actually better than we envisaged. The ‘Discovery 2’ is a new addition to the Vantage fleet, carried about 160 passengers, and was very comfortable, convenient, and clean. The ship design seemed to be a twin to our Avalon ship ‘Tranquility’ if you know of that boat, but with some updates like more suites, better stateroom storage, free wi-fi and lots of free movies and television channels, and an elevator. Our middle priced stateroom was big enough, had the ‘French balcony’ window, a comfortable enough bed given it was actually two twins pushed together (which seems to be the normal river cruise configuration), a thermostat and plenty of heat, and a nice bathroom. We had our own tour guide ‘whisper box’ ear phones and transmitter charger on our desk in the room which was very convenient. (The only negative to the room was that it could have used another layer of sound insulation in the wall for privacy’s sake.) Overall the ship décor reminded me of a Courtyard by Marriott or similar nice new mid-range hotel.

The ship’s crew were exceptionally helpful, cheerful and smart looking. They were English speaking, and hailed from Rumania, Philippines, Hungary and France among other places and this added to the diversity and friendly ambiance of the experience. Like most other river cruise lines (except Tauck), we were expected to tip the crew at the end of the voyage and we were provided guidelines on amounts from Vantage.

The ship offered room service for breakfast, onboard laundry, and a gym. There is an optional casual breakfast, lunch, and dinner in an upper deck viewing lounge. The chef was pretty good at creating tasty dishes to suit most appetites and he offered a vegetarian entrée and buffet or a served three course meal, your choice. The dining room servers poured free-flowing complimentary (pretty good) table wine with our three course meals or there was a wine list for extra cost, as well. During our cruise the top open air lounge deck was often closed because of high winds or low bridge clearances, but one night we sat out and enjoyed the lights of Lyon and had complimentary cocoa and coffee there. The dress code was casual although jeans and shorts are not allowed in the dining room for dinner. I would say that the Vantage passengers were more casually dressed than our Avalon group—we seldom saw a sport jacket or a skirt, and the passengers were cautioned once about wearing jeans to dinner. All in all, the onboard experience was very nice and much like our Avalon Tranquility experience.

THE VANTAGE CRUISE DIRECTORS & LOCAL GUIDES: One difference between this Vantage cruise and our Avalon cruise was that the Vantage passengers were divided into four distinct groups (with color coded dots on the name tags and luggage). Each group was assigned a ‘cruise director’ for the duration of the voyage to facilitate day tours in conjunction with our local special guides and to execute administrative duties and passenger/client services. In contrast, Avalon engaged just one ‘cruise director’ (and perhaps he had an assistant, I can’t remember) for the 160 tour members and used local guides to assist passengers on day trips. Vantage’s approach provided for more personal engagement with each passenger, especially for many of those of a ‘certain age’ who had mobility problems or who were inexperienced (or just nervous and unsure) travelers. The division in to four groups for the duration, though efficient, was a little limiting as far as socializing with the whole coterie of other ship mates.

The cruise directors, in my view, were capable, enthusiastic and helpful and very good communicators. They did a good job of problem solving with unexpected weather changes and traveler complaints and comments, and they were proficient at troubleshooting. The ‘local guides’ were very proficient and engaging, but most of them did not provide much more than a ‘tourist view’ of their city or town. You know, ‘on our left is the Romanesque cathedral, on our right is the medieval town water well’ type of presentation. There were a few ‘cultural connection’ talks onboard but they were fairly ‘light’ in content. In general the complexities of French culture, history, or geo-political issues were glossed over or not delved in to at all. We did not find this omission on the Avalon cruise where the single cruise director filled in each day trip and evening port talk with discussion of political issues, social themes, historical and cultural clashes and foodie insights. I suspect that perhaps a large number of Vantage passengers are satisfied with a ‘lighter’ treatment of ‘the country revealed before them’ and that a more scholarly and complex discussion of the region would not be much appreciated by many.

THE ITINERARY: This ‘French Waterways Holiday Cruise on the Rhone through the Cote Azure, Provence, Burgundy and Paris’, was a new itinerary for Vantage and overall it was very interesting and enjoyable. We flew to Nice, were met at the airport, checked in with our bona fides, had a nice welcome dinner and introductory talk, and stayed one night in a very nice Fairmont Hotel next the Grand Casino in Monaco. Next day we bussed our way along the scenic Cote D’Azur to embarkation at Tarascon-sur-Rhone where we began our cruise up river to visit picturesque medieval villages and then to the grand finale of beautiful Paris.

Along the cruise the cruise directors and crew had a few kinks to work out because we experienced a few days of high winds, known as the infamous ‘Le Mistral’ of the Rhone River Valley, high and low water, and fog, so day trips on the bus had to be rearranged. We stayed an extra day in Lyon but missed a visit to Dijon because of these issues and then transferred to a bus for a five hour ride to Paris instead of sailing a little longer on in the boat. Vantage did offer us a $200 credit on a 2014 voyage for these inconveniences and omissions.

My husband and I were on the cruise mainly looking for relaxation and an unhurried and hassle free way to see southern France and to tour the wine country without the summer crowd and hot weather so we were fairly satisfied and happy with the itinerary of day tours and did not mind particularly the rerouting. Others were a little miffed about this.

Along the same lines, others on board expected this French tour to be more like the German ‘Christmas Markets’ tours and for the markets to be the focal point of the itinerary. Some of these passengers expressed disappointment that the French towns and markets were not as numerous or as showy as the German markets and felt the “French Holiday Cruise” catalog description was deceptive. (Although I did not share this point of view about the description.) To answer the complaint that the cruise was ‘light’ on the Xmas market scene, I think the tour directors went out of their way in Paris, Lyon, Vienne and Avignon to add extra market shopping and browsing time for those who were interested. Despite other travelers’ dismay at the day tour and Christmas shopping choices, my husband and I enjoyed the very excellent wine tour and tasting at the Chateauneuf-du-Pape winery, the Beaujolais wine country tour, the truffle farm visit, and the guided town and city walking tours. We also enjoyed the La Mirande cooking class (when we got over the high price they charged and that the Vantage catalog description for the lesson was not wholly accurate).

As a serendipitous bonus treat, we were excited and delighted to learn that our ship would dock in Lyon on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in time for us to experience the unique four day Lyon ‘Fete des Lumieres’. This is a world famous holiday festival in veneration of Mary, the holy mother. The festival show cased more than 30 creative light shows on the city plazas, lighted installation art and sculpture exhibits throughout the town center and draws five million tourists each year to Lyon. We spent two evenings in port (one more night than was originally planned, in lieu of cruising up river toward Dijon because of fog and winds.) walking the city discovering the lighting extravaganzas, drinking wine, and visiting with the locals. We were happy Lyon and this event were given two evenings in the schedule.

Now another couple of points on the basic itinerary: Four of our day trips/dinners were ‘optional tours’ at additional cost. I believe adding these ‘extra cost’ events is a new policy for Vantage. Formerly all day tours were ‘included’ in the tour price.

Of course, for those who are concerned about being stifled by too much ‘tour group’ togetherness, anyone can opt out of any of the day tours and go on their own, visit friends in town, skip an onboard meal and eat in town, or just stay on the boat. The choice is yours. The only stipulation is to keep the cruise director advised if you are leaving the day tour or if you will not return to the ship in time for sailing so that the bus or boat isn’t delayed while a search for you is launched. Conceivably, if you are sure to arrange with the Vantage admins, you can miss the sailing and catch up with the ship at the next port. Of course, this would be at your own expense for taxis, etc.

Over all I would say that the Vantage day tours were very nice—the busses were comfortable, the local guides were engaging, and although the towns and shops were often in various stages of winter hibernation or even closed for the season, enough were open, and the Christmas markets were fun (in the French style). Vantage delivered pretty much what I was expecting in day tours and itinerary, given the ‘affordable’ and ‘sale’ cruise price we paid and the fact that this wasn’t really high tourist season for the Rhone Valley.

PARIS EXTENSION: I am so happy that we added the four night ‘Paris Extension’ (again at a bargain rate) to cap our itinerary. After all, who doesn’t like Paris? And the Rhone cruise was the perfect lead up to this grand finale. The weather was splendid, the city was beautiful in its Christmas decoration, and we loved our long walks through the City. Our hotel, Le Meridien Etoile, was comfortable and well located near the Metro stop and the Champs Elysees, and better than we expected given the bargain rate we paid for the extension package. A very nice buffet breakfast in the hotel (a E 29 value) was included and we had free Wi-Fi in the room. But be warned the room service, hotel extras, cocktail bar and dining room are very expensive. If you are a Starwood Hotels affinity group member I would advise the hotel clerk at check in for possible premium treatment and points.

The Paris day tours were fine but the evening dinners left a bit to be desired—the dinner venues were cramped and the menus were not too special even though the restaurants chosen (i.e., La Coupole and Bofingers) were well known and carried historic pedigrees. Were we to do it again, we would skip the arranged dinners. I am sure our Cruise Director was taking notes on the comments and short falls in the planning for these evenings and next trip there will be changes made to better serve those who choose to stay longer in Paris.

The best of the Paris Extension in our view was our self-guided long walks through the neighborhoods, museums, and street markets, and our afternoon visits to the cafes on the Left Bank. We used John Baxter’s “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World”, The ‘Cadogan Guide’ for Paris, and Rick Steve’s ‘Paris’ guide for suggestions on routes to follow. And we brought a good city map.

RECOMMENDATION: I would recommend this Vantage French Holiday tour to those looking for a relaxed pace, a convenient ‘hotel room’ that moves along with you, and/or to travelers who appreciate the ‘cruise director’s organizational and admin skills. This cruise may also appeal to those who are seeking an overview of the Cote d’Azur, the Rhone River valley, and Paris ‘out of season’, enabling them to enjoy the ship amenities and the advantage of cool weather and streets relatively free of tourists. I would not recommend the cruise to anyone who already knows Provence and French wine country well, likes fast paced days and night time revelry and who is very independent, or who is under, say, age 60 and likes an energetic youthful atmosphere.

I liked the less sumptuous holiday markets and atmosphere on this French Waterways cruise, but if you are looking for your first ‘Christmas Market’ cruise with all the bells and whistles, check out the German itineraries first. Some would say these French village cruise ports and the Rhone shoreside scenery at this time of year are a little low key and not as lively and beautiful as the Danube ports of-call in high seasons of Christmas or summertime (although I found the scenery mysterious and Grimm’s fairy tale like especially when the countryside was laden with a covering of frost.).

I am particularly happy that Vantage is offering this rare opportunity to tour the Rhone Valley at this time of year. The itinerary was unique among the cruise companies I researched and we did not see another river cruiser sailing the Rhone. I spied just one French river cruiser that nested next to our ship in Lyon for the festival (and two Viking ships laid up for the winter.) This Vantage cruise experience did not quite reach Avalon or certainly not Tauck level of deluxe/luxury, but neither did the expense come close to Tauck or Avalon’s pricing. Still the cruise was a treat for us and an excellent value, and at some point we most likely will book another Vantage cruise.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: (1) I would encourage prospective Vantage travelers to learn some basic French phrases and to read a book or two on culture and history of the region. (Look at YouTube for lots of videos on learning French phrases.) Taking some time to do some basic research provided us great benefit on the trip: I felt the French locals were more engaging and fun to interact with because we tried to demonstrate the courtesies the Frenchmen expect. If we uttered even a fractured French phrase we received a pleasant response and smile in return. Check out YouTube for tour and French Language phrase videos and I listed a few of our favorite ‘background’ resources below.

(2) The weather from the Cote d’Azur and then up along the Rhone and Saone Rivers and thence to Paris at this time of year is quite variable. Be sure to check weatherunderground.com or your favorite online weather site the day before you leave for the ‘ten day forecast’ for several ports of call, including Monte Carlo, Aix en Provence, Lyon, on up north to Paris, to give you a sense of the range of weather ahead and for clues on what to pack. We lucked out with clear sunny weather with s few days of cold wind, fog, and frost as we progressed north (but I think our trip was unseasonably dry and warmish). Temps reached 70 F in Monaco, but it was a very cold 35 F and very windy on the upper Rhone. Paris couldn’t have been more splendid at 50 F and sunny.

(3) And were I travelling on this tour again, to better assimilate with the French and not stick out like a hokey American, I would give consideration to dressing more in the manner of the French—that is, I would leave the Nike’s and white athletic shoes, keds, T shirts, ball caps, and jeans at home, particularly during wintertime. If you are a ‘fashionista’ or want to be reasonably a la mode on your trip, you’ll want to know the basic French mantra for winter wear appears to be ‘Dress In Any Color As Long As It’s Black’. (Forget American favorites navy blue and khaki for winter in France). Wear black or dark European style (i.e., Ecco, Rieker, Mephisto) walking shoes (have a look at Travelsmith.com for ideas). And bring a hat and a set of that silk/wool underwear for warmth.

For good measure and to accessorize in the French fashion, women will want to bring scarves to add that finishing touch to their outfit. (From my observation French women would not be caught dead without a warm and pretty scarf adroitly draped around their neck.) As my friend from Paris told me, ‘the French view their cities as their living rooms and like to dress up to show a little in respect for the stunning interiors, splendid city architecture, and festive events. Seen in that perspective I understand their point of view on dressing well.

(4) The last tip to consider: Try to be in fairly good physical condition even though Vantage does a good job in accommodating those with mobility issues. There are lots of steps and cobblestones to negotiate. And the best interactions we had with Frenchmen were during our self-guided ambles through the towns and Paris. Several of these walks were as long as eight miles and I couldn’t have done it day after day if I hadn’t set up my walking conditioning program several months before the cruise. I bought a FitBit pedometer for this and it provides lots of fun and encouragement.

SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR READING & RESEARCH (all available on Amazon and very inexpensive when you purchase ‘used’):

“Paris: The Novel” by David Rutherford, the popular historical novel writer. Long, but covers a lot of history through storytelling.

“The Most Beautiful Walk in the World”, Memoirs of a Parisian flaneur, by John Baxter, expatriate and ‘New Yorker’ contributor. This book is charming and informational.

“Chocolat”, both a novel and a film, set in an old French town. The story features the mysterious effect of ‘The Mistral’ winter winds of the Rhone Valley (which we experienced on our cruise).

Music by Edith Piaf, John Aznavour, Jeanne-Pierre Rampal, and others.

“A Moveable Feast” by Hemingway, his memoirs of life on the Left Bank in Paris. Also “Paris Wife”, his story from another (fictional) point of view.

“Two Towns in Provence” and other stories by the eminent food writer M.F.K. Fisher.

“The Pillars of the Earth”, Ken Follett, the best seller historical novel of the building of a great cathedral, cited by a couple of our guides.

Rick Steves’ travel videos and guides on France and his opinionated ‘The Politics of Travel’ video. And the more sophisticated but hard to find ‘Cadogan Guides’.

“Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong (Why We Love France, but not the French)”, Jean Benoit

Nadeau & Julie Barlow, 2003, an interestingly written ‘enthno-anthropological’ analysis and memoir focusing on culture and politics by two reporters living in France.

Also, for basic French language prompts check out ‘About.com French Language’ or the many French language videos on YouTube.

Bon Voyage, mes amis! Less

Published 12/29/13
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