After being bombarded by a plethora of river cruise advertisements, a leisurely cruise down the River Rhone stopping at mediaeval villages visiting vineyards sounded a good option.
This cruise on Riviera Travel’s Lord Byron from Lyon to Avignon (or in our case the reverse) proved to be a huge disappointment. After a four hour exhausting motorway drive in the rush hour from Lyon Airport we arrived at the Lord Byron berthed in Avignon at about 8.30pm, some fourteen hours after we set off, only just in time for a late dinner. It was interesting that some of the passengers were flown to Marseilles, a lot closer to Avignon but then had to be coached back at the end. We did think it would have made more sense to fly us all out to Marseilles and fly home from Lyon, but I suppose that would be too complicated.
Our first impression of the cabins were that they were quite small with only enough room to get round the bed, no sofa of course, and no long hanging space in the tiny wardrobes. Saying this, they were kept incredibly clean.
Our first confrontation with the waiting staff did not make a good impression. A menu was thrust into our hands and “Order drinks!!” barked out before I could get my feet under the table. Unsure about what epicurean delights we were about to consume I begged humbly for a few minutes to get our bearings, without success. With a lot of demanding and eye rolling on his part he stomped off to re-appear a few seconds later like Manuel in Fawlty Towers bellowing “Drinks!!” again and again, only satisfied when we gave him a random order to shut him up.
Unfortunately this set the tone for the remainder of the cruise. The idea of good customer service seemed to sit uncomfortably on the shoulders of the mainly Bulgarian waiting staff. On one occasion I received a cocktail with no spirit in it and the bar manager refused to believe me, and another time when waiting to be served coffee at breakfast I was told off in no uncertain terms when I told the waiter we had been there for twenty minutes.
I have been on 25+ ocean cruises from rock bottom standard to 6 stars and have never encountered service as bad as this, and, coupled with mediocre food we found it hard to believe that this was advertised as 5 star luxury. It was interesting to note that both the food and the surly expressions on the waiters faces transformed on the last night. This couldn’t have anything to do with gratuities being due could it? Heaven forbid.
The actual itinery of the cruise was not what I expected. The only wine tasting that was organised was in a cellar in the middle of the town of Beaune which seemed odd as we could have stopped at the numerous wonderful vineyards that we passed through later on and only viewed from the coach. Avignon and Arles were interesting places to visit but, in general, coach trips were the order of the day and on two occasions in the week the boat moved on while you were on the coach and you rejoined the boat at a different place. Erm…forgive me, I thought this was a cruising holiday not a coach tour.
Opting to miss one of the trips so we could experience the actual river cruising, the realisation of the geography of the Rhone was brought home to us. There are massive locks about every 20 minutes which meant that we had to stop and wait, once for over an hour, then enter these huge concrete tombs and sit for another half hour. As the French rely on these for part of their electricity supply the locks are huge blots on the landscape surrounded by ugly concrete buildings and electricity pylons. There was no shade on deck as the sunshades were taken down for low bridges.(Although I did see one river boat with better designed sun shades that they could leave up all the time)The Saone was totally different but unfortunately we only cruised a short time on this lovely river.
We arrived at Viennes and Beaune in the heat of the afternoon when only “mad dogs”etc were around and on two occasions we were told that the museums, shops etc were closed on that particular day. Our impression was that the passengers had to fit around the itinery that was easier for the company rather than the other way round.
There was no entertainment on the ship apart from a pianist who played quietly (thank goodness) each night to a bizarre selection of odd, poor quality backing tracks including “A Child is born” by Johnny Mathis virtually every night. In July?.... Weird. A staff show was performed on one evening which was amateurish and embarrassing.
If you like coach trips, mediocre food, hard seating, rude, or at best, indifferent service, this might just be the holiday for you or…..you might like a respite week at the local care home. Take your pick.