A relaxing week in southern France with Viking River Cruises

//A relaxing week in southern France with Viking River Cruises

A relaxing week in southern France with Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruises France

Evenings on the Rhône river in Avignon

Looking back at my first river cruise experience

Prior to boarding a Viking ship in the French town of Chalon-sur-Saône, I had done one cruise in my life. It was a grand, week-long excursion around the Gulf of Mexico, and… completely not my style.

There were too many people, too much food available around the clock, not enough activities on board (unless you like gambling and overpaying for spa treatments), and not enough time on shore – at least not the locations I was interested in.

I could have skipped Cozumel (what kind of a Mexican experience is it when everyone speaks English and wants your dollars?) and spent more time in New Orleans. But the way the itinerary was designed, we had to be back on the ship by 10PM on a Friday, when the action in the French Quarter was just starting. To this day, I regret not having been able to hear live jazz in its birthplace.

No wonder I stayed away from ships for 15 years.

Luckily, not all cruises are created equal. I told myself that if I ever sailed again, it would be on a smaller ship either in Alaska or Europe. Nothing that screams “pool time.”


When an invitation came from Viking River Cruises to experience one of their European journeys, I was ready to give cruising another try. I liked the idea of sailing quiet waterways, the same ones that nomadic people followed centuries earlier, and exploring sites at a relaxed pace. It would be a welcome change after a few hectic months.

After some back-and-forth, I chose the 8-day Portraits of Southern France itinerary. It included a number of stops in medieval cities, small market towns, and wine producing regions – right up my alley. We would sail along two rivers: the Saône (from Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy to Lyon) and the Rhône (from Lyon farther south to Avignon and other towns in Provence). I could hardly wait.

Viking River Cruises France

Lyon, where the Saône and Rhône rivers meet

I particularly looked forward to visiting Arles, the former Roman town that I knew from Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. Growing up, I had a poster reproduction in my room of Le Café de Nuit (The Night Café), and always wanted to “jump” into the scene.

The Rhône Valley was of interest to me as well, given that Côtes du Rhône wines are among my favorites. Touring vineyards, talking to owners, and tasting wine that I might not easily find back home would certainly be a treat.

After a few days in Paris, I boarded an early-morning train from Gare de Lyon and headed south-east.

Le Café de Nuit - Van Gogh

The Night Café by Van Gogh (1888) and present-day site in Arles


The moment I walked into the sunny, spacious atrium of Viking’s longship, I smiled and thought, “This looks like a boutique hotel.” I had arrived too early to check in, but the staff pointed me to the terrace, where a buffet-style lunch was being served.

Located at the bow of the ship, the seating area had an outdoor and indoor part. Most of it was filled with round tables, but I spotted a few couches and armchairs near the floor-to-ceiling windows. I had a feeling I would spend a lot of time here: having a drink, reading, taking in the views, watching sunsets.

If I hadn’t brought a book, I could have easily found something in the onboard library. There was a lot to choose from, all related to France: guide books, photo albums, novels, books about food and wine.

Viking River Cruises France

The ship’s cozy terrace was my lounge and “office”

As I walked around the ship (named Buri after the first god in Norse mythology), I located the main restaurant downstairs – it had communal tables, elegant place settings, and large windows on two sides. One floor up was a spacious lounge/bar area, which served as the ship’s living room and live music venue. The rooftop deck featured a walking track, shaded seating, and 360-degree views.

I would have loved to spend more time there, but the mid-summer heat and humidity forced me inside. Just in time to settle into my room.


The “veranda stateroom,” as it was officially called, had a light and airy feel to it. It was smaller than a typical hotel room, but included the same amenities. There was a large, comfortable bed with fluffy pillows, lots of storage space, plus a small desk, mini-fridge, and flat screen TV. The main feature was a private deck, great for watching the changing landscape as we cruise.

Viking River Cruises stateroom

What I liked most about the room, though, were the small touches.

I noticed complimentary water and fresh fruit on the counter – replaced every night, as it turned out. The outlets had not only European, but US-style and USB ports. There were premium French products in the bathroom. And when the room attendant noticed my book, she left a bookmark on the night stand.

The cruise was off to a good start. But I couldn’t wait to see what else was in store, including food.


Meals were served three times per day. You could have a casual, sell-serve breakfast and lunch on the terrace (my usual choice), or dine in the formal restaurant. Dinner was always served downstairs, and it was a chance to meet fellow passengers. Being one of the few solo travelers on board, I rotated tables every night, meeting different people in the process.

Viking River Cruises dining

The food was inspired by southern French cuisine, but a lot of it was tailored to the general taste. Given that most passengers were from the USA, the menu always included contemporary American fare, such as steak, prime rib, and Caesar salad.

I would have preferred more regional dishes, but was happy to see a selection of French wines, delicious freshly-baked bread, and lots of vegetarian options (for example ratatouille or vichyssoise soup), Waiters quickly remembered my dietary preference, which helped avoid awkward I-can’t-eat-this moments.


Attentive service was one of the things I noticed. The crew learned your name almost instantly, and they made you feel welcome throughout the journey. No request was too big. A custom-made drink in the lounge? You got it. Coffee at 10PM for the blogger…? No problem.

As much as I enjoyed the onboard experience, I looked forward to exploring sites along the rivers.


The cruise package included daily tours, and you could also register for extra ones, based on your specific interests.

On the one hand, I was excited to learn from knowledgeable guides – it meant not having to do my own research. On the other, I’m not very comfortable sightseeing with a group and carrying a listening device. I prefer to wander around at leisure. And instead of major sites such as museums or cathedrals, I tend to search off-the-track sites.

A café in Lyon

A café in Lyon, one of the sites I found during free time

Fortunately, free time was built into the itinerary. I took advantage of it quite often – particularly in Lyon and Provence – going on photo outings, having coffee in neighborhood cafes, shopping for locally-made jewelry and clothes. On one occasion, I went to a movie theater to watch a French film that hadn’t been released in the US. One of my favorite nights.

I did enjoy some of the organized outings, in particular wine tasting at a family-run estate in Tournon (at 9AM, when residents typically take a break from field work), followed by a visit to a chocolate factory and shop. I almost turned into a morning person that day.

This flexibility offered by Viking was a far cry from my earlier cruise experience. It made me realize that sailing, just like any type of travel, is what you make of it.

Viking River Cruises excursions

Chocolate and wine tasting in twin towns Tournon – Tain L’Hermitage


When the program director met me on the first day, she joked that I “skewed their demographics.” She was right. Most of the 185 passengers onboard were couples my parents’ age. I noticed one group of friends in their late 20s or early 30s, and only a few solo travelers. Not that I minded.

Part of the appeal of travel is connecting with people, no matter how different you may seem at first. I enjoyed the company of my fellow passengers, and the fact that I didn’t “fit in” was a sure ice breaker at dinner. We laughed a lot, we shared family stories and travel plans. That’s good in my book.

I did wonder, however, why there weren’t more honeymooners onboard. I remember lots of newlyweds from my first cruise (I was one of them) and thought that the river journey had a better balance of relaxation and exploration. I could also see it as an option for family and friends’ reunions.

Avignon bridge

Medieval Saint-Bénézet bridge, of the “Sur le Pont d’Avignon…” song fame

If you’re used to traveling alone and being in charge of your own itinerary, a river cruise would no doubt be a change. It’s easy travel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing… Sailing gives you a taste of many destinations, including some lesser-known ones that might be hard to discover on your own.

I would do it again, especially to celebrate a milestone birthday or “get away from it all.”

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I was a guest of Viking River Cruises. All thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are mine. 

By | 2015-10-14T08:22:13+00:00 October 6th, 2015|STORIES|66 Comments

About the Author:

Pola Henderson is a travel writer, city explorer, expat, and event host. Traveling has been a part of her life since she was three. Pola grew up in Krakow, lived in Chicago for many years and is currently based in Paris, where she teaches Business English.


  1. avatar
    Wiola Starczewska October 6, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    The Towel Elephant is cute. It’s very fancy trip, not for me though…
    Wiola Starczewska recently posted..Powrót do Polski, czyli reverse culture shockMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:16 pm

      The elephant was a nice surprise and one of those small touches I mention. :)

  2. avatar
    Cathy Sweeney October 6, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    I’m about to embark upon my first cruise ever and luckily, it’ll be a Viking cruise in Portugal. Cruises, such as your Gulf of Mexico experience, aren’t really up my alley either. But it’s wonderful that nowadays there isn’t just one kind of cruise — so many options! You made a great choice of tours. We visited Avignon, Arles and other cities of Provence last December — amazing history and culture.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..A Taste of Montana on InstagramMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:16 pm

      Cathy, I hope we get to sit down one day and chat about the south of France. Enjoy your cruise – Portugal is at the top of my travel wish list these days.

  3. avatar
    Monika October 6, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    I’d love to go on a cruise one day – I’m not planning it any time soon, but one day I hope I’ll do it.

    I remember visiting Cozumel a few years ago – I really liked, but then you need to go off the main street, walk a bit and see the other side.
    I couldn’t understand why so many tourists would simply stick to the main street, go shopping an do nothing more – but then… the other side beach was so wonderfully empty ;)
    Monika recently posted..The Seven Best Countries!My Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:15 pm

      Mexico is one of my favorite countries, but I enjoy other regions way more. The thing is, there was no time to go off the tourist track, I remember having to run back to the ship. Sigh… But if you had a better Cozumel experience, that’s great!

  4. avatar
    Norbert October 6, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    Excellent informative article with excellent photos Pola!!

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:14 pm

      Thanks, Norbert! So glad you enjoyed.

  5. avatar
    Erin Marie October 7, 2015 at 10:03 am

    I have been wanting to take a river cruise for a while, and this made me want to do it sooner rather than later. It looks nothing like a traditional cruise, which I love, and if you compared it to a boutique hotel it is right up my alley. :)
    Erin Marie recently posted..One Night in NashvilleMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:13 pm

      I think you’d enjoy it, Erin! If you do it, I’ll be sure to follow your updates.

  6. avatar
    PlanetKiwi October 7, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    Very nice trip report. France from a different perspective. Some photos look like paintings ;)
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:11 pm

      Haha, I see what you did there! It was my first time seeing the south of France, and hopefully not the last. What a beautiful region!

  7. avatar
    Magdalena Kuzma October 8, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    I would love to go on such a cruise, especialy on Wolga river in Russia!

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:10 pm

      Ooh, that’s a nice idea!

  8. avatar
    Martin October 8, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    Seems like a very nice experience! I will be in France soon and I am planning to do some wine tasting as well! Cheers!

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:10 pm

      France and wine tasting – perfect combination. Enjoy!

  9. avatar
    carly October 10, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    Wow, it doesn’t look like your typical cruise, all the small touches sound great. I’d never imagine doing a cruise as I always think it’s be exactly what you describe at the start, but with different types of cruises like this it’s something I’d consider.
    carly recently posted..Cartagena and the very strange El Totumo experienceMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:09 pm

      Yeah, it was so different from my first cruising experience. I wouldn’t mind sailing again, e.g. in Germany.

  10. avatar
    Meg Jerrard October 11, 2015 at 12:25 am

    Sounds like a fantastic cruise, and I’m so glad that this changed your opinion of cruising, because you’re totally right – not all cruises are created equal!! Really depends on what you’re looking for and after, I would have probably hated the Mexico cruise you described too – but put me on a European river cruise anyday!!

    I would absolutely jump onboard by myself – I’ve had similar experiences to you – it’s an icebreaker when you don’t fit in! And you’re generally welcomed into new groups just because you’re alone. Makes meeting new people fairly easy!

    So glad you had a wonderful cruise, thanks for the great review!
    Meg Jerrard recently posted..Why You Should Drop What You’re Doing and Travel to Laos Right NowMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:07 pm

      Thanks for the cool note, Meg! I’m glad I did the cruise, because it ended up being such a unique experience. And meeting fellow passengers was one of the highlights.

  11. avatar
    Lesley October 11, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    I’ve never done a river cruise, but I keep hearing fantastic things about Viking River Cruises. It’s time I give it a try.
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:05 pm

      Cool! I’ve heard good things to from a few friends that have sailed with Viking. Let me know if you do it. :)

  12. avatar
    Alyssa | Adjust Your Focus October 11, 2015 at 6:11 pm

    After going on several cruises, although not a river cruise yet, I absolutely agree not all cruises are created equal. I’ve heard mixed things about Viking cruises, so good to know you enjoyed it.

    “Part of the appeal of travel is connecting with people, no matter how different you may seem at first.” – could not agree more with you!
    Alyssa | Adjust Your Focus recently posted..DO The Damn Thing 2015My Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:04 pm

      Hi Alyssa. I’m curious about the cruises you’ve done. Like I mentioned in the post, I’d like to do one in Alaska.

  13. avatar
    melody pittman October 11, 2015 at 7:46 pm

    I loved your post and have had one similar Viking cruise experience and I am way older than you. However, on my trip, there were only 2 people younger than myself onboard. I would have been a little bored at times without the free WIFI but loved that we had so much to do every day. What gorgeous places we go to see and I loved that everything was one flat fee.
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 6:02 pm

      Hi Melody. Great to hear from someone who has done the cruise! There was definitely a lot to do – my package did include WiFi, but I was happy to get away from the computer at times. :)

  14. avatar
    Paul and Carole October 12, 2015 at 4:11 am

    Great post. We have cruised numerous times and do enjoy it but have not done river cruising. This has given us a great in sight and it is now definitely on our to do list! Thanks for sharing!
    Paul and Carole recently posted..House Sitting with Lip and ShadowMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:58 pm

      Hello Paul and Carole! I’m glad I gave you an idea – do let me know if you go on a river cruise. Happy to share more information.

  15. avatar
    Francesca (@WorkMomTravels) October 15, 2015 at 9:58 am

    It might be a nice option for a family reunion, as long as there are no young children in the family. Arles is the place I’d be most interested in because of the Roman history so I’ll have to get there on my own. I’m glad you enjoyed yourself!
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:40 pm

      You’re probably right about young children, but a group of adults could have a great time on the cruise! And yes, Arles… one of my favorite stops on the trip.

  16. avatar
    Brianna October 15, 2015 at 8:56 pm

    I too am not a fan of traditional ocean cruising but I think a river cruise like rids that allows for plenty of time for explain would be perfect.

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:38 pm

      My thoughts exactly, Brianna! I’d do it again – sailing in Germany and Hungary would be right up my alley.

  17. avatar
    Denise October 17, 2015 at 4:38 am

    I have never really thought of going on a cruise as I thought I would be stuck in a boat all day but that has changed my perception quiet a bit. It doesn’t even look like your on a boat which is even a bigger plus!

    I’ll have to look up Viking River Cruises and see what they offer. The added day trips and free time has got me curious.
    Denise recently posted..Pretty Tiles & Pastries | Lisbon PortagulMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:37 pm

      “It doesn’t even look like your on a boat.” Ha, there’s definitely some truth in that! I’m glad you might give river cruising a try, like I did.

  18. avatar
    Corinne October 17, 2015 at 4:50 am

    Pola, I have yet to do any type of cruise, and I’m okay with that. I do agree that river cruising might be more our style than traditional huge ship cruising. It sounds like you had a relaxing trip, more laid back. I’ll bet it is easier to embark and disembark as well. Great write up!
    Corinne recently posted..A New Dawn Rises on Skopje, MacedoniaMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:34 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Corinne! It was indeed easy to get off the ship and explore on your own, but at one time… I was almost late getting back. Too much fun in Lyon, haha!

  19. avatar
    Jessica October 17, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    I’ve never cruised before but now I am definitely interested!
    I’ve been to Arles while backpacking through Europe years ago. Such a quaint little town. What did you think of it?
    Jessica recently posted..Pucker Up, Portland: Let’s Celebrate Peche Fest!My Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:31 pm

      Arles was great! I took some time to walk around it after the official, group sightseeing. I liked the narrow streets, cute houses, flower pots etc. Just lovely.

  20. avatar
    dannielle October 18, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Now this seems like my kinda cruise!

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:29 pm

      I hear you, Dannielle! Good times.

  21. avatar
    Beth | Adventuring the Great Wide Somewhere October 19, 2015 at 2:28 am

    This sounds incredible. What an awesome opportunity for you! Seems like a very blissful way to unwind and just “float” through a very beautiful part of the world! I might have to check this out for myself one day!
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:29 pm

      Yes, I was “floating around” for a week… haha!

  22. avatar
    Pat October 20, 2015 at 3:16 am

    It seems that it was a pretty good trip

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:28 pm

      It sure was! Much different from my regular travels, but that’s what made it special.

  23. avatar
    Natalia I Zapiski ze świata October 20, 2015 at 9:38 am

    It looks like a great experience, but can you imagine a month trip like this one?
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:27 pm

      Not really! A week is just perfect. :)

  24. avatar
    Mike Foster October 21, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    My wife and I were on the same cruise with her. Seemed like everyone enjoyed this relaxing educational excursion. Would recommend this to anyone.

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:26 pm

      Hi Mike, thank you for stopping by! I’m glad you enjoyed the cruise as much as I did. Say hi to your wife for me.

  25. avatar
    Mucha w sieci October 22, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    Sounds great! Never been on a cruise like that before, time to do it one day
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:24 pm

      Southern France is a great place to start. :)

  26. avatar
    Martin October 22, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    France seems so nice in your stories. Sometimes I am amazed by the fact that I will be in this country first time in my life and I am already 30 years old! :)

    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:23 pm

      I’m glad that my affection from France comes through – thank you, Martin. :) And don’t worry – better late than never! I was well into my 20s when I first visited Paris.

  27. avatar
    Australove October 23, 2015 at 4:14 am

    Sounds great! I’ve never been on a cruise but maybe one day? :)
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:22 pm

      If you’ve never done a cruise, then I definitely recommend a river one. Anything bigger might be too much, haha! :)

  28. avatar
    Tamara (Globe Guide) October 27, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    I’m heading on a Viking Cruise focused on Christmas markets next month- so excited as I’ve heard nothing but amazing things!
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around October 28, 2015 at 5:08 pm

      Have a great time, Tamara! I know a couple of people who are doing the holiday cruise and it sounds GREAT.

  29. avatar
    Jenna January 11, 2016 at 4:43 am

    I missed this when you posted it before but am happy to see it now. I am very curious what the Viking River Cruises are like, especially after my recent ocean cruise experience. I agree with your final statement that you are surprised not to see more younger couples on board. I think a lot of younger people who like to cruise choose cruises that are either closer to home (and therefore less expensive) or are looking for a different atmosphere, but I can really see the appeal of river cruising for younger travelers. I’m sure it will become more popular among that demographic soon.
    Another reason these cruises are appealing is that the cruise doesn’t have to be the only part of the trip–you can add it on to your European travels. I can imagine traveling in Europe and including one of these cruises as part of the trip.
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around January 11, 2016 at 10:50 am

      I like your idea of incorporating a river cruise into a larger European experience! If I remember correctly, that’s what some of my fellow passengers were planning to do.

  30. avatar
    Angela January 11, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    I’m set to sail on Viking in June and really appreciated your candid review.

    • avatar
      Jetting Around January 11, 2016 at 9:19 pm

      I’m so glad you’re doing this! Have a blast!

  31. avatar
    Josie January 13, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    I just can imagine the look on your face seeing those magnificent scenery and how ecstatic you were during the trip. How I wish I could experience it also.
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around January 13, 2016 at 11:46 pm

      Yes, it was wonderful to see such a chunk of southern France! One of my favorite trips, no doubt… I hope you’ll have a chance to go on a similar cruise.

  32. avatar
    Penny August 31, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    Hi Pola
    I’m going on this cruise very soon! I can not wait. It seems we like to travel in a similar way. I have booked many of the excursions offered by Viking …we’ll see how many I do. :)
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around September 1, 2016 at 7:39 pm

      Have a great time, Penny! I was recently in the south of France again and it reminded me of the cruise. Such a great itinerary, especially the long stop in Lyon, now one of my favorite cities.

  33. avatar
    Bob November 12, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    I took a river cruise one time. It was a day cruise in Germany and that was fun but I think I would really enjoy a long river cruise. Unlike a ocean cruise on a river cruise there is always something to see as your traveling. It sounds like they had some really good day excursions for you.
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 10, 2016 at 10:21 am

      Hi Bob. River cruises don’t hold you captive on the ship, that’s what I like about them. You get the right balance of being on board with fellow passengers and exploring onshore. I hope you’ll get to enjoy a river cruise soon!

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