Hotel Barging with Robin Esser from the Daily Mail
We are three American academics and their wives from Colorado Springs University in America, a financial planner and his banker wife from Pittsburgh, two retired teachers from Guernsey, my wife and me.
So there are just the 12 of us aboard a vessel that’s not a cruiser, nor a river boat but a hotel-barge called the Anne-Marie run by CroisiEurope, and for a glorious week it is our holiday home as we float gently down France’s river Rhone and nearby canals.
We all get on surprisingly well and our evenings are like a nightly dinner party where we sit together sharing anecdotes and imbibing rather too much Cotes du Rhone. The crew is quite taken by our capacity for laughing and drinking and we become known as the ‘12 amigos’.
The evenings often end with one or two of us plunging into the Jacuzzi on the foredeck. The Anne-Marie has 12 twin-bed rooms all with en-suite shower and loo. The cabins are on the lower deck and it is disconcerting at first to look out of the windows and see water and ducks at eye level.
Creature comforts: The Anne Marie comfortably accommodated the ’12 Amigos’ for joyous nightly dinners
On the main deck is the dining room, which seats 22 when the boat is full, a well-stocked bar, a lounge and an open deck from which to see the sights on both river banks and, up another stairway, a sun deck with sunloungers.
Add to that an attentive crew, a talented chef, three delicious meals a day and as many cocktails or bottles of wine as you can drink for an all-inclusive price of £1,488 to £1,658 per person, and you can’t go wrong.
This includes daily coach trips ashore with a guide to see the sights of Provence and the free use of bicycles.
We take the train from London St Pancras and just six hours later are at the heart of Avignon, where the Anne-Marie is moored. We are glad to arrive with enough time to look round this medieval walled city, which was the headquarters for the Popes in the 14th century.
You can visit the Popes’ Palace and wander through the Petit Palais museum, then browse local shops for pretty Provencal cloths and wonderful handmade soap. Avignon is, of course, the place where the bridge, made memorable in the famous song, pokes out now only half-way over the Rhone.
We join the boat and set off, sailing quietly and steadily down the Rhone, the Petite Rhone and through canal and locks to visit the medieval cities, towns and villages of Provence and see the white horses, black bulls, flamingos, ibises, herons, storks, egrets, pied avocets and other birds of the Camargue, Europe’s most extensive wetlands.
The Romans made this region their first province beyond the Alps and called it Provincia Romana. It was ruled by the Counts of Provence from Aix- en-Provence until 1481, when it became part of France.
An afternoon voyage takes us to Arles, some 2,000 years old. Its architectural masterpieces includes a Roman amphitheatre. It’s here where we see a cafe once frequented by Vincent Van Gogh.
Another highlight is a visit to an olive farm where the owner hooks his tractor to a converted haycart and takes us on a fascinating tour of his 18,000 trees, explaining how his extra-virgin oil is produced.
He claims to make no profit out of olives – but the elegantly manicured lawns and flower beds outside his pretty farmhouse belie such a suggestion.
From Arles we take the Petite Rhone branch and the Canal du Rhone to further explore the Camargue and moor up in Aigues-Mortes, which we think is the jewel of our trip. It is an old fortress town set inside magnificent and impressive walls and in one of the loveliest settings of Provence. Its straight, narrow streets are full of tempting shops, bars and restaurants.
Aigues-Mortes is near the Salins du Midi salt marshes, France’s most extensive salt-producing area, where we board a little train that winds through the unexpectedly pink-coloured salt beds.
Taking the Canal du Midi, we spend a morning cruising to Sete, a port crisscrossed Venetian-style by canals in which 1,000 boats, from big catamarans to little motor launches, are anchored.
Our coach shuttles us up to a panoramic viewpoint from which the lagoon and coastline spreads out beneath us.
Across the lagoon from Sete is Bouzigues, where there are oyster beds and it seemed a shame not to try half a dozen, accompanied by a glass or two of Provence’s pale rosé.
On board for our last gala dinner, after a glass of bubbly, we are served tournedos of beef with a morel sauce followed by a delicious selection of cheese and a death by chocolate dessert. A fitting end to a stupendous week.