When it comes to river cruising in Europe, France is the latest hotspot. In a race to keep up with what appears to be an unquenchable thirst for any and all things France, river cruise lines have been introducing a whole host of vessels and itineraries throughout the country. With the addition this year of Bordeaux to the French river cruise roster, the country now has three distinct river cruising regions on offer.
Those eyeing France for their next river cruise can now opt for a sailing along the Seine from Paris to Normandy, head to the Rhone and Saone rivers for a scenic cruise through Burgundy and Provence or start their river cruise in Bordeaux for a journey through some of the country's most famous winemaking regions.
For those who can't pick, practically every river cruise line now offers the option to combine at least two of their France river cruises into one itinerary.
And for the serious river cruising Francophile, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is introducing a 22-day Ultimate France itinerary for 2015 that combines all three river cruises.
The scene on the Seine
For many, the Seine is the first river that comes to mind when thinking of France, not least because it snakes its way through Paris. And while river cruise lines' Seine itineraries certainly benefit from being anchored by one of the world's most famous cities, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy earlier this month gave the route, which almost always includes an excursion to the famous Normandy beaches, added hype.
The typical Seine river cruise travels up the Seine from Paris to Caudebec and back, with stops that often include Giverny, where impressionist painter Claude Monet lived and worked for more than 40 years, and Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent van Gogh spent the last two months of his life. And then there is the day trip to the Normandy beaches, of course, which is a must for history buffs. Scenic Cruises claims to have the only Seine itinerary that sails all the way to Honfleur, located on the English Channel, on its 128-passenger Scenic Gem, which is launching this year.
To keep up with the strong demand for this northern France route, Tauck repositioned its 118-passenger Swiss Sapphire to the Seine this year, and Avalon Waterways will launch the 128-passenger Avalon Tapestry II on the river next year.
Eau de Provence
Farther south, river cruisers can get a taste of Burgundy and Provence, where the Rhone and Saone rivers weave through a landscape dotted with ancient farmhouses, medieval villages, fields of lavender and vineyards.
Provence saw a huge dose of fresh river cruise investment this year. Viking Cruises launched three vessels there earlier this spring, and Uniworld christened its newest river ship, the 159-passenger S.S. Catherine, in Lyon in March.
For 2015, Avalon Waterways is putting its 128-passenger Avalon Poetry II, christened earlier this year in Dordrecht, Netherlands, on the Rhone and Saone rivers; and Viking is adding a fourth ship on its Portraits of Southern France itinerary, the Viking Delling, a new vessel launching next year.
River cruises here often start either in the charming city of Lyon, located on the banks of the Saone in Burgundy, or farther south in Provence's Avignon, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and head in one direction or the other for a one-week sailing. Some itineraries go as far north as Beaujolais or Chalon-sur Saone.
This is an itinerary steeped in picture-perfect scenery and delicacies. From chocolates and truffles to olive oil and wine (the region is known for its Cotes du Rhone wines among other appellations), there is no shortage of indulgence on a Burgundy and Provence river cruise.
Bordeaux the newcomer
It's somewhat of a mystery why Bordeaux and the surrounding Aquitaine region in the southwest of France are only just now gaining traction with the river cruise lines. Sure, the Garonne and Dordogne rivers and Gironde Estuary, on which cruises in this region sail, flow into and out of the Atlantic Ocean, providing a unique challenge. And there's only a limited stretch of each of those bodies of water where the newly established itineraries sail.
But the region's picturesque chateaus and countless notable vineyards surely helped convince Viking and Uniworld that introducing itineraries in Bordeaux this year would pay off.
Indeed, Viking christened the Viking Foresti in Bordeaux in March, and Uniworld repositioned its 132-passenger River Royale to Bordeaux in May. And direct-to-consumer operator Grand Circle Cruise Line announced earlier this year that it had acquired the River Cloud II from Sea Cloud Cruises, a 90-passenger ship that will operate a new itinerary in Bordeaux beginning next March.
Bordeaux river cruises begin, not surprisingly, in Bordeaux, which is an attraction unto itself. The capital of the Aquitaine region has reinvented itself in recent years, having totally revitalized its Garonne River waterfront, which is now buzzing with shops, cafes and a seasonal, open-air market.
Beyond Bordeaux lie some of the most well-known winemaking regions in France. There is the Medoc wine region, where high-profile chateaus are churning out some of the most sought-after red wines in France, and the more humble estates that produce Sauternes, a sweet wine made from grapes that have experienced noble rot, a type of fungus said to improve intensity and complexity.
And there are plenty of charms in this part of the world that are not wine-related: Layers of history dating back centuries have yielded curiosities such as the soaring monolithic church in Saint-Emilion and the medieval fortress in Blaye.
And of course, French gastronomy plays a strong role in river cruising in France.
Uniworld's eight-day Bordeaux, Vineyards and Chateaux itinerary, which launched this month, includes an epicurean dinner curated by Michelin-starred French chef Philippe Etchebes.
For someone who would like to explore more of France by inland waterway, there are several other options.
French river cruise company CroisiEurope plans on christening a 96-passenger paddlewheeler on France's Loire River next April, sailing six- and eight-day cruises. And companies like CroisiEurope, European Waterways and Abercrombie & Kent offer canal cruises through the smaller and more quaint waterways and canals of France, including in the Burgundy, Canal du Midi, Alsace and Lorraine, Gascony, Bordeaux, Champagne and Paris regions.
European Waterways, for instance, has a fleet of 16 hotel barges that can host between six and 20 passengers onboard. CroisiEurope in the meantime has said it is building up a fleet of canal barge vessels that have a capacity of up to 24 guests.
Whether sailing with an intimate group of six or traveling on a 150-passenger river cruise vessel, the charms of cruising through France are clearly wooing more passengers to the country's inland waterways.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.