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Exploring Caves and Sipping Wine on a River Cruise in France’s Loire Valley

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 1/24/2022 Susan B. Barnes
© Avalon Waterways

Without realizing it, I found myself leading our group through the complete darkness of the cave, carefully stepping my way across rocks and splashing into puddles, the route lit only by the headlamps we wore. When Pierre, a professional speleologist—a fancy word for cave guide—overtook the lead, I was more than happy to follow. After a few more minutes, the ceiling of the nearly 40-mile-long natural cave embedded in France's Loire Valley opened up. We found seats on the rocks and ground, our headlamps still the only source of light.

It was time for the main event: a tasting of local wines set in the cool recesses of the cave.  Jézabel, the wine expert who joined us on our adventure, poured a variety of vintages highlighting wines of the Ardèche region. When it came time to sip from our glasses, Jézabel asked us to turn off our headlamps so that we were in complete and utter darkness, dulling our other senses while heightening our taste. Wine has never tasted more vibrant.

Dubbed SpéléOenologie—a term which combines spéléology, or the study of caves, and oenology, the study of wine—the activity is one of the excursions I enjoyed on an eight-day “Active and Discovery" cruise I recently took on the Rhone with Avalon Waterways

These adventurous itineraries set the line apart from other European river cruises. There are nearly 30 excursions on each voyage that are separated into various categories. The “active” excursions include energetic outings like spelunking, kayaking, and bicycling, while excursions in the “discovery” category are interactive cultural activities like cooking classes and painting workshops. There's also the “classic” category of cruise excursions featuring more traditional activities like history and heritage tours. Guests choose which they’d like to take each day, or none at all. The best part? They’re all included in the cruise fare.

In addition to spelunking, excursions that I chose for my cruise through France were a guided urban hike through the hills of Lyon; a chocolate experience at Valrhona in Tain L’Hermitage; a nighttime tour of Viviers; a guided e-bike ride through the Gard region; and a painting workshop in Arles to learn techniques used by Vincent van Gogh, who spent time in the French village.

New Avalon Waterways itineraries for 2022 include Active & Discovery on the Seine, beginning and ending in Paris with 23 active, discovery, and classic cruise excursions, including guided hikes through the outskirts of Les Andelys or a tour spotlighting the culinary and farming traditions of Normandy. Also coming in 2022 is the Active & Discovery on the Moselle, winding along the river from Remich, Luxembourg, to Frankfurt, Germany, with 21 active, discovery and classic excursions like kayaking through the ancient German town of Koblenz or biking along the Nidda River. 

Back onboard the all-suite Avalon Poetry II, I had plenty of space to relax and recharge in my suite. Rather than a veranda, each of the suites features Open-Air Balconies: the staterooms’ wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows slide to open right to the outdoors and fresh air. The suites are large with room to move. Beds are also positioned to face the scenery, so the first thing I saw each morning when I opened my eyes was a stunning vista of the day’s destination. The ship's public spaces like the Panorama Lounge, Observation Deck, and dining room are just as thoughtful and comfortable, and the Open Air Sky Deck provides sweeping views while in port and cruising the river, not to mention a hot tub to ease tired muscles.

With 64 suites and staterooms and 37 crew members, I never felt crowded on the Avalon Poetry II. After dinner each night, small groups gathered in the lounge to listen to live music while recounting their days, and others retreated to the observation deck for a board game; one night we celebrated a fellow traveler’s birthday. There’s a familial vibe with Avalon that feels quite charming, making the small ship the perfect place to unwind after a day of active excursions on land.

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