A year ago, Jane McDonald wouldn’t have dreamt of booking a river cruise. “I would have thought ‘old’ – but it’s not!” she says, with some surprise.
“It’s for people who are keen to see more of the cities: you get a lot longer in them than on an ocean cruise stopover, and of course you can get straight into the city centre. The ship is more like a floating hotel. You only go back there to eat and sleep, then you’re off the ship again all day and sometimes all evening.”
In her Channel 5 series, Cruising with Jane McDonald, she embarks on a different cruise each week: this week she goes on a voyage round Cuba; then there’s a Baltic cruise to Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki; a week on a mega-ship in Italy; and a trip down the River Rhône. In the past five years, European river cruising has boomed and it’s been the biggest revelation for McDonald. “I get mad with myself because I’ve been cruising for 20 years and – this is the thing with people who cruise – you find a ship you like, you find the itinerary you like and you tend to go back to that. That’s what I’m loving about this programme: I’m finding different shipping companies, different itineraries. There’s a big difference between ocean cruises and river cruises.
“Comfortable shoes are the best thing I can recommend to anyone going on a river cruise. Don’t be like me and pack high heels – I had to go and buy some flats!”
The Rhône has its source in the Swiss Alps and winds through south-eastern France before flowing into the Mediterranean. McDonald’s cruise began in Lyon and meandered south, anchoring in Tournon, Viviers, Avignon and Arles, where Provence’s rolling countryside yields to the wetlands of the Camargue, famous for its birdlife and wild white horses.
River ships are much smaller than their ocean-going cousins because they have to fit into locks and under bridges, and used to feel inferior, but the facilities on new vessels are increasingly comparable with the vast ships. McDonald sailed with Avalon Waterways and was particularly impressed with her cabin on the Poetry II. “You have everything you can possibly want, and an amazing view from the floor-to-ceiling windows, which you can open.” The ship had an ingenious approach to bridges. “Everything on the top deck folded down – the chairs, the bar, everything collapsed. That was fascinating.”
No matter how cleverly designed the boat, one disadvantage of river cruising is that you can be marooned – lots of rain can mean vessels are unable to pass under low bridges; very little means you can’t move. “We had to stay an extra day in Lyon, but the cruise director was brilliant and there were all sorts of things to do. I saw a lot more of the city than I would have.”
On river cruises, the excursions are often included. Or, like McDonald, you can choose to do your own thing. She ticked two things off her bucket list: she watched the sun rise from a hot- air balloon and re-created her favourite 80s advert. “Do you remember the Cadbury’s Flake advert where a girl walked into a field and had this amazing picnic? I’d always wanted to emulate that advert, so I did!”
Cruising with Jane McDonald begins on Friday 1 September on Channel 5 at 9pm
Radio Times Travel offers:
Burgundy, the River Rhone & Provence river cruise on the 5-star MS Lord Byron. From the lush green vineyards of Burgundy to the sun-kissed hills of Provence and the wild ruggedness of the Ardeche gorges to the medieval allure of Avignon. Holiday highlights:
- Visit to Beaune, centre of the Burgundy wine region and wine tasting
- Cruise the spectacular Rhone valley
- Guided tour of Lyon, second city of France and its gastronomic capital
- Visit to charming Vienne
- Tour of the astonishing Ardeche Gorges
- Guided tour of Arles, with its extraordinary Roman remains and home of Vincent Van Gogh
- Visit to the Pont du Gard
- Tour of superbly preserved, medieval Avignon and the stunning Pope’s Palace
- Price includes full-board from dinner on your day of arrival until breakfast on your final day
- Click here for more details and to book
Browse all our cruises at travel.radiotimes.com/cruises/