Gourmet food and good health may seem unlikely shipmates but Linda Jaivin insists you can have your macarons and eat them, too.
It is day six of the cruise. We are taking a breather by the greenhouse in Lyon’s Tête d’Or riverside park and comparing scores. It’s three for Florin – the fitness instructor and wellness coach aboard Uniworld River Cruises’s Catherine – and five for someone else but Dave from Tasmania claims the crown with 18: one each of the 15 types of macaron conjured up at lunchtime by the ship’s pastry chef, Dimitar, plus three repeats. I am not in direct competition, having forgone the macarons for Dimitar’s equally irresistible honey, seed and sesame triangles – a kind of mini muesli bar – of which I had two and then another, which I guess makes three.
Laughing sheepishly, our little group jumps back onto our bikes for another energetic circuit around the park, one of France’s largest. By the time we come flying out of the grand iron-and-gold gate and are barrelling back down the ViaRhôna bike path towards the ship, we feel virtuous enough to wonder what we’ll be having for dinner. Chef’s recommendation: poached free-range egg meurette on a butter crouton with Burgundy sauce, glazed silver onions, bacon strips and sautéed mushrooms; cream of Dijon mustard with potato straws and roasted corn-fed chicken with morel-mushroom sauce; and for dessert, chocolate Charlotte with bourbon- vanilla custard. I’m beginning to think that “cruiserweight” is not just a boxing term.
My mission? To experience the luxury of a gourmet river cruise through Southern France without ending up like some of the local cheeses at 45 per cent fat. The luxury side of the cruise equation is a piece of gateau. Sailing from Avignon to Lyon through Provence and Burgundy, our shore excursions include visits to exquisite little towns overlooked by medieval castles and ancient cathedrals as well as to lavender and sunflower fields in the sunstruck landscape that so enraptured Vincent van Gogh. I roam the Pont d’Avignon while listening to its famous song, taste truffles that I watched a Labrador dig up from the roots of a tree and, on another day, lounge in the shade of a 16th-century tower in Tournon-sur-Rhône while a soon-to-be Master of Wine speaks of granite soils and introduces us to one of her local favourites, a biodynamic wine produced by winemaker Natacha Chave.
The ship itself is like a floating six-star hotel/art gallery awash in Murano glass. Artworks by the likes of Joan Miró and Alexander Calder are everywhere, from public spaces to the staterooms and suites. The beds are handcrafted, the bathrooms marble. The décor is deliciously over the top: a kind of Marie Antoinette meets Manhattan with lashings of opulent floral brocades, a waterfall in the lobby and, in the Bar du Leopard, a pool with a ceramic jungle mural and glass walls that automatically turn opaque when anyone is swimming. Fifty-seven staff attend 82 guests (the ship’s maximum is 159) – Americans, English and Australians of all ages – with almost telepathic dedication.
I swear I only have to think about espresso and Miroslav the Amazing (my nickname for him) makes one appear. The food and wine on the ship is relentlessly ooh-là-là sumptuous. There are “travelling lite” menus, of course, but Dimitar’s artisanal temptations (not to mention the regional specialties of the head chef, Frédéric) could undo the good work of those in an instant.
So I have my work cut out. Every morning at seven sharp I’m on deck for Florin’s fitness classes. A former masseur for the Olympic kayaking teams of Romania and Mexico and erstwhile national competitor in wrestling and bobsledding in his native Romania, Florin has an impressive knowledge of everything from yoga to biomechanics and an infectious, genuine enthusiasm for all things wellness. He starts us out easy on the first day with gentle stretching. “If I scare you now,” he says in his lovely accent, “later you are not coming back.” By the end of the week he has us doing circuit training, TRX suspension exercises and a deceptively simple workout involving stretch bands and the ship’s rail. We go from buff to buffet; it isn’t exactly boot camp. The eight-day cruise offers everything from tours for “gentle walkers” to more challenging “go active” options, all of which tick my boxes: hiking up the vineyards of Hermitage, for example. One day, the go-active gang busses out to the Gardon River for a few hours of kayaking to the ancient three-tiered Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard. Cicadas thrum and birds sing in the tangled trees. Teenagers flirt in the shallows and families picnic by the shore. It’s a highlight of the week. Perhaps less so for our river guide, who ends up having to tow a canoe with two elderly cruisers who have wandered off the gentle-walking path. By the time we reach the Pont du Gard, the poor guide looks like he could do with one of Florin’s excellent hot-stone massages. Later, I have one for him.