What You Pay For: Tauck vs. CroisiEurope on the Rhône

by  Donna Heiderstadt | Jun 7, 2018
Rhone River
Rhone River / iStock

How much does the amount you pay for a river cruise affect your experience? When the price gap is significant, you’d expect discernable differences—and you’d be right.

Take Tauck’s Savoring France, a nine-night sailing to Paris, Lyon, and Provence from $5,590 per person; versus CroisiEurope’s Gateway to Provence—six nights along the Camargue, the Rhône, and the Saône from $2,520. They both deliver what they promise (including daily excursions along with wine, beer, and cocktails included in the price) just in very different ways.

Here’s what we learned on two sailings taken one week apart.

The Ships

Tauck’s ms Emerald underwent a major renovation in 2017 that lowered its passenger count to 98 and gave its classic decor a splash of contemporary panache. Cabins are now spacious, with 70 percent measuring 225 square feet or larger, and all but the 150-square-foot Deck 1 cabins have roomy, modern bathrooms. Beds are soft and dreamy.

CroisiEurope’s ms Van Gogh is fresh from a March 2018 renovation that transformed it from a 154-passenger ship with snug cabins and drab decor to a contemporary 105-passenger vessel that’s inviting in its simplicity. Beiges and grays are livened by bold splashes of color in draperies and Van Gogh reproductions on the walls. Cabins, now at 168 square feet, are generously sized and bathrooms, while not exceptionally large, are bright and modern. Beds could be softer, but they have lovely fluffy duvets.

The Vibe

It’s no surprise that Tauck’s Savoring France itinerary is geared toward foodies looking to taste all things French. In fact, eating, drinking, cooking, and learning about food and wine is the experience. While no one forces you to eat nonstop, the opportunity to sample, sip, and overindulge is always there.

The ambience on CroisiEurope is immersive in another way: There’s a focus on enjoying France’s beauty and history in a comfortable, casual, multi-cultural setting (most guests aren’t American, unless the ship’s been chartered). The staff promotes camaraderie with trivia games, sun deck exercises, and other activities, while excursions are coordinated by language with groups led by a guide who speaks yours.

The Itineraries

Tauck begins with two days in Paris that include a dinner at Brasserie Fouquet, a chocolate tasting in Saint-Germain des Pres, and a cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu. After transferring to Lyon by train and boarding ms Emerald, guests enjoy a city tour and wine-and-cheese tasting at Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, followed by a drive to Beaujolais for, yes, more wine tasting. Port calls over the next week are Viviers, Arles, and the Camargue, followed by Avignon, Roussillon, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Valence and Tain l’Hermitage. The cruise ends in Lyon.

CroisiEurope’s six-night cruise begins in either Martigues near the Mediterranean or Chalon-sur-Sôane on the Saône River north of Lyon. Ports visited are Arles, Avignon, Tain l’Hermitage, Vienne, Lyon, and Chalon-sur-Saône.

The Excursions

All excursions are included in Tauck’s fare—and many are exceptional. When offered the choice of a walking tour of Viviers or a visit to a truffle farm and the village of Grignan, choose the latter. Other highlights include a wine-and-cheese pairing at Michelin-star chef Anne-Sophie Pic’s cooking school Scook, a cocktail reception and dinner at Chateau Duchy D’Uzès, a visit to the ancient Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard, and a tour of the terraced vineyards in Tain l’Hermitage.

The classic excursion package included with this CroisiEurope itinerary hits many of the same high notes, including an enjoyable visit to a manade (bull ranch) in the Camargue (Tauck visits one also and includes a traditional lunch), guided tours of Arles and Avignon, a visit to Lyon’s old town (and its medieval passageways known as traboules), and the Ardèche Gorges. Two of the best experiences occur on the Saône as the ship glides past Lyon’s illuminated buildings and bridges at night and docks the next morning at Chalon-sur-Saône for a visit to the entrancing Hospices de Beaune.  

The Food

In a word: superb. Breakfast and lunch aboard ms Emerald is buffet style (with stations for fresh omelets and hot dishes), while dinner is a multi-course experience with innovative menu offerings that can make it tough to choose. Arthur’s, located aft on deck 3, is another lunch option, serving gargantuan burgers and other casual fare.

CroisiEurope’s cuisine isn’t as fancy, but it’s full of flavor. The breakfast buffet is somewhat limited (eggs are do-it-yourself soft- or hard-boiled), but the yogurt’s creamy and the breads and croissants are divine. Set-menu lunches (most days) and dinners are satisfying, in an elevated home-cooking way, and vegetarian options (as well as substitutes if you don’t eat beef or fish) are available. We especially loved the two buffet lunches (great pastas, fresh salads, and tasty cheeses) as well as the soups and desserts.

The Staff

You’ll enjoy getting to know the two Tauck guides (French, but fluent in English), who accompany you throughout the itinerary. Equally hospitable are the service staff, who hail mostly from Eastern Europe and are constantly at the ready with incredible snacks, refreshing drinks, and a cold towel as you re-board the ship.

Light-heartedness prevails on ms Van Gogh, where a jovial crew from all over Europe (most of whom speak excellent English) get to know your preferences and are always happy to offer suggestions on how to make the most of your CroisiEurope experience.

The Passengers

Tauck is an American company and most passengers hail from the U.S. (14 states on my sailing with the largest contingents from Texas, Virginia, New York, and California), along with a few couples from Australia, Canada, and England. Mostly affluent and past retirement age (or approaching it), they are Tauck loyalists and talk about which trip they’ve already booked for their next vacation.

CroisiEurope is a French company, but most cruisers on the Rhône itinerary are from neighboring countries, including Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium. Age-wise, there’s not much difference from Tauck, although some guests did seem to have more limited mobility. But because CroisiEurope books many groups, the passenger mix varies greatly from cruise to cruise.

The Pace

Tauck packs a lot into this itinerary—you’ll sightsee beaucoup (that’s French for a lot) in addition to eating and drinking—so rest up and prepare to savor it all.

CroisiEurope’s pace is also brisk, but with at least two opportunities to relax on deck for a few hours and just enjoy the gorgeous scenery while cruising.

The Verdict

Tauck’s Savoring France definitely satisfies, providing so many opportunities to enjoy great food and wine that it verges on overkill. If you don’t mind gaining a few pounds, this is one terrific way to do it.

CroisiEurope’s Gateway to Provence offers wonderful insight into the region as well as excellent value. Yes, it’s a cruise that will take some Americans out of their English-only comfort zone, but the staff goes out of its way to accommodate all passengers with humor and aplomb.

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