Last updated: 03:48 PM ET, Thu November 12 2015

Exploring France's Rivers

CroisiEurope debuts two new ships that navigate the Loire and the Rhone.

Vacation Agent | Cruise Line & Cruise Ship | Lane Nieset

Exploring France's Rivers

PHOTO: The new 54-cabin MS Camargue offers six- to eight-day cruises roundtrip from Lyon with stops in Mâcon, Vienne, Arles, Avignon, Viviers and Tournon along the Rhône and Saône rivers.

CroisiEurope, the French-owned river cruise company, maintains it has always been geared to exploration, pushing the boundaries when it comes to navigating new destinations and building just the right ship for each river.

But the company’s “if we build it, they will come” mentality may be facing the ultimate test with its latest innovation — a modernized version of a paddlewheel ship, the MS Loire Princesse, which CroisiEurope introduced last month.

Giving new life to a classic propulsion system allowed CroisiEurope to once again be a pioneer in the European river cruise industry, but this time in its own backyard on the Loire River, making it the first company to navigate these waters.

Also debuting last month was the new MS Camargue, one of three CroisiEurope ships to sail the Rhône over the past 20 years. The completely renovated, two-deck vessel (originally built in 1995) is the company’s new flagship on the river and the vessel’s boutique build allows it to fully navigate hard-to-reach spots.

“We are the only ones that navigate most of the itinerary,” says Nicola Iannone, CroisiEurope’s executive vice president for the U.S. and Canada. “We don’t use buses to get to the last port — the way we build our ships, they can do that. We can even navigate under bridges on the Seine in Paris without having to switch passengers onto local bateaux to see the light show as do other river cruises.”

A family-owned company, CroisiEurope was founded almost 40 years ago and currently has 43 ships sailing on rivers in Europe, Asia and Africa, with plans to add two more barge ships and two river ships in 2016. This year it became the first company to navigate the Loire and next year it says it will be the only one to sail between Prague and Berlin. CroisiEurope also rolled out a fourth ship on the Douro River in Portugal last month, the MS Gil Eanes, sailing roundtrip from Porto.

CroisiEurope’s main challenge now is getting more Americans to experience all the products it has to offer. “In Europe we are known, but in North America it’s a challenge, because it’s complicated to go into such a competitive market when you’re not known,” Iannone says. “But I think with all of the exclusive cruises and affordable prices, we have huge assets to sell CroisiEurope in the U.S.”

For now, however, CroisiEurope’s focus is on its newest ships. Here’s a look at two of the newest vessels — the MS Camarague and the MS Loire Princesse.

MS Camargue
With a similar design to the new MS Lafayette on the Rhine, the 54-cabin MS Camarague accommodates 104 passengers with staterooms ranging from a 105-square-foot single cabin (with no single supplement) to a 249-square-foot suite.

One perk of cruising with CroisiEurope is that all of its ships’ lower-deck cabins are above the water level, so passengers can still have a great view of the passing scenery. Those staying in one of the upper-deck rooms have panoramic views of the river from floor-to-ceiling windows. Cabins feature retractable flat-screen TVs with plenty of channels to choose from; bathrooms with foldable shower doors saving space; company-branded bath amenities; and a small desk area.

One design feature that really pops and separates these ships from some other river cruise vessels is the exclusive partnership with Italian design label Missoni Home, which outfitted the new ship with colorful patterned blankets, pillows and stools. This design aesthetic is spread throughout the ship from the mustard-yellow couches and curtains in the lounge to the lit-up flamingo cut-outs and pom-poms lining the walls in the stairwell and restaurant.

In the warmer months, the sundeck is the perfect spot for a sundowner or pre-dinner drinks, all of which are included in the fare (except for some of the top-shelf champagne and cognac). While the two-level ship lacks an elevator, the common spaces and reduced-mobility cabin are all located on the upper deck and are easily accessible for those passengers who may need assistance.

The MS Camargue offers six- to eight-day cruises roundtrip from Lyon with stops in Mâcon, Vienne, Arles, Avignon, Viviers and Tournon along the Rhône and Saône rivers. Passengers can opt to purchase excursions touring the 14th-century Palace of the Popes in Avignon or they can visit a Beaujolais vineyard after stopping in the old town of Mâcon.

MS Loire Princesse
CroisiEurope claims to be the first company to offer a cruise on the “last wild river” in Europe. It not only had to design a propulsion system with a paddle wheel that could navigate in three feet of water, but it also had to build a 98-foot-long dock, since there were no existing docks on the river.

The result was well worth the struggle — a contemporary 96-passenger paddlewheel ship cruising from Nantes along the castle-lined Loire River and the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Loire Valley. MS Loire Princesse highlights the wealth and beauty that the Loire River and region have to offer visitors. Built in Saint-Nazaire, the ship is “100 percent French-made, built in France, operated by a French owner, and sailing on a French river,” explains Lucas Schmitter, who is among the third generation of the family that owns CroisiEurope.

While the 48-cabin ship may look like a traditional river ship from the outside, except for the covered wheel located in the middle, the interior tells a different story. The MS Loire Princesse is playful with its colorful Missoni Home products as well as hot pink couches, gold ceilings sparkling with star lights and retro-inspired brass lamps hanging in the common spaces.

One of the ship’s highlights is the vintage-looking restaurant located on the lower level, with windows offering stellar views of the river. Cabins range from 127 to 142 square feet in size and offer great views from both decks, but those staying on the upper deck have beds facing the river, which is showcased through the floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors leading to a private balcony.

PHOTO: The 48-cabin MS Loire Princesse, a paddlewheel ship, sails on the Loire River from Nantes with stops in Saint-Nazaire, Ancenis, Angers, the châteaux of the Loire Valley, Saumur and Bouchemaine.

Sailing from April to November, the MS Loire Princesse offers six- to eight-day voyages starting in Nantes with stops in Saint-Nazaire, Ancenis, Angers, the châteaux of the Loire Valley, Saumur and Bouchemaine. Known as the royal river — since the French kings set up castles here during the Renaissance — the Loire runs past spots like the Château d’Ussé, which may have inspired stories like Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Passengers can tour this 15th-century château on the “Châteaux of the Loire Valley” tour, the only included excursion on the itinerary.

French Cuisine
With an all-French company comes perks like great French cuisine. Chefs on board have worked alongside Michelin-starred greats like Paul Bocuse and Marc Haeberlin, and the mastermind behind the ship’s menus, head chef Alain Bohn, was recently nominated to be a member of the prestigious Maîtres Cuisiniers de France. Buffet breakfast is a standard continental-style menu of cold cuts, hot dishes, fruit, yogurt and, of course, French pastries.

The menu gets more interesting during the three-course lunch and dinner service featuring local specialties and regional wines. Plates such as filet mignon of pork in pastry stuffed with foie gras come out perfectly timed at the table, and have a beautiful presentation on the plate, as you would expect in a fine-dining French restaurant. Since the menu is fixed and posted in advance, guests with dietary restrictions or other requests can switch out a dish for something different as long as they let the kitchen know in advance.

A High Level of Service
Since both of CroisiEurope’s new ships are boutique-size, they are more intimate and allow for more personalized service while on board. While fares for these cruises are more value-oriented, that doesn’t mean there’s any skimping on service or quality. The all-inclusive fare includes meals and drinks, onboard entertainment and Wi-Fi. The small size of the ships also adds a very social environment, with guests gathering around the lounge, bar and on the sun deck throughout the day.

Shorter Itineraries
CroisiEurope’s cruises also are appealing to the American market with shorter itineraries, attracting travelers in their 50s and 60s who have limited vacation time. Out of the 200,000 passengers per year cruising with CroisiEurope, 45 percent are international guests, of which 5 to 6 percent are American. In addition to new ships and itineraries, the company plans to roll out a new line of bath amenities, as well as integrate excursion fees into the all-inclusive fare.

River Cruise Fares
Roundtrip fares from Lyon on the MS Camargue start at $1,685 per person. Fares on the MS Loire Princesse start at $1,685 for the six-day itinerary and $2,235 per person for the eight-day cruise.

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the May 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.


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