(9:14 a.m. EDT) -- We're onboard Tauck Emerald this week, sailing on France's Rhone River. Our luxury river cruise through wine country began with a land-tour option in Paris and concludes in Lyon.
Also known for its all-inclusive land tours, Tauck has been steadily adding river ships and upgrading its fleet. In early 2016, the tour company announced it would reconfigure the four ships of its Jewel Class: ms Emerald, ms Sapphire, ms Esprit and ms Treasures (the ships originally had "Swiss" in their name, and while the old moniker is still on the livery, it's now being dropped for consistency with the rest of the fleet).
The most noticeable change from the refurbishment, which has been completed on ms Sapphire and ms Emerald (and will be done on the others next year), is that the number of cabins have been reduced, mainly by increasing stateroom square footage. Subsequently, the number of passengers has gone from 118 to 98, which can make a big difference in intimacy and level of service.
Here are our first impressions from Tauck's ms Emerald.
Pre-Cruise Land Portion
Our cruise began in Paris, where we had two days on land, a perfect option for anyone -- like us -- who has never visited the City of Lights, or anyone who wants to catch what they missed the last time they were there. Many of the passengers on our trip further extended the time in Paris, adding a number of additional days in the city. While Tauck sells the whole journey as an all-inclusive 10-day trip, the land-portion isn't a requirement -- an eight-night cruise only trip is also available. Still, 100 percent of passengers on our cruise opted to do the two-night land portion. Tauck has nailed this part of the journey, providing enough structure and guidance while still allowing plenty of free time.
In its pre-tour, Tauck arranges the transfer to the hotel from the airport, reserves the hotel (and has Tauck representatives on hand in the lobby during check-in), arranges a group dinner the first night and tours. Tauck also handles transport from the hotel to the train station, then books high-speed train travel (premium class!) from Paris to Lyon, where the cruise begins. This schedule takes care of the important details -- so passengers only have to worry about showing up -- while providing plenty of time to explore Paris. It operates like a well-oiled machine; we didn't even have to worry about our luggage.
Emerald's massive reconfiguration expanded cabins on Deck 2, stretching them from 150 square feet (in line with the industry standard) to 225 square feet. And those 75 square feet make quite a difference. With 50 percent more space, cabins feel open and comfortable. Beds are arranged to face the floor-to-ceiling French balconies, a surprisingly wonderful detail that lets you watch the world go by in relaxed comfort. A second window -- also floor to ceiling -- lets in lots of light.
Though not every cabin was reconfigured -- passengers still can book 150-square-foot cabins on decks 1 and 3, 183-square foot cabins on decks 1, 2 and 3, and 300-square-foot cabins on Deck 3 -- all staterooms are well appointed, offering large beds with high-thread-count linens, marble accents, posh Molton Brown toiletries and plenty of space for storage.
Cruises on Emerald – and Tauck overall -- are inclusive of everything: all drinks, excursions and gratuities (even for guides and drivers ashore). It really allows passengers to relax without worrying about where they might have to pay a little extra or whether they should book tours through the ship or on their own. It also allows people to stop and notice the subtle Tauck touches that make the journey feel more special.
In the bigger cabins, showers have fold-down seats for people who might have mobility issues -- or women to use while shaving their legs. Bathrooms also have built-in makeup mirrors inside the medicine cabinets and unobtrusive floor-level nightlights, and the included hairdryer is a solid 2200 watts (seriously -- passengers were talking about the hairdryers). Upper-level staterooms also have fresh flowers, replaced throughout the cruise, and lots of outlets and USB ports for charging.
All public spaces are beautifully appointed, with luxury fabrics and gorgeous light fixtures, including crystal chandeliers in the main atrium.
Crew -- including dedicated tour guides who first met passengers in Paris -- anticipate needs, such as setting out fruit and pastries between meals or offering incredible French macarons on the train from Paris to Lyon.
Food and Wine
Food and wine play an integral role on this cruise, in no small part because the river cruise ship sails through one of the most famous wine regions in the world. The menus in the main dining room, Compass Rose, are thoughtful, with excellent variety and small enough portion sizes to allow passengers to enjoy multicourse meals without feeling stuffed afterward. Wine pairings are careful, and a sommelier explains the choices each night before dinner. Wines are regional, and they've been excellent. In fact, the only knock on the wines has been for those passengers sampled during port excursions; they've been pretty average.
It's always a challenge to find excursions that appeal to a broad group of people. Tauck seems to have gotten the formula right on Emerald. Tours along the Rhone are offered in each port (and some ports actually have several options). For the most part, they involve some level of walking, though "easy walker" groups are designated in several ports. Guides have consistently been some of the best we've come across while cruising; they are funny, knowledgeable, proficient in English and intuitively think about things like when passengers might need a bathroom break or what obstacles people might encounter along the way. (In Paris, for example, guides warned our group about pickpockets and told us what to be on the lookout for. They were dead on, and when we were approached in the manner to which we'd been alerted, we knew the scam and avoided potential trouble.)
Several days, Emerald offers a guided bike tour, and while these tours are sparsely attended, they offer a more active chance to see the cities we visit. Our only complaint is that they run up against other options -- activities like painting class or wine tasting ashore -- so we've had to make tough choices.
--By Colleen McDaniel, Senior Executive Editor