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Monday,  July 15, 2024 6:52 AM 

On Location: What’s it like sailing with CroisiEurope? PAX joins agents & 5Continents on the Rhine

On Location: What’s it like sailing with CroisiEurope? PAX joins agents & 5Continents on the Rhine
From left: Travel advisors Wendy Weir & Jolyne De Marco and Michele Rauzon of 5Continents enjoy the MS Douce France on the Rhine in Germany. (Pax Global Media0
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The sparkling wine was flowing when suddenly a woman’s voice blared through an overhead speaker, prompting us all to pause our conversations and listen up.

Speaking in English, with a distinct French accent, the voice above had an important announcement to make. An update on something that all of us, discreetly, had been waiting for with anticipation as dusk set in.

The dinner menu.

After four days of eating together at elegant tables like one big family, it sounded like the kitchen, on our final night together, was going out with a bang. The voice in the speaker revealed the feast that had been prepared. 

A flambé demonstration aboard the MS Douce France. (Pax Global Media)

Foie gras? Roasted goat cheese on toast? A six-flavour veal?

What was this, a five-star French restaurant?

Oui, oui, mes amis – it was. Well, technically it wasn’t. But it could have been. 

All aboard the MS Douce France

Instead, it was the magenta-lit dining room of the MS Douce France, a two-deck, 55-cabin river ship owned by CroisiEurope, an independent, family-run cruise line that’s been operating boutique-style voyages since 1976.

Founded by Gérard Schmitter, a restaurateur from Alsace, the company is credited for spearheading river tourism in France.   

As the story goes, Schmitter ran a waterfront restaurant in the commune of Plobsheim, and to attract guests, he began offering boat rides to tourists in Strasbourg, down the Rhine River, so they could eat at his place.

And just like that, a river cruise company was born.

Ships line CroisiEurope's hub in Strasbourg, France. (Pax Global Media)

Today, CroisiEurope, still a family-run business, has grown to a fleet of 50 ships, designed not only for Europe’s known rivers (and lesser-known ones, like the underserved Po in Italy), and waterways in South Africa, Cambodia and Vietnam, but also France’s canals via péniche (barges) and beyond to the Mediterranean, Adriatic coast and Red Sea.

In Europe, the company’s river routes are vast. Guests can sail from north to south, be in Amsterdam one day and then in Bucharest days later.

But understanding the blueprint of CroisiEurope – which, despite entering the North American market in 2013, is still a lesser known brand in English Canada – starts in the dining room.

Filled with joie de vivre

As PAX – alongside travel advisors Jolyne De Marco and Wendy Weir, and Michele Rauzon from 5Continents, which sells CroisiEurope in Canada – learned exclusively on a Christmas Market sailing along the castle-dotted Rhine from Dec. 10-14, CroisiEurope’s secret sauce is its culinary prowess.

From left: Canadian travel advisors Jolyne De Marco and Wendy Weir with Michele Rauzon of 5Continents in Strasbourg, France. (Pax Global Media)

The onboard food and wine – a menu designed by head Chef Alain Bohn, using French gastronomic traditions – is simply magnifique.

It’s also paired with a commitment to sharing the French joie de vivre (the enjoyment of life) with passengers.

Meaning, meals will unfold in ways that North American audiences may not be used to.

For example: dinner can start as late as eight o’clock (sometimes it’s earlier. It depends on the day), and there’s just one set menu: a starter or two, a main entrée, dessert and, of course, an endless supply of fresh bread.

Cod for lunch on board the MS Douce France. (Pax Global Media)

The offer, for lunch and dinner, changes daily, but it’s not like there’s a menu with multiple items to choose from.

What you see is what you get (although, passengers with dietary needs can request alternatives).

This particular style of dining, as Sarah Lamiscarre, an international sales manager at CroisiEurope, later told PAX, is about immersing guests into a world of French hospitality.

Meaning: when boarding a CroisiEurope ship, Europe comes with you.

“We want guests to experience the European way of life,” Lamiscarre said. “We want to give the impression that it's a family meal, which means everybody eats the same things.” 

Sarah Lamiscarre, an international sales manager at CroisiEurope. (Pax Global Media)

The exception, with dining, is breakfast. Puffy croissants and freshly-brewed coffee pots are placed on everyone’s assigned table each morning, and it’s a buffet with scrambled eggs, sausage, toast, fruit, cereals and other items.

Add CroisiEurope’s smartly-dressed restaurant staff, who swerve around tables, clearing plates and filling glasses, and you’ve got a dining experience fit for a king or queen.

Welcome cocktails on board the MS Douce France. (Pax Global Media)

An “all-included” formula

The formula at CroisiEurope is an “all-included” model. This means meals, a selection of alcoholic cocktails and wine, shore excursions, and Wi-Fi (though weak at times) are covered.

Tipping is not mandatory, which makes the brand distinctly French. 

“It’s at the guest’s discretion. If you’re happy with the service, you leave what you want at the end of the cruise,” Lamiscarre said, noting that tips are divided among the crew, from the captain to the wait staff, who mostly all speak English. 

Inside the lounge of the MS Douce France. (Pax Global Media)

Meeting the crew of the MS Douce France. (Pax Global Media)

CroisiEurope is also a small ship experience, making it all the more European. 

The company’s largest vessel is just 98 cabins (this is the MV La Belle De L’Adriatique, which sails the Adriatic coast), while the smallest ones, in Africa, have just eight rooms. 

On European rivers, CroisiEurope's ships can range from 54 to 88 cabins.

CroisiEurope is a small ship experience. (Pax Global Media)

Conducive to conversation

Unlike some of its competitors, CroisiEurope’s ships aren’t bursting with amenities, like gyms, libraries and additional dining venues.

The company's river ships, by design, have just three main spaces – one main restaurant, a lounge (with a bar), and an outdoor sundeck.

The point of this is to create an intimate environment where meeting new people is part of the experience. 

“We want passengers to interact with each other – even if they’re not from the same country,” Lamiscarre said.

She shared an anecdote about a CroisiEurope sailing years back where two groups, from different universes, came together in harmony on board.

Passengers explore the town of Mainz, Germany. (Pax Global Media)

On one end of the ship, there was a religious group of Russians. On the other, a band of gay men from Florida.

“At the beginning, they were just looking at each other,” Lamiscarre said. “But the goal of the cruise director was to introduce them, and after two days, they were all drinking together.”

The mixed crowd on our Rhine sailing, which sailed from festive Strasbourg (where CroisiEurope’s hub is located) to Sankt Goarshausen, Rüdesheim, Mainz, Gambsheim and back, echoed a similar dynamic.

Christmas marketing in Rüdesheim, Germany. (Pax Global Media)

There were French and Spanish-speaking guests, but English-speaking Americans – Floridians, specifically – were the majority. A big group booking, orchestrated by a travel advisor from the U.S., who was there escorting the lively gang. 

As excursions to twinkling Christmas Markets and attractions (like Siegfried's Mechanical Museum in Rüdesheim and the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, both in Germany) unrolled, we blended together, learning each other’s names and life stories.

In an age of smartphones and social media, where face-to-face interaction is lost, the onboard camaraderie that formed was as refreshing as the Riesling.

CroisiEurope's dynamic tour guides take guests into the heart of destinations. (Pax Global Media)

Our ride, the 110 metre-long MS Douce France, renovated in 2017, was a “Premium Ship,” which has bigger cabins and modern décor, whereas CroisiEurope’s “Standard Ships” are older and, perhaps, more retro in design.

Cabins are divided into Premium, Standard, and Intermediate categories, regardless of which deck they’re on, but all river vessels have identical amenities, like hair dryers and satellite TVs. 

It’s a sustainable experience, too. Guests receive water carafes, instead of plastic bottles, which can be filled at filtered water stations on board.

Inside a lower level cabin on the MS Douce France. (Pax Global Media)

Ships, however, each have a different look, with varying décor and designs, and colourful backlighting.

For example: the MS Douce France was illuminated with magenta lights. But on the MS Symphonie, it’s royal blue, and the infrastructure is slightly different (ie: there’s bedside plugs).

The lesson for travel advisors, here, is to research the ships because no two are alike.

Royal blue furnishing on the MS Symphonie. (Pax Global Media)

Water drama on the Rhine

How did the MS Symphonie enter the picture? You can blame Mother Nature for that.

Half-way into our voyage, it was revealed that water levels on the Rhine had risen too high due to melting snow and that our ship wouldn’t be able to pass under bridges.

As a result, the itinerary continued via bus as passengers were driven back to Strasbourg and transferred onto the MS Symphonie, which remained docked.

Villages and castles on the Rhine River. (Pax Global Media)

(Lots of cruise companies were forced to do the same that week).

It was beyond anyone’s control. Still, CroisiEurope should be commended for its handling of the situation, seamlessly transferring passengers (and their luggage) from one ship to another, assigning guests the exact same room numbers to avoid any confusion.

READ MORE: Cruise lines pivot as high water levels on Rhine disrupt Christmas Market voyages

It may not have been what people wanted (all excursions afterwards were completed by bus), but there are worse outcomes than having more time in Strasbourg to explore.

The historic town, decorated to the nines with holiday lights and decorations, is home to France's oldest Christmas market, where more than 300 wooden stalls are placed in squares throughout the city, which magically lights up at night like a fairy tale.

Teddy bear Christmas decor in Strasbourg, France. (Pax Global Media)

Wooden stalls form Christmas Markets in Strasbourg, France. (Pax Global Media)

The holiday spirit lights up in Strasbourg at night. (Pax Global Media)

The bottom line? It’s affordable  

CroisiEurope’s cozy cabins aren’t sprawling suites, and by some standards, they could be perceived as somewhat basic.

But if you’ve come to Europe to explore, how much time are you spending in your cabin anyways?

There’s a client for every type of cruise, and with CroisiEurope, the takeaway is value for money. 

From left: Wendy Weir, Farmstead Tours & Travel; Michael Pihach, managing editor, PAX News; Michele Rauzon, director of sales, North America, 5Continents; travel advisor Jolyne De Marco on the Rhine River with CroisiEurope. (Supplied)

The brand, without compromising food and service, is less expensive compared to other brands operating in Europe and beyond.  

Lamiscarre says CroisiEurope is able to keep its prices low because “we build our own ships, and we sell ships.” 

“We control everything,” she said. “We do our own production, we hire our own crew. We don’t outsource anything.”

In Canada, European river cruising is generally viewed through a luxury lens.

But much like hotels and resorts, which range from entry-level to high-end, river ships, too, should cater to all wallet sizes.

CroisiEurope effectively fills that gap as an accessible option.

“We have choices for every budget,” Lamiscarre said. “Whether it’s three days or 15 days, everything is possible.”

How to sell it

5Continents, which offers tailor-made journeys for independent, group, family, and special-interest groups, anywhere in the world (except the Caribbean, Mexico and the U.S.), is a point of contact for Canadian travel advisors looking to sell CroisiEurope.

Travellers exploring France, or greater Europe, “can easily tack on a three, four-night cruise” to enhance their trip, said Michele Rauzon, 5Continents’ director of sales for North America.

Michele Rauzon, director of sales, North America, 5Continents, photographed in Petite France in Strasbourg. (Pax Global Media)

Does your client want castles with their morning coffee? They can when cruising the Rhine, a scenic route lined with villages, forts and historic estates.

Service-oriented 5Continents, which only works with travel advisors, adds the customization, such as private tours and excursions.

“If somebody wants a picnic under a tree in a field, we’ll do it,” Rauzon said.

Castles line the Rhine River in Germany. (Pax Global Media)

For Alberta-based travel advisor Jolyne De Marco, CroisiEurope was her first-ever river cruise, and she thought it was “fantastic.”

She appreciated how excursions were adapted to what people were interested in.

And, as a picky eater, she appreciated how the kitchen, despite preparing one meal experience, accommodated her requests for other items, like french fries.

“They went above and beyond to make sure I was happy,” said De Marco.

Travel advisor Jolyne De Marco in Mainz, Germany. (Pax Global Media)

Ontario-based Wendy Weir of Farmstead Tours & Travel couldn’t get over how large the cabin windows were – even in the lower deck, just above the water level.

Weir has been on several river cruises in Europe, with all the major brands that are promoted in Canada.

While CroisiEurope may be lesser known in English-speaking Canada (the brand is, however, known in Quebec), it still “brings something different to the table,” Weir said.

“I think a lot of people are scared of river cruising because of budget limitations,” she said. “This cruise line is good news for them.”

Big windows in the cabins of the MS Douce France. (Pax Global Media)

For travel advisors, it all comes down to qualifying the client, she said.

“If you’ve got a client that's been sailing with a fancy brand, I'm not sure if this is a fit. But if you've got people that have never river cruised, they've been to all-inclusive resorts, and now want to explore Europe, but they've got budget limitations, then this is a very viable option.”

Booking a river cruise should be no different than selecting an all-inclusive resort, she said.

On board the MS Douce France. (Pax Global Media)

“If you want butler service, this is not for you. But if you’re OK with less frills, then this is a great option. Because honestly, it’s taking you to the same places that the other cruise lines are going to.”

Weir summed it up as an experience for “adventurous, go-with-the-flow people.”

“I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised with what they can do with this company,” she said.

Getting to France

There are many ways to get to France from Canada, and Air Canada, which supplied PAX’s lift for this assignment, is staying on top of the competition.  

The airline will have 29 per cent more capacity to France this winter, and most flights to the country are year-round, if not daily, on most days of the week, so travellers can fly outside of peak times when airports (and planes) are less crowded.

Michele Rauzon, 5Continents’ director of sales for North America, visits the Christmas tree in Strasbourg, France. (Pax Global Media)

Aeroplan members now have access to free messaging and the Air Canada app can manage flights, gate locations, upgrade requests and now, luggage (tracking is now available on domestic flights).

Travel advisors can access and sign up for CroisiEurope’s B2B channel, which is available in French and English, here.

What's it like sailing France's canals on a CroisiEurope péniche (barge)? PAX knows. Watch for our follow-up report from France with 5Continents!

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