Explore caves and sip wine on a river cruise in France’s Loire Valley

Without realizing it, I found myself leading our group through the pitch darkness of the cave, treading carefully over rocks and wading through puddles, the road lit only by the headlamps we were carrying. . When Pierre, a professional caver – a fancy word for cave guide – took the lead, I was more than happy to follow. After a few more minutes, the ceiling of the nearly 40-mile-long natural cave embedded in France’s Loire Valley opened up. We found seats on the rocks and the ground, with our headlamps remaining the only source of light.

It was time for the main event: a tasting of local wines in the cool corners of the cellar. Jézabel, the oenologist who accompanied us on our adventure, has produced a variety of cuvées highlighting the wines of the Ardèche region. As it was time to sip our drinks, Jezebel instructed us to turn off our headlamps so that we were in total, utter darkness, dulling our other senses while heightening our taste. Wine has never been so vibrant.

Dubbed Caving – a term that combines caving, or the study of caves, and oenology, the study of wine – the activity is one of the excursions I have enjoyed on an “Active and Discovery” of eight days that I recently led on the Rhone with Voies navigables d’Avalon.

These adventurous itineraries set the line apart from other European river cruises. There are nearly 30 excursions on each trip which are separated into different categories. “Active” excursions include energetic outings like caving, kayaking and biking, while “Discovery” category excursions are interactive cultural activities like cooking classes and painting workshops. There is also the “classic” category of excursion cruises offering more traditional activities such as historical and heritage visits. Customers choose what they want to take away each day, or not at all. The best part? They are all included in the cruise fare.

In addition to caving, the excursions I chose for my cruise through France were a guided urban hike through the hills of Lyon; a chocolate experience at Valrhona in Tain L’Hermitage; a night visit to Viviers; a guided electric bike ride through the Gard; and a painting studio in Arles to learn the techniques used by Vincent van Gogh, who spent time in the French village.