French accent

Kristie Kellahan visits Provence with a small group of big-hearted travellers.

The sense of camaraderie in our group was first ignited, as often happens, with a good laugh. Gathered on the sunny terrace of Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus, in the charming Provenal town of Arles, we had come together as 12 strangers who were about to embark on a week-long Back-Roads tour of Provence.

Escorted by guide Erik Jelinek and driver Rachel Watkins, we were assembled for a meet and greet, just a few steps from the spot where post-Impressionist painters Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin had once lived and worked.

Of the 12 passengers, seven were Brits and five Australians; two men were outnumbered by 10 ladies; ages ranged from 40 to 80 and four birthdays were to be celebrated during the cruise week. Introducing ourselves to our fellow travellers, a pattern emerged: one Sue, two Sues, three Sues… and a Mrs Susans. The randomness of our Sue surplus was enough to cue laughter all round.

Explaining the Back-Roads’ philosophy as ‘organised independence’, Erik ran us through what to expect of the seven-day tour. The unique sights of this striking region of southern France are well-known: lavender fields, paddocks of sunflowers, elegant pink flamingoes, medieval villages and sunny market squares. We would have ample opportunities to see and photograph them all during the week; in addition we would be venturing off the well-trodden tourist trail to enjoy authentic local experiences including a visit to a bull ranch deep in the Camargue and small-batch olive oil and jam tasting on a family-run farm.

Surely one of the most valuable advantages of signing up for small group travel rather than going it alone is the ease with which logistics are taken care of by someone else, leaving holidaymakers with nothing more to do than sit back and enjoy the ride.

Offered as an all-inclusive package, Back-Roads fares cover transport, meals, drinks, excursions and the services of tour guides. Our home base was onboard the CroisiEurope barge, the MS Anne-Marie. A much more compact vessel than most avid river cruisers will be accustomed to, the barge accommodates 11 twin/double cabins, as well as living quarters for the crew who would be keeping us fed, watered and on course. A spacious roof deck and jacuzzi hot tub were at our disposal.

Our chariot was a 20-seater Mercedes luxury coach, with capable driver Rachel at the helm. Some days we would cover hundreds of kilometres, in hot pursuit of unforgettable sights, ranging from snow-white Camargue horses to the stunning pink salt flats of Aigues-Mortes. Each night we would return to a welcome aperitif onboard the MS Anne-Marie.

Back-Roads has been offering small group tours in Europe since 1990. The company, a joint venture of Flight Centre and businessman James Nathan, operates 44 small luxury coach tours in regions including the UK, Scandinavia, France, Morocco and Italy.

Barge-and-coach holidays in France are a recent addition to the Back-Roads catalogue. Combining the experience of slow cruising along rural canals and lesser-known waterways with scenic back roads touring, passengers experience the diversity and depth of famed French wine regions.

This year, itineraries will be offered in Provence, Burgundy and Champagne, all wine-growing regions of world-renown. Did we mention the trip tariff includes wine?

As guests of Back-Roads, we could do as much or as little as we liked. A Clayton’s tour for people who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as the type of travellers who join escorted group tours.

For our group, with varying degrees of mobility and energy, that would mean the flexibility to go our own way at times. One sunny afternoon, when most of the group drove to Pont du Gard, a spectacular ancient Roman aqueduct, others stayed behind on the boat to enjoy some bubbles in the jacuzzi.

On the day we visited the delightful village of Pezenas, we each experienced it in our own way: some people grabbed the opportunity to shop the sprawling Saturday market, while others visited the medieval church, and a few chose to sit and enjoy a coffee in the sunshine.

With all the choose-your-own-adventure flexibility, there’s an emphasis on mixing and mingling — guests are encouraged to get to know each other by sitting with different people each night at dinner, and pre-dinner drinks are a shared affair — and as the week progressed, the small group bonded in a way that a larger group may not have.

Sharing cheese and Ctes de Provence Ros on the deck after dinner, as the summer sun dipped slowly, I learned of a fellow guest’s ambitious plan to build a home near Rome, and was touched by the romance still evident in the marriage of two elderly travellers, almost 60 years after they first met.

Laughing, chatting, toasting new friends’ birthdays and sharing stories over a glass or two of good French wine… surely these are some of travel’s sweetest pleasures.

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