Travel Tip: Boat & Bike Tour in the Northern Rhone Valley

Embark with the boat owners for a one-day excursion just 30-km south of Lyon.


Boat and bike tours are a good, relaxing and authentic way to (re)discover the Northern Rhone Valley in the low season as the river offers stunning views of hilly vineyards.

by Kevin Bonnaud


The journey begins on the right bank of the Rhone river, in Sainte-Colombe, right across from Vienne, a 15-min walk from Saint-Romain-en-Gal archeological site and museum.

old sapine boat used by the compagnie des canotiers

The Compagnie des Canotiers provides a unique boat and bike tour experience aboard their traditional river boats. © Kevin Bonnaud

The boat, moored at the dock, does not look the like the barges we saw on our way with its beautiful larch wood hull. “Kiwi”, that’s its name, is a replica of an antique bark used by Romans to transport goods through the Rhone river.

“The crafts were known as sapine as they were made of firs”, Bernard Spitz says. Just one example of the many stories the captain of Compagnie des Canotiers boat tours loves to share with passengers.

Contrary to the Roman era, the modern sapine have solar panels on its rooftop to power electric bikes and the boat engine.

As we cast off the moorings, we admire the background view on the pedestrian bridge leading to Vienne, the old town skyline with Saint-Maurice cathedral and the (five) hills surrounding the city.

“You see a medieval castle from the 13th century named La Bâtie on one side and the belvedere du Pipet on the other side where a pilgrimage chapel was built in the 19th century not far from the antique theatre and the Odeon”, Bernard Spitz adds.


Peaceful and authentic cruise on the Rhone

Without a doubt, river-cruising is the best way to enjoy panoramic views.  

“Locals often drive or walk along the Rhone but they almost never have the opportunity to actually navigate on the river,” Véronique Ropp told This Is Lyon.

vienne skyline from the rhone banks

The tour starts in Vienne and allows passengers to see a side of the city many never have a chance to witness. © Kevin Bonnaud

The boat tour offers an authentic experience to say the least, as the sapine passes through a lock right under the A7 (often jammed) motorway bridge. The vessel gets into the lock chamber, doors close, water level drops to reach the downstream level.

“It’s a 20-minute mandatory stop in which all passengers must wear flashy orange fluorescent life jackets or doors may not open again”, says Véronique Ropp, amused. That’s largely enough time to take one or two selfies to remember a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

River cruises have few secrets left for the couple. Former commercial architects and boat enthusiasts, they used to spend their free time navigating on French rivers.

“More recently, we decided to change our way of life by making a living out of our common passion”, she adds.

The landscape is a little bit different on the other side of the lock. The Rhone banks are more natural with some meanderings. The views of Cote-Rôtie hilly vineyards are amazing. The captain tests passengers’ knowledge of local wines, grapes and appellations.

lock gate to ampuis vaugris on the rhone river

Riverboat passengers have the unique experience of cruising through this lock gate, which helps boats navigate the change in water level. © Kevin Bonnaud

“There are two words you need to know if you’re visiting the area: Syrah, the red wine grape and Côte-Rotie, one of the prestigious wine appellations of the Northern Rhone Valley,” he says.

You also see Ampuis castle: a fortress from the 15th and 16th centuries owned by the famous Guigal winery. The boat stops in a tiny charming harbor right behind the castle for a long-anticipated lunch break.




Bike & Gourmet Tour around Côte-Rôtie vineyards

The village is just few meters away. Go to Bistrot de Serine, a wine cellar with 400 wine references that also happens to be a restaurant with great food and wine pairing. The setting says it all: The tables of the charming outdoor terrace are surrounded by wooden barrels. There is also a low wall where empty bottles are on display.

“After such a pleasant meal accompanied with Côte-Rôtie and St-Joseph wines, mounting on a bike, even electric, at 2pm, can be hard”, some passengers confess. The ride is worth it, though.

The bike tour starts slowly as we cross the orchards along the river through ViaRhona bike path: a 815-km biking route between Lake Geneva and the Mediterranean.

rhone valley vineyards tupin et semons cote rotie

The bike tour part of the day takes passengers on a jaunt through the magnificent views of Rhône valley vineyards. © Kevin Bonnaud

Things are getting serious as we climb towards Tupin-et-Semons though electric bikes considerably reduce any physical effort. The top of the hill offers spectacular views of cultivated fields, terraced vineyards and the Rhone.

“Looking south, you also see Condrieu, its vineyards and L’ile du Beurre, an island which is part of Pilat natural park”, Bernard Spitz told riders.

We head back to Vienne in the mid-afternoon, our heads full of fun memories.

Note that the boat company offers a series of one-day or half-day boat and bike tour excursions around Lyon which can sometimes include a wine tasting or a gourmet lunch, not to mention a happy hour tour on the Saone river in Lyon.



Compagnie des Canotiers
Cell: (+ 33) 6 44 30 79 76

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