Sue Bryant samples the top drops of Bordeaux as she cruises a trio of French waterways with APT.
The scene is set for a grape escape when you note the arrivals area at Bordeaux airport boasts a vineyard. It’s hard to be confident of the produce given its airport setting, but its spindly vines are a big clue that you’re entering one of France’s most prestigious wine-growing regions.
APT’s program out of south-west France sails three waterways, the Garonne, the Dordogne and the Gironde estuary, and the wine is the big drawcard.
River cruising here isn’t blessed with a long, storied history. Although this region is spectacularly beautiful and packed with historic and gastronomic interest, the estuary and rivers are heavily tidal, tricky to navigate, and there aren’t many docking spots. Five years ago, there was one cruise line here and now there are half a dozen, with APT chartering AmaWaterways’ AmaDolce for week-long cruises – and plenty of wine.
The first point of difference is this isn’t like cruising the Rhine or the Danube. Distances are short, so there’s little tactually sailing. Nor is there much dramatic scenery away from those endless vineyards, just salty marshes, fishing huts on stilts and wooded banks punctuated by the occasional hamlet. The waterways are broad and the skies stretch forever, the scent of the Atlantic hanging on the breeze.
Go in European spring. The countryside is soft and verdant, the vines bursting into leaf and meadows covered in a light blanket of mauve and white wildflowers. In between wine estates are magnificent oak forests which provide wood for the barrel-making industry and where, in season, dogs forage for truffles and locals hunt wild boar.
APT’s big selling point is the variety of excursions on offer. Every day brings a choice of trips to impressive châteaux and legendary wine-producing towns such as Pauillac and Saint-Emilion.
Medieval Bergerac is the setting for Edmond Rostand’s play about the lovelorn Cyrano, who’s immortalised in statues and a themed pizza in various tourist restaurants. A food market sprawls through the town centre, tables groaning with early-season asparagus and strawberries, creamy goat’s cheeses and golden Monbazillac wines.
A must-see is the 11th-century Château de Cognac, birthplace in 1494 of King Francois I (who built the chateaux of Fontainebleu and Chambord) and home of Baron Otard Cognac, whose finest blend goes for a staggering €3850 ($6000) a bottle.
Another diversion is an afternoon at a sturgeon farm where guests can try catching and holding an enormous, smelly fish. The reward is a caviar tasting.
In Blaye, the hulking 17th-century citadel dominates. There’s a tiny village nestled inside, all hobbit houses set in gardens of fruit trees and orange poppies. The gorgeous Château Pape Clément outside Bordeaux, hosts dinner in a pavilion designed by Gustave Eiffel, overlooking a sea of vineyards.
Attention to detail is another ATP cornerstone. Guests have been coveting the embossed wooden boxes in which top producers present their wine. One day, a big pile of boxes appears in the ship’s lobby – for us. The rest of the week is spent figuring out how to fit the boxes into luggage.
The 148-passenger AmaDolce is comfortable, especially for a small group of about 50, mainly Australian with a smattering of Brits. The food is excellent, from rich soups to French classics and an irresistible cheeseboard, although there aren’t many takers for the frogs’ legs on the lunch buffet one day. Thoughtful little touches provide a sense of familiarity, like a jar of Vegemite on the breakfast buffet. A green-and-yellow boxing kangaroo flag flies from the foremast, too, always in place when there are Australians on board.
The cruise’s twin attractions are the glorious, wine-soaked countryside, and Bordeaux itself, sprawling elegantly along a half-moon curve of the Garonne, all magnificent 18th-century architecture, hidden squares and street cafes. A recent addition is La Cité du Vin, a cavernous wine-themed museum that’s altered the skyline.
An extension to the super-fast train line Ligne à Grande Vitesse means Paris is only two hours away, smoothing the passage of Australians doing the popular combination of Paris, Bordeaux and the Rhône cruise.
Bordeaux cruising – what are you waiting for?
CRUISE LINE: APT
LENGTH: 110 metres
PASSENGER DECKS: 4
PASSENGER CAPACITY: 148
FACILITIES: Small gym, massage, library, bicycles, sun deck, Jacuzzi.
BOOKINGS: Eight-day Grand Bordeaux Wine Series river cruise is priced from $7495 per person twin share. Visit: aptouring.com.au
HIGHS: The Chef’s Table tasting menu, included in the price – don’t miss it.
LOWS: Relatively little time actually sailing.
BEST SUITED TO: Wine lovers, Francophiles, groups of friends, couples, over-60s.