Dreaming at sea level, that’s how I envision (and often describe) the magic of cruising. The thought of seeing the world from the decks of a luxury cruise ship; or, as in the subject for today’s blog, an equally elegant river boat, makes me dream of far-off places where fascinating adventures await.
The riches of Aquitaine and its charming capital city, Bordeaux
The prospect of eight days of river boat cruising on the legendary Garonne, Dardogne, and Gironde rivers fired my imagination. I boned up on my high-school French, researched legendary Bordeaux wine and prepared my palate for the gourmet extravagance of French cuisine. I was in heaven and I hadn’t even packed my bags! And then, I was there, right in the heart of historic Bordeaux, walking off Uniworld’s intimate, 132-passenger River Royale for a leisurely waterfront stroll. The nearby food markets vied with the bustling Saint-Michel antique market for my euros. And Bordeaux by night lit up my dreams. The coming days of our journey played out as if scripted by a master cinematographer. Pretty towns like Pauillac, Libourne, Bergerac and Saint-Emilion glide by in wide-angle Panavision. Then the camera zooms in for close-ups of our cast of characters as we relish a series of wine tastings, bike rides, wine cellar lunches, chateaux appreciation tours, and scenic river and vineyard drives. The Haut-Médoc AOC (or appellation d’origine contrôlée, a geographical designation that denotes where grapes are grown) is home to the celebrated winery, Châteaux d’Arsac. While some members of our group opt for a bike ride through the vineyards, most of us join in an exclusive tasting aimed at discovering our personal Wine Sign.® Picture the scene. We gather around the sommelier who asks us to blind-taste six wines of different character. We register our reactions through a simple electronic voting system and voila—our Wine Sign is revealed! Now we know what type of wines we prefer and we leave with a personalized wine list/cellar book that comes in handy throughout our wine country ventures. There were so many incredible sights and experiences on this elite itinerary from a tasting at a famed Saint-Émilion estate to a Cannelé-making demonstration and tasting (it’s a small French pastry with a soft and tender custard center and a dark, thick caramelized crust)—delicious! After the Arcachon oyster tasting onboard, I shall henceforth insist on having my oysters served on the half shell with the traditional French accompaniments of flat sausages, fresh bread, salted butter and a glass of Entre-deux-Mers dry white wine. And who could forget our immersion in everything Sauternes, our elegant wine-pairing lunch at Château d’Arche, and our tour of the legendary Château d’Yquem.
For me, one of the best experiences came on Day 4 of our trip. With our river boat docked in Bergerac, we set off on a walking tour to the farmers’ market, (I never get enough of the fateful story of Cyrano de Bergerac and his Roxanne). We watched the flat-bottom boats glide along the river and soaked up the views from the 16th-century Château de Monbazillac. After an especially scenic drive along the Dordogne River, we returned to our floating river-view home for an evening showcasing a style of dining so indelibly linked to the country’s identity it was added to UNESCO’s list of “intangible cultural heritage” in 2010. The celebrated “gastronomic meal of the French” as interpreted by Philippe Etchebest, French Master Chef and owner of the acclaimed Relais and Chateau Hostellerie de Plaisance in Saint-Émilion was nothing short of divine. The meal featured his unique blend of spices and fresh, locally-obtained ingredients. The menu was delightful and I’ll never forget the duck confit and Caviar d’Aquitaine. Circling back to Bordeaux for a day filled with stately 18th-century architecture, verdant fountained gardens, and inviting shops, I enjoyed spending my last sous on typical Bordeaux specialties. Being a chocoholic, naturally I found my way to the chocolatiers displaying the most luscious wares—a sweet way to end an unforgettable trip.