photo: Hemis/Alamy

Bordeaux by Bateau

By Jane Flower

I have been lucky enough to travel to France on several occasions, each time planning my own trip. But as I begin to envision my next journey, I realize how routine things have become: Rent a car in Paris, drive to Montagnac, and eat at my favourite restaurants Côté Mas and La Cour Pavée in Pézenas.

So I decide it’s time for a change. I’ll still go to France, but I want a travel experience that’s deeper and more enriching in ways that I could never arrange on my own.

Some colleagues recommend river cruising, so I make an appointment with AMA Travel to learn if it’s a good fit for me. The more I talk to the AMA Travel specialist—a river cruising expert—the more the promise of interacting with locals and enjoying daily life in France proves impossible to resist. So too is the idea of visiting a different town daily without ever having to pack and unpack. Within days, my husband and I are booked on an eight-day Viking Cruises Chateaux, Rivers and Wine tour. The round-trip cruise from Bordeaux also includes the towns of Blaye, Pauillac, Cadillac, Bourg and Libourne.

It’s March when we board the 190-guest Viking Forseti in Bordeaux. Just as I do when checking into a hotel, I immediately try to get the lay of the land. My stateroom is neatly outfitted with cream-coloured linens and upholstery. Sliding doors open onto a veranda where we can relax at night. There are three different dining spaces on the ship, including a terrace at the bow for al fresco eating. I’m won over by this floating hotel. But while it’s tempting to remain onboard, basking in the ship’s charms, the hub of France’s most famous wine region awaits.

Bordeaux river cruise france boat
The VIking Forseti (photo: Viking Cruises)

Viking does a great job curating interesting places at which to dine—restaurants frequented by locals, spots where you don’t feel like a tourist. We’re thankful for the expert advice, as Bordeaux’s main square is crowded with bistros and cafés. At the crew’s recommendation, we head to Baud et Millet, a wine-and-cheese restaurant.

After perusing the display of eclectic bottles inside, we settle on a Cabernet Sauvignon and head to a cheese cavern with 100 varieties of Camembert, Brie, Roquefort and more. Sitting there, sampling France’s finest fromage, we almost forget we’re on a cruise.

This is the joy of river cruising that everyone’s been telling us about. It’s part land travel, part cruise. By day, we explore cities at our own pace; at night, we board the ship and voyage to our next destination. Over the next week, the culture, wine and easy conversation flow as freely as the Garonne and Dordogne rivers.

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This is going to be amazing, I think as our coach ferries us up vineyard-laden hills. My camera never stops snapping during the scenic journey from Pauillac to Château Kirwan in the Médoc region.

In 1855, Emperor Napoleon III established a system to help identify the area’s wines. We learn that Médoc’s distinctive terroir produces some of the world’s top-rated and most expensive vintages: Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild.

Everywhere we go we hear about terroir—the combination of soil, geography and climate that makes each wine unique. I’ve visited other wine regions in the world and participated in a few tastings, but I clearly still have a lot to learn!

We arrive at Château Kirwan in Margaux for a special dinner and wine tasting prepared by our ship’s kitchen crew. With its perfectly manicured grounds and majestic courtyard, the 18th-century manor is an indelible reminder of France’s grand history. Inside, a fire roars in the stone hearth and tables are topped with white linens. Course after course arrives, each paired with a different Château Kirwan wine. The landowner briefs us on the tasting notes of every vintage.

As I chat with tablemates, I discover that river cruising appeals to culture lovers, history buffs and amateur photographers—people looking for full immersion in centuries-old cities. While this Viking itinerary is decidedly upmarket, there are special-interest cruises all over the world—from bicycle/river cruises to classical music tours—to suit any traveller’s budget. Many on this trip, myself included, have been on ocean cruises. We all agree the experience is entirely different. The sheer breadth of amenities and entertainment on an ocean liner is often the main attraction. On a river cruise, the experience is more intimate—smaller ships with fewer guests, and itineraries that let you delve deeper into new cultures. Whatever your travel style and budget, there’s a cruise itinerary and ship to fit.

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Camus cognac (photo: Andia/Alamy)

Docked in Blaye, we join a morning excursion to the town of Cognac. While Bordeaux (and France in general) is rightly known for its wines, cognac production is also quintessentially French. And like the country’s renowned champagnes, only distilleries in the area around Cognac can legally call their twice-distilled brandy “cognac.”

At circa-1863 Camus Distillery, fifth-generation owner Cyril Camus, a dead ringer for George Clooney, shows us how to blend our own cognac using wine from four of the region’s six appellations or growing areas: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois. At the end of the session, blend ratios are recorded so we can reorder our custom cognac in the future. I leave with my bottle packaged and a new appreciation for the spirit.

In Libourne, we take an excursion to the medieval town of Saint-Émilion, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its location on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, contributed to its many churches and monasteries, some dating from the 11th century. With narrow cobblestone streets, original limestone buildings and subterranean caves, it’s one of the most photogenic towns on our itinerary.

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After, we head to Château Siaurac in Médoc for another glimpse of French life. Landowners Paul and Veronique Goldschmidt give us a tour of their home and significant art collection. One living room, with its gold-framed portraits, bright red walls and crystal chandeliers, looks like a page torn out of Architectural Digest. Touring the house, we’re glad we attended the onboard art history talk given by Viking’s Resident Historian. For lunch, we dig into an extravagant meal that perfectly showcases the local bounty in rich, gourmet dishes.

Every night back on the Forseti, I wonder how Viking can top the prior day’s experience. During dinner and drinks at the Aquavit Lounge, my husband and I swap stories with other guests and hear about the different excursions that were available. We regret not visiting an Arcachon Bay oyster farm on the Atlantic coast, but rest easy with memories of the amazing tours we have done.

We wrap up our last night with an elegant dinner back in Bordeaux, where we reflect anew on our week’s adventures. We’ve packed a lot into our time and it’s hard to pick just a single highlight. Sure, we’d anticipated being wooed, but not to this extent—with pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moments filling every day, at every town and on every tour. And then we realize there’s another hard decision ahead: Where to go on our next river cruise?

bordeaux river cruise france saint-emilion vineyard
The vines and steeples of Saint-Émilion (photo: Ivoha/Alamy)

See Bordeaux and beyond aboard a picturesque French river cruise

Viking Cruises, Depart March–Nov. 2018
8-day Bourdeaux cruise with port visits to Cadillac, Libourne, Bourg and Blaye; AMA Exclusive member benefit: $125 shipboard credit per person; from $3,049

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Depart March–Nov. 2018
8-day cruise from Avignon to Lyon (or reverse) with port visits to Tarascon, Avignon, Viviers, Tournon, Lyon and Macon; AMA Exclusive member benefit: save $125 per person (included in price); from $3,874 (all-inclusive)

AmaWaterways, Depart March–Nov. 2018
8-day round-trip from Paris with port visits to Les Andelys, Le Havre, Caudebec-en-Caux, Normandy beaches, Rouen, Vernon and Conflans; AMA Exclusive member benefit: save $150 per person (included in price); from $3,684

Call a cruise specialist: 1-866-989-6594