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It's all about the taste

By Paul Knowles

Viking River Cruise visits Bordeaux's wine districts

 

Let's be honest – customer service is always over the top on a Viking River Cruise. If that seems biased – well, I simply report the truth. They're very, very good at taking care of their passengers. And on our Châteaux, Rivers and Wine cruise, there were dozens of examples of this.
Perhaps the most striking occurred on Bastille Day – a huge French celebration – when on the spur of the moment, the ship's captain requested and received permission to anchor the Forseti for a few late evening hours off the village of Blaye, in the La Gironde estuary. The passengers – about 190 of us in total (a terrific passenger to crew ratio), were invited to the top deck, to enjoy a spectacular fireworks display just before midnight. The crew distributed blankets (after hot days, there can be cool nights on the water), champagne, and chocolate truffles. All of this was a spontaneous decision by the captain, the hotel manager and the program director. It made for a magical night.
That kind of next-level care and attention was also underlined on the evening of Day Six, when all guests were bussed to Château Kirwan, in the Margaux appellation of Bordeaux wine country, for a fabulous meal, with matching wines, all prepared and served by the hospitality staff of the ship – the entire restaurant operation had been transported to the Château for the event.
This particular cruise is an eight-day affair, and it is very much for wine lovers. This is not to say others would not find it pleasant – we shared table with a couple who don't drink wine – but the focus is certainly on the delights of the grape. The itinerary involves relatively short passages along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers and La Gironde, stopping at historic towns, châteaux and – of course – wineries of the Bordeaux region.
The adventure starts and ends in the city of Bordeaux. We arrived two days before the voyage began, and were not at all sure what to expect of this city. What a fantastic surprise it was! Bordeaux is a historic city that has undergone a spectacular latter-day restoration. Our taxi driver told us of the days of his youth, when the waterfront area, along the Garonne, was a dismal neighbourhood of ugly warehouses, a district where one went in the evening only for drugs or illicit sex. Then came Alain Juppé, long-time Mayor of Bordeaux and one-time Prime Minister of France. Bordeaux seemed full of citizens ready to praise their Mayor to the sky, crediting him for the successful rejuvenation of their city (an unusual experience for a cynical Canadian voter). The warehouses are gone, the historic buildings are cleaned, the Place des Quinconces public square is amazing, the waterfront attracts thousands of locals who picnic and play... it is an urban miracle, and Bordeaux is a city worth a stay of many more than two days.
The Viking cruise includes interesting walking and tram-ride tours of the city, and they are worth the time and the exercise. If you choose to stay on your own, before or after the cruise, we would recommend the elegant and welcoming Hotel De Seze, at the heart of all things Bordeaux.
This is a relaxed cruise, as you travel relatively short distances between historic towns such as Cadillac, Saint-Émilion, and Blaye. There are walking tours with plenty to interest in these communities, but the destinations wine lovers are most eager for are the wine districts and chateaux of Bordeaux wine country. These connoisseurs of the grape are not disappointed.
The city of Bordeaux is at the centre of some of the best-known wine districts – or "appellations" – in the world, and passengers on the Viking ship visit almost all of them. We visited the Sauternes region, touring through the vineyards by bus, and then stopping for a very educational tour and tasting of marvelous, sweet Sauternes at Château Guiraud, the destination of our particular smaller group. Only a quarter or fewer of the passengers on the boat go to any one château, to make every visit quite personalized. Most of the chateaux stops included tours, tastings and opportunities for question and answer with very well informed guides. Subsequent days took us to wineries in St. Émilion, Cotes de Bourg, Graves, Médoc, Margaux and more. We tasted the wines of many wineries, including Château Prieré-Lichine, and Château Siaurac, an optional (and therefore at added cost) excursion that included tour, tasting, and a wonderful local lunch at the winery.
Two optional excursions are must-dos for any traveller, in our opinion. Both also involved wonderful tastings, although, ironically, neither focus on wine. The first is a trip to the ocean shore community of Arcachon. It's an unfortunately long bus trip, but the reward is an invigorating boat ride to visit an oyster farmer, and to taste the best of his harvest. Never has a learning experience tasted so good.
Perhaps the best event of the tour was our visit to Camus, a cognac "house" in the cognac region. Cognac is a brandy that is distilled from white wine; like the name "Champagne", only the town of Cognac and the six surrounding appellations are allowed to call their product Cognac. The Viking visit includes a tour, and a tasting – with a very special difference. Guests (and there is a 30-person limit on the tour), taste Camus cognacs from four different appellations, make notes about each (and they are very different in taste), and then are invited to blend their own 50-centiliter bottle of personal cognac, drawing cognac in your chosen proportion from huge kegs. Your blend is then bottled for you, your specific recipe is registered under your name in their records, and you come away with a lovely wooden box bearing your bottle of your own, personal, Camus cognac. And truthfully, after all that tasting, with a fairly large and perhaps goofy grin on your face. Especially if your wife has allowed you to finish hers, as well.
There are other optional excursion, including one run at the same time as the Château Siaurac visit – an opportunity to go truffle hunting, which several fellow passengers said was the highlight of their cruise.
This particular river cruise includes all the usual Viking amenities – great food, wonderful ambience, interesting on-board lectures and entertainment, top-notch guides for all tours. But in the end, this Bordeaux tour is first and foremost about the wines. You learn more than you can ever retain, you taste more wine that you are likely to remember, and you come away realizing that a perfectly relaxing week has also left you very well informed about some of the best wines in the world.
One afternoon feature on board the Forseti was an exclusive VES (Viking Explorer Society) cocktail reception. At least a third of the passengers attended – all people who had sailed with Viking previously. The size of that crowd actually came as no surprise – the river cruise experience is highly infectious. Passengers were signing up for their next voyage even before the cruise was completed.
One British newspaper has reported a six per cent increase in the number of river cruise passengers in the past year. Another source says that European river cruises are the most frequently-booked luxury trip. A third says river cruising is growing more than 25% annually. To which we veterans of the Bordeaux adventure, and a previous "Grand European" cruise, can only reply, "but of course!"