The vineyard in the arrivals area at Bordeaux airport is a strong clue that you’re entering one of France’s most prestigious wine-growing regions. And on APT’s week-long cruises along the Garonne, the Dordogne and the Gironde estuary, it’s all about the wine.
River cruising from Bordeaux is enjoying a mini-boom and APT is one of the newest operators in this sunny corner of south west France, using the comfortable AmaDolce for week-long cruises packed with experiences, not least a healthy dose of wine-tasting, cycling and walking tours.
This is a different kind of river cruise from those on the Rhine and the Danube. Distances are short, so there’s little time spent actually sailing. Nor is there much dramatic scenery away from those endless vineyards, just salty marshes, fishing huts on spindly stilts and wooded banks punctuated by the occasional hamlet. The waterways are broad and the skies enormous, the scent of the Atlantic on the breeze.
All the river cruise lines offer much the same itinerary, so what counts is what they do with your time ashore. This is where APT turned out to be a winner, with a choice of included excursions most days. There were trips to magnificent châteaux and legendary wine-producing towns like Pauillac and Saint-Emilion. We wandered round medieval Bergerac, setting for Edmond Rostand’s play about the lovelorn Cyrano, and snacked on goat cheese, strawberries and fresh asparagus at the gourmet food market.
Cognac and caviar
We also toured the 11th century Château de Cognac, home of Baron Otard Cognac, which sells its finest blend at a massive €3,850 a bottle. Although this one wasn’t on offer at the tasting, I did try a honey-like vintage that slipped down like a warming fire. Those who didn’t come on the cognac tour went to a sturgeon farm to sample the caviar, coming back to report that the tour had been remarkably hands-on; a couple of adventurers had even volunteered to catch and hold one of the enormous, smelly fish, encouraged by the owner.
Cycling and château dining
In Blaye, I took one of the ship’s bikes and set off through the vineyards. A cycle trail runs for miles here, passing sleepy chateaux and dozing hamlets. The exercise was most welcome and for 2017, APT has stepped up these cycling tours, offering guided excursions on two wheels with wine tasting.
Every APT cruise includes a night ashore and on the final evening of the voyage, we were whisked off for a wine-paired dinner at the gorgeous Château Pape Clément outside Bordeaux, set in the most beautiful manicured gardens and overlooking a sea of vineyards that have been there since the 13th century.
Experience Bordeaux from a different perspective: Bordeaux by Bike
Fancy a little retail therapy?: Bordeaux Shopping Guide
Attention to detail
Where APT really stood out for me was the attention to detail on board; the tour directors didn’t miss a trick. We’d all been coveting the embossed wooden boxes in which top producers present their wine and one day, a big pile of the crates appeared in the ship’s lobby. “You’ve drunk all the wine on board so we thought you might like a souvenir,” joked David, the ship’s hotel manager. Everybody spent the rest of the week figuring out how to fit the boxes in their luggage.
The food on AmaDolce was excellent, embracing the local cuisine from rich soups to French classics and an irresistible cheeseboard, although there weren’t many takers for the frogs’ legs that appeared on the lunch buffet one day and I heard a few wisecracks about cane toads. There were little touches to provide a sense of familiarity, like a jar of Vegemite on the breakfast buffet. Entertainment was brought on most evenings, from a fantastic singer who belted out Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour numbers to a classical trio who got a standing ovation.
A cruise in this region has two faces: the open countryside; and Bordeaux itself, sprawling elegantly along a half-moon curve of the Garonne, all magnificent 18th century architecture and behind the waterfront facades, hidden squares with street cafes. New, too, is La Cité du Vin, a cavernous wine-themed museum that’s quickly become the city’s star attraction.
Soon, a new, super-fast train line, Ligne à Grande Vitesse, means Paris will be only two hours away, so in theory, you could go all out and combine a Bordeaux cruise with a voyage on the Seine and a few days in the capital, almost seamlessly. I’m certainly tempted.
Get in touch with your local Travel Associates Consultant and start planning your own exploration of the magical Bordeaux region with APT