France Wine Cruise: A Journey Full Of Joie De Vivre
If I were to start my career all over again, it would surely be to work in the wine trade. I’m reflecting on this as I am being plied with copious quantities of Beaujolais-Villages and bonhomie at a farmhouse in the wine-growing district of Brouilly, having earlier enjoyed a tasting and viticulture lesson at Moulin-a-Vent and seized the opportunity to purchase an excellent bottle of the 2009.
It’s day four of Scenic Tours’ Splendours of Southern France river cruise: a meander through one of the world’s most fruitful and beautiful wine-growing regions. And I have already racked up four wine-tasting excursions, despite the wide variety of other options offered by the ship every day.
Why did I ever pursue acting, when clearly wine was my first love?
Gem Of A Ship
Scenic Emerald, our home for these 12 heavenly days, had set sail from Chalon-sur-Saone on a gloriously sunny August afternoon, bound for Arles via the Saone and Rhone rivers. Its route would take in Beaune, Macon and Chateauneuf-du-Pape – names to conjure with if you are a wine aficionado.
But this was really only half the story.
First, there was the ship itself. Scenic Emerald, with capacity for 167 passengers, and one of 10 river cruisers owned by Australian company Scenic Tours, offers a luxurious and laid back way to travel.
The cabins were contemporary and capacious, with ample wardrobe space and deeply comfortable beds. Each had its own balcony, and here we found ourselves, most evenings, wine glass in hand, watching France slip quietly by.
Every guest had the luxury of complimentary butler service. Ours, named Tamas, unpacked the luggage, served drinks and even brought breakfast to the suite (although the daily buffet was a sumptuous alternative). Apparently he would have brought lunch, tea and dinner, too, had we asked him.
In fact, with all the great food, wines and cocktails included in the cost of the cruise, my wife Babs and I preferred to work our way around the ship’s restaurants: the intimate Italian, Portobellos; the informal River Cafe; the sun deck for barbecues; the Crystal dining room with its daily-changing menus – and even, one evening, an invitation to the captain’s table.
On a lively ship full of passengers from Australia, Canada, the US and the UK, it was not surprising that most of the crew spoke excellent English; it was, however, a surprise to find that the captain did not.
I dredged my mind for the French that I knew was buried there following a four-month stint filming in Paris 20 years ago. Entente cordiale was duly preserved.
The sun deck, comprising effectively the entire roof of the ship, was the perfect vantage point from which to appreciate the moving view, which brings me to the other great joy of taking a journey like this: the trips ashore that allow you to make the most of the country you are travelling through.
The logistics were brilliantly managed by cruise director Yvonne, who had wittily set the tone for the voyage in her welcome speech and proceeded to ensure that a raft of intricately planned excursions went off without a hitch.
A non-stop cavalcade of towns, villages, tourist attractions, popular activities and visits to the homes of local residents were all included in the cruise cost.
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Seeing The Sights
So this is how I – and 15 other passengers – found ourselves in a rustic farmhouse in Brouilly, four days into the trip. Our first sightseeing tour had, more conventionally, shown us the beautiful city of Beaune, which Babs and I had visited years before as guests of a master of wine. The 45-minute coach ride took us past villages of the Cote-d’Or region: Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet.
First stop in Beaune was the extraordinary Hotel-Dieu, founded in 1443 as a hospital for the poor. Its tiled roofs, with their striking patterns and dazzling colours, were a novelty in the 15th Century but are now a distinctive feature of Burgundian architecture. We also walked to the Patriarche wine cellars, some dating back to the 14th Century, for a tasting.
Over subsequent days we were able to enjoy some of the quintessential highlights of Burgundy and Provence, interspersed with downtime reading or eating on the ship’s sun deck or in its shadier outdoor spaces.
I particularly recall the restored 17th-century Chateau de Cormatin near Tournus, which is renowned for its dazzling 'gilded rooms', painted, carved and decorated with gold leaf from floor to ceiling. This was followed by a drive through beautiful Maconnais countryside to a truffle farm.
There was the unexpected surprise of sailing past the old city of Lyon, where the Saone meets the Rhone, and our walking tour of the traboules, covered passageways linking the buildings, some leading to pretty courtyards and staircases.
Given a choice of three different activities while in Lyon, we opted to visit Perouges, a charming medieval town so perfectly preserved that it felt almost Disney-like.
At Vienne we made the steep climb up Mont Pipet for a spectacular view of the town’s Roman theatre and the Rhone, beyond, and shopped in the market there before a pleasant sail to Tournon, which saw us navigating some interesting locks. A visit to Tournon’s castle, with a tasting of Hermitage wines, did not disappoint.
There were memorable moments on board, too. One afternoon the pastry chef showed us how to make crepe suzette, and after dinner Babs and I came fourth in a good-humoured music quiz, winning, naturally, a bottle of wine.
At Viviers we took ourselves on a self-guided tour using GPS gadgets. These went 'ping' as you approached a point of interest, and then told you about it in a recorded spiel: genius.
We also enjoyed a hilarious afternoon canoeing in the Ardeche Gorge: we imagined it would involve 10 or 12 canoes paddling idly through, but spent two fun hours playing dodgems with about 2,000 others. Hardly surprising, I suppose, in mid-August in France. Happily, there were no casualties.
An educational morning was passed at a Chateauneuf-du-Pape winery, and in Avignon we were treated to a private guided tour of the Pope’s Palace, followed by dinner and a classical concert – an exclusive evening for Scenic Tours guests.
The next day we launched into the villages of the Luberon: Gordes, perched on a clifftop, with houses overhanging the valley, and Fontaine-de-Vaucluse with its deep spring and old paper mill, and where the Italian poet Petrarch lived in the 14th Century.
Finally we travelled to the Camargue, the area around the Rhone delta. Here we visited an outstanding ornithological park, strolling past lakes only feet away from pink flamingos, storks and egrets. Lunch at a bull farm was the perfect way to end the tour: fine food, good company and, of course, flowing Provencal rose.
From Tarascon we visited an olive farm and went to Les Baux, a stunning hilltop medieval town with castle, where French A-listers spend their summer holidays. We also spent an afternoon in Arles, the city that has attracted artists including Gauguin and Van Gogh.
I can’t remember a holiday where I packed so much in. Never having to worry about paying for extras meant we could relax in the knowledge that meals, drinks, butler service, on-board Wi-Fi, excursions and tipping were all included in the cruise fare.
Combine that with the ever-changing scenery, the buildings of medieval France and the informative trips to wineries, castles, towns and villages, and you have an unforgettable holiday. And, if you love wine, there is no more to be said.
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This article was written by Robert Powell from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.