River cruising is enjoying a mini-boom in western France, on the Loire and the Gironde, with vineyards and chateaux in abundance on each. By Sue Bryant
When it comes to French river cruising, the Rhône and the Seine are already well established in the market. The Seine is the obvious choice for clients who want a couple of nights in Paris – and received a lot of attention in 2014 for the 70th anniversary of D-Day commemorations. The Rhône is ideal for clients who want late-season sunshine, or a cruise rich in wine and culture, linking the magnificent cities of Lyon and Avignon. But river cruising is opening out in France with dramatic developments on two lesser-cruised waterways.
This year has seen the first river cruises starting on the Loire, thanks to new technology that allows the first cruise ship to navigate the shallow waters. Further south, three new cruise lines have started sailing out of Bordeaux since 2014, with another joining the fray in 2016. We’ve checked out both itineraries.
Review: the Garonne
Gironde and Dordogne Who’d have thought it? I’m tucking into a plate of corn-fed chicken with asparagus and salty, rich, wild mushrooms. It’s accompanied by what I’d normally see as a dessert wine: Château de Myrat 2002, liquid gold, sweet and dense; the flavour of sticky toffee. Pairing sweet Sauternes wines with salty food is a new experience for most of us at this tasting lunch at Château D’Arche, a 17th century manoir in the heart of Aquitaine, surrounded by vineyards that stretch in every direction. I’m learning something about wine every day on a week-long cruise on Uniworld’s River Royale, pottering gently from Bordeaux along the muddy Garonne river into the Gironde estuary and taking a U-turn back into the Dordogne. Although there’s plenty to do and see, this week is all about wine. Different wines are paired with dinner on board every night, all from Bordeaux, all exceptional quality and all included in the price. Uniworld is not the only line to have established itself in western France; we wave to the passengers on Viking River Cruises’ Forseti, also new last year.
Different wines are paired with dinner on board every night, all from Bordeaux, all exceptional quality and all included in the price. Uniworld is not the only line to have established itself in western France; we wave to the passengers on Viking River Cruises’ Forseti, also new last year. CroisiEurope has been here for a while and Scenic Diamond was new in 2015. Next year, AmaWaterways will operate 22 cruises on AmaDolce, also sold by APT and like the others, home-porting in Bordeaux. This is a different kind of river cruising from classics like the Rhine and the Danube. Distances are short, so there’s little time spent actually sailing. Nor is there much dramatic scenery, just salty marshes, fishing huts on spindly stilts and wooded banks punctuated by the occasional hamlet. The waterways are broad, the scent of the ocean on the breeze as the two rivers merge in the vast Gironde estuary to meet the Atlantic.
Ashore, there are excursions to magnificent châteaux and legendary wine producing towns and chateaux, from Saint Emilion to Château de Montbazillac. There are other distractions, too. We wander round medieval Bergerac. I borrow one of the ship’s bicycles and pedal for 25km through the vineyards on one of the marked bike trails. The boat moors for two nights at Libourne, on the Dordogne, and spends three nights of the seven in Bordeaux, its busy waterfront lined with grand, 18th century buildings. The cruise is an easy way to connect all these places – and the biggest advantage is, you can taste all the wine you want without worrying about who’s driving.
Review: the Loire
The Loire may be France’s longest river but it’s also practically un-navigable. It’s too shallow, too tidal and threaded with sandbanks, which means that anything the size of a normal riverboat would be in danger of running aground. Yet the Loire Valley has some of France’s greatest attractions: stately, honey-coloured chateaux, rolling vineyards of Muscadet grapes and at the other end of the scale, the arty, edgy city of Nantes. So river cruise fans have welcomed the news that CroisiEurope has finally come up with the technology to operate river cruises all the way from Saint-Nazaire, at the estuary, to Bouchemaine, near Angers.
The French-owned line launched the 96-passenger Loire Princesse earlier this year. CroisiEurope actually turned to traditional paddle-wheel technology to design the ship. Giant wheels either side of the ship’s lobby scoop up water, propelling the vessel forwards. The ship’s draft is just 80cm – practically a flat bottom but it allows the vessel to navigate the shallow waters of the river. The Loire Princesse is based in Nantes and operates five- and seven-night cruises, sailing west from Nantes to Saint-Nazaire, then back inland to Bouchemaine. The longer cruises spend three nights tied up at Bouchemaine, with forays into the winegrowing areas and to medieval Angers and Saumur by excursion bus. On my early season cruise, we’re a novelty. People line up and wave to us from the banks, photographing the vessel. Admittedly, she’s a pretty sight, long and slender, the twin paddlewheels rotating hypnotically, churning up the muddy water. Inside, the look is contemporary and cool, the neutral palette warmed up with splashes of colour from expensive-looking Missoni throws and cushions.
The food is typically French; foie gras, if you’re that way inclined, veal (ditto), fish, fresh from the Atlantic, fresh croissants for breakfast and delicious cheeses. Lectures and soft jazz take place in the bright, airy bar, where drinks are included. The scenery as we head west isn’t especially inspiring; it’s industrial, with warehouses, factories and grain storage vaults. The river is broad here and the more bucolic scenes of riverside villages, rolling vineyards where the dry Muscadet wines are produced and fairytale chateaux are inland.
Even here, the castles are not actually on the river. They’re all visited on a coach tour: Château d’Azay-le-Rideau (which sits in the middle of the Indre, a tributary of the Loire), Château de Villandry, with its beautiful, geometric gardens, and Château d’Ussé, the fairytale turrets of which are said to have inspired the writer of Sleeping Beauty. But the contrast between the countryside deeper inland, the bustle and attractions of Nantes as a turnaround port and working port of Saint-Nazaire make for a fascinating and unusual cruise.
Croisieurope is the only line operating Loire cruises by hotel ship and offers five and seven-night itineraries on the new Loire Princesse. The company has also introduced canal barging on the Loire Canal, allowing exploration of a different stretch of the river, much further inland, on the new 20-passenger barge, Daniele. From Bordeaux, the company offers a five-day Gironde Estuary & Garonne cruise including wine with meals and some bar drinks ( (croisieurope.co.uk).
Uniworld offers all-inclusive, seven-night cruises from bordeaux on the opulent, 132-passenger river royale (titantravel.co.uk).
Viking offers a seven-night cruise on the 190-passenger Viking Forseti, with cool, contemporary Scandinavian interiors. Wine with meals and five excursions are included (vikingcruises.co.uk).
Scenic Tours features 10-night,all-inclusive voyages on the new scenic Diamond, with butler service and excursions such as a kayaking trip from Cadillac, foie gras tasting in bergerac and a trip to Arcachon to taste the local oysters (scenictours.co.uk).
Amawaterways starts cruises from bordeaux in 2016 on AmaDolce, the line includes excursions and drinks with meals. Eight departures have a wine tasting theme (amawaterways. co.uk).
Some AmaDolce sailings are chartered to apt which offers a seven-night royal Collection Grand bordeaux cruise (aptouring. co.uk).