Whilst Bordeaux may be a grand city of towering cathedrals and dramatic avenues, surrounded by some of the world’s most famous vineyards, it owes its life to the river. The Garonne has brought Bordeaux fame and wealth, and so there are few better ways to discover the ‘moon harbour’ – that was the nickname sailors of old gave to the city’s crescent-shaped quays – than aboard a river cruise.
And a journey on the SS Bon Voyage is far and away the most glamorous way to do it. Relaunched in April after an eight-month transformation, the SS Bon Voyage this year joined the ranks of Uniworld’s ‘Super Ships’, offering unrivalled luxury on the world’s waterways. It’s from the upper deck of the SS Bon Voyage that I watch Bordeaux disappear behind us into the morning mists of spring. Never mind, we’ll return here in a few days, and there’ll be plenty of time for discovering the charms of the city, with guided tours leading us from cathedrals to chocolatiers to the iconic canelé pastries.
With Bordeaux off our stern, the bow of the SS Bon Voyage points only one way: downstream, towards sunshine-filled days of discovering the food, wine and charms of the iconic Bordeaux region of France. During our days onboard – standard itineraries run to eight-days, with longer extensions on other rivers available – we’ll tour historic wineries and cycle past vineyards, be tempted by cooking courses and indulge in local market fare. Onboard we’ll dine on inspired gastronomy in the ship’s four remarkable restaurants, and sip on wines hand-selected from cellars from across France. But first? Oysters.
The SS Bon Voyage moors up at Cussac Fort Médoc, where the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers fan out into the broad Gironde estuary to meet the Atlantic. The fort was built here in the late-1600s to protect sailing ships making their way upstream, and is today a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There’s history aplenty to soak up, and local guides to talk you through the fortifications if you like, but most guests seem just as happy to indulge in the fresh oysters plucked and shucked from the estuary alongside, served with a flute of fine French champagne.
Maritime history aside, the reason for this port of call is to introduce travellers to the famed Médoc region of Bordeaux. As our coach meanders down narrow country lanes, the excellent local guide on board explains the defining features of Bordeaux’s wine-producing regions. For this is no homogenous landscape of vineyards, but rather a series of smaller appellations with their own unique terroir and character.
Unless you’re a wine fanatic interested in the soils of particular sites, they’re fairly easy to follow. On the ‘Left Bank’, pictured heading downstream, Cabernet Sauvignon is the signature of the vineyards and the wines. On the ‘Right Bank’ Merlot is the star. So while you’ll rarely see a cultivar listed on a bottle, working out which side of the Garonne the wine was made will tell you the style of what’s in the bottle.
It’s just one nugget of local knowledge we pick up as the coach carries us through the vineyards of the Médoc. Past icons such as Château Latour and Château Pichon Longueville Baron and on through the famous village of Pauillac. At Château Beychevelle we stop for a tasting, discovering both the seafaring history and fine Cabernet-driven wines of this historic cellar.
This is certainly a remarkable corner of France, settled since Roman times, and with more than 100 000 hectares of vineyard providing grapes to over 6500 wine ‘chateaux’. It’s also impossibly scenic, as we discover during our few hours of travelling through the region in the company of our well-informed guides.
That evening I dine in Le Grand Fromage, one of four restaurants on board the SS Bon Voyage. These range from café-style plates in Le Café du Soleil to the approachable bistro cooking of the cosy La Brasserie up in the bow of the ship. Foodies will appreciate the fine-dining degustation menu on offer in La Cave des Vins, complete with wine-pairings from the on-board sommelier, but the main restaurant – Le Grand Fromage – delivers superb regional cooking on a menu that offers both à la carte and set menu options. Flexibility is the watchword here, and vegans, vegetarians and those with dietary restrictions are well taken care. After multiple courses paired with fine French wine, I roll myself down to my mid-level cabin for a glorious night’s sleep.
Sleep is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the key selling points of the new Super Ships in the Uniworld fleet, with bespoke Savoir beds guaranteeing a good night’s rest. It’s just one aspect of the remarkable transformation that has taken place, with the bow-to-stern renovation transforming the guest experience on board. That begins in the main lobby where a chandelier of Murano glass lights the reception area, along with striking artwork by South African mosaic artist Jane du Rand. The revamps also upgraded all of the staterooms on board, blending contemporary touches with classical glamour of life afloat.
Sustainability is also a key element of the refurbished SS Bon Voyage. On board you’ll find no plastic straws or water bottles. Laundry is returned in baskets, not plastic wrap, or returned to your cabin on a hanger. “The impact adds up really quickly, so we’re looking at every way we possibly can to be sustainable, to do the right thing for these regions and for these rivers,” explained Ellen Bettridge, Chief Executive Officer of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, who joined us on our inaugural cruise. The next morning sees us mooring in the village of Libourne, a short drive from the famed village of Saint-Emilion.
Here the daily itinerary offers a host of options, from wine tasting in the surrounding chateaux to a cooking class with local specialities at Château Ambe Tour Pourret. If you’ve not yet been to this corner of France, don’t miss out on the tour to the village of Saint-Emilion. It’s a winelands dream, with cobbled streets clambering up the hillside clad in limestone houses. Tiny squares are filled with pavement cafes, while wine boutiques offer tutored tastings. Towering over the village is the bell tower of the monolithic church carved into the limestone hills in the 12th-century. It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for 20 years, and little wonder it receives more than one million visitors each year.
For travellers looking for a quieter day in the region, there are plenty of options. On a bright spring morning the ship’s chefs lead a wander through the local village market, collecting fresh local produce for that evening’s service, while a relaxed bicycle excursion reveals vineyards and a remarkable chapel deep in the serene forests.
By late-afternoon the SS Bon Voyage is sailing once more, heading back into the Gironde estuary before turning upstream to return to Bordeaux. We moor up on the crescent quay after nightfall, the city lights twinkling beyond my stateroom window. There’s no rush to head out and explore Bordeaux this evening because I know that the next morning a guided tour – all included in the price of the cruise – will lead me straight to the highlights of the city. We’ll wander past the dramatic Opera House, opened in 1780, and through the charming alleys of the old town. Admire the honey-coloured stone of the Place de la Bourse, and snack on the more-ish canelé pastries the city is famous for.
On my last morning, bags packed for the flight home, I stand atop the impressive wine museum of La Cité du Vin, a glass of Bordeaux in hand. Far below me the gleaming SS Bon Voyage lies tied up at the Quai des Chartrons waiting for its next voyage, the Garonne slipping silently beneath her keel as it’s done for centuries.