The reality of river cruising — where onboard entertainment and dining options are minimal and passenger count is in the low hundreds — may surprise you. Onboard.com contributor Jason Leppert tells us that it’s not cramped quarters and boring evenings. Rather, a recent Viking wine-and-food-centric river cruise through the Bordeaux region of France delivered education on board, flavorful adventures ashore and a slew of memorable meals and conversations in between.
What to Expect on a River Cruise
Who could say no to a three-day round trip Viking river cruise in French wine country? This abbreviated Châteaux, Rivers & Wine itinerary included stops at famous vineyards, historic chateaus and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with many of the attractions just steps away from where the river cruise ship docked. Unlike, say, an ocean cruise to Rome, Italy via the coastal port of Civitavecchia, the points of interest along the rivers in the Bordeaux wine region of France are not hours away. In most cases, you can literally walk off and begin sightseeing immediately. Plus, Viking offers a complimentary guided excursion in every port as well as additional optional ones at a reduced cost. The stops in port on river cruises are also more frequent, always daily and stayed in for longer durations, often into the evenings or overnight, unlike most ocean cruises.
Getting to Know Bordeaux
Not knowing what to expect in Bordeaux, this charming city was easy to fall in love with. The uniformly ornate buildings make it look like a mini Paris, with its large plazas and pedestrian-friendly streets lined by locals enjoying the markets, shops and cafes. Bordeaux’s wine shops are a must and offer a first taste of the local flavors. This is also where the voyage ends, so it’s the perfect place to begin exploring Bordeaux’s finest wines since you can always stockpile your favorite upon return.
A Taste of France
The next day, via Viking’s private coaches, some of the cruise ship’s passengers went to blend their own cognacs while others went to taste wines across Medoc-area vineyards like Château Prieuré-Lichine or Château Mouton Rothschild, an optional stop on the cruise. The latter produces some of the most highly regarded and expensive red wine in the world. A bottle of 2000 vintage Jeroboam, for example, was priced at 12,900 euros. Thus having just a sip is a once in a lifetime experience for most cruisers.
Lunch that day at Café Lavinal, the on-site eatery of another chateau we visited, Château Lynch-Bages — a winery in the Pauillac appellation — served as tangible and tasty proof of why French cuisine is so highly regarded. The simple but flavorful scallops, served in a savory mushroom sauce, were rich and delicious. To drink, it was an obscure but equally delectable Chateau Sainte-Marie Entre-deux-Mers — one of the most enjoyable wines of the entire river cruise. My mouth never felt happier.
Historic Sights Paired with Food and Wine
We dedicated the last day of our three-day river cruise to discovering Saint-Émilion, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We toured the Saint-Émilion monolithic church, carved out of a natural limestone cliff in the early 12th century. A memorable view of town awaited us at the base of the bell tower, while a descent into the catacombs showed us the impressive underground architecture created centuries ago.
Simpler joys arrived in the form of macaron cookies, delicate cookies with a crunchy outside flavored with everything from vanilla to caramel to violet and rose petal. And to wash it all down we visited Château Siaurac, producers of three different wines from three appellations of Bordeaux, and learned the true nuances of wine tasting — using our senses to best discern all of the subtleties — as this particular winery emphasized its terroir (how a particular region's climate, soils and terrain affect the taste of wine) in the production of their unique vintages.
Back On Board the Ship
The emphasis of a river cruise is on the destination, and the excellent featured lectures and local variety acts brought on board while in port, support that focus. On your riverboat in Bordeaux, France, you might partake in an educational, wine-and-cheese tasting seminar to enhance your discovery of the varietals or catch an evening performance by a quartet of opera singers from the area. Especially on a trip of this nature, learning as much as possible about the many wines you are enjoying and the regions they come from is essential to maximizing the experience. Besides seminars and lectures, dinner is served with complimentary wine pairings from the very areas traveled.
While savoring the flavors of France, we found the perfect accompaniment in the warm friendship of our fellow cruisers. With less than 200 passengers aboard, river cruises offer an intimate environment that makes it easy to be social. Turns out the only thing more enjoyable than a great bottle of wine is sharing it with new friends on board.