Saturday, 2 January 2016

What a luxury: cruising the waterways of Bordeaux

Cruising is synonymous with weight gain. All those buffet meals. Far more cocktails that you'd consume on dry land and lots of time lazing around on the deck taking in the sun.

Recent research has suggested that the average person puts on half a kilo a day during a cruise holiday – understandable when all the food served on board is included in the price, meaning you can over-indulge without opening your wallet.


And then there is that complimentary in-suite mini bar that's replenished every day.

But weight gain can easily be avoided if you have the willpower.

Imagine a cruise where long, invigorating walks were part of the itinerary, where bicycles were at your command to explore the local sights when you dock, and where healthy and vegetarian eating options are always available.

On my recent Scenic river cruise on board the Scenic Diamond through the vineyards of Bordeaux salads, low-calorie dressings, "healthy" lunch options and round-the-clock fruit were the norm, along with all the usual gourmet options.

While the main Crystal Dining restaurant offered buffets for breakfast and lunch (and a la carte dining in the evenings), rewarding treats and salads were available in the River Café from early morning until late afternoon every day.


Think dishes like quinoa salad, stuffed vine leaves, millet salad and fresh fruit platters at a little nook called “Vitality Corner”.

Herbal teas (green tea, peppermint, rooibos) are always available, while fresh juices (multi-vitamin, grapefruit, orange or apple) can be delivered to your cabin at any time and enjoyed on your private deck.

The dinner menus feature several choices each night; the likes of pan-fried fillet of John Dory with artichokes and rice on port wine jus; or crispy duck leg confit with savoy cabbage and potatoes Lyonnaise.

Each night there is, at least, one vegetarian option; perhaps green lentil soup followed by polenta with roasted beets; asparagus with sauce Hollandaise, eggplant compote with toasted baguette and tomato fondue, or perhaps char with caramelised endive, walnuts and sultanas followed by stuffed mushrooms with tomato and basil ragout.

If pavlovas and rhum babas are not your scene, a fresh fruit platter is always available for dessert.

And for working off any excesses (in case a breakfast special of waffles with berry sauce proves too tempting) how about a walk up the hills of Loupiac, through the vineyards, with the reward of fantastic views? Or maybe a 30-kilometre bike ride between the wine villages of Blaye and Bourg and back, or a shorter trip from Cadillac to taste wine? 


And if the cycling does become too much like hard work, all the bikes are equipped with electric engines to help you conquer that last hill. Numb bum? There are on-board massage facilities as well, along with exercise areas and a walking track.

Bordeaux is, of course, a region synonymous with fine food and wine, so no one is expecting guests to be completely abstemious. Wine has been made here since Roman times, and in French culture red wine is much prized for its health-giving properties.

Scenic cruises take in several of the key vineyard regions; the Medoc, Sauternes, Saint-Emilion, Bourg, Blaye and Pomerol among them as the Scenic Diamond traverses the Garonne and Dordogne rivers and the Gironde Estuary. And sea sickness is not a problem. 

Possible excursions include tasting fresh oysters in the Arcachon Basin and the chance to explore the world-famous city of Cognac. Those wanting to know more about French cuisine can take a “Shop with the Chef” excursion to a local market.


The Scenic Diamond offers 11-day luxury all-inclusive river cruises (including flights from Australia) with time spent docked in Bordeaux, the wine villages of Pauillac, Blaye, Cadillac and in the town of Libourne.

The deal includes free beverages, all meals on board with choices of dining venue, free wifi, and a range of daily tours (usually with three options from which to choose).

What I most enjoyed was the freedom to do as many or as few of the tours as you like, although there are plenty of options to please gourmets and wine lovers alike.

The pace is leisurely with no overnight cruising, which means the chance to dine on shore if you are so inclined. We took the opportunity to eat at legendary Bordeaux restaurant La Tupina and at the impressive (and very traditional) Chez Servais in Libourne.


The on-board wine list featured a mainly Bordeaux selection with names like Haut Faugeres, Vieux Maillet and Chateau Balignan, along with Moet & Chandon and Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne and burgundies from Chateau de la Greffiere, along with a Pouilly-Fumé and a Sancerre from Henri Bourgeois. There was also a good range of top-shelf spirits and cocktails, along with artisan ciders.

Among my personal highlights of the cruise were a fascinating visit and tasting at the Sauternes estate of Chateau Guiraud during vintage; the visit to the Remy Martin distillery in Cognac, followed by a fascinating sampling, and a tour of some of the best of the Médoc châteaux, including a tasting at Chateau Gruaud-Larose (below).


Cruise passengers can choose between guided tours or using their headphones to listen to Tailormade devices, linked to GPS, to plot their own course through villages like Cadillac or Blaye. English is the lingua franca on board and most guests seem to be from England, Australia or New Zealand. TV channels on offer include the BBC and ITV.

There is also plenty of time moored in Bordeaux to enjoy the city, which is noted for its 18th-century architecture. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been reinvigorated thanks to an urban restoration program instigated by mayor (and ex French Prime Minister) Alain Juppe in
1996.

The scheme re-energised the quays along the Garonne river and cleaned up Bordeaux, which has more than 350 buildings listed as historic monuments.

It is here you'll discover the Marché de Quais, a gourmet producers' market, held every Sunday along the Quai de Chartrons.


The market 
offers a feast for the senses; with locals sniffing and prodding at everything from artisan breads, pastries and cakes to cooked chickens, paella and other hot delights.

Farmers from around the south-west of France sell their seasonal cheeses, fruits and vegetables (see radishes piled high, or tonnes of fresh berries). Locals flock to buy fresh seafood, along with their red meat for the week and local beers, wines and ciders.

The whole scene is a hive of activity with many patrons sampling fresh oysters from nearby waters along with a glass of Bordeaux Blanc, or maybe chomping on a plump fresh fig.

It is fair to say that no gourmet or wine lover will leave disappointed, but excess is easily avoidable.

Scenic offers 11-day Breathtaking Bordeaux river cruises on the Scenic Diamond starting from $7,295 including return flights to France and airport transfers. See www.scenic.com.au/tour/bordeaux-river-cruise/1909 or call 138 128.

Etihad Airways and partner airline Virgin Australia offer daily one-stop flights from Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to 20 destinations in Europe, via Abu Dhabi, including flights to Bordeaux via Paris. For bookings visit www.etihad.com or call 1300 532 215. 

# This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in Nourish magazine. 


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