A few years ago, when Viking River Cruises decided to create an all-new European river cruising itinerary in the Bordeaux region of southwest France, picking the destination was the easy part.
For starters, Bordeaux is a world winemaking hub. With nearly 60 different appellations grown in the thousands of acres of vineyards sprawled about the region, Bordeaux vineyards produce everything from the classic red Bordeaux to the sweet, white Sauternes. And they do so in great abundance, turning out almost a billion bottles a year. Bordeaux also is a region rich in culinary tradition, though, and for food and wine enthusiasts -- some of European river cruising's best customers -- odds are good that a combination of top-class French cuisine and wine will prove irresistible.
The city of Bordeaux is no small draw, either. Recognized by UNESCO for its heritage and architecture, the ancient city and its lovely buildings sit primly on the banks of the Garonne River. With a nearby airport and easy access for river cruise ships wanting to visit the Dordogne River and the Gironde Estuary, Bordeaux is an obvious choice as a river cruise destination. Couple that with the quaintness of the scenic vineyards, chateaux and medieval villages, and it's easy to see why this destination is growing. (CroisiEurope has had ships in place here since 2011, Uniworld also began operations in Bordeaux in 2014, and Scenic and Avalon will join the fray in 2015).
But what about the nuts and bolts of a full itinerary? How would a cruise line develop the final experience it offers its customers, and how many man-hours does the job require?
To answer these questions, Cruise Critic's Jamey Bergman accompanied Viking Rivers' itinerary development team on a mission to finalize the Bordeaux itinerary. The team, a mix of executives from Viking's Swiss operations base and its Los Angeles headquarters, was charged with the task of winnowing the best sights to showcase the region over the course of a seven-night cruise.
As we marched through ripening fields of grapes on a not-so-dry run for a potential winery tour at Chateau Siaurac and meandered down French country lanes to Perigord to search for truffles, it became clear the job of creating a relaxing river cruise itinerary is actually quite rigorous. It's a job with plenty of perks, to be sure, but when the expectations of a company and its clientele are on your shoulders, the stakes are high.
Get the full, behind-the scenes tour in our slideshow.
Have you ever wondered how river cruise lines choose the shore excursions they offer their passengers? And who is it, exactly, who's doing the dirty work of researching? Who are those lucky guinea pigs tackling tough jobs like wine tasting and sampling the local delicacies? This time, it's me.
I happily volunteered to join the ranks of the wine-tasting, delicacy-sampling guinea pigs when Viking River Cruises invited Cruise Critic along in preparation for the launch of its new itinerary in Bordeaux. I wanted to better understand what goes into choosing the off-ship activities for passengers. How many hours of research are required to pick the tours, events and business partners that ultimately showcase a particular port or region to hundreds or even thousands of cruisers? And who makes the decisions?
I joined with Viking River's team -- consisting of Harald, Klaus, Irene and Anton -- led by the company's product development chief, Joost Ouendag, on their final research trip. Collectively, the team has invested thousands of miles and hundreds of hours in the new venture over nearly two years.
The purpose of this last trip: To make some tough decisions. What would make the cut and what wouldn't?
I began my stay, just as you would, in Bordeaux, the region's largest city. The itinerary starts and ends in this beautiful, Romanesque town on the Garonne River, and loops through two other bodies of water along the way: The Dordogne River and the Gironde estuary.
There was one big difference between my trip and yours, though. As Viking Forseti had yet arrived (its season was still some six months away when we were on our trip), my evenings were spent in a budget hotel and my days consisted of cramming a full week's worth of excursions into less than 72 hours.
Despite the modest digs and frenetic pace, my experience in Bordeaux was eye-opening. The ancient Roman city, whose Garonne riverfront is lined with buildings designed by Versailles' architect, has undergone a renaissance in the past 10 years. It's lively, interesting and quintessentially French. (And don't miss the fabulous Place de Bourse, pictured. With its beautiful buildings and massive infinity fountain that's lit with colored lights in the evenings, it's a local gathering spot, day or night.)
One note before we get started: Our trip and the potential excursions we took don't represent the final itinerary. Many places we visited had not yet made the final cut. And some, such as a walking tour of the 17th century citadel in Blaye, an excursion to Sauternes to taste dessert wines, and a guided trip around Bordeaux itself, were already decided upon.
The road traffic in Bordeaux was snarled as Joost and I struck out early on the first day of our tour. (Something you won't have to worry about when sailing on the river!) Our first stop: A quaint little French farmers' market in Libourne, one of the attractions for the cruise's call at Saint-Emilion, which lies on the Dordogne River.
Despite several research trips to the region over past year and a half, this was Ouendag's first chance to visit the market and the purpose, he said, was “to get a feel for it,” to see if the reality matched up with expectations. In addition to assessing the market's suitability for Viking's passengers, the offerings had to pass muster for Viking River chefs, who planned to shop for foodstuffs at the market for use in locally inspired dishes that would be served onboard.
Wisely, Viking has followed the lead of Libourne's locals, who have been shopping at the market since the 13th century. The market made the cut.
In addition to wine grapes, the region's best-known crop, Libourne features flowers, fish, meat, sweets, fresh bread and seasonal produce; delicious Mirabelle plums were in season on our visit. You can also pick up terrific souvenirs, from hand-made baskets to dried lavender.
Libourne was clearly a hit, but after a half-hour visit and my second strong espresso, it was time to check out the next possible stop. The town of Saint-Emilion, just five miles from the dock (a short bus ride for you), is set on a hilltop and surrounded by vineyards. It's this gorgeous setting that poses the first major hurdle for our team.
How do you make an ancient village, paved with cobblestones and situated on a hillside, accessible to everyone -- even those with limited mobility? Activities planned for passengers have to be suitable for all. And for those who don't want to -- or can't -- walk up the steep streets, would Viking's motor coaches be able to manage the trip? After scouting routes and parking spots, the team decided Viking's tour buses could navigate the narrow lanes. Then it was time to explore Saint-Emilion's sights.
First stop: The Monolithic Church, so named because its three underground naves and catacomb were carved into the rocky hillside, which lies at St. Emilion's apex. Its bell tower, which offers amazing views over the countryside's vineyards of merlot and cabernet franc, is a big draw. With 196 spiral steps up to the top, it's not a trip for everyone. Indeed, this activity didn't make Viking's final list, though you can visit it on your own for 1.50 euros by asking in the tourist office next door. (Tours of the underground portions of the church are arranged through the tourist office, too, and cost 7.50 euros for adults and 5.25 euros for students and seniors. Children under 12 go free. The tour takes 45 minutes and is available seven days a week, year-round.)
Beyond wine, Saint-Emilion's most famous foodie feature is its "Veritables Macarons de St. Emilion." The macarons are a light cookie of almonds and egg whites, handmade from a centuries-old recipe at the Fabrique de Macarons bakery and shop.
Initially, the Viking team had hoped to host an on-site demo here. We discovered one big challenge on our visit: The kitchen in Mademoiselle Fermigier's bakery was tiny and crowded even with just two people watching the baking process. It definitely couldn’t hold a full Viking tour group.
The solution? Passengers will be greeted in St. Emilion by bakery staffers wandering around with trays of macarons, according to Joost -- and a macaron baking demo will be held onboard the ship.
Our stop at Saint-Emilion lasted around an hour (yours will be a much more relaxed visit), and after eating a warm macaron the size of my face and slurping my third espresso of the day, we were ready to hit the road.
This time we turned northeast toward the hamlet of Neac, for a visit to Chateau Siaurac, known for its excellent wines and its beautiful vineyard, growing mostly Cabernet Franc and Merlot varietals.
We were greeted by owner Paul Goldschmidt, who led us on a brief walk through the vineyard before showcasing the winery features that you'd see on your tour, such as the row of French oak casks used to age the wine, the cellars and the processing and bottling equipment. We wound up in the all-important degustation (tasting) room, and tried one of Goldschmidt's more recent vintages -- the Plaisir 2009.
But Paul wasn't finished. During the planning process, the team considered two eating options. Should they offer passengers a multicourse meal, cooked by Chateau Siaurac's in-house chef? Or would a light, boxed lunch catered by a local restaurant be more appropriate?
It was our job to try them both. I've never been so full.
As the house wines were poured and foie gras was served, conversation revolved around the work at hand, of course (interestingly, the Viking River staffers' conversation bounced between French, German and English -- most spoke all three). This being an optional excursion, offered for a fee, the concern was that the multicourse feast would raise the price too much. Also, with all of the other eating opportunities on this food-centric itinerary (not to mention three squares each day onboard Viking's ships), was yet another lavish meal really necessary?
In the end, the team agreed a sophisticated picnic, rather than the multicourse feast, would best serve the tour -- and the passengers on it. Decision made.
In the space of a day, we'd covered three days' worth of activities. The pace had started to feel grueling, and the two meals and wine tasting session were slowing me down. But more hard work was still to be done.
The next potential candidate on our list was an unknown, an organic farm called Oh! Legumes Oublies. In this case, it was a 20-minute stop at the farm to eye its collection of produce, jams and crafts, and to talk with its staffers. The decision was swift: Oh! Legumes Oublies, charming as it was, didn’t make the cut. Unfortunately, the farm didn't suit the needs of a large tour group: The location was too remote, the roads were too narrow and tour buses would have been too large to navigate the driveway leading in.
As we traveled throughout the region, I saw firsthand how much the Viking River team relies on local advice. And how that advice lends authenticity to the itineraries Viking creates.
Most important, Ouendag told me, is developing relationships with a network of locals who can play the part of host or advisor -- or both. And whether it was the owner of a winery, a local farmer or a baker, the most captivating part of each prospective excursion was a chance to interact with locals.
"Think about the most memorable travel experiences you've had," Ouendag explained. "What are you going to tell people about when you go home from this trip? You might list off what you saw -- and that's important, and we'll certainly include the 'iconic' sights on all of our tours. But you're going to remember the people: The conversations that you have, the local characters you meet."
The organic farm visit wrapped up Day One. Having completed four shore excursions, I was amazed at the speed with which the team moved and the amount of ground it covered. Fortunately, for you, this intensive prep work means that, on your cruise, you can take time to enjoy the experience at a leisurely pace.
There was no lavish dinner once we got back to Bordeaux (room service fit the quick, fast and light requirements), but there was time to wander on my own around the city itself.
It's a marvel. This historic place -- often dubbed "little Paris" -- comes alive at twilight, with sidewalk cafes and bistros for sampling red wine and watching quaint, French street scenes unfold. Bordeaux is a magnet any time of the day, but at night, the lights of the Place de Bourse glitter off the water's surface and a stroll through town is magic.
Viking River's itinerary offers some time, both early and late in the cruise, to either tour the city with a guide or simply explore on your own. Don't miss the chance.
The big event on today's roster is a chance to go truffle hunting. This is one of those experiences that's pretty tough to organize on your own; in this case, the tour will be one of the extra fee adventures offered on this itinerary. If it makes the cut, that is.
We piled back in our minivan and headed down the highway to St. Cyprien as Ouendag and his team shake out their worries about today's scouting mission. They're all confident the experience of going along with dogs as they hunt for valuable truffles -- fungi that grow underground -- will be memorable. But it's the distance that must be traveled via motorcoach that concerns Ouendag, who understands most passengers don't want to spend too much time getting there.
The truffle farm is located in the former province of Perigord. Here, the black truffle, truffe noir du Perigord, gets its name. As we exited the main road, we rumbled along through rolling hills on narrow roads, passing farmland and wooded hollows and a dozen signs for foie gras, the region's other famous product.
When we finally found the tiny community of Pechalifour -- after consulting a local pedestrian, making a tight U-turn and having a harrowing encounter with a tractor -- the truffle farm (I wasn't quite sure what to expect) turned out to be a small complex of a few stone houses and agricultural buildings set on a protected hillside.
Turning in the drive, we were greeted by a barking dog and an animated Frenchman barking at us not to pet the dog. ("Farah is a working dog; you must not pet her!")
We started off in the truffle "classroom" where Edouard Aynaud, the farm's owner, gave us a lesson in truffles. The black truffle is one of the most expensive in the world. They grow around trees such as hazel, oak, and cherry, and are found at depths in the earth from 2 to 20 inches.
Pulling a plastic bowl from the refrigerator and unwrapping a tea towel, Aynaud showed us what appeared to be clods of dirt and several eggs. The dirt clods, it turned out, were the truffles. (Eggshells are porous and become infused by the truffle aroma, producing "truffled" eggs. Yum.)
Aynaud held one of the truffles up, smaller than a golf ball. At his insistence, we guessed the value, but we were all too low. This single tiny truffle would fetch 30 euros, and the average market value for this type of truffle works out to around 1,000 euros per kilogram.
After our lesson we headed outside. Aynaud grabbed a wicker basket and a small pick, and Farah, the dog, knew the hunt was afoot. As we made our way through the farm -- a field of mostly saplings -- responding to Aynaud's verbal directions and hand gestures, Farah struck culinary pay dirt.
During our 20 minutes in the field, Farah found truffle after truffle. She marked the spot with gentle pawing and then, when Aynaud carefully extracted the truffle with a pick or by hand, Farah received her payment of a dog treat -- typically diet dog biscuits so the pooch doesn't gain too much weight.
After a thoroughly engrossing experience "helping" the dog hunt for truffles, we moved into the ancient stone farmhouse. There, Edouard's wife, Carole, had been busy all morning preparing us a home-cooked meal, which of course included truffles in every dish. Starting with truffled Creme Anglaise with a Sauternes wine and baguette with salted truffle butter, we also enjoyed truffles with our roast chicken and salad … and cheese … and even desert (vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce and shaved truffle).
Most of the mealtime discussion centered on the business of truffles, too, though brief exchanges concerned the number of visitors the intimate operation could accommodate.
There seemed to be no question that the truffle hunting experience would make the final cut. Given the distance to the farm and the intimacy of the experience it would be an optional tour. ("Passengers will self-select," Ouendag predicted. "Not everyone will be interested.")
A few logistical questions were yet to be worked out, but the Aynauds were in.
I was allowed to sit in on one other very important part of the itinerary building process. On the morning of my third and final day with the Viking team, they held interviews with potential tour guides.
Holed up at Bordeaux's Office of Tourism, where interviews with candidates would take place, Ouendag and his team agreed certain qualities in a tour guide were paramount.
According to the group, one prospective tour guide pretty much illustrated what those job qualifications were. The mother of two was well educated, fluent in English as well as French and had a strong interest in the history, art and culture of the region. The prospective tour guide happened to be an American who'd relocated to Bordeaux when her husband was offered a job opportunity in the city, and as such could bridge the culture gap for North American passengers.
As much as possible in Bordeaux, Viking River guides are assigned to a specific cruise (rather than piecemeal, on individual excursions), so passengers can become familiar with their guides.
Our last adventure, before wrapping up our whirlwind scouting trip was an intriguing one -- and at 179 euros per passenger, the most expensive of the added-fee tours. It was a chance to visit a Cognac house in the French village of the same name.
It wasn't just a tour of Cognac-making facility, though; it was a unique experience driven by one of the local connections in Viking's network.
"So you go to Camus, which is one of the very few still French-owned cognac houses, and you get a little introduction into the family business," Ouendag shared as we headed toward it. "The guy that runs it right now is fourth generation, and you get an explanation of how it all works. Here's the kicker, though, here's what makes this such a special adventure: You get to blend your own Cognac, and the bottle comes with your own personal label -- and is packed for traveling in a beautiful wooden box -- and they put your recipe in a big book, so if you really like your cognac ... 10 years later, they can recreate the same blend and send it to you."
If there was ever any question (there wasn't), the trip to Camus indeed did make the cut.
If my time in Bordeaux felt like a whirlwind of quick-fire impressions -- sights, smells, speaking a bit of the language, tasting wines of the Medoc, Sauturnes and Margaux wine regions, shopping at local markets and exploring historic sites -- it is juxtaposed against the reality that the Viking team has been working on creating this new itinerary for nearly two years. I was only there to witness the final touches, and I can only imagine the amount of focus and determination that goes into solving such a complex logistical puzzle.
What I came away with was a strong sense of commitment, among the members of Viking River's Bordeaux team, for creating unique and authentic travel experiences. What became clear to me, seeing the process firsthand, was how important local knowledge and local contacts are when creating a cruise itinerary and its associated shore excursions.
That's not to say that Viking River still doesn't face challenges as it introduces this all-new region of France to river cruisers. There are caveats. While Bordeaux's waterways are scenic, not as much time is spent cruising as on Viking's bigger, more traditional Rhine, Danube or Rhone itineraries. Also, being located right off the Atlantic, tidal surges, particularly in spring, are highly uneven and can, from time to time, affect the ships' abilities to make it to every port. In that case, passengers would likely find themselves with a little more time docked in the heart of the city of Bordeaux and a lot more time on the tour bus.
Regardless, I'm looking forward to a return visit. Hopefully the next time I'll get to travel by ship.