We started cruising European rivers a few year ago after over 40 ocean cruises and more than 10 land tours. Our last river cruise was the Rhine and Moselle with Uniworld. This time we choose to go with Uniworld again to cruise the Bordeaux region of 3 rivers and an estuary. Our wanted to see the heartland of France and visit the famous wine regions in the world. Our home is about 2 hours from the Napa Valley and I have some interested in wine. We were rewarded with a memorable experience that I feel the need to share it with others.
Our cruise had an ominous start. We mistakenly connected with a driver who turned out not the Uniworld transfer. He took us to the river bank and pointed to a ocean cruise ship, "The World," and said to us, "Here is your cruise ship." When we both realized the mistake, the driver got all excited, talked on the cell phone for a long time and demanded 50 Euro. Finally I managed to convinced him to take us to the Uniworld ship which was only 50 yards away. The hotel manager of Uniworld, Sebastian, came out and greeted us, assured us that he would take care of the driver and told us to relax and enjoy our vacation. We never got the bill for 50 Euro. This is indicative of the high level (5 star) service throughout our cruise.
Meals services were very good in general. You can asked for what you would like through the waiter or the ever-present restaurant manager. We asked for sautéed spinach with our dinner nightly. The chef comes by nightly for feedbacks. Every night there is a pasta, a meat, a fish and a vegetarian main course to choose from. Some meals are of local flavor. For cheese lovers, there are 40 varieties on the ship. Every night. One red and one white wine are available to accompany your mean. You will be given another wine if don’t like the selection. Champagne is always available for breakfast along with juices.
There are two additional dinner venues to the main dining room. One can sign up to have dinner in a private dining room for up to 12 people or dine on the sun deck. We did the private dining room the second night with 2 other couples. Same food, just different atmosphere. We had not tried the other venue on the Sun Deck. A lady told us that she had the best Beef Wellington there.
Of course, the exciting part of this cruise, entitled, "Bordeaux. Vineyards and Chateaux" is the shore excursion. We could see from ship upon arrival that Bordeaux was a good size city with many big and tall buildings of 18th century architecture. It was an important port for the wine trade of old.
Starting the next day, we visited the Sauternes region that is famous for sweet wines. Chateau Latour Blanche was classified as First Growth in 1855 and it has 26 non-fee paying apprentice wine makers. The last owner had bequeathed the winery in 1907 to the government with a stipulation to create a free school. We learnt about how grapes rotten with fungus were handpicked to produce the sweet wines and tasted three ones. Lunch was in the Royal Castle Cazeneuve with a wine-matching three course meal. A tour of the castle where King Henri IV had lived was followed after lunch before returning to Bordeaux for the night.
Next day's highlight was an afternoon visit to one of the wineries in the prestigious Pauillac region of Medoc. Uniworld divided the passengers into 6 smaller groups to visit different wineries. After the morning lecture presentation, I made a request to the cruise director, Adrian, to be assigned to the group that visit Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Not only that he could not promise but sounded far from promising. He pointed out that we may not get invitation from Chateau Lafite Rothschild and that any appointment would take at least 6 months in advance. In the afternoon, when we were boarding buses for the winery visit, Adrian was there to direct us to bus number 3. Soon after departure, the local tour guide handed me a piece of paper which was an invitation to winery #6. Opened it up and much to my surprise it was an invitation to visit Chateau Lafite Rothschild! That made my day and pretty much my cruise! To have a exclusive private tour and tasting of a if not the most prestigious winery in the world was a wonderful feeling.
The 16 of us went with the tour guide to Chateau Lafite Rothschild and dropped off at the back as the winery does not like to have tour bus seen in their front gate. A sommelier of the winery greeted us and act as our guide. The tour ended with tasting a 2007 vintage Chateau Lafite Rothschild in the round rotunda which is the "nursery" where wine is stored in barrels for 3 years before being bottled and released. The sommelier said the Lafite Rothschild wines could takes 20 years to reach its peak.
Day 4, starts the morning with a scenic drive along the river followed with a visit to the UNISCO listed citadel in Blaye. The fortress was built in the 17th century to protect the wine trade of Bordeaux. The highlight for the day, however, was an optional visit to the Rémy Martin distillery in Cognac where famous brandies are produced. We visited the building where barrels of brandy of different ages are stored and was told, blending of the expensive brandy can involve over 100 different barrels of up to age over 100 years. In the tasting room, only a VSOP was tasted with three different nibblers that resulting a quite different taste of the brandy. The tour ended in the shop where brandies of different blend and labels were shown together with the price tag except in the little back room where there is an elaborate display of Louis XIII. I found out that a 70dm bottle of Louis XIII in a crystal decanter could be had for 2,700 Euro. Why so expensive? Here is what Rémy Martin says, "A Century in a Bottle: Results of 100 year of passionate work and patience, LOUIS XIII is a unique blending of 1200 of the rarest and oldest eaus-de-vie from Grande Champagne. A firework of intense and delicate aromas, a celebration of floral notes, undertones of candied fruits and touch of spices. An ultimate precious moment in life." I can vouch to that!
In the morning of Day 5 we went to Saint Emilion which is on the right bank of the river where climates are different from Médoc which is on the left bank. The wine grapes here are predominantly Merlot whereas in Medoc it is Cabernet Sauvignon. The Saint Emilion vineyards have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site. Vinery classification here are also different from Medoc, it is every 10 years instead of only once in 1855. The cobber stone lined village had plenty of wine shops, a monolithic 12 century church carved into the cliff that is under restoration, a nearby grotto that is reputed to be where Saint Emilion lived. The morning tour ended with a wine tasting in a nearby, modern, Grand Cru class winery: Chateau Larmande. The pleasant surprise of Saint Emilion was a little shop brought us there by the local guide. This small, unimpressive little shop claimed to be the legitimate heir to the original recipe of macarons. We bought some for our connoisseur friend who told us excitedly that she had never tasted macarons that good.
Uniworld provided shuttle for people wanting to go back to ship for lunch and return to Saint Emilion. I chose to walk around the city of Libourn in the afternoon. It is a small city with her days of glory behind her. Only students from the campus nearby provided some sight of life.
The next morning, however, the city center came alive with a farmers market. The morning excursion was to visit the market before going to a mysterious destination. I always found the market an exciting place to see what produce are available locally. Our mysterious destination was a boutique, organic winery, Chateau Boutinet, run by a wine educator wife and an experienced wine maker husband, blend into a family with each having two children from different marriage. It was interesting to hear the lady told their story and future plan of rebuilding the ruined castle and to operate 5 rooms for B & B. They are selling 3 wines now: a sweet light red, a ready to drink red, and a better-to-drink-later red. The sweet light red wine, they called it Claret, was offered for tasting.
The ship returned to Bordeaux after lunch with a cooking demonstration and tasting of the Canelés de Bordeaux on board. This native dessert of Bordeaux is often found at coffee bars but now I also know its origin, the history and ingredients.
A twilight tour of the city of Bordeaux was arranged in the evening. The tour, started at 9 pm, was conducted on open top buses. It presented a romantic and interesting light of the city and would be even more enjoyable when done in June and July.
The last day belonged to Bordeaux. The "Do as the Locals Do" walking tour of the city started with a tram ride. The tram stop was only a short walk from the ship and 3 stops later we were in the city center. The modern city of Bordeaux had undergone a Pygmalion transformation by the current mayor 15 years ago that change her from an "wretched flower girl" into a "fair lady." The black coating of the 18 century sandstone buildings were cleaned up, dirty river bank renovated with walkways, bike/skate-board lanes, garden and museum, a high-tech tram system built to speed up the transportation, parks were created, the historic core of the city became an UNESCO World Heritage site. In addition, a number of world class chef have establish their presence here and Paris is only two hours away by high speed train. It has become a destination of choose and attracted the luxury residence at sea, "The World".
Bordeaux in many ways similar to my favorite city Vienna: it is by a river, it has an opera house, a large pedestrian shopping street, a tram system, a distinctive Gothic church (Saint Andrew), sandstone buildings of 18 century architecture, and a dessert of its own (Canelés de Bordeaux).
The walking tour started before shops were open and few other pedestrians were there to obstruct our progress. We admired some of the beautiful architecture along the walk, stopped for Kodak moments, and some people watching. An hour or so later, the shops began to open and the fun part comes. Our first stop was at Baillardran for a tasting of their Canelé. I purchased some for gifts back home. The second stop was a pastry shop, David, where I tasted a most delicious cream puff like dessert that was created with inspiration from Dune of Pilat on the seaside about an hour away. They named it "Sand Dune" and I called it delicious. Unfortunately they must be consumed fresh and could not be brought home. So that may be reason enough for a repeat visit to Bordeaux! After consuming most of calories from the two desserts, we ended up in a chocolate shop, Saunion, where they hand make delicate chocolate since 1893. Here again it was sample and purchase. In all, it was an very interesting sightseeing walk with great discoveries of the delicious desserts in town.
Day 8 came soon enough: it was time to disembark. We vacated the room as instructed by 8:30 and relaxed around in the lounge until 11:00 when we were bused to the airport. There were self-help coffee/tea and some light snack. The bar was open too. The hotel manager was around and came said goodbye to us. I made an request for an extra box of mint so I can save the metal box with the Uniworld emblem for pill case. Two boxes were delivered to our seat by the house keeping manage few minutes later. That again exemplified the service.
We are looking forward to another Uniworld cruise
River boat staterooms are small - based on our experience of 3 cruises. Our balcony stateroom (150 sg ft) is even small minus the (100 sq ft) balcony. That said, the room is well appointed and highly functional. We have more drawer spaces than know what to do with them. Closet space too are plentiful for us. Bathroom has adequate space and shower works fine. Bed and bedding are comfortable but the bed is double size and not queen or king.