When your riverboat cruises past road signs that remind you of high-priced bottles in a fancy wine store, you know you are in France.
A week on the 190-passenger Viking Forseti, for instance, begins and ends in Bordeaux, a city in the center of one of the world’s great grape-growing regions.
On a voyage last spring, the Forseti floated by Margaux and vineyard-laden fields of villages with names that end in Medoc. One night, we tied up in Pauillac, home of Latour, Châteaux Lafite Rothschild, and Mouton Rothschild. Other days, guided tours slipped past Pomerol and Graves. We walked the medieval lanes of Saint-Emilion and Cadillac, and tasted the sweet products of Sauternes.
For wine enthusiasts, a vacation in Bordeaux is like letting kids loose in a candy store -- so much wine, so little time.
Bordeaux is growing as a region for cruises, a result of a European river cruising boom that is bolstered by North Americans who are booking cabins at a record pace.
New riverboats. more modern conveniences
Riverboat companies, such as Forseti owner Viking River Cruises, are selling out for the summer faster than they can build new vessels. Last spring, for instance, Viking christened 18 new riverboats.
Many of Europe’s cities, the ones that travelers want to visit for culture and history, lie by the waterways that long have been the most efficient way to move freight on the Continent. Now, new riverboats are sporting modern accommodations and fine dining, offering an increased comfort level.
Add to this vacation choice a nearly all-inclusive cruise rate – high by ocean cruising standards but a significant break on the cost of Europe’s city hotels and restaurants – and you can see why business is booming.
River trips also provide extended time for getting to know your fellow passengers at shared tables and an easy access to at least some destinations, as riverboats often tie up for the night in the center of towns, while ocean ships spend the night hours churning toward the next destination.
Be aware that the flows of rivers and canals change with seasons, weather, and tides, such as the tides on the waters of the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne rivers of Bordeaux that can, in spring, reach 15 feet.
Bordeaux is a delightful city
Normally, the Viking Forseti cruises each week from Bordeaux to Pauillac, Libourne, Cadillac, and Blaye. During my April week aboard, the vessel was not able to motor the rivers to Cadillac or Blaye (some early startup issues on the route may also have been to blame), so passengers boarded buses several days while the boat stayed in Bordeaux. The bus rides were a bit disappointing, only because they were unexpected, but the destinations were not.
Bordeaux is a delight for walking along the river and into downtown, for gazing at historic markers -- only Paris has more monuments -- and for shopping. Passengers returned with wine, cheeses and foie gras (to enjoy onboard), seasonings, kitchen and dining accoutrements, clothing, and tales of meeting helpful shopkeepers.
From the citadel at Blaye, looking across the estuary that leads to the Atlantic Ocean, we could imagine the historic battles between France and England for ownership over the rolling hills along the rivers of Aquitaine, awash in vineyards.
Our cruise included a lavish French dinner at a chateau, numerous wine-tastings and good walking tours with passengers able to hear the guides through provided audio listening boxes.
Next: Truffle hunting in Bordeaux
David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column appears monthly in U.S. newspapers and on other Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com Portions of this blog appeared in print and online in the Miami Herald.