Discovering Bordeaux by boat on board Uniworld’s Bon Voyage
The Bordeaux region produces France’s most famous wines. Brian Johnston sets sail on Uniworld’s stylish new river ship, Bon Voyage, for a flavoursome encounter with history and culture.
As the first morning breaks on my French cruise, I’m breakfasting on buttery croissants and gazing beyond my river-ship’s windows at Blaye citadel, brooding on a crag like a set for Game of Thrones.
Later, we walk its wind-whipped ramparts, then explore the corniche along the Gironde Estuary, knobbly with ancient harbour villages. This is my overture to a river cruise that soon provides an entire opera of culture and fine cuisine.
I’m sailing aboard Uniworld’s Bon Voyage on a gentle meander along short river the Dordogne and the tidal Gironde Estuary. We aren’t afloat much, but the benefit is plenty of shore time in rolling countryside where golden-hued towns and châteaux loom.
The surrounding vineyards of Médoc, Margaux and Saint-Émilion produce some of France’s greatest red wines, as we discover when we dock at Pauillac and head out past sumptuous wine estates such as Château Latour and Mouton Rothschild.
Well-heeled villages are draped in spring flowers, and limestone mansions sit amid cropped lawns. We stop at Château du Tertre for a tasting of Grand Cru (‘great growth’) wines: full-bodied, elegant and rich.
Next day we journey to former royal fortress Château de Cazeneuve, set prettily in English-style parkland, for a tour and taste of Sauternes, the world’s best dessert wine.
Bon Voyage is elegant too. This is the latest in a Uniworld fleet transformation that began with new ship Joie de Vivre on the Seine in 2017 and Beatrice on the Danube in 2018. (Four more new Super Ships are coming in 2020.) Technically it isn’t a new ship but a full renovation of the former River Royale.
Bon Voyage might as well be new, though. It has been entirely reimagined, with slightly reduced passenger numbers (128) and a reconfigured gym, spa facility and cabins, plus four new suites. The top deck has a new pool and seating, and a fabulous blue-and-white décor.
Across the ship, antiques and original artworks reflect French heritage. The three accommodation decks are named Bordeaux, Médoc and Beaujolais after the wine regions.
I’m fortunate to have a Grand Suite, which provides considerable extra space and a fabulous bathroom encased in grey marble, with a full-size bath, double sinks and a spacious shower – surely the best bathroom on any river.
The cabin décor is a tranquil blue and beige, hung with French artworks, and the bed would satisfy even the princess of pea fame in its comfort.
It’s a lovely ship on which to sail to lovely places. Saint-Émilion is a cruise highlight, combining famous vineyards and beautiful architecture. Vines grow up to town ramparts that enclose a limestone jumble of houses.
Bon Voyage docks at Libourne nearby, another treat. Founded in 1270, it grew prosperous on the English wool and wine trade, and a market has been held in its central square for 600 years. Next day we plunge among stalls of ripe cheese, fat fruit and delicious pâtés in the company of our excellent Uniworld guide.
This is one of many immersive shore excursions, some of which are active, such as cycling Médoc’s vineyards or Nordic walking along the riverbanks. Uniworld’s ‘Wellness on the Water’ program sees some passengers practising yoga in Blaye citadel and meditating at sunrise on Europe’s highest sand dune, Teste-de-Buch.
Just as well we have plenty of exercise options. The ship has an impressive range of complimentary craft beers, regional wines and cocktails, and you’re never short of food.
The breakfast buffet at main restaurant Le Grand Fromage entices with fresh pastries, smoked fish, cold cuts and cheese, with egg dishes cooked by the chef on request.
Lunch features soups, salads, hot dishes and irresistible desserts. Four-course à la carte evening meals include French and vegetarian choices, and there are always fall-back options such as salmon and steak.
Bon Voyage has two new dining venues. Casual deck eatery Café du Soleil serves light fare such as tartes flambées (France’s answer to the pizza) and make-your-own baguette sandwiches and salads.
Parisian-inspired bistro La Brasserie at the ship’s prow focuses on French cuisine such as escargots and beef bourguignon. There’s also a private, special-events dining and wine-tasting room, La Cave du Vin.
Room service is complimentary, and not just in your cabin: you can ask to have your food served at the bar or in the lounge.
Our cruise concludes with two overnights in Bordeaux, an elegant city of neoclassical streetscapes, cobbled squares and flowery riverside promenades. In the evening, yellow lamplight throws colour across alleys and chatter spills from bars.
I opt for a Uniworld bicycle excursion, and pedal past churches and old wine merchants’ mansions in an exhilarating end to a fine journey.
Uniworld’s eight-day ‘Brilliant Bordeaux’ cruise has regular departures between March and early November and is priced from $5,599 a person (twin-share), including accommodation, meals and beverages, most shore excursions, airport transfers and gratuities.
Etihad flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Abu Dhabi and Paris, with onward codeshare flights to Bordeaux.
Main image: A Uniworld river-cruise ship passing Blaye on the Gironde River © Tourism Aquitaine
This article originally appeared in volume 34 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.