There is no doubt that for many people, Paris is the darling of France. Rich in culture, draped in gorgeous architecture, and haute couture, what’s not to love? But if you’ve been there done that, here’s a newsflash: there’s so much more to France than just Paris and the Eiffel Tower–like wine, lots and lots of wine.
According to 2015 statistics, the United States, surprisingly, consumes the most wine in the world! Bordeaux, the largest and most prolific of France’s winemaking regions, marries Americans’ fascination with France and our love of wine for a unique vacation that you probably never thought existed. I learned all about vineyards, food pairings, tastings, French culture, chateaux and cooking (with a Michelin starred chef) over the summer on Uniworld’s Bordeaux Culinary and Wine River Cruise.
If you’ve never considered a river cruise as a vacation, think again. River cruises are gaining popularity. In 2015, an estimated 23 million people chose river cruises for their vacations, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Even better, most riverboats are small, accommodating no more than 200 guests, affording you individualized attention.
If you keep your eyes peeled, you can catch a cruise special (two-for-ones, free airfare, percentages off), but regardless, most lines are all-inclusive, with food and drinks, shore excursions and Wi-Fi included, so your costs are contained. And there are no shortages of places to go. Historically, many of the world’s major cities were built along rivers, which once served as a primary means of transport, so if there is a city or a region that you want to visit, chances are, there’s a river cruise for that.
Which brings me back to Bordeaux.
This vibrant city is just a 3.5 hour train ride from Paris and with budget-friendly airline Norwegian’s new low cost service, you can hop across the pond to Paris from New York City’s JFK airport in 6 hours, starting as low as $225.00 each way. Have a few more coins to spend? Check out their Business Class (read Premium Economy), for wider seats, more leg room, recline and personalized attention, where that round trip ticket will still run you less than an economy seat on most major airlines.
Once you arrive in Bordeaux, you’ll wonder where she’s been all your vacation life. Situated on the banks of the Garonne River, where you board the ship, I took some time to wander around before setting sail. I hopped on one of the ship’s bikes lined up near the gangway and rode along the renovated riverfront, through gates of the Old Town, down the pedestrian boulevards installed by its new mayor, who has painstakingly renovated the entire city, and got my life!
Its Old World history is legendary; it has the most preserved buildings outside of Paris, making it the largest urban World Heritage site in the world. Bordeaux’s bureaucratic history is told through the shiny facades of its neoclassical architecture, once polluted, now refurbished during the renovation. Its classical beauty juxtaposed against some of the city’s newly constructed buildings and public squares where daily life now plays out at skateboard parks, festivals and traditional street markets. This vibrant city quickly won me over.
Flanked on one end by a decanter shaped wine museum, Le Cite du Vin, housing over 700 varieties of wines from all over the world, is the perfect entrée to learn about the regions’ 7,000 wineries. Once back onboard, the ship’s sommelier broke down Bordeaux’s fascinating stats: its terroir (land) comprises over one-quarter of France’s esteemed AOC classified vineyards, spans over 275,000 acres, turns out over 640 million bottles annually, the majority (86 percent) are red wines. But as I quickly learned, the whites are nothing to sneer at either. I looked forward to tasting my way through several vineyards on bike or foot.
When the ship docked in each small port, you had every activity imaginable to tour and actually learn something on your vacation. As we visited the regions, I learned about Noble Rot, a fungus that is allowed to grow on the grape, which is responsible for the sugary concentration of Sauternes’ sweet whites. I biked around the vineyards of the Medoc region, through its winding, gravely backroads past the famous House of Rothschild which produces some of the world’s most expensive wines, a Grand Cru (first growth) variety.
We walked through the streets of St. Emilion, a region whose vineyards were founded by monks in the 8th century after they followed a fellow monk, Emilion, a confessor who lived his last 17 years in a hermitage here. In the 11th century, the monks began constructing St. Emilion Monolithic Church, the largest church carved out of one solitary rock, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is truly breathtaking! Chateau Ambe Tour Pouret, a small vineyard in St. Emilion, is where I perfected my puff pastry with gambas and an onion jam, under the tutelage of Michelin starred Chef Jerome Ollic. In Blaye, a bucolic town steeped around limestone cliffs, where my favorite variety Sauvignon Blanc is produced, I learned that its Bordeaux’s prohibition on watering the vines that makes the region’s wines so special. The theory is that watering makes the grapes lazy, and by relying only on rainfall, the vines must dig deep in the soil for the nutrients, which boldly enhances their flavor.
Back on the boat, I participated in small wine tasting classes, learned which wines paired best with which chocolates, while others learned to pair wines and cheeses. I indulged in spa treatments, ate specialty foods curated by Walter, the Maitre’D, with foods purchased each morning from that city’s open air markets, and chilled on the sun deck with a book as the towns, dotted with sunflower fields and centuries old chateaux floated by. And, of course, a glass of wine or champagne was never too far away.
When the week was over, back in Bordeaux, the morning before disembarking the ship, I sat noticing the friendships that were created among passengers from all over the world who bonded over food and wine where, just a few days earlier strangers had once stood.
Lisa Bonner is a travel writer who daylights as an Entertainment Lawyer. Follow Lisa on social media @lisabonner.