What an experience. To be here, in spring, in France, two hours from Paris, with the evening light reflecting off the Loire River, sitting on the top deck of the new Loire Princesse, sipping a draft beer from Alsace and nibbling on peanuts. I ask myself, Can life get any better? Of course it could, but only by small margins.
Here in the city of Nantes, I am living the joie de vivre that fills us unfortunate souls on the other side of the Atlantic with a sense of envy. Yes, they’re quirky by some standards, they fight hard for their rights (La Liberté, and hence frequent strikes) but alas, they are French. They seize the moment to enjoy life. They seem to have perfected the art of living. An appreciation for food, for wine, for art, for culture, for undistracted conversation (people, not phones, command attention here), the French, while not perfect, have much to teach us busy, busy people across the Big Pond.
The French are inventive too. Look at the Loire Princesse. No one thought that this shallow river, where a yardstick could touch the river bed at times, could be navigated. And yet the Schmitters, the Strasbourg-based family that owns CroisiEurope, designed a ship that could.
Two paddle wheels protrude out from each side of the ship. When engaged, they scoop water to propel the Loire Princesse up a river of fairy-tale charm (the chateau that inspired Sleeping Beauty is here, for example).
I can’t wait to go where no other river cruisers have gone before. To see this land from the perspective of the river is something new for river cruisers and something fresh for those of us who have done the Danube, rode the Rhine and sailed the Saône.
It is not entirely by coincidence that Loire Princesse is docked tonight across the river from Les Machines, a fantasy world come to life with an oversized mechanical elephant that walks. Wikipedia notes that “the project of Machines de l’île in Nantes aims to promote city’s image and tries to build an identity as a creative metropole of dream and of fantasy.”
Just upriver is a museum honoring Jules Verne, the imaginative novelist who penned adventure books, including “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,” “Journey To The Center Of The Earth” and “Around The World In 80 Days.” Verne was born here in Nantes, and Les Machines plays on his wild indulgences. His spirit also is somewhat embodied in Loire Princesse, a ship that took some imagination to able to navigate as little as 70 centimeters (about 27 inches) of water. To learn more about how she manages such shallow water, listen to my podcast interview with Thibaut Tincelin, the managing director for Stirling Design International.
For the next six days, Loire Princesse is my platform to explore this beautiful region of France. She’s a comfortable ship, with spacious staterooms, mine featuring a balcony, and large bathrooms by river cruise standards. The ship has a cozy lounge and an elegant dining room.
The top deck is a big open space with chairs and umbrellas, an indication that much of our time may be spent up here as we admire the Loire’s landscape. The structures on the top deck, mainly awnings and railings, are built to retract so that Loire Princesse can navigate the low bridges along the river. When taken altogether, Loire Princesse truly is a marvel concept. Jules Verne might have imagined such, but CroisiEurope actually set her afloat on the Loire.
Our dinner tonight was delicious, served with a basket of French bread and French wines, including Muscadet, a white wine that is local to the region. The main dish was a filet mignon, but of pork, not beef as we are accustomed to in North America. Atop thinly sliced green beans in a buttery sauce, the pork was delicious.
My dinner companions were French or French-speaking (one lady was from Quebec). I particularly enjoyed meeting the older French lady seated to my right, who replied when I asked what city she was from, “Paris. Where else?” When someone offered to fill her water glass, she turned to me and confessed to never drinking water. “Only Chardonnay,” she said with a wry smile.
Ah, la joie de vivre. My immersion begins.