In Wine Heaven in Bordeaux with Viking River Cruises
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Saturday, November 22, 2014
After a long day of travel from North America, I am finally onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Forseti for what surely has to be one of the most culturally-enriching itineraries in France: Viking’s weeklong Chateaux, Rivers & Wine river cruise that makes its debut season this year.
This is no ordinary river cruise, though. Not only is it operated entirely on an estuary subjected to tidal fluctuations from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, this voyage also has the distinction of sailing roundtrip from Bordeaux, France. Most river cruises sail point-to-point; roundtrip voyages are exceedingly rare, and Viking Forseti’s Program Director, Mieke Bakker, noted tonight that ours is one of the few voyages to be “controlled by the Moon.” Tides dictate port calls and scheduling, resulting in an overall program that can vary to some degree from week to week. However, rather than sticking with an itinerary that is no longer feasible due to the tides, Viking’s always has two or three backup plans on-hand, and most departures go off without a hitch.
Getting here is relatively easy from North America. Most connections will route you through either Amsterdam on KLM, or Paris on Air France. If you can get to one of those two hubs, you can get to Bordeaux.
In my case, my journey to Bordeaux began in Vancouver, where I flew on Delta to Amsterdam via Minneapolis, and then on to Bordeaux on KLM. If there’s a downside to transiting through Amsterdam’s fabulous Schiphol Airport, it’s that the city of Amsterdam itself is tantalizingly close. Let’s face it – Europe just has too many cool cities.
Upon landing, I was met – along with about half of KLM flight 1315, it turns out – by Viking’s shoreside representatives at the airport, where we were then whisked by Viking-branded Mercedes coaches to the Viking Forseti in the heart of Bordeaux.
Bordeaux is a very special city. When the suburbs are all put together to create metropolitan Bordeaux, the city becomes the sixth-largest municipality in France. Thanks to its location in the southwestern quadrant of the country (Bilbao, Spain is only three hours away by car), Bordeaux is nice and temperate, even in November. When my KLM flight touched down around lunchtime at Bordeaux-Merignac Airport, the mercury was hovering at a positively balmy 19°C (67°F).
You might be surprised, however, to learn that Bordeaux hasn’t always been the gorgeous tourist mecca that it is today. As recently as the mid-1990’s, the mostly-industrial city was in shambles after years of neglect. Its historic buildings were covered in soot and grime, and dull, unsightly factories cluttered the landscape. Public trams didn’t exist. The riverfront promenade that now borders the Garonne River didn’t exist. As a tourist destination, the Bordeaux of old was merde.
Enter Bordeaux’s mayor, Alain Juppé. Juppé felt that Bordeaux could be returned to its former glory without sacrificing its important industrial roots and bring in tourists at the same time. In order to make Bordeaux a world-class city, he had the tram line constructed that now runs a fleet of whisper-quiet light-rail vehicles through town – literally. Watch that you don’t get smoked by one of these when you’re out wandering around.
Juppe also had the buildings cleaned and restored, the riverfront promenade built, and the unsightly warehouses removed from the city’s inner core.
The result was dramatic: underneath the grime and neglect lay a city that was every bit as beautiful as Paris and as alluring as its southern counterparts on the Cote d’Azur. Juppé would go on to serve as Prime Minister of France, and was re-elected as Mayor of Bordeaux in 2006, a position he retains to this day.
With an afternoon of shopping behind me (and a much-needed new pair of swanky European pants purchased), I made my way back in the glow of the setting sun to the Viking Forseti at her Quai des Chartrons berth. It’s a brand-new docking location for the line, and one that was just inaugurated last month.
Although it is situated farther from the retail therapy hub of Bordeaux, the new docking location makes a lot of sense. Coach parking is locates just steps away, and the neighbourhood surrounding the pier is filled with couples out for a romantic stroll and kids running zipping around on skateboards. There are funky shops nearby, cool riverfront eateries, and yet it is removed from the crush of tourists that the reflective pool, or Miroir d’Eau, (mirror of water) has created.
Plus, Bordeaux is exceptionally walkable. I’d highly recommend getting out for a stroll along the promenade at sunset.
To me, stepping aboard a Viking River Cruises ship is like coming home. That’s not a knock against the competition; frankly, no one offers a truly bad river cruise. But Viking’s warm Scandinavian styling, endless walls of glass, and casual elegance fit my personality like a glove.
Viking Forseti is no exception to this rule. Launched in 2013, she was moved to Bordeaux at great expense to pioneer this new itinerary for Viking this year. To me, there’s nothing like stepping into the glass-filled atrium, or enjoying a cappuccino out on the Aquavit Terrace.
My home for the week is a really fabulous Category A Veranda on Upper Deck (3). With its own step-out balcony at 205 square feet of living space, it’s suitably comfortable for two people to sail in, and enormously spacious if you’re travelling solo like I am.
The first thing I do whenever I step into my stateroom on a Viking Longship for the first time is activate the music. The interactive television system includes dozens of hours of audio-on-demand, all of which come pumped through the surround-sound-esque speakers embedded into the ceiling. I love film scores, and there’s a nice mix of film music worked into the “Classical” channel. It’s such a simple thing, yet I find it so relaxing and soothing.
The second thing I do: switch on the heated floor in the bathroom. A Viking Longship staple since Day One, the heated floor is something their designers could have easily done away with for reasons of cost or complexity. Instead, they’ve kept it, and it’s one of my favorite features.
What I appreciate most about these staterooms are is their intelligent design. To the casual observer, you’d think creating a room that is bright, open, and welcoming – yet functional at the same time – would be easy. It’s not. With each successive Longship, Viking has been steadily tweaking nearly every aspect of their ships. Electrical outlets positioning and style has changed. Light switch design and location has changed. Table tops, grab-handles on drawers, reading lights, shelving, soft furnishings – even the switch on the vacuum toilet system – has all been subtly altered on each successive Longship. That’s impressive, because the rooms were pretty darn spectacular to start with.
So why the full balcony in the off-season? Simply put – I enjoy it. I’ll wrap myself in my coat and sit out there with a cup of coffee, or simply stand on the balcony to watch as we sail into and out of port. I also like that I can be out on the balcony without cooling off the rest of the room; you can’t shut the door behind you if you have a French Balcony. Today, though, no coats are necessary – it’s practically summer outside!
If you’re perhaps wondering what the difference between Category A and Category B rooms one deck lower are, you’ve just answered your own question: their only difference (aside from price) is their physical location on the ship.
Aside from the Viking Forseti herself, wine plays a very prominent role on this voyage. This week, we’ll be able to enjoy complimentary wine tasting excursions in Pauillac, Margaux, and Sauternes, and you can even extend your wine appreciation with an optional excursion to Chateau Siaurac to taste the Pomerol and Saint-Emilion wines that the chateau produces. But what can you do if you don’t really know what makes a good wine? Once again, Viking is prepared for this. In addition to providing guests with printed guidebooks for each river, their website is an amazing wealth of information – like this 23 minute video on wine and wine tasting with Viking’s Karine Hagen and Master of Wine and writer Susie Barrie. I love wine, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know as much about it as I’d like to (that red one’s pretty tasty…). After watching this video pre-cruise, hopefully I’ll be able to bluff my way through the rest of the week:
So what’s happening onboard today? I’m glad you asked. With the exception of a few events, today’s scheduling is comfortable and relaxed:
- 11:00 am – 3:00 pm: Embarkation Buffet. A choice of salads, sandwiches and hot soup is served in the Lounge.
- 2:00 pm: Welcome Walk. Join our local guides for a walk into the Chartrons district.
- 3:00 pm: Welcome Walk. Join our local guides for a walk into the Chartrons district.
- 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm: Cocktail Hour. Enjoy one of our cocktails and live music in the Lounge.
- 6:00 pm: A Toast To Our Guests. Captain Pascal Eschbach and Hotel Manager Michael Stamm invite you to join them for a toast in the lounge. Followed by our Welcome Briefing.
- 7:00 pm: We invite you to join us for dinner in the Restaurant.
- 7:00pm: Bar Menu. Enjoy a casual meal on the Aquavit Terrace.
- 9:00pm: Live Music in the Lounge. Enjoy an after-dinner drink and live music featuring Sylvia.
- 9:15pm: Guided Walk. Follow our local guides for some fresh air on a leisurely walk around Place de la Bourse.
Tonight, Viking River Cruises continued to go above and beyond for their guests. Dinner was, I think, one of the best I’ve ever had on a Viking ship, with complimentary red and white wines from the Bordeaux region served. Beer, wine and soft drinks are always complimentary during lunch and dinner, and Viking also offers guests their Silver Spirits Premium Beverage Package that includes all spirits, premium wines, mixed drinks and specialty coffees for the duration of the cruise. If you don’t drink spirits, or drink outside of meal times, chances are the package won’t hold a lot of pull for you. But Viking got me hooked on Aquavit two years ago, and to this day the only other cruise line that knows Aquavit like Viking is Norwegian-based Hurtigruten. With so many fabulous Bordeaux wines onboard, the package is a real no-brainer on this itinerary – and it could likely save you money, too. What’s better than one bottle of fine wine? Two!
After an overnight stay docked here in Bordeaux, we will spend a relaxing morning sailing to Pauillac, a sleepy little village situated on the banks of the Gironde River. Pauillac is famous for two things: wings and wine. If you’ve ever flown aboard an Airbus A380 before, the wings of your plane were shipped from the UK, where they are manufactured, to Pauillac, where they are taken to the Airbus assembly plant in Toulouse.
If wine is more of your thing, good news: tomorrow we’re headed out on a tour of the Haut-Medoc wine producing region in the beautiful French countryside. Who’s thirsty?
Our full journey:
Viking Forseti - Chateaux, Rivers and Wine In Bordeaux
|November 22, 2014||Bordeaux, France||Arrival; free time.|
|November 23||Gironde River / Pauillac, France||Scenic Cruising / Medoc and Margaux wine country visit; wine tasting & evening at leisure|
|November 24||Blaye, France||Tour of Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site; afternoon free time or optional excursion to Cognac|
|November 25||Libourne, France||Tour of Saint-Emilion, a UNESCO World Heritage Site & Pomerol wine region; afternoon at leisure or optional excursion to Bergerac|
|November 26||Garonne River / Cadillac, France||Scenic Cruising / Excursion to Sauternes wine region & wine tasting|
|November 27||Cadillac, France / Bordeaux, France||Morning city tour / evening at leisure in Bordeaux|
|November 28||Bordeaux, France||Tour of city center, a UNESCO World Heritage site; afternoon at leisure|
|November 29, 2014||Bordeaux, France||Disembark Viking Forseti; flight to Budapest, Hungary for the start of our next Live Voyage Report!|