The first morning, we're off our ship Bon Voyage in Blaye and plunging straight into every French stereotype as we travel the corniche along the Gironde Estuary. Limestone houses have gardens wanton with lilac and wisteria. Wine chateaux are dressed in mansard roofs and have wide skirts of vines pegged across the landscape like notes on a music sheet. We pass Louis XIV fortifications, boulangeries, war memorials, bare-bosomed statues and tricolour-decorated town halls.
The Gironde is neither quite ocean nor river, salty nor fresh, and is subject to such ferocious tides it turns tail twice a day and flows upstream. The estuary is always muddy brown, whipped into sullen yellow waves by Atlantic breezes, which are as soon swallowed up again. Our Uniworld ship backtracks up and down, and side-tracks onto the Dordogne River. These are important waterways but not imposing ones. And yet the Gironde and its tributaries have created all this prettiness and history: the vines, the solid sea captain's houses, the medieval villages and old defences, the abandoned World War II pillboxes on the approach to Bordeaux.
As soon as we're off the ship, we're embedded in endless French beauty. Some of it is English, too, since the Plantagenet kings of England once controlled Aquitaine and knocked up some of its walled market towns, such as Libourne, which was founded in 1270. Our ship docks there overnight, almost under the shadow of a pepper-pot defensive tower. The riverside town grew wealthy on trade in wool, salt and wine with England and saw the emergence of a plump bourgeoisie. The market in the centre of its limestone old town has been running for 600 years. It, too, is a seductive French stereotype of whiffy cheeses, white asparagus and trussed duck thighs ready for roasting.
I join an optional shore-excursion cycle in Libourne, lead by Uniworld's guide, Christiane, whose English is excellent, local knowledge seemingly endless and dry wit rather amusing. We pedal beyond the city confines and into the countryside, tracking along the Dordogne River amid poplar plantations and goat farms, and prim chateaux set on emerald lawns. The Chapel of Condat is a magnificent surprise, like stepping into an illuminated book of prayers. Grotesque animals parade on its arches and the ceiling glimmers with painted stars set on a royal blue background.
Libourne is our base for another excursion to Saint-Emilion, just nine kilometres away and surrounded by some of France's most prestigious vineyards. A cellar-door visit introduces its wine, but the town proves magnificent as well. You could use it as a movie set for all things French. Winding cobbled streets encased in medieval ramparts are lined with wine stores and chocolate shops, and carry you into squares where rickety wrought-iron cafe tables are spread under plane trees. You could order a platter of garlic escargots and hope Juliette Binoche is moonlighting as the waitress.
Beneath the town is a monolithic church carved out of the rock in the 12th century in honour of the Benedictine monk St Emilion, who lived in a cave and worked miracles. Before vines, pilgrims made the town rich. The underground church is an eerie place of empty coffin niches and the odd tumbled bone. Vast arched spaces are held up by ancient columns corsetted in modern steel. Medieval frescoes marked with symbols of the Knights Templar could provide the plot for a thriller.
We sail off on a tranquil afternoon, passengers hovering at the deck railings as riverside mansions and limestone villages pass by. Bon Voyage spends a couple of afternoons sailing the river and estuary on Uniworld's Brilliant Bordeaux itinerary, but it isn't a cruise for those who want the feeling of pressing ever onwards to a distant horizon. It's a languid meander during which to relax, sip wine and absorb the gentle pleasures of the French art of living.
By evening, I'm in the ship's restaurant, dining on pork cheeks accompanied by a fine glass of Saint-Emilion grand cru wine. Dessert is the pastry chef's take on the regional specialty canele, a fluted cake flavoured with vanilla and dark rum with a caramelised outer crust. There's ample opportunity on Bon Voyage to tuck into French dishes from escargots to beef bourguignon. Cheese selections are a temptation of Roquefort, Reblochon, St-Nectaire and a dozen others, pale-skinned and creamy, with which I'm unfamiliar.
Another day, another legendary wine region - Sauternes, famous for its illustrious sweet wines. Our destination is Chateau de Cazeneuve, former hunting lodge of the kings of Navarre and later French King Henri IV. His descendent, the Count of Sabran-Ponteves, is there to greet us – a plump fellow in a dishevelled suit and with a rather worried air, as if perennially puzzling over how to maintain an ancient castle and its 40 acres of woodland. The interior is rather wonderfully shabby, full of creaking floors, gloomy portraits and sagging beds draped in red velvet. We sample Sauternes in a vast kitchen hung with copper pots and with a fireplace that could swallow an ox.
The chateau has some similarities to our Uniworld ship, Bon Voyage. It, too, has gleaming chandeliers and half an art gallery on its walls. My bed, though, is surely far more comfortable than those of the count's in his castle. Each deck is named for a French wine region, the lounge decor is inspired by Yves Saint Laurent and the brasserie could be straight out of a chic Paris neighbourhood.
This is what I love about this cruise: its unabashed French-ness. You wouldn't want it any other way. Seeing beyond the stereotypes is a fine reason to travel, but sometimes you just should give in to every cliche. You want to drink Bordeaux in Bordeaux, order French onion soup and duck confit from the ship's menu, see a man in a beret standing under a yellow street lamp. You want to see lovely chateaux, walled towns, bars with Pernod posters, patisseries crammed with cream cakes, locals with baguettes under their arms. And on this cruise, rather wonderfully, that's exactly what you do.
As you might expect while sailing through the world's premier wine region, you'll have ample opportunity to sample wine on this cruise, both on the ship – there are several wine tastings, and the wine list is impressive – and during shore excursions. Uniworld's regular guides and those you meet at various chateaux (as they call wine-producing estates hereabouts) have enough in-depth knowledge to satisfy oenophiles and plenty of insight to offer wine novices, too.
Together the Bordeaux region's 60-plus wine appellations produce half of all quality French wine and generate 10 per cent of the global wine trade. Some of the world's most fabulously expensive wines are produced here, including Chateau d'Yquem, Cheval Blanc, Petrus, Mouton-Rothschild and Lafitte. Uniworld's cruise cleverly provides an overview of four significant regions – Medoc, Saint-Emilion, Cotes de Blaye and Sauternes – each of which has its own particular soil conditions, growing practices and wine varieties.
Two of the best shore excursions are a cycle through the vineyards from Pauillac with a stop at utterly beautiful Chateau Lagrange for a wine sampling, and a visit to Chateau du Ferrand outside Saint-Emilion, where the sommelier provides some extraordinary insights into how best to go about any wine tasting. Even if you have little interest in wine, you'll be delighted at the picturesque scenery and opulent wine chateaux on these visits.
Some cruise departures fall under Uniworld's Connoisseur Collection of cruises in France, which have an added emphasis on culinary culture. On those cruises, a further shore excursion visits top cognac maker Remy Martin in Cognac for a look at another type of magic that can be conjured out of the region's grapes.
Etihad flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Abu Dhabi, with codeshare connections to Bordeaux on Air France. Phone 1300 532 215, see etihad.com
Uniworld's eight-day Brilliant Bordeaux cruise return from Bordeaux has regular departures between March and early November each year. From $5599 a person, including accommodation, meals and beverages, most shore excursions, airport transfers and gratuities. Phone 1300 780 231, see uniworld.com
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.