Bordeaux is bathed in a golden shimmer when I first clap eyes on the Garonne. This is the river that, over the centuries, brought so much wealth to this French port city that the best examples of its architecture – an astonishing 347 buildings – are now World Heritage-listed.
Many of these neoclassical limestone buildings line the riverfront, collectively creating one of the grandest thoroughfares anywhere on the planet. Scrubbed free of grime as part of a far-reaching city makeover and gilded by sunlight, I'm dazzled and ready to fall in love.
One might wonder why it's taken so long for river-cruising to boom in this area of south-western France, given that ships can sidle up to this gorgeous home base and that it's surrounded by world-famous wine chateaux and corduroy hillsides striped with vines. After a few days, we work it out for ourselves. The Garonne, it turns out, is a wildly tidal, temperamental beast that can dash the best-laid cruising plans.
Passengers for Scenic Diamond's 11-day Beautiful Bordeaux cruise – one of the last of the season – arrive to find the river, along with a prolonged dry spell, have rearranged the itinerary. Our full day in Bordeaux shifts from a Sunday to a Friday (I'm glad I don't have a precious booking at one of the city's Michelin-starred eateries) and there's a stretch of four nights where the Diamond remains in Bordeaux as we bus here and there. By the end of the cruise, the Diamond will have clocked just 300 kilometres on the waterways.
And so we peer down at the Garonne with a new respect, suddenly noting the violent swirls and eddies that come with the change of tide and how far we rise and fall against the dock at Quai des Chartrons where wine merchants once stashed their wares. I consult tide charts and note river levels can vary by up to six metres. With the Atlantic Ocean 100 kilometres away, it seems astonishing that tides can pull and push at the water this far inland.
I arrive, along with a handful of other passengers, on a flight from Australia that travelled via Asia and Amsterdam. We're delirious with jet lag. As we await cabin assignments, others roll in looking fresher. Some, it turns out, are doing back-to-back river cruises while others will head to Spain afterwards to explore Madrid and Bilbao. With Scenic's Australian roots, it's no surprise to hear many Aussie accents (cue Vegemite at the breakfast buffet) but there's also a strong showing of Brits, Americans and Canadians.
Finally, my cabin key is handed over. I can't wait to shower, change and transform into a flaneur – wandering the streets observing this and that. I don't yet have recommendations from the city's tourist office [see box] but there's something utterly delightful about my first aimless wander. The highlight is Le Miroir d'eau – a water mirror that reflects the grand Place de Bourse as well as the sky and the clouds. The feature is brilliant on many levels: at only 2cm deep, it poses no danger and, with no barriers, everyone from the wheelchair-bound to parents with prams and cheeky skateboarders can wheel straight through it. On top of that, every 15 minutes or so – voila! – a photogenic mist prompts a flurry of photos.
I start back towards the ship, which is repositioning at the dock at 7pm. I'm on course to make it but, even from a distance, I see the gangplank dangling in the air. Captain Jeremy Dike yells out that it'll take 20 minutes to put the gangplank back so I'll have to wait. By the time that happens, my first-night dinner plans have been downgraded to a hamburger from the ship's room service menu.
Thankfully, things look up from there. Our days become a happy blur of outings into the wider Bordeaux region. One of my favourites is cruising down the Garonne, past the shiny new wine museum La Cite du Vin and the carrelets (square nets) dangling from riverbank fishing huts, and turning into the Dordogne to reach Libourne and nearby Saint-Emilion. The medieval town is World Heritage-listed as an outstanding historic vineyard landscape that still produces wine to this day. Its streets are lined with elegant bottle shops selling top drops such as the €12,200 1945 Petrus, as well as bakeries specialising in almond macarons.
We pop into the subterranean Monolithic Church, Europe's largest underground church, hewn from the limestone cliff in the 12th century. Emerging into blazing sunshine, I buy a blackcurrant-flavoured sorbet for the stroll to Les Cordeliers – a 14th-century cloister where sparkling wine has been produced in underground caves since 1892. We exit through Porte Brunet – a gate within the fortified walls – and, as we pass the vines, I sneak a few sun-warmed grapes.
It's all very well to see the vines this close up but what about sampling the end product? That's coming right up at Chateau Soutard, one of the Saint-Emilion chateaux classified as grand cru classe. Unlike the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 (see box), the Saint-Emilion list is regularly updated. Australians used to buying wine by variety can be confused by French wine labels: a closer inspection of Chateau Soutard's 2012 red reveals we're slurping a blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cab sav and malbec. With music playing, wine circulating and charcuterie and cheese aplenty, I find the chateau outing extraordinarily pleasant but, with only a handful of seats to go around, others later complain they had to stand for too long.
Most passengers, though, are built of sterner stuff. One day we take e-bikes for a 30-kilometre round trip between Blaye on the right bank of the Gironde estuary (the Garonne and the Dordogne flow into the estuary) and Bourg. Our cycling group ranges from a 38-year-old cruising with her mum to a 78-year-old from the States who's keen to maintain his exercise regime.
Over the course of many meals aboard the ship, as well as outings to Arcachon Bay to slurp briny oysters from the shell, to Sauternes to sip the appellation's eponymous liquid gold and to the Remy Martin estate to sample its cognac, I get to know my fellow passengers. They include couples who maintain separate houses, widows who still wear a wedding band and even a town crier. Most impressive is the 93-year-old West Australian who went skydiving at 91 and has yet more adrenalin-pumping adventures on her to-do list. "I want to make every day stretch until it squeaks," she says in explanation. Awestruck, we raise a glass, saluting her joie de vivre.
FIVE OF BORDEAUX'S BEST
Lunch is always available aboard the ship but it's fun to make like a Bordelais and dine at a local bistro. Le Bistrot des Anges is an easy stroll or e-bike ride from the dock but arrive early if you want a full choice of its prix d'fixe lunch menu. Other recommendations include Le Glouton and Chez Michel's. See bistrotdesanges.fr, gloutonlebistrot.com.
BEST WINE BARS
In a city awash with wine bars, try Le Boutique Hotel Bordeaux's the Wine Bar where sommelier Martin Santander conducts a daily Tour de France – blind tastings with tapas (€35 a person). La Ligne Rouge, near the medieval Cailhau city gate with its fairytale conical towers, has more than 100 wines with a dozen by the glass. At Le Flacon near the twin spires of the 11th-century Bordeaux Cathedral and its freestanding gothic bell tower, pair a glass of wine with a croque monsieur, crunchy pig's foot with chanterelles and hazelnuts, or a plate of charcuterie. Learn more about Bordeaux's appellations at Bar a Vin within the headquarters of the Bordeaux Wine Council. Each of the 30 wines served by the glass (reds, whites, roses, clairets and sparkling) comes with an information sheet. See hotelbordeauxcentre.com laligne-rouge.com baravin.bordeaux.com.
Have a wad of euros and you're not afraid to spend them? Splurge at the Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay fine-diner Le Pressoir d'Argent within the InterContinental Bordeaux-Le Grand Hotel – across the tram line from the elegant Grand Theatre opera house. Other hot-to-trot restaurants include La Grande Maison, helmed by Pierre Gagnaire (voted best chef in the world in 2015 by other Michelin-starred chefs), and out of town in Bouliac, a village known as "the balcony of Bordeaux", the Michelin-starred Le Saint-James is part of a Jean Nouvel-designed boutique hotel that channels the vibe of a rusted tobacco barn of yesteryear. See gordonramsayrestaurants.com lagrandemaison-bordeaux.com saintjames-bouliac.com.
These tiny chewy fluted cakes are an icon of Bordeaux. Sample them at a Baillardran bakery branch (the one next to the Bordeaux Tourist Office at 12 Cours du 30 Juillet gives a free canele to those on a Visiotour sightseeing tour) or pop into La Toque Cuivree bakery at Place Gambetta. Scenic Diamond also stocks them in its River Cafe.
Rue Sainte-Catherine is Europe's longest shopping street but if global brand names don't appeal, head to the more charming Rue Notre Dame for a poke around its antique stores. Luxury leathergoods purveyor, Matias Mercapide, has a boutique and workshop on Cours de Verdun while Mademoiselle de Margaux, behind Place de la Bourse, is famous for chocolate sprigs in the shape of vine shoots, armagnac and kirsch cherries encased in dark chocolate and Perles du Medoc – chocolates containing grapes macerated in peach and apricot syrup. See mademoiselledemargaux.com.
WHAT'S THE BORDEAUX CLASSIFICATION OF 1855?
Blame Napoleon III – the emperor is the one who asked for Bordeaux wines to be ranked for the Paris Exposition of 1855. The 61 participating chateaux (from the Medoc and Graves regions) were ranked from first to fifth growths (or crus) – and little has changed since then, apart from that time in 1973 when Philippe de Rothschild successfully lobbied to elevate Chateau Mouton Rothschild from second-growth to first.
Scenic Diamond started cruising the Bordeaux region in 2015 after relocating from the Rhine and Danube rivers. Ahead of the 2017 season, a refurbishment will decrease cabin numbers (changing passenger capacity from 167 to 155) and add two 47sqm one-bedroom Royal Owner's Suites, an on-board cooking school, spa, gym and rooftop pool.
Beautiful Bordeaux itineraries return from April 30, 2017 and cost from $7195 a person twin-share. Scenic also offers two Bordeaux specialty cruises. The 11-day Bordeaux Cycling Endeavour cruise (departs July 19 and August 8, 2017; from $8120 a person twin-share) includes cycling the Arcachon Bay region and the historic Saint-Emilion appellation. The 11-day Tastes of Bordeaux cruise (July 9 and August 28, 2017; from $7720 a person twin-share) includes lunch with matching cognac vintages at Remy Martin in Cognac and a Chateau Phelan Segur wine tasting and food pairing in the Medoc region.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Scenic.