If I were to start my career all over again, it would surely be to work in the wine trade. I’m reflecting on this as I am being plied with copious quantities of Beaujolais Villages and bonhomie at a French farmhouse in the wine-growing district of Brouilly, having earlier in the day enjoyed a tasting and viticulture lesson at Moulin-a-Vent and seized the opportunity to purchase an excellent bottle of the 2009.
It’s day four of the Scenic’ ‘Splendours of Southern France’ river cruise: a meander through one of the world’s most fruitful and beautiful wine-growing regions. And I have already racked up four different wine-tasting excursions, despite the wide variety of other choices offered by the ship every day. Why on earth did I ever pursue acting, when clearly wine was my first love?
Scenic Emerald, our home for these heavenly 12 days, had set sail from Chalon-sur-Saone on a gloriously sunny August day, bound for Arles via the Saone and Rhone rivers. Its route would take in Beaune, Macon and Chateauneuf-du-Pape – names to conjure with if you are a wine aficionado. However, this was really only half the story.
First, there was the ship itself. Scenic Emerald, accommodating 170 passengers and one of 16 river cruisers owned by the Australian company Scenic, offers a luxurious and laidback way to travel. Cabins were cool, contemporary and capacious, with en suite shower rooms, plenty of wardrobe space and deeply comfortable beds. Each had its own private balcony, and here we found ourselves, most evenings, wine glass in hand, watching France slip quietly by.
Every guest had the luxury of complimentary butler service. Ours, named Tamas, unpacked the luggage, served up drinks and even brought breakfast to the suite (although the daily buffet was a sumptuous alternative). Apparently he would have brought lunch, tea and dinner too, had we asked him.
In fact, with all the great food, wines and cocktails included in the cost of the cruise, my wife, Babs, and I preferred to work our way around the ship’s restaurants: the intimate Italian, Portobello; the informal River Cafe; the alfresco sun deck with barbecues; the Crystal dining room with its daily-changing menus and choice for everyone – and even, one evening, an invitation to the captain’s table. On a lively ship full of passengers from Australia, Canada, the US and the UK, it was not surprising that the majority of the crew spoke excellent English; it was, however, a surprise to find that the captain did not. I dredged my mind for the French that I knew was buried there somewhere from a four-month stint filming in Paris 20 years ago. It worked; and entente cordiale was duly preserved.
Talking of the sundeck: this was effectively the entire roof of the ship, and the perfect vantage point for appreciating the moving view, which brings me to the other great joy of taking a journey like this: the trips ashore that allowed you better to appreciate the country through which you were travelling. Logistics were brilliantly managed by cruise director Yvonne, who had wittily set the tone for the trip in her welcome speech and proceeded to ensure that Scenic intricately worked-out programme of excursions went off without a hitch. A non-stop cavalcade of towns, villages, tourist attractions, popular activities and visits to local people’s homes were all included in the cost of the cruise.
So this is how I – and 15 others – found ourselves in a rustic farmhouse in Brouilly, four days in to the trip. Our first sightseeing tour had, more conventionally, been to the beautiful city of Beaune, which Babs and I had visited some years before as guests of a master of wine. The 45-minute coach ride took us past the villages of the Cote d’Or, Meursault, Montrachet. First stop was the extraordinary Hotel-Dieu, founded in 1443 as a hospice for the poor and needy. The tiled rooves, with their striking patterns and dazzling colours, were a novelty in the 15th century but are now a distinctive feature of Burgundian architecture. We walked to the 14th-century cellars of Patriarche for a wine-tasting.
Over subsequent days, we were able to enjoy some of the quintessential highlights of Burgundy and Provence, interspersed with lazy downtime reading or eating on the ship’s sundeck or its more shady outdoor spaces. I particularly recall the restored, 17th-century Chateau de Cormatin in Tournus, whose famous ‘golden rooms’, painted, carved and gilded ceiling to floor, were dazzling; a drive through beautiful Maconnais countryside to a truffle farm; the unexpected, beautiful surprise of sailing past the old city of Lyon, where the Saone meets the Rhone, and our walking tour through the traboules, the covered passageways linking buildings that led sometimes to pretty courtyards and staircases; Perouges, a charming medieval town that was so perfectly preserved it felt almost Disney-like; the steep climb up Mont Pipet for a spectacular view of Vienne’s Roman theatre below us and the Rhone beyond; shopping in the market there, followed by a pleasant sail to Tournon, navigating some interesting locks. One afternoon the pastry chef demonstrated how to make crepes suzette, and after dinner we came fourth in the cruise’s good-humoured music quiz, winning, naturally, a bottle of wine.
A visit to Tournon Castle included an Hermitage wine tasting which didn’t disappoint, and at Viviers we took ourselves on a self-guided tour using the GPS gadgets provided on board. These went ‘ping’ when you approached a point of interest, and then told you about it in a recorded spiel: genius. A hilarious afternoon was spent canoeing in the Ardeche Gorge: we imagined it would be 10 or 12 canoes paddling idly through, but spent two fun hours playing dodgems with about 2,000 other canoeists. Hardly surprising, I suppose, since it was mid-August in France. Happily there were no casualties.
A tasty and educational morning was spent at a Chateauneuf-du-Pape winery, and in Avignon we were treated to a private guided tour of the Pope’s Palace, dinner and a classical music concert – an evening’s experience that was only available to Scenic Tours passengers.
From here, we launched into the villages of the Luberon: Gordes, perched on a cliff top, with houses overhanging the valley; and Fontaine de Vaucluse with its deep spring and old paper mill where the Italian poet Petrarch lived in the 14th century; an afternoon was spent in Arles.
Another day, after Tamas brought breakfast to our balcony, we wandered in to Tarascon to look at the castle and church; visited an olive farm; went to Beaux, a stunning hilltop medieval town with castle, where the French A-listers spend their summer holidays; and finally, in the company of the whole ship, travelled to the Camargue, the area around the Rhone delta. Here we visited an outstanding ornithological park, strolling past lakes only feet away from pink flamingos, storks and egrets. Lunch, at a bull farm, was the perfect way to spend our final day: lovely food, good company and, of course, flowing Provençal rose.
I can honestly say that I can’t remember packing so much into 12 days as we did on this cruise, and this is largely because of Scenic’s inspired approach to inclusivity. You never have to worry about extras, so you can truly relax in the knowledge that meals, drinks, butler service, on-board Wi-Fi, touring, excursions and tipping are included in the price of the holiday.
Combine that with the ever-changing environment, the images of medieval France, the hugely informative trips to wineries, castles, towns and villages and some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe, and you have an unforgettable holiday. And, if you love wine, there is no more to be said.
Robert Powell travelled on Scenic’s 13-day Splendours of Southern France cruise which costs from £3,745 per person including: flights from Heathrow on British Airways, or from a choice of 15 UK airports with Air France or KLM; transfers within Europe; all-inclusive accommodation; butler service; all drinks including cocktails, wines, beers, spirits, freshly ground coffee, speciality loose leaf teas and a daily replenishment of the mini-bar; on-board Wi-Fi; all excursions, tours and experiences under the Scenic Free Choice and Scenic Enrich programmes. use of a handheld GPS device for independent exploration; and tipping.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Scenic