A unique sailing onboard a pioneering paddle-wheel ship
I gaze down at the packed daily cruise programme – which includes deck quoits, swimming, afternoon tea, a cocktail party and glamorous ‘grande descente’ down the ornate staircase to dinner – and then turn my attention to the assorted array of clothes spread before me. They include a rather nifty blue frock with a sailor collar, elegant beaded flapper dress, dazzling white outfit topped off by a cloche hat, plus what looks rather alarmingly like a knitted bathing costume.
As I pair my choice of outfits to each occasion a chic woman raises her hands to her face and mouths ‘oh no!’ as yet again, I pick the wrong ensemble and head for another fashion flop. Fortunately, it’s a virtual game at Saint-Nazaire’s Escal’ Atlantic attraction and I escape my sartorial embarrassment with a walk out on the breezy promenade deck; albeit that’s make-believe too.
The museum celebrates the magnificent ocean liners of bygone days, including the 1935 French flagship Normandie, which were built in the city in western France that is home to one of Europe’s biggest shipyards. In more recent times Saint-Nazaire was also the birthplace of the CroisiEurope riverboat that was our floating home for the week. Luckily – especially for me – there is no dress code on the Loire Princesse – and passengers can enjoy a relaxed and leisurely sailing wearing whatever they feel most comfortable wearing.
Along the way you’ll be treated to one-off and frequently quirky sights that other river cruisers don’t get to see, along with a very peaceful journey with no other floating holidaymakers in sight. That’s because other cruise lines – aside from boats offering short pleasure trips – steer clear of France’s longest river due to its shallow waters and unpredictable currents. CroisiEurope is the only company that has taken the plunge, quite literally, with an innovative modern paddle-wheel vessel specifically built to cope with the vagaries of the Loire.
The 96-passenger three-deck vessel, with its distinctive wheels on each side, was launched in 2015 and offers five and seven-night round-trip itineraries from Nantes taking in the beautiful landscapes and châteaux of the Loire Valley. From next year cruises with included flights and transfers will also be available through Titan Travel.
Loire Princesse sails on round-trip cruises on the picturesque stretch of river from Nantes to Saint-Nazaire on the Atlantic coast. It turned out to be an adventure both on water and dry land as the first and last mooring spot is next to l’île de Nantes, where a fantastic regeneration project has been inspired by the futuristic ideas of Jules Verne, who was born in the city in 1828 and is widely regarded as the father of science fiction.
A three-storey marine-themed carousel and an amazing 40ft wooden and steel elephant that carries 50 passengers and sprays passers-by with water from its trunk are among the highlights of Les machines de l’île situated in the old dockyard area. They’re a short walk for the ship and can easily be explored independently at the start or end of the cruise.
Both the Loire and the Erde rivers flow into Nantes and at one time they used to feature even more prominently than they do now. One of our first excursions is a walking tour of Nantes where our guide points out wide boulevards that were once canals and tributaries of the two waterways before they were filled in during the 1930s. It is incredible to see old photos and today’s leaning buildings built on the former banks. Elsewhere, our guided walking tour took us through narrow streets lined with tempting chocolate and patisserie shops and past delightful timber-framed buildings in the 15th century Bouffay district.
An extraordinary art trail, both on land and in the river itself, symbolises modern-day Nantes and as we set sail some of the installations dramatically came into view. Most notably a partially submerged house which was a real talking point as we initially puzzled over whether it was real or not, and how it got there. ‘La Maison dans la Loire’ is the work of French artist Jean-Luc Courcoult and one of 23 permanent art installations in and around Nantes. It was created in 2007 for the Estuaire contemporary art exhibition and was among the work that were not dismantled after the show, now creating a head-turning sight in the river. Depending on the tide you might also spot a giant sea serpent skeleton on the riverbank as the Loire Princesse paddles its way to towards the river estuary.
But you certainly can’t miss the impressive sweep of Saint-Nazaire Bridge, which was built in 1975 and for eight years held the world record for the longest cable-stayed bridge. Stand on deck as the ship sails beneath and you’ll get some great photographs as well as catching a glimpse of huge cruise ships in various stages of construction at the shipyard. A trip to the yard is an optional excursion and will fascinate anyone who loves cruising. Outlining each stage of ship building, it includes a close-up view of a vessel under construction and a walk beside one of the cavernous dry docks.
Another day there was a distinct feeling of déjà vu as we walked towards the towering turrets of Château d’Ussé, one of more than 1,000 castles and palaces lining the Loire which not surprisingly led to it being dubbed the ‘royal river’. Our guide explained that in 1697 the romantic cream-coloured chateau inspired Charles Perrault to pen the classic fairy-tale The Sleeping Beauty and in more recent times helped Walt Disney design his trademark theme park castle.
Back on board we quickly relaxed into daily life aboard the Loire Princesse, which boasts a bright contemporary decor with novel artwork dotted around the public areas. River-facing beds (why don’t more river lines do this?) make it easy to take in the passing views from the comfort of your cabin and the airy lounge and bar area is the convivial heart of the ship. The restaurant serves a leisurely breakfast buffet and waiter-service lunch and dinner reflecting the line’s French heritage. It’s a set menu, but vegetarian and special diets are well catered for with advance notice. Meals include an excellent selection of red, white and rosé wines – a much wider choice than you get on many ships and all complimentary.
Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg might have seen some amazing sights as he travelled around the world in 80 days, but we experienced plenty of spellbinding and jaw-dropping spectacles in the space of just a week on this unusual sailing.
New for 2020, Titan Travel offers the 7-night ‘Renaissance in the Loire Valley’ cruise and tour holiday from £2,399, including two nights’ hotel accommodation, five nights on board the Loire Princesse, all meals and three excursions. The price includes Titan’s VIP door-to-door travel service, services of a Titan tour manager and flights from Gatwick with British Airways. For further details and departure dates call 08082 391 428 or visit the website.