MS Loire Princesse
What floats your boat, then? In my case, it could have been less than a metre of fast-flowing French river water, under the beautifully-flat bottom of the unique, paddlewheel-powered MS Loire Princesse.
The luxurious, gleaming white Princesse was specially built by family-owned CroisiEurope to cope with the tricky, often critically-shallow waters of the Loire; and is the largest vessel able to tackle the navigable stretch as far upstream as the village of Bouchemaine, near Angers.
We joined the Princesse for the appropriately-named Royal River cruise, relishing eight days of indulgence as we explored some of the gorgeous chateaux with regal links along the Val de Loire, with the occasional, almost -obligatory wine tasting to prolong the pampered feeling.
Home port for the Princesse is the historic, quirky city of Nantes, which has a handy airport only about 15-20 minutes by road from the boat’s usual mooring at Quai de la Fosse, close to the centre. Doubly handy for me, as my wife and I flew in from Manchester on a Flybe turboprop, which dropped us into Nantes in nice time on a Thursday afternoon to reach the boat and allow us time to settle in and explore.
The airport experience back in Manchester was also helped by leaving my car in the secure APH Park and Ride compound, arranged by the team at I Love Airport Parking, which saved the stress of tackling horrendous early morning traffic around the three bustling terminals.
Nantes airport is tiny and cluttered by comparison and can be bothersome to fly out of, but arriving was painless and a pre-booked taxi to the boat saved a lot of messing, although if you only have hand luggage, public transport is cheap and easy to use, with a tram stop right outside the Quai.
Once at the pontoon where the Princesse was moored, we were greeted by smartly-uniformed crewman Tony (an always-smiling, always-helpful matelot from Hungary who had worked in Manchester for a few years!) and he insisted on carrying all our baggage aboard – the sort of care and attention we became used to over the next week.
The sleek river cruiser can carry up to 96 passengers and has 48 outside-facing cabins on two decks, with ours featuring a small private balcony reached by sliding glass doors. We found it a great vantage point to take in the constantly-changing views if we weren’t already relaxing on the top sundeck; and it gave us stunning riverside vistas to wake up to, or to relax with after a long lunch.
When we had unpacked and settled in on our first evening, we gathered in the comfortable lounge bar to meet the crew over a welcoming cocktail, before heading for the first of our memorable dinners.
And memorable they were, with everyone I spoke to singing the kitchen’s praises and being genuinely surprised at how chef Sebastien Boss and his brigade managed to produce such a variety of top-notch dishes and have everybody served with perfect timing and precision, thanks also to a front of house staff which would have been a credit to any high-end restaurant.
Given the fact that we were in the land of haute cuisine and most of the passengers were French, food was always going to be in focus, but few of us realised the standard for single-sitting dining with a set menu could be so high. Just one early example was a Lyon-style lunchtime salad with a poached egg, all served within minutes and all with perfectly-cooked eggs with a runny yolk, which is one heck of an achievement.
The excellent food was such a feature that any attempt at being on a diet was a non-starter, with aromatic fresh-baked bread and croissants every morning being my immediate undoing, without even starting on the rest of the buffet or wide choice of cooked-to-order items.
A three-course lunch at 12.30 followed any morning excursion or activity, then there was the eagerly-anticipated dinner at 7.30pm, both with complementary wines or beer and with barista-style coffee to end with; and with an open, free bar also serving drinks from 10am. All drinks, except for champagne and wines from the boat’s special list, were included, and the ‘house’ choices were more than acceptable – the local 2016 Rosé de Loire was a delicious and refreshing accompaniment to most meals, we found!
Our verdict was shared by all I spoke to on a broadly English-speaking corner of the dining room, where there was a heady mix of half a dozen Brits, a couple of Americans, an Antipodean cocktail of Aussies and New Zealanders, and a party of Norwegians. We shared a table with an English couple on a week-long break and two charming Kiwi sisters on an extended trip to Europe, and we all gave our hosts CroisiEurope and their crew an unqualified vote of approval.
Our first dinner and a socialising nightcap over, we called it a night and didn’t feel the need to operate the retractable TV which folded down from the ceiling of our spotless cabin (except to check the weather), or even the free WiFi, but watched the stars for a while as Captain Sandro Amand started the engines, cast off and started the first leg of our cruise by heading downriver to the port of Saint-Nazaire.
For history buffs, this is famous as a major base for German U-boats during the Second World War, and scene of the legendary ‘Greatest Raid of All’ in 1942, when the Royal Navy and Army commandos attacked and disabled a vital drydock, earning five VCs.
To wake up and find we were moored in the dock basin within yards of the enormous concrete U-boat pens built by the Germans was an unexpected reward, followed by a trip inside the pens to the Escal’Atlantic museum, which explores the historic ocean liner experience, with the accent on the Blue Riband-earning Normandie, built in Saint-Nazaire in the 1930s and at one time the largest and fastest ship afloat.
Next on the agenda was a visit to the city’s gigantic major shipyard, where some of the largest cruise ships in the world are still being built – the QM2 and Royal Caribbean’s 230,000-tonne Symphony of the Seas were built here, and the finishing touches were being put to Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge, with its ‘magic carpet’ outside balcony and on-board ‘villas’ with hot tubs and private terraces.
The towering vessels catering for many thousands of passengers are in stunning contrast to the Loire Princesse, which was also built in a Saint-Nazaire yard, but after returning to the Princesse for a laid-back lunch of parma ham fagottini, duck confit with saute potatoes and tomatoes, fruits melba, coffee and a digestif, before relaxing on the sundeck – the top deck of just three – and spending the sunny afternoon gently sailing back towards Nantes with glass in hand, I know which I prefer.
CroisiEurope offer 6-day and 8-day Loire cruises from £1,166 pp and £1,522 pp respectively. Price includes all meals and drinks, onboard entertainment and port fees. Call CroisiEurope on 020 8328 1281 or visit www.croisieurope.co.uk
Flybe operates flights to Nantes from Birmingham, Manchester and Southampton, with fares starting from £29.99 one way including taxes and charges. Book at www.flybe.com
Silver travel Advisor recommends CroisiEurope