The lush green countryside of the Val de Loire in France, with its vineyards, orchards and fertile fields needs a good bit of rain as well as sunshine to stay so fresh — and we kept telling ourselves this as we set out to take in some panoramic views.
We had left our luxurious CroisiEurope riverboat Loire Princesse moored up at the quayside in Chalonnes for a classic excursion along the Angevine Corniche, with its picturesque villages and many viewing points along the river.
But nature had other ideas and decided to close in somewhat, although we did get a taster of just how gorgeous it is in this part of the world, despite the weather. We also had a taster at one of the newest wineries in an area steeped in wine making tradition, which took our minds off the rain as it thoroughly irrigated the vines.
Nothing hidebound or rustic about the HQ of the Fournier Longchamps family domaine at Rochefort sur Loire, for the proudly bio-dynamique winery itself is only seven years old… although the 30 hectare ‘terrroir’ of vineyards with five appellations has existed since the 12th century.
The FL range of organic wines is 93 percent white chenin blanc, produced with cutting-edge technology and equipment, but reassuringly using traditional oak barrels in a specially-built vaulted cellar to keep the maturing wine in an environment of constant temperature and humidity.
We were lucky enough to sample three signature wines, starting with a lovely light offering from 2016 which had spent 12 months in cask, moving on to a superb 2015 Le Parc which won a top prize only a few weeks earlier, and finishing with a 2011 Coteaux du Layon, Les 4 Villages, which was sweet, but yet again, delightfully light.
Suitably impressed, and clutching a price list and a detailed run-down of what to maybe look for on the shelves in England (our Flybe baggage allowance wouldn’t allow us to carry a case or two home!) we re-boarded our coach and enjoyed a look at the rather damp scenery before returning to our floating palace on the river.
Lunchtime beckoned, and as we had come to expect, it did not disappoint, with a starter of Bayonne ham followed by tender hake fillet with lobster-filled agnoletti, all signed off with a light-as-air raspberry cake.
Suitable fare to pave the way for a thoroughly relaxing afternoon as we sailed back towards Nantes and the end of our trip, although not so relaxing for skipper Sandro Amand and his crew in the wheelhouse, as they coped with the vagaries of the fast-flowing, shallow Loire.
Notorious as a difficult river, with only a relatively short stretch of it navigable at all, it poses a constant challenge with rapidly-changing channels and depths, as we found on our outward trip when the water was so high at one point that the sun canopy on the open top deck had to be lowered and we had to duck our heads below railing level as we squeezed under bridges with only inches to spare.
No such excitement today, though, as we cruised along in stately fashion, with the engine barely audible and the side paddle wheels splashing soothingly as the sun shone fitfully and we sipped a drink and waved at locals along the banks — the sleek white Loire Princesse is the only cruiser of any size on the river and still creates a stir as she glides past.
Taking stock of the past few days underlined the pleasure of river cruising, with the CroisiEurope approach echoing that of the best Loire winemakers, insisting on putting quality above quantity, with care and attention to detail ensuring that guests enjoy an almost individual experience and never get lost or feel neglected.
Food, too, is a genuine indulgence on the Loire Princesse. No trying to choose between a dozen different, faceless restaurants on board this particular cruise vessel, for here you are greeted personally by maitre d’ Bruno and the spot-on front of house team, shown to your table and given the sort of attention by an enthusiastic young staff that is usually the reserve of top-end dining out.
In the land of haute cuisine, food was inevitably going to be a major feature of life on board, especially with a three-course lunch on the daily agenda following a hearty breakfast, as well as dinner to look forward to.
It was very much in focus on our last full day on the Loire, sitting back on the sundeck and going with the flow downstream, with a gala dinner in prospect after cocktails before sunset. Dress code over a week’s voyage is fairly relaxed and casual, as expected, but the final night is as good a reason as any to put on the glad rags a bit.
Scrubbed up, we duly enjoyed a spot of fizz in the bar lounge before the Loire Princesse signed off a magical week afloat with a formal farewell from captain and crew and a special blend of saucery from chef Sebastien Boss and his talented team in the kitchen. They served up another splendid tour de force, accompanied by specially-chosen wines — complimentary and high quality, as all drinks had been on the entire cruise.
We started with a surprise ‘extra’ of a mushroom cappuccino, before a real touch of luxury with duck foie gras, served with caramel and spiced apple and fresh brioche.
Main course was rack of veal with shallots and tarragon (with, as ever, a delicious, velvety sauce) violet mashed potatoes and vegetables, helped along with a smooth Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Laudun from Domaine Rebusas, made with grapes from Vieilles Vignes, or old vines, and very much enjoyed by all of us, of whatever age.
A delicate cheese course was ‘grandma-style’ Reblochon in puff pastry with dressed salad leaves; and then dessert was a piece of pure theatre, with liveried staff carrying in salvers full of baked Alaska before flaming them in Grand Marnier.
Coffee, petit fours, digestifs and then dancing and a good natter with our travelling companions rounded off an evening to remember, and a whole week which was an experience to savour.
It also happened to be our Golden Anniversary — and we couldn’t have wished for better.
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