On a river journey through Bordeaux, a first-time cruiser discovered the joys of taking the slow route to savor great wine and historic towns in the French countryside.
The briny taste of oysters plucked fresh from the sea. The feel of cobblestones underfoot in a medieval town. The view from the ship of a clifftop fort as large as a village. Rows of grapevines stretching out to nearby forests. These images — as much as French history, facts, and wine — linger in my memory after a weeklong river cruise through Bordeaux.
For me, as for many people, having surviving a pandemic inspired an openness to new travel experiences, whether a long-dreamed-of place or a style of travel. And so last August, my husband and I took our first river cruise, sailing three rivers in Bordeaux, learning about the storied region’s past and present in its cities and villages, and tasting its acclaimed wine. France’s regional differences fascinate me, and the cruise allowed me to visit an area new to me in a fresh way.
An all-inclusive river cruise, however luxurious — and a cruise on Scenic is pampering — meant I wouldn’t be shaping my trip — and that was part of the appeal for this relaxing journey. With a good itinerary and excursions, I could explore without having to do all the planning.
How did the cruise work out? Pretty perfectly, in part because I had researched enough to know what to expect. All the good things about river cruising — like docking in the center of towns, easy boarding, and smaller ships — proved satisfying. There were pleasant surprises too, like excellent and not excessive food and wine and immersive excursions in our river stops.
The Lay of the Land — and the Trip
A vibrant river port city near the Atlantic, Bordeaux is France’s sixth-largest metropolitan area and the heart of the Bordeaux wine business. It’s also the name of the more than 250,000-acre wine region in southwest France that produced about 700 million bottles of wine annually — most of it red — from 65 appellations and more than 5,000 producers. Some of those bottles are among the world’s most expensive. Wine has been part of Bordeaux since Roman times, and England and France fought over the region for centuries in medieval times, dating back to the marriage of England’s Henry II to France’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, which gave him control of the region. All that wine and history, just two hours by fast train from Paris.
My eight-day cruise was on the Garonne River, which flows from the Pyrenees to Bordeaux and the Dordogne, which joins with the Garonne to form the Gironde, an estuary that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. On a map, the three rivers resemble an upside-down Y shape. So unlike many European river cruises, getting to ports of call meant backtracking along waterways. The scenery was generally rural, the land was often flat, and the river was what the crew called “blond,” meaning light brown and muddy. I grew to love that muddy water: It was as quintessentially Bordeaux as the endless rows of grapevines.
My cruise line, Scenic, was born in Australia in 1986 as a bus tour operator and today offers luxurious cruises — at matching prices — with polished service, free amenities like decent Wi-Fi, and a fully all-inclusive format — covering even tips and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages throughout the day. These days, river cruises are drawing a broader range of travelers, including active adults and families. My cruise was mostly adults over 50 (kids have to be 13 on Scenic, and it’s definitely an adult experience). Passengers are mostly from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, so it was easy to make new acquaintances, among them many repeat Scenic cruisers.
Begin in Bordeaux
The cruise began and ended in the city of Bordeaux. I arrived two days early to avoid flight delays and enjoy the city — a good decision. A late-1990s cleanup of the public spaces and facades of its historical buildings, including thousands of now-gleaming 18th-century limestone structures from Bordeaux’s golden age, has sparked cultural energy, and students give the center a lively vibe. The landscaped riverfront park draws a lively crowd for Garonne views and a promenade. Its Quai de la Douane section includes the Place de la Bourse, fronted by the Miroir d’Eau, a shallow 37,000-square-foot reflecting pool. My husband and I stayed in St-Pierre central neighborhood of pedestrian streets and cozy bistros. A tram whisked us north to the Cité du Vin, a multi-story interactive museum of world wine with razzle-dazzle and solid information. A high point, literally, was the ride eight stories up for 360-degree views of the area, seen while sipping the wine included in the ticket price. In early 2023, the museum revamped 80 percent of its content, making sections more accessible.
The Scenic cruise had a final day and overnight in Bordeaux with a choice of excursions, such as an e-bike ride or a half-day bus and walking tour. I appreciated the bus overview and the guided walk, which gave more background on sights I’d seen and info on the city’s former role as a center for trading enslaved people. Our guide gave great advice about wine bars and wine stores and shopping tips, from Galeries Lafayette on pedestrian Rue St-Catherine to the block-long Rue des Remparts and its très French boutiques. Spending time in Bordeaux with its historic sights and modern energy was terrific; I’d visit again.
On Board and Cruise Start
Boarding Scenic Diamond and my first night were seamless. The dock was close to downtown in the Chartrons district near a tram. Documentation was completed before the trip, so check-in was a snap. Although we arrived early, we were warmly encouraged to have lunch on the ship and explore a bit.
River ships aren’t huge, but the 78-cabin, maximum 155-passenger vessel packed in well-designed spaces for relaxing and dining, plus small fitness and wellness centers (treatments cost extra and booked up fast) and a trendy salt room. The top-level Sun Deck had a small “vitality pool,” a sort of whirlpool. Also on board was a fleet of e-bikes. Standard balcony suites, soothingly neutral in decor, were marvels of good space use at 205 square feet, with a full-length, glassed-in balcony (the glass could be partially opened), a queen bed, a minibar that was restocked daily, a Mac infotainment system, and the amenities of a high-end hotel room — we even had a butler. The shower was small, but storage was ample, and we settled in with room to spare. Unpack once and that’s it: a benefit of cruising.
At our first daily evening port talk, guests met the captain and cruise director and learned about the ship, the Bordeaux region and wine, and the next day’s activities, including a session about e-bikes. The basic message: We’re here to help you make the most of your time, so speak up. The daily program notes — on TV, via an app, or on paper — looked long, from an early morning exercise session to low-key evening entertainment, but, to me, the vibe was relaxed. Even at dinner, seating was unreserved and dress was smart casual, with no jackets or dresses unless people wanted to dress up.
Port Excursions and the Daily Routine
“Look and book” is my advice for port excursions: Knowledgeable guides and in-depth excursions were key to the cruise experience. Passengers could review options before the cruise and choose, and some filled up quickly. Town walks and sightseeing, e-bike rides (some with a wine tasting), and a wine tasting were typical half-day trips. Scenic was flexible about letting people tweak their schedules, and people did change their minds. The indefatigable cruise director discussed excursions frankly, noting pros and cons. Generally there was one a day, then free time or sailing. Bus rides to excursions were often a half hour or less and always picturesque.
Some passengers simply enjoyed the Sun Deck, rode e-bikes, and did their own thing. I came to appreciate others’ desire to slow down and enjoy the ship and the moment — gliding along quiet rivers and approaching ports, from villages to graceful riverfronts.
Fabulous Wine Tours
The in-depth winery tours and tastings were outstanding, good even for non-experts like me. Rather than rush from one winery to another (guilty as charged!), each small group, whether by bus or e-bike, spent several hours at one winery learning about the terroir and history, tasting and touring. Scenic provided great guides for the bus, and the on-property guides were excellent, too. I visited three châteaux — a traditional term for a Bordeaux winery, even if there’s no castle on the property — and heard good things about other people’s visits as well. Some people purchased wine to ship home or just bought a special bottle for their suitcase.
From Libourne, it was a short bus ride to Fronsac and Château de la Rivière, with its dreamy, castle-like building dating from the 16th century. The views over grapevines and forest were enticing, as were the fifteen miles of wine caves that hold 700,000 bottles. Wine from this area along the Dordogne feature merlot predominantly in its blends. (Bordeaux is famous for its red blends created from six grapes.) The château even has a few guest rooms, a note I filed away for future use.
From Fort Médoc, a group of us took a ride around the renowned Médoc region and saw posh wine châteaux built in an encyclopedia of classic and modern architectural styles. Equally renowned are the wine-producing villages here (main grape: cabernet sauvignon) — St-Estèphe, Margaux, Pauillac, and St-Julien. At elegant Château Gruaud Larose in St-Julien, one of the Grand Cru Classés from the 1855 classification of Bordeaux, we learned about biodynamic farming and the effects of climate change.
From Cadillac, we visited the over 400-years-old Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey in Bommes, where the river Ciron contributes to the mists that help create Sauternes, the renowned sweet white dessert wine. Lalique crystal CEO Silvio Denz has owned the château, a Première Grand Cru Classé, since 2014, and it includes a lovely hotel and restaurant. We saw the vineyards and parts of the winery and had a tasting in a gleaming space where Lalique items and delicious Sauternes were for sale.
Town Visits and More
Besides the city of Bordeaux, the most fascinating town excursion — and one open to all passengers — was to St-Émilion, famous for its medieval streets, limestone buildings, and its hilly perch overlooking the eponymous vineyards. Wine stores, cute boutiques, and cafés could fill a visit, but I appreciated visiting sights like the Collegiate Church with it ancient cloister and modern Apocalypse mural, as well as the remarkable 12th-century underground Monolithic Church built into the limestone. I’m sorry that we couldn’t linger.
Other towns, like Bourg, were lower-key — striking buildings and plenty of history notwithstanding — and some were sleepy if shops were closed or there wasn’t a market. In Blaye, I spent a surprisingly interesting morning on a guided tour of the massive, late-17th-century Citadelle de Blaye, a fort that was like a town in itself, designed to protect the Gironde estuary. For walking tours and town visits, passengers had printed maps and two apps from Scenic. One app contained town information (kind of nifty) and one facilitated listening to the guides. The sound system worked okay for me, though not always for others.
One idyllic early evening in the Médoc, everyone took a bus ride past the ripening vineyards to Château d’Agassac, a winery with a fairytale castle dating to the 13th century. After an alfresco wine reception as the sun set, we went indoors for another treat: a lovely chamber music concert by professional musicians.
Other than the winery concert, the evening scene onboard was low-key, a time to relax or take in evening breezes under the stars on the top deck. The lounge presented singers of different quality several nights, and the dancers in our midst enjoyed a disco night. I passed up a competitive and popular trivia contest one evening.
Wining and Drink
Let me say this first: Meals on Scenic, notably dinners, were excellent and served efficiently and professionally. Many gave a welcome flavor of France, as did the well-chosen and different wines offered nightly from French regions. Because meals are included, morning excursions ended back at the ship, though sometimes the sailing schedule allowed people to eat on land. While this eliminated the pleasure of discovering bistros or lingering at cafés, which I regretted, the trade-off was ease and consistency.
The main dining room had windows on both sides and well-spaced tables, and seating was open and unreserved. Breakfast and lunch had buffet and menu options. I appreciated the smoked fish and fresh breads at breakfast and fresh salads and hot items on the lunch buffet. The menu at the nightly dinner with waiter service listed several options, including the chef’s pick — I liked the frog’s legs appetizer one night — and a healthy choice such as deliciously sauced fish. A number of standard mains, like salmon, was always available. Best of all, portions were reasonable. It was a relief not to waste food — Scenic’s chefs clearly agreed.
Scenic was clever at creating special dining experiences within the ship’s compact space. The River Café, open during the day on the same deck as the lounge, offered early and late breakfasts and all-day eating and drinking options. At night, part of this area became L’Amour, a regional French restaurant for 32 people; all guests had the opportunity to dine there at least once at no extra charge. This was a leisurely, fun experience; the five-course menu identified the region for each dish — braised brisket stew from Burgundy, quiche from Alsace. Wine pairings were good. Table La Rive is a creative tasting-menu specialty area for ten guests staying on the Diamond deck and some larger suites. A sommelier discussed wine pairings during the memorable three-hour dining experience. And yes, room service was an option. Eating in the cabin without a table wasn’t so easy, but having a private breakfast for two on our balcony one day was a romantic change of pace.
Other culinary experiences included an excursion in Bordeaux where passengers shopped and cooked with the chef. At a shorter cooking demonstration in the Scenic Culinaire space, a chef made banana tarte tatin that my small group devoured. My favorite lunch was an alfresco barbecue with many fresh salads on the Sun Deck while we sailed: The food tasted even better in the fresh air. On our last night, the famous oysters of Arcachon Bay, delivered on ice from the nearby bay, provided a briny, unforgettable pre-dinner treat.
Considering River Cruises
When our ship left Bordeaux, I was excited for the different perspective it gave me on the city. Overall, the cruise did that too: Moving deliberately gave me time to absorb wonderful experiences and places. I liked the river cruise’s small size and not worrying about extra costs. The luxurious special experiences shared with my husband made up for any trade-offs (set schedules, always dining onboard, quiet evenings), especially after the challenging past few years.
People who like cruising say there’s a cruise for everyone. Cruising keeps changing, too, serving the interests of families and younger adults, providing trips of different lengths, developing programs that engage deeply with destinations, and working on sustainability. The website of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise industry’s global trade association, presents its perspective on industry issues. For newcomers to river cruising, even people who like to do their own planning, it's worth noting that the many travel advisors specializing in cruises can identify destination options, river cruise lines, cabin choices, and good-value deals. With new ships entering the rivers, options are many, making this a good time to consider hopping on board.