HEIDI SARNA learns that teenagers can enjoy a river cruise – so long as you balance day trips with device time …
Let’s face it, most children – of any age – aren’t dying to go on a river cruise.
But this mother of teen sons likes small-ship cruising and I’m still the boss. (I think!) So, last summer I signed the family up for a Bordeaux river cruise with the French line CroisiEurope.
We boarded the 174-passenger Cyrano De Bergerac, a long white baguette of a river boat with a thin green stripe, in the heart of beautiful Bordeaux, walking past several folded-up wheelchairs and a gaggle of seniors at the gangway. My teenagers had a mild look of alarm on their faces. Where were the other kids?
The boys’ reference point was a Uniworld Rhine River cruise the summer before, one of the line’s 20 or so special family-themed cruises. There were a few dozen kids on that sailing, not to mention jars of marshmallows and a PlayStation for video gaming. They had a great time.
CroisiEurope doesn’t cater to children on its Bordeaux cruises (though they have some family river itineraries in Croatia, Portugal and Italy). And that’s fine. I have kids, but I don’t necessarily enjoy a riverboat full of them. I chose CroisiEurope because of its appealing five-night Bordeaux itinerary and the exposure to France it would give my sons.
There’s no question my boys miss the mega ship cruises we did when they were younger – the activities, gaming, multiple eating options and all those other kids.
As they’ve gotten older, I’ve migrated our family to smaller ships, though the things that mum and dad appreciate about river cruising – the intimacy, the simplicity and the cultural focus – don’t particularly resonate for most teenagers. Oh well.
The French Way
I reasoned a Bordeaux river cruise would be educational for my sons (and us!) because of the many UNESCO World Heritage sites, and also because of the “French-ness” of the onboard experience. Family-owned CroisiEurope was founded in 1976 as a French river cruise line for French people. Though they’ve opened their arms to North Americans and nationalities in recent years – our sailing comprised about 25 Americans, with announcements and entertainment in English as well as French – it’s still very French. At least half the passengers were French as were the captain and hotel director – and, not surprisingly, the food and wine.
River cruises are more culturally immersive than big ship cruises. You’re literally close enough to the riverbanks to see sheep grazing in a field, people in their gardens, and cars on a road. From the deck, you can make out the details of a steeple and the crumbling ramparts of a medieval fort.
On a riverboat, you’re also in close proximity to your fellow boat mates, fostering good old fashioned family time (whether my teens appreciated it or not). The four of us watched movies lying side-by-side in one of our cabins and we played scrabble in the lounge after dinner together in the cheerful blue and white windowed restaurant at our table for four.
While my boys may have found the cruise boring in some ways, they certainly enjoyed the food and so did we. In keeping with French and European custom, lunch and dinner were a fixed three-course menu, which could be customised to accommodate allergies or other requirements. Naturally, French and European favourites were featured, including France’s favourite bird: duck.
Luckily, one of my sons, Tejas, happens to love duck, whether it’s duck confit (duck leg slow cooked in duck fat), foie gras (duck liver) or duck breast. The rest of us weren’t as duck crazy. One evening, moments after we collectively remarked, “duck again”, we overheard an elderly trio of English women at the next table whisper the same thing – “duck again”. When in Rome… Overall, we all enjoyed the well-prepared and presented salads, seafood dishes, puff pastry, desserts like crème brûlée, and especially the bread and cheeses.
As much as Tejas loves duck, I enjoy wine, and was in my happy place when the server would come by double fisted with bottlenecks. A choice of nine different French wines (included in the fares) appeared at lunch and dinner and was liberally enjoyed by the French and other Europeans (and me!).
Pedalling around Port
My husband and I signed up for five excursions over the full four days of the cruise, and my boys did the three active ones with us – two guided bicycle rides and a helicopter excursion.
From the first stop, Pauillac, we did a morning Helicopter ride over the vineyards of the Médoc region, for a bird’s eye view of the many château, famous producers like Margaux, and our boat Cyrano de Bergerac. Kavi and Tejas were sandwiched next to the pilot in the front row while we parents were in the second row with another couple. The weather was good and the 10-minute ride was thrilling for all of us.
After lunch on the boat, the four of us set off on a second tour, a guided bicycle ride through the same vineyards of Médoc that we’d seen from above. Our guide Carla was excellent and she stopped along the way to explain various aspects of the region’s history and wine making to our group of a dozen or so. At the end, we stopped at a vineyard for a tour and a tasting, with each of us given a delicious cheese board and a selection of wines, a few sips of which we allowed our boys to sample.
The next day, the Cyrano moved towards Blaye, also along the muddy chocolate-coloured Gironde Estuary, where the main attraction is the impressive ruins of the 17th-century citadel built by the famous military architect Vauban. We caved and let our boys stay on board the boat and vegetate with their phones and movie watching while we toured the nearby fort. The tour ended – of course – at a winery for a tour and a tasting.
Our fourth day was spent in charming 13th-century Libourne, a medieval town built at the confluence of the Isle and Dordogne Rivers, near the elegant old wine estates of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. Hubby and I toured this lovely town while we gave our boys a second “get out of jail free card”.
Finally, we arrived in Bordeaux, where Cyrano would be docked for the last day and night of the cruise. I signed the four of us up for another guided bicycle tour led by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic Carl to some of the city’s main UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The tour ended – yep, again! – with a wine-tasting session.
Room with a View
As most riverboat cabins sleep no more than two people, my boys loved having their own cabin, allowing them, and us, to have some alone time. The cabin décor, like the rest of the ship, was simple and clean, based on crisp whites and sky blues. Huge sliding windows could be opened for fresh air, making the room an appealing place to hang out.
After five days in Bordeaux aboard Cyrano de Bergerac, I’m sure my teens understand France a bit better – the language, the history, the wine – and they’ll certainly never forget that cabin where they spent so much of their time!
Visit croisieurope.travel for info and bookings. For more on small-ship cruising, visit Heidi’s website, quirkycruise.com.
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This article first appeared in the January 2019 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!