For most travelers, road trips and wine country go hand-in-hand. After all, there's no better way to see wine country than by driving leisurely through the lush, vineyard-studded countryside, Sideways-style, stopping occasionally for wine tastings and cellar tours. Or is there?
On a recent anniversary trip to the French wine region of Bordeaux, my husband and I opted not to drive, as we usually did, and instead booked an eight-day river cruise on the Viking Forseti (from $2,400 per person). Though we’re not big cruisers, the idea of seeing Bordeaux wine country—a place we’d road-tripped through many times before—via its waterways seemed awfully relaxing and romantic. Plus, not driving meant we could avoid the tricky car rentals and Google Maps mishaps of prior trips and—most importantly—drink more wine.
Thankfully, we were right on all counts. For eight days, the ship sailed lazily along the beautiful Garonne and Dordogne Rivers, stopping each day at the region’s famous wine-producing appellations, like Paulliac, Margaux, and Saint-Émilion, as well as small fairy tale villages we’d never have otherwise visited. There was Blaye, home to an incredible, 17th-century UNESCO-listed citadel, and Bourg, with its majestic chateaux and café-lined cobblestone streets. When docked in Libourne, we took an excursion to Périgueux, where we visited a truffle farm owned by a second-generation truffle farmer, Edouard, who took us hunting for black Perigord truffles with his truffle-sniffing collie, Lino.
Afterwards, we had a six-course truffle meal cooked by Edouard's wife, Carole, the highlights of which were the brouillade à la truffe (cheesy, creamy, soft-scrambled eggs topped with fresh-shaved black truffles), a truffle cream pasta, and, for dessert, vanilla ice cream drenched in a decadent truffle-laced caramel sauce. It was an experience we would never have had if we’d driven ourselves. (It cost an additional $120 per person—about what you might pay for a truffle tasting menu at a New York restaurant—booked easily in advance via Viking's pre-cruise online portal.)
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Sail away to vineyard views? Yes, please.
” data-type=”image-embed” data-reactid=”158″> Courtesy Viking
But the best part of it all? Retiring back to the ship after a long day of wine tasting to relax on our balcony or enjoy dinner al fresco as we sailed off into the sunset, surrounded by sweeping vineyard views. It was indeed relaxing and romantic—if not the best trip to Bordeaux we'd ever had.
Though cruising isn’t the most obvious way of seeing wine country, it actually makes a lot of sense. Like Bordeaux, most of the world's major wine regions are on, or near, bodies of water (the cool breezes and moderate climates make for ideal grape-growing conditions). It makes them ideally positioned for ships large or small, depending on where they are, so you’ll find similar cruises that visit just about any wine region on your list. In Germany, for example, AMA Waterways offers a seven-night cruise along the Rhine River, making stops throughout Alsatian wine country, as well as in Rheingau for Rieslings, and even in Cologne for Kölsch beer (from $2,049 per person). In Portugal, AMA also offers a seven-night cruise along the Douro River that starts and ends in Porto, with stops at wineries in Régua, Pinhão, and throughout the Douro Valley (from $3,199 per person).
It’s not just river cruises that can access these wine regions, either. Princess Cruises offers six- and seven-night wine-centric cruises along the Pacific Coast of the United States, stopping in San Francisco for day trips to Napa Valley and Sonoma, and Astoria, Oregon, for access to the Willamette Valley (from $900 per person). Luxury ocean cruise liner Silversea also recently launched a series of "Wine Voyages,” which includes a 14-day itinerary from Auckland to Sydney, stopping by the wine regions of Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough, and Tasmania (from $6,900).
As with any mode of travel, cruising through wine country has its downsides. In this case, you’re limited to visiting the wineries the cruise line organizes—unless you opt to rent a car at each port (which kind of defeats the whole point of cruising), or set up custom visits to other wineries via the cruise line’s concierge, at an extra cost. For most travelers, this probably won’t be a major issue, but if you’re a serious oenophile, you’re probably better off crafting your own itinerary, than driving or booking a custom wine tour.
Then there’s the pace. Wine cruises are slow, which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on what kind of traveler you are. Unlike road-tripping, which allows you to cover a lot of ground each day, cruising limits you to one appellation and no more than one or two wineries per day, with the rest of the time spent sailing. For the first few days, that can feel like forced relaxation, especially on river cruise ships, which don’t have the seemingly endless diversions that ocean cruise ships have, like pools, spas, and fitness centers. Though I initially worried about being bored, I ended up enjoying the down time, which I usually spent reading on the sundeck with a glass of wine in hand, while my husband took part in the free onboard activities, like painting and wine education classes. Mostly, we talked, drank wine, and—for once—didn't really do much of anything. For two young and rather high-strung New Yorkers accustomed to jam-packed travel itineraries, the decelerated pace was refreshing.
Not surprisingly, the crowd for wine cruises skews older, particularly for itineraries in Old World wine regions like Bordeaux. On our Viking cruise, for example, my husband and I were one of five couples under 40, with the majority of fellow passengers our parents’ age or older. For us, it wasn’t an issue at all, but younger travelers may feel out of place amid such a group.
At the end of the day, though, it’s all about preference: For many people, nothing can replace the freedom, autonomy, and magic of a classic wine country road trip, which is completely understandable. In my case? I’ve already booked my next cruise.