Charles and I have always wanted to do a river cruise with The Globe and Mail. We read this national paper everyday, both in print or digitally. Over the years we have noted the back page ads promoting trips, but we have never had the right timing, until this year: a special year celebrating our 35th anniversary. We had already booked a barge trip for June that was supposed to have taken place 3 summers ago, but I don’t need to tell you that we were not travelling internationally. Who was? So that trip was re-scheduled for this past June, starting on the 12th. I figured we could do both the Globe and Mail river cruise to Bordeaux, and the barge trip in Champagne with two days in between, and a flight from Bordeaux to Paris. Amazingly it all worked brilliantly.
We left Toronto on the 31st of May and ate dinner in the Signature Lounge of Air Canada which was up and running very smoothly. The wines and dinner were excellent, including Moët et Chandon champagne, and a very appealing menu, with such items as tuna tataki, roast veal, carpaccio of venison, curated by David Hawksworth. This was indeed a good way to start our culinary visit to France. The service is also exemplary and if you are travelling internationally on Air Canada, it is worth it to go early, check your bags, and then relax in this stunning lounge. It is lovely to have the Nexus card to bypass the long lines for security, and all this part of the journey went smoothly, in fact Nexus gives you Global Entry which also got us to the front of the line on arrival in Paris.
I love the lie flat beds on Air Canada, and one can watch many movies, and sleep under a duvet. I slept very well and woke to refresh a bit before landing. Charles removed one hearing aid because he sleeps on his side, and managed to drop it between the seats. After much prodding by the flight attendant who pushed it further under the seat, it was decided to wait until we landed and a mechanic would retrieve. I meanwhile kept imagining trying to get another one for him sent to France, but the mechanic was successful. I left the plane ahead of Charles in order to get to the baggage assuming his little adventure would take lots of time. In fact, he wasn’t far behind me. So that was a big sigh of relief. Our two bags arrived almost immediately, and we were met by a driver from Scenic cruises, the company that the Globe uses for their trips. We travelled with one medium size suitcase each, and one back pack for Charles, and a new Vegan carry on bag for me, a gift from my sister, which turned out to be very practical and terrific, with a little pouch that I could use as a purse. I love it.
There were two other couples as well as us, and the charming driver took us to Chantilly, our first meeting place of the cruise. Charles likes to arrive one day early overseas so as to make the time change adjustment easier. It is great to settle into the hotel and get rested, and the hotel Tiara Château Hotel Mont Royal, could the name be any longer, was very beautiful nestled in the Chantilly forest. Charles and I had visited this totally charming area a few years ago when we made our pilgrimage to Vimy in France. At that time we stayed in the town, so it was interesting to be in a different locale. Our room was not ready when we arrived, nor did we expect it to be. We settled on a very pretty terrace, had some orange juice, tried our French on the server, as we both feel it endears us to the staff. We could be wrong, but we had spent many hours in our french conversation sessions on Zoom, so it was good to put that to use. We had smoked salmon and some rosé and waited for our room.
It was a lovely high ceiled room with a balcony. Then we settled in for a long nap. I adore this time after an overnight flight, and this deep, deep sleep. Thank goodness for my alarm. A shower, dress in fresh clothes, and we were ready for dinner in the bar, where I had steak tartare and frites, and ice cream for dessert.The bar is charming and elegant. There was an interesting looking woman eating alone who stared at us. Eventually we found out who she was.We then settled in bed and looked forward to the arrival of our friends, and all the other folks on the cruise. In the morning, I headed early to the indoor pool and had a lovely, quiet swim.
After a delicious buffet breakfast, we started seeing others arrive for the trip. Such a delight to see Wouter and Liz, and it turned out we seemed to know some others. After all this was a Canadian group, all of us fans of the Globe and Mail. We registered and found out the woman who was in the restaurant was Yvonne, the cruise director. She had already scoped out my clothes the night before and became a fan of all my outfits. She also turned out to be a fabulous tour director, who although Polish, was completely at home in English, and had a marvellous sense of humour.
We grabbed a taxi with Liz and Wouter and went into Chantilly. Well actually not easy to get a cab, but we managed. We walked down the main street, had lunch outside, and wandered around with our best friends and marvelled that we were all together in France. Nap time in the afternoon was a must, in preparation for the reception on the gorgeous terrace with all the folks. I managed to meet our culinary host from the paper, Tara O’Brady, after my swim when we bumped into each other. She had been working out in the gym, and then we met again on the street with her husband. Best was that Liz and Wouter made it on the list for the Veuve Cliquot tour the next day. We were booked, but they were on a wait list, and that particular tour and lunch turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip.
We dressed up for the reception in the evening, and met the editor, David Walmsley, who gave a delightful speech. Chris Waters, the wine expert, also spoke. Already we realized that this trip would be unique. Turns out there were some folks from the west end where we live in Toronto, who recognized us and knew our dog, and a brilliant sound engineer from my past days as a performer on the CBC, was also there with his wife. The hors d’oeuvres were delicious, but we had made a dinner reservation at the Auberge du Jeu de Paume, where we stayed on our previous visit. We were booked on the outside patio and the weather was as exquisite as the food. Wonderful white asparagus with red caviar, and carpaccio of some fish, fois gras, and the most delicious artichoke done three ways; creamy, roasted and as chips. Charles had the best veal ever, he said. We shared a Sancerre. we were getting excited about this entire experience.
The next morning after an early breakfast we took a bus with 78 others to Reims, in Champagne, about a two hour drive. The Veuve headquarters, cave and boutique, were simply stunning. After a very comprehensive tour of the cave, and explanation of the champagne methode, much of which we knew from previous visits to the Champagne region, we settled in for lunch, an understatement. 80 of us were seated at one long table, set with beautiful white flowers, exquisite dishes and cutlery, and were served many coups of champagne, all Veuve; Jaune, Rosé, and Demi- Sec. The food was incredible; asparagus soup with mascarpone, then a superb John Dory fish with tiny vegetables, then cheese, then raspberry mousse with pink biscuit. All this while quaffing champagne. It was a loud and joyous group. I sat beside Tara, who had planned the meal with Veuve, and planned all our meals with the head chef of the cruise line, but I will tell you more about that later on.
I learned that there are champagnes that are vintage and can last a long while. One of them called La Grande Dame appealed to me because I figure that I will be a grande dame in 2 years when I hit the magic 80!! I mused about this and my darling Charles went to the boutique and bought a magnum of Grande Dame in a magnificent presentation box designed by Kusama, to save for that birthday. He didn’t think much about how he was going to get it home, but all I can say is there was a desire, and it is here in Toronto waiting patiently. Needless to say that it was very quiet on the bus going back to the hotel, except for the snoring. What an afternoon.
The evening there was another reception and a dinner, and we had to meet at 7:00. The reception was charming, but the dinner was catered at a place called Maison de Sylvie, was very warm and airless. Perhaps because so many of us were full of food and bubbly, the meal did not seem stellar; veal with morels, cheese. The menu read well, but the execution was not first rate. However, there was a very good violinist in a fabulous gown, and we met some new folks. All good.
Finally to bed, and preparation for a train trip to Bordeaux where we would catch the river cruise on the Scenic line. Originally, we were all supposed to travel on the TGV to Bordeaux in First class as part of our Scenic ticket, however, something happened which we were not advised of in detail, perhaps a train change, and most of us ended up in 2nd class with a supposed gourmet box lunch. This lunch was poorly packed and quite a few of the passengers’ water bottles in the box leaked out, and their boxes broke and red wine spilled all over the train station platform. Hmm. We found our seats which were facing others, met a lovely doctor on her own, and enjoyed good conversation. The trip which was supposed to have taken just over 2 hours took more like 4. The lunch was pretty poor, and unless you were smart enough to drink your way to Bordeaux, it was a long journey. Hopefully, this wasn’t a sign of things on the Scenic cruise. I can report all, and will of course tell you more in my next missive, that this was not the case. The cruise was excellent. I do look forward to telling you why this trip was so very special. Until next time.