Sara Macefield joins European Waterways for a leisurely hotel barge cruise around Champagne country, pairing fine-dining with fantastic French countryside for a sparkling holiday
Nothing can disguise the effervescent sparkle that comes from cruising through Champagne country deep in the French heartland.
Rolling lush hills covered by a patchwork of vineyards, grand Gothic structures and a poignant collection of memorials to casualties of Great War battles fought across these lands are clues to its tumultuous past.
But the soul of this famous region is the sparkling wine that takes its name, earning global renown as the ultimate toast of celebration.
No wonder my mouth is watering at the prospect of a six-night sailing on European Waterways’ sumptuous 12-passenger hotel barge Panache through its fragrant heart. And while I’m expecting bubbly to flow liberally on this cruise (and it does), I haven’t anticipated what a voyage of epicurean excellence it becomes, with gourmet cuisine at every turn.
From the moment we are greeted with flutes of fizz as we embark in the city of Châlons-en-Champagne, we relish gastronomic four-course feasts every time we sit down to dine.
Any lingering thoughts of restraint that I might have disappear in a haze of Champagne cocktails and fine wines as I savour one of the finest culinary line-ups I’ve ever encountered on a cruise.
Each mealtime is transformed into a memorable occasion as we gorge on beautiful filet mignon, roasted cannon of lamb and Charolais beef.
We dive into mouth-watering starters, baked avocado with walnuts and Brie, and a caramelised red onion and goats cheese croustade, while memorable desserts include raspberry Champagne jelly with lemon granita, and a rhubarb and ginger sorbet that turns out to be delicious – even though I don’t like rhubarb and ginger!
Such is the culinary skill of our chef, I even find myself dipping into dishes I’d never normally consider: exquisite moules marinières, salty oysters and prawns cooked with chili, garlic, lemon and sherry.
And then there’s the cheeseboard, a feast of flavours including Brie, Bleu de Bresse, Roquefort and Banon.
In keeping with the occasion of our banquet-style meals, hosts Regina and Erell launch into animated descriptions of each fromage, along with accompanying vinos – red and white varieties including freely-flowing Chablis Grand Cru, Sancerre, Margaux and Pinot Noir.
And we can’t forget the Champagne, although this becomes our drink ashore as we embark on tours of Champagne houses found around Épernay, the region’s capital.
The city’s grand Avenue de Champagne is lined with stately mansions belonging to the world’s leading Champagne brands and is acclaimed as one of the most expensive in the world, with famous names Moët & Chandon, Pol Roger and Perrier-Jouët based here.
A tour of Moët’s cellars, which stretch for almost 30km underground and are home to millions of bottles of gently maturing bubbly, makes for a fascinating afternoon as we learn how the three main grape varieties of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are blended to produce different varieties of this upmarket elixir.
Only wines produced in Champagne can lay claim to its prestigious name and, of the 300 Champagne houses here, just five are still independently-owned and run.
A visit to the independent Champagne Henriot leads us along winding roads to its hilltop vineyard where we get to sample some of its varieties of bubbly while strolling among the vines.
This stokes our appetite for an exquisite gourmet lunch of local fare at the Relais & Châteaux Hostellerie La Briqueterie a short drive away.
La Maison Pannier is another independent Champagne house and, before stopping for another obligatory tasting, we explore its medieval cellars where locals sheltered during the First World War, establishing an underground community with shops, a pharmacy and ad hoc doctor’s surgery.
Such daily outings are made easier thanks to the two minibuses that follow Panache during its 90km journey along the sleepy Canal latéral à la Marne and River Marne, parking up at each docking point to whisk us off on half-day tours.
But another joy of this trip is sitting outside on deck as we meander at snail’s pace along the waterways.
Travelling so slowly brings a soporific feel as life comes to a virtual standstill, giving us the luxury of time to absorb the bucolic views at their best; watching swallows dipping and diving through the air and herons gracefully swooping low over the water.
The distant toll of church bells vies with the musical chorus of songbirds that accompanies our progress as we pass through locks, admiring the pretty landscaped gardens of the lock-keepers’ houses and their window boxes brimming with vivid blooms.
With our fellow travellers, who hail from Australia and California, there’s a relaxed house party ambience as we chat and chill, pausing only to soak
up the bubbles in the hot tub or taking one of the bikes ashore to cycle along the towpaths.
After so much culinary indulgence, pedalling off some calories comes as a welcome relief, although the fabulous views still ensure that we enjoy a feast for the eyes.