Our final cruisers of the 2019 season were a family group from Australia. Some of them had visited the Champagne region before, whilst for others it was their first ever trip to Europe.
From chatting to them we knew our mission for this cruise was simple – everyone loved champagne and they wanted to try as many small producers as possible. And with 23 different champagnes tasted in just 4 days we definitely delivered!
Read on to discover the itinerary we put together for them – if you love the sound of this cruise get in touch to start designing your trip.
Afternoon – Pick-up and a tasting stop
We’ll meet you at Reims train station around 2pm and head out of the city to where Serenity is waiting for you on the canal. The rest of crew are waiting to greet you with champagne and canapes, and there’s time to relax and unpack before we hop back in the car to visit our first champange house. It’s just 10 minutes in the car to get to Champagne Dom Caudron, a co-operative in the village of Passy-Grigny. Originally set up by the village priest in 1920, today over 80 local wine growers use the co-operative’s state of the art facility to press their grapes and a small percentage of each growers juice is blended to make the co-operatives own champagnes.
You’ll enjoy a tasting flight of 4 champagnes, each paired with a handmade chocolate. My personal favourite is the Coralyne cuvee, an 100% Pinot Meunier champagne, where 50% of the wine is aged in oak barrels, giving a particularly round mouth and deeper complexity.
Evening – Dinner at Bistro Chez Max
It’s just a 10 minute drive to tonight’s restaurant, Chez Max which is a traditional French restaurant with delicious classic dishes. If you’re feeling adventurous this is the place to try dishes that are popular with the locals such as their Ris du Veau (veal sweetbreads) – but don’t worry the owner Frank, who speaks excellent English, is on hand to make sure you know what you’re ordering. The amazing cheese cart is included in your cruise price so make sure you leave some room for that and dessert!
Morning – Market visit and cruise to Mareuil-sur-Ay
After a quick breakfast it’s straight off to the market in the nearby town of Epernay. It’s 100% dedicated to fresh produce and you’ll find everything from fresh fruit and veg to oysters, homemade jams, whole skinned rabbits and fresh flowers. Oh and did I mention the cheese!
We normally start with a recce circuit of the stalls and then head back to some favourites to buy a selection of bits and pieces for lunch – after all there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing all this amazing food and not being able to try any of it! Cheeses, pate and saucisson are always popular but I’ve had guests pick-up prawns, rotisserie chicken, smoked salmon – the choice is yours.
Once we’re back at the barge, it’s time to untie the mooring ropes and start our journey. Head up to the sun-deck with a cup of coffee and some pastries from the bakery (our last stop at the market!) and take in the views. For the first 20 minutes or so we’ll be on the narrow tree-lined canalised section (keep an eye out for fish in the shallows of the right bank, some of them are huge) and then we’ll rejoin the Marne river on a sweeping bend. As we cruise along Graeme will point out the chateau you’ll be seeing close up on your excursion this afternoon and village of Hautvilliers above us where the famous monk Dom Perignon was the cellar master.
Lunch will be served while we’re cruising accompanied by, of course, champagne! Our destination for today is one of our favourite mooring spots, opposite the vineclad hillsides on the edge of Mareuil-sur-Ay.
Afternoon – Tastings, vineyards and chateau’s at Champagne Le Gallais
The vineyards in Mareuil-sur-Ay are classified as Premier Cru and you may well have come across the village’s most famous houses: Philipponnat and Billecart Salmon. The afternoon starts with a quick walk across the canal bridge for a tasting at a family owned champagne houses. We’ll visit Champagne Guy Charbaut (where we often take guests for a cellar tour) and if you’d like we can also head a few doors down the street to Champagne Marc Hébrart.
Then it’s just a short drive up to the hilltop Chateau Bousault which you caught glimpses of as we were cruising. The chateau was originally built in 1843 for Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin-Clicquot, better known as the Widow Clicquot and today it is owned by the Le Gallais family. Our tour starts at the press and Vat room where you’ll learn about how champagne is made and blended. Florie will then take us on walk through the vineyards, explaining about the different grape types and how they look after them through the year. We’ll be walking right up to the chateau which makes for an excellent photo stop. Then it’s back to the terrace with its wonderful views down over the valley’s vineyards for a tasting – and the chance for one of you to learn how to open a bottle of champagne with a sword, just like Napolean’s soldiers did.
Evening – Dinner at Henri IV in Ay
Notoriously difficult to get a reservation at, this place is so popular that last year they moved to a new larger premises a few streets away. It’s a rotisserie restaurant but also does offer fish options. Guests always come back raving about the lamb dish!
Morning – Cruise to Isse
With a lot of locks to traverse today, the barge might well be heading off before you’ve finished breakfast. Leaving Mareuil-sur-Ay we cruise through the pretty villages of Tours-sur-Marne, Bisseuil and Conde-sur-Marne before starting to climb up a chain of 7 locks. With just short distance between the locks, today is a great opportunity to hop of the barge and watch from a different angle the precision of maneuvering Serenity in with just centimetres to space each side. Or borrow a bike and explore the villages before meeting up with the barge a little further down the canal.
Afternoon – Cellar tour at a Grande Maison
Today the great houses of Champagne are iconic global names¨with a rich history. And as there is nothing quite like standing in the cellars where your favourite bubbly matures, you can choose to visit any of the following houses:
If you don’t have a particular favourite brand we’re happy to advise on which would suit you best. During your tour you’ll learn about the history of the house and the secrets of how their champagne is created using the traditional ‘methode champaniose’. And at the end of your tour you’ll taste two or three of their premium cuvees.
Evening – BBQ dinner aboard
Graeme’s manning the grill tonight for a BBQ dinner aboard. As we are moored in the countryside tonight dinner it’s a great opportunity to really enjoy the peace and nature before ending the evening with a beautiful sunset over the hills. Dinner is accompanied by your choice of champagne or wine, how about trying the Bouzy Rouge, a full bodied Pinot Noir just like this region produced for the Kings of France before Champagne was invented. And it’s from the very vineyards you can see in the distance from your dinner table atop the barge.
Morning – Hot Air Balloon flight over the vineyards and cruise to Sillery
It’s an early morning start today, but totally worth it for a fantastic hot air balloon flight right over the vineyards. There’s a picnic breakfast and plenty of hot coffee as you watch your balloon inflating and then its up, up and away (if anyone in the group doesn’t want to fly that’s no problem, either stay back on the barge or ride with our driver as we follow the balloon’s progress to pick everyone up).
Depending on what time you return the barge might have already started moving but don’t worry, we’ll meet you in a lock and you can hop back on board to enjoy our last morning cruising. Our journey this morning takes us through peaceful countryside, past occasional grain silos that are the canal’s original raison d’être and through the Mont Billy Tunnel. Built in 1860, this tunnel took 15 years to complete and takes the canal beneath the Montagne de Reims. Passage through the tunnel takes around 35 minutes – if anyone is claustrophobic or doesn’t want to travel through the tunnel, the vehicle is available to take you for a visit to the nearby Phare de Verzenay, a lighthouse built in the vineyards as an eye catching landmark, which now houses a modern museum about the vineyards, before meeting the barge at a later lock.
Lunch will be served as we arrive into our home port at Sillery, a popular marina in a Grand Cru village. So it’s only fitting that we serve an award winning Blanc de Noir Grand Cru champagne made right here!
Afternoon – Discover the historic city of Reims on a walking tour
Settled since Roman times, Reims is awash with history. On our walking tour you’ll get to discover of it’s hidden gems and beautiful art deco buildings. We start our visit at the magnificent gothic cathedral. Almost every king of France since Clovis in 1130 has been crowned in this cathedral, today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site in recognition of this history it’s architecture significance and the impressive beauty of the external sculpture work.
The pace and how far we wander are entirely up to you as Claire points out the historic buildings and tell you the stories of the city. And if you’d like there’s time for some souvenir shopping and a stop at a patisserie. Or a champagne tasting!
We’ll then head back to the barge to enjoy an aperitif before dressing for dinner tonight….
Evening – Michelin star dinner
As a fitting end to your cruise, dinner tonight is at Le Millienaire in Reims. Holder of a Michelin Star since 2011, the father and son team of Laurent and Thibault Laplaige are in the kitchen, offering modern seasonal cuisine based on local products. We love this restaurant for the interesting flavour combinations, beautiful presentation and excellent service to match.
Morning – A sad goodbye
After a relaxed breakfast it’s time to say goodbye to Serenity. You’ll leave the boat at around 10am and we will drop you off to meet your train back to Paris.
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