Fanciful sights and fairy-tales are all part of a unique French River Cruise on a modern-day paddle ship, the Loire Princesse
I have a distinct feeling of deja vu as we walk towards the towering turrets of Château d’Usse, one of more than 1,000 royal and aristocratic palaces lining the banks of the longest river in France. Our guide explains that in 1697 it inspired Charles Perrault to write the classic children’s tale The Sleeping Beauty, and in more recent times helped Walt Disney design his trademark theme park castle.
Inside, at the foot of a huge staircase, I gaze at a large pair of original postilion’s boots that were once worn by coachmen to protect their legs and keep them warm. Apparently the self-same boots also prompted Perrault to pen Little Thumb, where the magical footwear enabled the wearer to cover seven leagues (some 21 miles) in a single step in order to carry out good deeds. I have to admit that tale passed me by in my childhood.
Nevertheless, the dreamy cream-coloured château is one of many fairy-tale sights during a week floating through the UNESCO-listed Loire Valley. In fact, the whole journey was a totally novel experience in itself. With very shallow waters during the dry season, sections of the 629-mile Loire are unnavigable and until relatively recently only day trips and short pleasure cruises have been available to visitors.
CroisiEurope changed all that in 2015 when it became the first river cruise line to launch a hotel boat, and the 96-passenger Loire Princesse uses modern paddlewheel technology to sail along the picturesque stretch of the river from Nantes, in western France, where our voyage of discovery began. It turned out to be an adventure both on water and dry land as the mooring spot is opposite Les Machines de l’ile, where a fantastic regeneration project has been inspired by the futuristic ideas of science fiction writer Jules Verne, who is Nantes’ famous literary son.
The most head-turning sight is the ‘le grand elephant de Nantes’, a lofty wooden pachyderm that carries passengers on a stately 30-minute trip through the former shipyard, intermittently spraying water from its trunk over unsuspecting passers-by. Also on a giant scale is a three-storey carousel where you can ride on whimsical creatures, boats and submarines while mechanical waves rise out of the floor.
A guided walking tour took us through narrow streets lined with tempting chocolate and patisserie shops, past the delightful timber-framed buildings in the Bouffay district and onto an arts trail symbolising contemporary Nantes that includes a giant measuring tape and make-believe zebra crossing inspired by the ones in the UK. The idiosyncratic installations extend beyond Nantes, and as the sun dipped in the sky, we set sail past huge coloured hoops and an intriguing partially submerged house, which was a huge talking point until we discovered it wasn’t real.
There were more big sights as we arrived in Saint-Nazaire which is home to one of Europe’s largest shipyards and the birthplace of some of the greatest French transatlantic liners. These days it builds vessels such as the Loire Princesse along with huge cruise ships and a fascinating tour of the STX shipyard revealed each stage of the shipbuilding process, with close-up views of ships in various stages of construction.
Afterwards we stepped back in time at Escal’Atlantic which is dedicated to glorious ocean ships of the past such as the Normandie, built in Saint-Nazaire in 1935. A former wartime submarine base has been transformed into a museum that immortalises the seafaring elegance of bygone days through fun interactive displays and original fixtures and fittings. We walked through a realistic replica of an ocean liner, including cabins and a breezy promenade deck, before pausing at one of the hand-on exhibits to decide how to dress for dinner, afternoon tea, deck games and other genteel activities (a complete fashion fail on my part as I picked the wrong frock every time) before peeking under silver domes to see examples of one of the sumptuous dinners served aboard the Normandie – a seven-course affair rounded off by the somewhat explosive sounding Bombe Aboukir.
Back on board our own vessel we enjoyed a real taste of the region as CroisiEurope puts a lot of emphasis on its French heritage. Leisurely buffet breakfasts with freshly baked baguettes and a variety of hot and cold dishes were followed by lunches and dinners showcasing dishes such as Quiche Lorraine, duck in wine sauce, French cheeses and wonderfully decadent desserts – all washed down with excellent wines. Although there are set menus for lunch and dinner, vegetarian and other dietary requirements can be easily accommodated.
The culinary treats continued ashore with an excursion to a local vineyard, where we sipped fruity Muscadet wine, and a tour around Angers, the capital of the historical Anjou province where were strolled along quaint cobbled streets and stopped to buy the local orange-based liqueur Cointreau.
With its brightly coloured contemporary décor, sun deck and well equipped cabins, the Loire Princesse provided a very comfortable floating home. A nice touch is that all beds face the river, so if you fancy a lazy morning, or indeed afternoon, you can enjoy the passing scenery lounging on your bed. The panoramic lounge bar is a focal point, with live musicians, dancing and entertainment most evenings. Crew members are charming and each cruise has an English-speaking host.
One afternoon we stood on deck simply listening to the rhythmic sound of the water splashing through the paddlewheels as we sailed beneath the vast span of the Saint-Nazaire Bridge, which held the world record for the longest cable-stayed bridge for eight years after it was built in 1975.
It was yet another highlight in a truly enchanting cruise filled with both magical and mammoth sights.
Tel: +44 (0)208 328 1281
Email: Contact form on website
Number of Facilities on Board: Restaurant, lounge bar, sun deck and free Wi-Fi.
Number of cabins: 48
Price Band: Low to medium
Insider Tip: Book tickets online for a ride on the elephant at Les Machines de l’ile as they sell out fast on the day. Selected tickets are available 48 hours in advance at: www.lesmachines-nantes.fr
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10
Factfile: CroisiEurope offers the five-night The Loire Valley, a Royal Legacy round-trip Nantes itinerary, from £1,193 cruise only, and a seven-night itinerary from £1,557. Fares include all meals, an open bar and shore excursions.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by CroisiEurope and Jeannine Williamson