“It’s a common misconception that the grapes were squashed by the feet of workers”, our guide, Philippe, tells us. “Instead, they would wear plastic pants and be lowered in, until they were shoulder high in fruit. They would then use every part of their body to squash the grapes; including their behinds”. He gives a little wiggle of his bottom for full effect – a grin spreading across his face.
We are stood inside the cold warehouses of the Domaines Bunan wine estate, in the ancient Bandol region of Southern France. Home to the renowned Bandol rosé wine, the estate is filled with silver, century-old olive trees, Tuscan cypresses and red roses that you can smell, before spotting. The sun high in the sky, the estate is quiet, except for the sound of cicadas and the hum of the estate’s machinery. Begun by two Algerian brothers – Paul and Pierre Bunan in 1961 – following a visit to the Bandol region, it’s easy to understand what prompted their move here. A life steeped in wine growing lore, hot Mediterranean sunshine and Mourvèdre grapes, seems an idyllic kind of one. “My life is dominated by a grape”, Philippe tells us, laughing, “but a majestic grape, at least”.
Our Thursday afternoon excursion around the vineyards of Southern France seems a little surreal, after an earlier 5am wakeup call at Heathrow’s less than idyllic Premier Inn hotel. Our alarm came courtesy of the seafaring folk at Princess Cruises, who had invited us to this juicy grape-filled part of the world, in order to experience the various excursions you could take as part of their international cruises (we would be visiting one of their Mediterranean Cruises). Having only experienced cruises via the medium of the 1998 BBC TV Show ‘The Cruise’ and the sensational jazz hands of Jane McDonald, we were curious to see what a real-life cruise would hold. Would it be all cabaret acts and bingo players? Mass tour groups and scheduled meal times? Would I appear on stage, singing ‘New York, New York’, whilst my fellow cruisers kicked their legs enthusiastically? Would Jane be there?
As we stood drinking crisp rosé, overlooking the ancient vineyards of France’s hilly Côte d’Azur, I couldn’t have felt further away from flag-clutching guides and crowded tour groups. Our own vineyard outing, run by the Bandol Wine Tours, is small and intimate, headed by Richard – a fantastically eccentric Brit who is living every vino lover’s dream here in the Mediterranean. Chauffeured around this sun-drenched landscape in his minibus, we would learn everything there was to learn about grape growing and wine glugging; before being returned to Toulon, where the Princess Cruises’ ship – the Royal Princess – waited.
Our tour had begun earlier that afternoon, after leaving Marseille airport for the eye-wateringly pretty village, La Cadière d’Azur. A medieval village, peeking precariously over a cliff, it is a pastel-coloured palette of pink and purple houses; soft purple wisteria and white, fragrant jasmine. Unsurprisingly, it is a Mecca for landscape artists. As we arrive, a small market is on – fresh fruit, olives and olive oil, filling the stalls. Locals sit in the shade, snoozing under hats and opening lunchtime bottles of wine. The village is overlooked by an enormous iron clock, which has been loyally telling locals the time since 1551. As we arrive, it strikes 1pm – just in time for lunch. Thankfully, the village is incredibly quiet and we are the only tourists in town as we make our way to the Michelen-starred, Le Bistrot de Jef; a restaurant with all of the views.
Overlooking the pine tree forests below, the small bistro is filled with the smell of the nearby jasmine and is incredibly peaceful. A small spa sits below it, offering a glittering outdoor pool and indoor therma spa. After telling us that the dolce vita lifestyle has taken its toll on his waistline, Richard leaves us to enjoy our lunch of chicken terrine, fresh fish and sorbet, alone. We also have our first glass of wine of the trip: a shimmering pink glass of rosé. When in Rome and all that.
An hour or so later, we are promptly collected by Richard and his mini bus, and driven to our first vineyard. The owner of the winery is the mysteriously named Beatrix de Balincour. Naturally, I think of Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter, and spend my journey there imagining being shown around by a pale woman with huge, wiry hair and a penchant for black capes. As we arrive on the 300 year-old La Domaine de la Garenne estate, the woman that meets us couldn’t be more different. Tiny, glamorous and looking like she either ran daily marathons or was a member of the local boxing club, Beatrix greets us with glamorously oversized sunglasses and the most finely toned biceps I’ve ever seen. “Perhaps it’s all the grape picking”, I wonder, as she tells us that no machinery is used on the estate to gather the grapes; the sloping narrow rows proving too difficult for the clumsy machines. Instead, each and every grape is delicately plucked by the hands of workers. The upside, she tells us, is that they get an “exceptional tan”. As I think back to how I treat my own supermarket bought grapes– ripping them brutally from their stalk, or squashing them in my bag – I feel a bit guilty. These guys are treated like royalty; the revered fruit of the Romans, from centuries long ago.
Beatrix glides around the vineyard, accompanied by her two excited Alsatians, and points out the smallest, baby grapes I’ve ever seen. She explains that on average, a vine won’t produce any fruit until it is sometimes over 10 years old; meaning that for those years prior, they are fed and cared for, like precious little pets. I’d quite like to own a few pet grape vines of my own; tending to them carefully summer after summer, until finally getting to reap the rewards of a shimmery, sun-ripened glass of rosé. My cat has never brought me a glass of wine in its life.
We move into the dark storerooms, where the wine is kept inside huge, French-oak barrels. The French-oak bit is apparently very important, giving the wines a deep, rich taste. Legend has it that they used to use children to climb inside these barrels to clean them and add the fruit; giving them a nice little pick-me-up after school. Why is being a child in Europe so much better than England? Beatrix also explains that as the wine is completely organic, there are no sulphates present. The result? No wine headaches the next day (Unless, as Richard regularly adds: “You fall on your face!”)
Oh Richard, you clown.
Finally, it’s time to taste the wine – sampling two of their famous red wines and two rosés. The first red is 6 years old and the tannins wipe my mouth almost completely free of salvia. It’s incredibly rich. The next, only two years old, is dangerously drinkable and after an afternoon in the sunshine, I neck it like a glass of orange squash. Getting into the swing of things, we then try the rosés, one – the Bandol Rosé 2013 – is so light and delicious, that I buy a couple of bottles. The main ‘note’ in these wines also happens to be my favourite French word – pamplemousse (grapefruit). I repeat the word to myself for the next hour, whilst downing my pamplemousse flavoured beverage. Life is tres bon. It’s easy to forget that this is a tour excursion, arranged by Princess Cruises, rather than an intimate trip we had planned alone. I still hadn’t spotted that flag-holding tour guide, either.
After next vising Philippe’s winery and his famous bottom wiggle, we head to Toulon for the evening – a town 50 minutes south-east of Marseille. Often dwarfed by the ports around it – including Niece and Marseille – Toulon is a pretty town, with a sun-kissed harbour filled with bobbing moored yachts and boats. The air smells salty and faintly of cigars. The majority of people around us are French locals, a welcome change from the often Brit-packed towns of Cannes or Monaco. Tucking into a giant platter of sea food – a rogue carrot spoiling the nautical scene – we chat through our plans for the next day, as we embark the Princess Cruises ship. The ship, understatedly, is called the ‘Royal Princess’. I’m excited to learn this is Princess Kate’s very own ship and she even visited it. In that case, I imagine it must smell very nice and be very pretty inside. I begin to feel disproportionally excited about my first experience aboard a cruise ship.
“I feel like I’m in a palace”, Claire whispers, as we enter the ship the next morning. An enormous glass atrium shines ahead, glittering gold and silver. A glass elevator moves silently up and down each floor, dropping staff off at levels that boast gyms, gelato restaurants, theatres, art galleries and spas. With the ship’s resident cruisers now exploring France – possibly racing through the undulating countryside with wine-loving Richard – we have the ship to ourselves, and it’s spectacular. Perhaps still influenced by the depiction of a 1990s cruise ship, I hadn’t expected the ship to be so spacious, luxurious and well, nice. Due to the sheer size of the ship, it’s also impossible to detect we are at sea; all 19 decks and 141,000 tonnes of it, resting peacefully on the water.
Our Princess-inspired adventure begins with a candy-covered bowl of gelato. “Cookies and cream, Nutella and vanilla”, the staff member says with a dazzling smile – handing me a spoon. I’d certainly never seen Jane Mcdonald beginning her seafaring days with freshly made gelato. Eating it whilst stood on the ship’s pièce de résistance – its SeaWalk: a glass bottomed enclosed walkway that extends 28 metres outside of the ship (gulp), I can already feel myself softening to the cruise experience; a little bit like my gelato in the scorching sunshine.
As we tour the Royal Princess, visiting a spa featuring a deep whirlpool, water beds and dizzying array of treatments, it’s easy to forget we are aboard a cruise ship. The lavish theatre – nicer than the theatre in my own hometown – is home to Broadway shows, Princess Cruises’ very own version of The Voice (complete with spinning chairs) and world-class entertainers. Furthermore, if you assumed cruises were all thumping music and DJ shouting ‘let me hear you’ (as I had), you’d be wrong. We were taken through to the The Sanctuary – an exclusive deck of the ship filled with thick white towels, grapefruit infused water and cabanas. Here, it’s not unusual to come across Serenity Stewards, bringing you a signature cocktail as you glide across the Med. Here, silence is golden. The sound of the overhead canopies occasionally flapping, or the turning of a page in someone’s book, were the only noises I heard (oh, and Claire shouting “wow!” every five minutes).
Perhaps the most intriguing part of our time aboard the Princess, is our behind the scenes tour. Whilst sipping on iced water, whilst someone tends to your knotted muscles, it’s perhaps all too easy to forget about the enormous industry required to run a cruise ship: catering to its 3,560 guests and 1,346 crew. This was something our tour guides were keen to demonstrate.
And so, after walking through mysterious doors and alleys, we arrive in the ship’s galley: ship speak for the kitchen. However, to say this is a kitchen would be misleading. It is two floors of industrial scale kitchen utensils, giant ovens and five-foot tall mixers. It is absolutely fascinating. Our guide, the slightly harassed-looking head chef, Giovanni, is eager to share with us his tricks of the trade. Mopping his brow occasionally with a tea towel slung over his shoulder, he regurgitates fact after fact: 600 pounds of butter is used each day aboard the ship, and 1,500 pounds of flour. 250,000 eggs are consumed per week and there are 18,000 bottles of wine and champagne in the wine cellars. He and his team are responsible for producing up to 21,000 individual meals a day and the kitchen runs twenty-four hours a day. I glance at Claire, who is quite clearly reveling in this overload of information. She clasps her hands together with excitement, at least twice. As he rattles off these mind-boggling facts – eyes darting cautiously from oven to oven – it’s clear this man has one hell of a job. But it’s not just the kitchen that is running overtime. Over 54,600 napkins are washed per week and 21,200 bath towels. Furthermore, every 10 days, over 900,000 pounds worth of supplies are loaded onto the ship.
The facts are both fascinating and overwhelming; a reminder of the sheer effort that goes into making every cruisers’ experience with Princess Cruises, faultless.
After leaving the exceptionally busy Giovanni behind, who is staring perplexedly at over 20 boxes of over-ripe bananas, we are swept to the deck to enjoy a cocktail show (smiling barman piercing flying cherries with cocktail sticks held between their teeth), before finishing in the acclaimed Sabatinis – an Italian restaurant that was recently voted Best Cruise Ship Specialty Restaurant by USA TODAY. I feel a little guilty, tucking into my incredibly succulent tenderloin steak and rich chocolate soufflé, having just seen the sheer amount of effort that goes into producing these meals. However, it’s also impossible not to enjoy the whole experience – fine dining aboard an even finer ship. Am I becoming a cruiser? Is Jane McDonald, in reality, who I had aspired to be for all these years?
As we prepare to leave the ship, I feel panicked – I’ve only just got here. I’ve not even had time to visit the art gallery, get a facial, visit the tennis courts or attend morning yoga. There is a needlework club taking place that I (unexpectedly) need to go to. A film night I want to stay for. Plus, the boat is heading next to Barcelona. As we leave – sun kissed cruisers no doubt returning from their jaunt with vino-loving Richard – I hurriedly grab a pile of brochures, detailing other Princess Cruises routes (Alaska being high on my list). From a cruise naysayer, to a cruise lover – all in the space of 26 hours – I’m sad to leave and a little surprised at how quickly I’ve found myself converted.
I had always pegged cruises as something for retirees, cautious travellers and those not adverse to a few show tunes; a prejudice that seems to be quickly disappearing. Why not see the world aboard a ship that not only offers gelato for breakfast and more yoga classes than my own studio, but one that understands that a cruise doesn’t have to mean anonymous and generalised travel experiences? They can also be personal, intimate and independent; featuring characters such as Richard and his mini bus, and Beatrix and her fabulously sculpted biceps. Why not have the best of both worlds?
Princess Cruises, I’ll be back.
Thank you to Princess Cruises for inviting us to experience the reality of cruising. We now consider ourselves cruise coverts!