BORDEAUX (FRANCE) - Sailing down Bordeaux's Garonne river on a cruise, I feel like I'm in an Agatha Christie novel.
It sounds slightly dramatic, I know. In April when I visit, the air is crisp so there aren't any flies to swat, let alone any murderous undercurrents a la Death On The Nile. Deep in wine country in the south-west of France, I'm far from Egypt.
I am on the maiden voyage of the S.S. Bon Voyage, which plies the rivers near the port city of Bordeaux.
This "Super Ship" is the latest offering from Uniworld, a luxury river cruise line.
Refurbished at the cost of US$14 million, fittings and fixtures gleam gold everywhere. The sea-green decor at the bar is inspired by designer Yves Saint Laurent's home in Marrakesh.
The cabins have marble bathrooms and US$30,000 Savoir beds. Forget goose down and memory foam mattresses, these beds are made with materials that might include the hair from Mongolian yaks.
While I know nothing about these fluffy cattle, I slept with curved back and limbs askew, yet woke feeling as new as a butterfly from a cocoon. I flop down on this bed for billionaires as often as I can on the five-day cruise.
The SS Bon Voyage, part of the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, offers all-inclusive fares that include food, wine and plenty of daily outings and activities. These include tours of Bordeaux and its environs, painting classes with free-flowing wine, and yoga sessions.
With a capacity of 130 passengers, the SS Bon Voyage represents a more intimate kind of travel than cruise liners with 3,000 guests. It evokes an age when Christie's detective Hercule Poirot and his well-heeled compatriots might spend a week on a steamship in the 1930s.
This sense of nostalgia is grounded in the accents of French heritage on board, as well as in the traditional fare served in the ship's four dining venues.
The sunflowers and olive trees of southern France beckon from giant vases and a metallic Gallic rooster, an emblem of France, is prominently displayed.
As its name suggests, Le Grand Fromage (The Big Cheese) restaurant serves Bordeaux cuisine like a boss.
The local options on the menu display a master's deftness of touch.
My entrecote bordelaise comprises steak cooked to my desired medium, with a good balance of beefy chewiness and smooth flavour. The new potatoes, speckled with a moreish hint of salt, are velvety inside.
The wattage of this dish, however, lies in the humble shallots, which are so infused with red wine sauce that they look and taste like the sweet flesh of the grape.
Lobster and three types of fish go into the pot for the Traditional Fishermen's Soup. The deep orange broth looks like it's made from a million crustaceans, a worthy sacrifice that results in deep prawny flavour.
The Bordelais equivalent of eating fish and chips by the sea is slurping oysters riverside.
The ship drops us at Fort Medoc, a Unesco heritage site, on the left bank of the Gironde estuary, north of Bordeaux, which leads to the Atlantic ocean.
The ruins of this 17th-century battlement are simply the mise en scene. I focus instead on the freshly-shucked, small oysters that we are invited to sample.
They slip down the throat too quickly, followed by a champagne chaser. They leave a memory of brine and cream.
French cuisine is a broad church. There are other examples of gastronomic simplicity, the opposite of the heavy sauces and complicated recipes often associated with French cooking.
Try the three-ingredient macarons that are widely sold at the Unesco-approved town of Saint-Émilion. (One is forever tripping over Unesco sites in Europe.)
The mild but distinct taste of almond characterises these beige macarons, which are made of almond flour, egg whites and sugar. They are the eat-clean cousins to multicolour macarons filled with ganache, which are more common worldwide.
About half an hour away from Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion is far more than its sweets and Grand Crus.
Stride through the town's sloping, cobbled streets to explore its 12th-century Monolithic Church. Its bell tower, Gothic in design and height, soars 53m high, seemingly matched by its massive limestone naves that plunge underground.
Wine is like a religion, says our guide, and some of the most devout can be found in the wine heartlands of Saint-Emilion and Bordeaux.
Bordeaux even has a museum dedicated to the grape, La Cite du Vin, whose building is designed to look like a swirling glass of wine.
Wine-tasting and chateaux-hopping sounds OTT but it's a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
While some chateaux look like modest bungalows with a field of grape vines, Château La Tour Carnet in the Medoc region is a proper castle with a collection of armour and a small but respectable moat.
I sip glasses of red and white wine, while the sommelier instructs my fellow travellers and me on the differences between tasting notes of chocolate, truffle and mushroom.
At Château Ambe Tour Pourret in Saint-Emilion, private chef Jerome Oillic teaches our small class how to make a chicken dish with mushroom cream and pesto; a salad with shrimp and bayonet ham; and a caramelised pineapple dessert.
Three glasses of cremant, a champagne-like drink, later, I have abandoned my cooking notes but what remains of Jerome's detailed instructions is an emphasis on fresh ingredients.
The plump chicken is a healthy yellow colour I have never seen in supermarket poultry in Singapore, while the shrimp is taut and almost crunchy.
Lunch is excellent, even though my contribution consisted mostly of pushing around some zucchini in a pan.
It is difficult to eat poorly in France.
Walking in the centre of Bordeaux, the signature pastry of the city -- the canele (also spelt cannele) -- is available at numerous patisseries, such as the Baillardran chain with its trademark red stores.
The centuries-old origin of this dessert, which looks like a mini castle turret, flows back to wine.
Winemakers traditionally used egg whites in a process called fining, which gives a smooth taste to wine. This left a lot of egg yolks lying around, which resourceful hands used to make caneles, whose custard-like centre and caramelised crust are boosted with vanilla and rum.
It's a comfort to travel in a country whose denizens are as food-mad as your own.
Up close, the image of French superiority, perpetuated by books like French Women Don't Get Fat (2004), starts to crumble.
There's something lovable about a people who cannot resist carbs. It's perfectly fine to re-enact a cliche and munch in French cafes on buttery croissants, choux pastries stuffed with cream, or crackly mille-feuille.
Best of all is the French attitude towards chocolate, which is adored by young and old.
On my last day in Bordeaux, I breakfast at Aux Merveilleux de Fred (7 Place Jean Jaures), a chain of cafes.
Pastries and breads are displayed below a man-sized chandelier. My morning feast includes a glass of milk and a €2 pain au lait with chocolate ganache (basically, chocolate cream in a bun).
I am surrounded by bling and I am eating like a child. If that doesn't say joie de vivre, I don't know what does.
The writer was hosted by Uniworld. The S.S. Bon Voyage sails on eight-, 15- and 22-day itineraries in Bordeaux and France. For more information, contact 6292-2936 or visit www.uniworld.com. Save up to 10 per cent for trips next year for bookings made before June 30.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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