Yachting for Cognac and Oysters
on the French Atlantic Coast

Aboard the Classical Cruises Panorama.

Cruising with a sense of discovery and excitement.

By Richard Carroll & Bruce MurrayOnHawaii.com

Updated - April 2001

For many experienced cruisers who have sailed the seven seas aboard one of the countless mega-cruise ships, it is time to step up a notch and consider the elite side of cruising.

Smaller, in this case, is better and definitely more versatile. The dramatic swing from flashy cruise ships with Las Vegas-style floorshows, more dining opportunities than the Food Channel, and shopping malls that willingly put a major dent in your plastic, to smaller more intimate vessels, have far-reaching rewards.

Classical Cruises ship Panorama

Thinking small will bring you to the 7-day trip aboard Classical Cruises' 44-guest, three-masted sailing/motor yacht Panorama sailing from Bordeaux to the Beaches of Normandy, led by special guest Chef Alain Sailhac. The slick boat (don't call her a ship) is proud of her outside staterooms, each with real portholes, a television with VCR, and refrigerator to keep the wine chilled.

Designed for transatlantic crossings, the yacht sports a compact library, comfortable dining room/lounge for open seating, and best of all, the feel of the awesome Atlantic whispering beneath your toes as she carries you in and out of all the nooks and crannies of Western France, following in the wake of ancient mariners and crafty smugglers to age-old seaports with medieval cathedrals and haunting cobblestone pathways.

With food and wine swirling through the pleasure senses, the ambiance is both festive and educational as fables, folklore, and fairy tales unfold. The journey is a rare blending of French culinary tradition, ancient history, and glamorous romance while exploring an ageless side of France many foreign visitors overlook.

The awesome stretch of coast is majestic and rugged with the ever-changing moods of resolutely independent Brittany (the most northwesterly point in France), the ageless landscapes of the Western Loire, historic Normandy, and the vineyards of Cognac Country that form a lush setting for La Rochelle, the last major city in France to be liberated during World War II.

Leading Panorama guests along the distinguished French culinary path is the passionate Master Chef Sailhac, a French native, and senior dean of studies at The French Culinary Institute, New York City, accompanied by his equally prestigious wife, Arlene, owner/director of the De Gustibus Macy's Cooking School in New York.

The Panorama's first port stop is La Rochelle, a dramatic medieval walled harbor, with the largest yachting center on the coast, a towering clock gate, and elegant 13th to 17th Century buildings just begging to be photographed.

Sidewalk cafes, bicycle paths, and buildings with colorful shutters line the small harbor where at low tide the boats sit askew on the bottom of the muddy bay waiting for the aloof Atlantic to show them some respect.

Devoid of the massive summer crowds seen on the Riviera Coast, the Atlantic side of France has an exhilarating splendor captured immediately for us as we browse through La Flotte and St. Martin markets on Il de Re, an attractive, eye-popping island connected from La Rochelle by a bridge with a view. The friendly markets, clean as a pin, filled with fresh oysters and clams, stacks of cheeses, and mounds of leafy vegetables, seem a world removed from the hustle and bustle of Europe's large cities. Later we enjoy a private tour and tasting at the Pineau/Cognac Cooperative in Le Bois Plage and meet winemakers dedicated to the subtle and mysterious art of converting grapes to an infinite splendor.

With much gusto, our chef selects the best from the marketplaces including oysters, one of the specialties along this coast, which are lovingly prepared for a festive dinner that night aboard the Panorama.

Classical Cruises
Classical Cruises ship Harmony

Former students of Ms. Sailhac's cooking school assist the cooks in the tiny galley while other guests sit astern enjoying the trailing sea birds, sipping wine, and shelling peas. With sly humor, Chef Sailhac displays his many talents giving cooking demonstrations replete with helpful insights to everyday cooking, French style.

Before dinner, guests gather at the bar on the upper open deck, aft, for the Captain's cocktail party, and talk of the next port stop at Belle-Ile, a 32-square-mile Breton Island, 117 nautical miles up the coast.

The following morning, after a buffet breakfast, we moor off the rocky south coast of Brittany and tender to Re, and the attractive fishing village of Le Palais, overlooking a small bay with bobbing sailboats and noisy sea birds in search of sardines.

French-speaking Acadian refugees from Nova Scotia settled on Belle-Ile in the 18th Century. Later, when the island spoke to actor Sarah Bernhardt's heart, a summer home was built for her in the northwestern part of Belle-Ile.

The melancholy but gorgeous wind-swept island carved by wind and rain, with a humbling 30-foot tide has a distinct soft light that has also captured the hearts of artists. In the late 1860s, Claude Monet, trying to capture the essence of Brittany and the island, painted the same rocky seascape 36 times in two months. Residents say it was the Cognac and oysters that urged him on.

French Atlantic
Classical Cruises ship Panorama

An intriguing reminder of ongoing world politics is the massive Vauban Citadel built in 1572, complete with canons, towers, and a deep moat that was the final resting-place for the heads of unlucky prisoners.

Gazing at the large oil portraits of the smug reigning monarchy draped in silky finery in the Citadel's museum, you can't help but wonder if the royalty, sipping their fine wines, and dabbling at platters of oysters, ever noticed the heads floating out to sea.

With a dip of her bow in late afternoon the Panorama waves goodbye to Belle-Ile and sails to Roscoff 175 nautical miles away. The skipper hoists the sails and the yacht is suddenly transformed into an elegant sea-going creature, at ease with the wind, and creaking with delight.

A glorious sunset unfolds on the bow of the boat, lighting up the sky, reflecting off the sails and the rain clouds that are spread along the horizon like chunks of vivid pink cotton candy.

A blue sky peeked down on one of Europe's most beautiful harbors, favored by Louis 14th, when we sailed into Roscoff the following dawn. The town, stone-to-stone with cobbled pathways and half-timbered houses built in the 1700s, is a remarkable backdrop to a day full of memories.

A short drive through a rural landscape of typical, old stone Brittany farmhouses surrounded by fields of corn, cabbage, cauliflower, and artichokes, brings us to Morlaix, a town that will capture your heart.

Classical Cruises ship Callisto

For some of us, it is love at first sight, a rarity in life, yet there we are promising ourselves we will return to Morlaix another summer, to meet the people, and sip the wine. Dominated by a towering 19th Century viaduct built with pink granite, the town, with its roots to the 12th Century, is designed around a majestic central promenade, city hall, and Abbey Church (1238-1250) adjacent to the Museum Des Jacobins.

Other enormous bonuses are three onshore dining experiences. The first, after a short drive to St-Thegonnec, is a memorable lunch in a light and airy family-owned country inn with a wine list topping 300 bottles.

Early the following morning we sail on a glass-like ocean to St. Malo at the mouth of the Rance River and moor smack-dab in the middle of the city next to a large fortress wall rimming the old town. Nearby is the colorful village of Cancale lined with sidewalk cafes serving seafood and complete with an outdoor fast food oyster stand with a splash of lemon served on the side. We visit one of the 50 or so bustling oyster farms in the Bay of Mont. St. Michel, and enjoy a fresh harvest of oysters and a local Muscadet wine for breakfast.

An elegant lunch with silver, china and black-tie service is presented at Tirel Guerin in La Gouesniere before we climb steep-stairways through 12th Century Mont St. Michel, a former Benedictine Abbey and French Icon towering up from the bay in a swirling montage of time-weary stone.

Classical Cruises ship Clelia

By now we're all on a first-name basis and shocked at how quickly the days disappear. Chef Sailhac's demonstration dinner of lobster and a delightful vegetable terrine is the perfect cap after a visit to Cherbourg for some of the guests, and for others a trip to the celebrated Tapestry Museum and Cathedral in Bayeux, and the beaches of Normandy.

On the last day from the port of Le Havre, we explore Rouen, rich in medieval buildings, where Joan of Arc died in 1431. Notre-Dame Cathedral, a masterpiece of early Gothic sculpture, the 14th Century clock tower, and the renowned Norman ruin, Jumieges Abbey on the lower Seine, is our farewell to French Atlantic history.

Our culinary farewell is an elaborate six-course lunch at the Michelin-ranked Gill Restaurant in Rouen. By now we are so comfortable with the friendly French, a vivacious passenger from Glendale, California became enamored with the place setting and purchased two of the silver-plated flat fish spoons--a first for the Gill Restaurant.

Classical Cruises ship Panorama

Back on board the Panorama, a last-night cocktail party aft is filled with memories and familiar faces. Life goes onward, as does the Panorama. Call Classical Cruises at (800) 252-7745; (212) 794-3200 for a brochure and details.