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Cruise holidays: Raymond Blanc ventures into the heart of secret France

Last updated at 6:28 PM on 2nd January 2012

When you lead a busy life, as I do, it’s hard to get away for a couple of weeks for a proper break. Long-distance travel is exhausting in itself, too.

But we all need to recharge our batteries from time to time, to switch off completely, relax and catch up with family and friends, even if it’s just for a few days – and especially after an injury.

Fortunately, I am completely back on my feet now after falling down stairs last year and breaking a leg – not to be recommended!

Soaking up the scenery: Raymond Blanc and his family travelled on Hirondelle

I am biased, of course, about the allure of France, having been born in Besancon, capital of the Franche Comte region. France is easy to get to for us, and the countryside really is so beautiful. There are few greater pleasures than drifting quietly along its rivers and canals, past lovely chateaux, pretty villages, idyllic countryside, perhaps with a nice glass of wine in your hand, and getting a little sunshine on your face. Being looked after, letting someone else make all the arrangements – and do the cooking – is a luxury for me.

Afloat in France, an upmarket canal and river-cruising company that’s part of Orient-Express Hotels, has five peniche-hotels, luxury barges that cruise through Burgundy, Provence, the Rhone Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon and the Loire Valley.

I spent a few days on board Hirondelle with my fiancee Natalia, her daughter Tata and my son Sebastien. The other vessels are Alouette, Fleur de Lys, Amarylis and Napoleon, with room for just four to 12 passengers, depending on the barge.

Standard cruises last six nights and you book per cabin, but you can hire a whole barge yourself, too, for as long as you want. I think it’s best to take over the whole thing to share with people you know – family and friends – so it feels as if you’re on your own personal barge.

Hirondelle has four cabins. There’s a sun deck and a lounge with TV and DVD player, and even a little library. Reading is a huge luxury for me – I love it, and I always take four or five books with me on holiday.

A portrait image of chef Raymond Blanc

Raymond Blanc says: ‘There are few greater pleasures than drifting quietly along France’s rivers and canals’

Hirondelle cruises through the Loire, boarding at Plagny on the Canal Lateral a la Loire and ending up on the Canal de Briare to Rogny-Les-Sept-Ecluses.

Food and wine are a big part of the experience, naturally, with visits to local wine areas like Chavignol, where many delicious Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume wines are made, and food producers such as a goat’s cheese farm at Menetreol. I didn’t buy any wine to bring home, though. That’s a bit of a regret.

You can also walk round markets with the chef from the barge to pick up fresh seasonal ingredients – wonderful cheeses, bread, pâtés, fantastic food – for lunch. You can even have on-board cookery classes if you need them.

Other sightseeing destinations on Hirondelle included the private chateau and gardens at Apremont, the pretty town of Nevers, the 1,000-year-old chateau at Saint-Fargeau and La Charite-sur-Loire, a resting place for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Of course, you don’t have to do everything, and if you want to stay behind and just relax, there’s no problem. I sail and scuba-dive but not often enough, so I have to relearn all the time.

On this trip, I did a little cycling along the canal paths but you can do as many or as few activities as you like, all organised personally for you. These cruises are good value for money, if you look at what’s included – meals, wine, sightseeing, activities, and on-board staff to look after you. Whichever country I visit, I always come back with different ideas, paintings, statues and other works of art, which I use in the rooms at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, the restaurant and hotel in Oxfordshire where I am Chef Patron. Travel can be so inspiring as well as relaxing.

My advice would be to sort out everything you need to do before you go away so you can really switch off, and keep it casual clothes-wise. That’s what was lovely about this trip – it was so relaxed. In fact, it was the greatest relaxing experience of my life. I would recommend it to any young executive who is exhausted, or any family wishing to reconnect with the simple pleasures of live.

I met some marvellous people; it’s a lovely thing to do. I wish more people would discover this holiday.

Getting there

Cruises on Hirondelle cost from £3,000 per person, including private transfer from Paris to Hirondelle and back, six nights’ accommodation, all meals and drinks, private sightseeing and all local transfers. Eurostar London-Paris return from £340pp. The season is from April to October 2012. Call 0845 077 22 22 or visit orient-express.com.


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