As I gaze around open-mouthed, I’m convinced that I’ve arrived in champagne heaven.
Never in my life have I seen so many bottles of bubbly, piled high in a vast labyrinth of underground tunnels stretching for more than 17 miles beneath arguably the most stately champagne house of them all: Moet & Chandon.
It’s an impressive sight. Millions of bottles are stored in this vast subterranean warren; neatly stacked in numerous rows in various stages of maturation – a process that can take up to eight years for the most prized vintages.
During our afternoon tour, we stroll past thousands of bottles before finishing with a tasting where the host entreaties us to savour the “fine effervescence” of the bubbles, which are the all-important key to this elite tipple.
It certainly injects a distinctive sparkle into our cruise through the rolling, vine-covered hills of French champagne country, travelling onboard European Waterways’ opulent hotel barge Panache, which sleeps just 12 guests.
Having joined in the city of Chalons-en-Champagne, we spend the next six days making delightfully slow progress through this rural idyll on the peaceful Canal lateral a la Marne and river Marne where other boats are a rarity.
Not surprisingly, our meandering journey becomes a voyage of epicurean excellence, dominated by the fizz this region famously produces, and perfectly complemented by the mouthwatering gourmet cuisine served on Panache at every turn.
“The onboard free bar ensures a steady flow of whatever takes our fancy”
This definitely isn’t a cruise for anyone watching their waistline, as it would be a crime to forego the succulent treats served. Each meal becomes a gastronomic extravaganza where we tuck into deliciously tender filet mignon and succulent pan-roasted scallops along with salty fresh oysters, chilli prawns and mussels bursting with flavour.
Another highlight is the cheese board, a veritable feast including Roquefort, Valencay, Camembert and Reblochon. We dive into these with abandon before savouring heavenly creations of strawberry and chocolate mousse, rhubarb and ginger sorbet and ganache tart.
The onboard free bar ensures a steady flow of whatever takes our fancy, while mealtimes are accompanied by a twin pairing of red and white wines – Sancerre, Pinot Noir, Chablis and Margaux to name a few.
It’s all so irresistible that I find myself tempted at every turn, so thank goodness for the fleet of bikes onboard that helps to salve my conscience as I join some of my cruise companions to pedal along the towpath in the hope of offsetting such indulgent living.
There are 11 of us on our cruise, though my friend Annette and I are the only Brits onboard. The others are a well-heeled and well-travelled bunch of retirees hailing from California and Australia – the oldest (and fittest) of
whom is 91 – and for most of them, the cruise is part of a longer Europe trip.
Such a small group ensures a house party-style atmosphere as we dine together at one big table and while away hours on-deck or in the comfortable lounge area, chatting and reading as we sail between stops.
We relish the peaceful ambience that allows us the luxury of time to sit and absorb blissful views and admire lines of poplar trees standing to attention along the canal banks, their leaves rustling in the breeze.
Each day brings a different exploration onshore, made easier by the two minibuses that accompany Panache on its 56-mile journey, parking up at each docking point and whisking us off on half-day outings.
As the hub of the Champagne region, Epernay is the focus of our tours because many of the 300 champagne houses (including Moet) are based here.
A visit to the independent Champagne Henriot leads us along winding roads to the hilltop where we sip its own variety of fizz, surrounded by serried rows of maturing vines and memorable views across verdant slopes dotted with blood-red poppies.
Our penultimate day is taken up with the spirit of commemoration rather than celebration at the US cemetery at Belleau Wood near the pretty riverside settlement of Dormans.
It’s here that American forces fought some of their fiercest battles of the First World War, resulting in 20,000 Allied and German casualties.
In such a pristine setting of beautifully manicured grounds dotted with long lines of ivory marble crosses, I can’t help but feel deeply moved by the ultimate sacrifice of those resting here.
It’s a sobering and thought-provoking contrast to the indulgences we’ve enjoyed and, in a silent toast later that evening, I pay tribute to the bravery of those whose fighting spirit adds such piquancy to a region overflowing with evocative flavours.
A six-night sailing between Chalons- en-Champagne and Chateau-Thierry in Champagne starts at £4,290pp and includes food and drink onboard, excursions, transfers to and from Paris and an open bar.
Full boat charters cost from £46,800 for 12 passengers.