Wednesday 28 September 2016

Set sail for great food, fun and bottled treasure!

Ever in search of new places to visit on her annual 'booze cruise' to France, Lucinda O'Sullivan was delighted by great service and lodgings

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

OOH LA LA: Sophie and Laurent Cardoso of L’Auberge aux Marais
OOH LA LA: Sophie and Laurent Cardoso of L’Auberge aux Marais
Gintaras, the officer in charge of the restaurants on the MS Oscar Wilde

We took to the high seas last week on what has become our annual autumnal wine-buying foray to France.

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I can't recommend it enough. And from the emails I receive throughout the year (not to mention the enthusiastic oenophiles I meet loading up their boots), I know many of you love doing the same.

We find that what we save on the wine and booze prices pays for our trip and gives us a great little break before the winter sets in. We go to buy everyday wine - of which there is an awful lot there for under a fiver. Jameson whiskey sells at €17.50 and Pineau de Charente, a whopping €32 here in Ireland, is priced between €6.95/€7.50 in France. Investing in a dozen bottles of that saved €300 alone!

We travelled via Irish Ferries on the MS Oscar Wilde and it was superb from start to finish. The cabins were refitted a couple of years ago and they're excellent. I don't like flying, so I like my comforts when I set sail! With a beauty salon, hairdressers, cinema, and a number of dining options on board, it was the perfect cruise experience.

We dined in the Berneval restaurant on perfectly seared scallops with lemon and capers, followed by great foie gras topped fillet steaks Rossini, finishing with delicious ginger ice-cream. We were totally impressed with the crew throughout our voyage, and it was an absolute joy to experience real high-end restaurant service in the classic style.

A good ship really runs like a good hotel, and the accommodation and food sector on the Oscar Wilde is no different. Here it is the responsibility of Chief Purser Mark Stukey. The officer and maitre d' in charge of the restaurants was Gintaras, who was absolutely wonderful. Gintaras is from Lithuania and previously spent 13 years working on Celebrity Cruises. He introduced us to Grzegorz, a delightful waiter from Poland, who told us of his long career at sea, having worked on the Cunard liners Queen Mary II and the Queen Elizabeth II. These men have met everybody and it's hard not to be impressed by their total professionalism and experience.

We sailed into Roscoff and out of Cherbourg. On arrival, we drove straight down to Geant at Morlaix, to start the process of buying a little every day. We drove over then to Dinard, which is a chic town with lots of lovely little shops. I always like to find new places to stay, and to vary the price level of our accommodations and experiences.

Our first night was spent at Chateau Hotel du Colombier on the outskirts of Saint-Malo. It is an extremely pretty 18th C petite pink, turreted manor house, which coincidentally was built in 1715 by one of the East India Company's managers. Now with a boutique hotel feel, it is bedecked with wood panelled walls and lots of quirky antiques.

It changed ownership last year, which saw the arrival of new chef William Langlet and his wife - hotel manager Carole - who told me she spent three months on an exchange visit in Athlone.

We had a lovely superior grade room at €154, overlooking vast lawns, and dined from a menu that offered 2/3 courses for €24/€36 (saintmalo-hotelcolombier.com).

Next day, having bought some wine at Carrefour St Malo, we popped up to a favourite spot in nearby Cancale for lunch. Known for its oysters, there are lots of open air eateries in Cancale, but we always head for Le Grand Large to chomp on their great three-tiered seafood platter, (hotellegrandlarge.com).

Fully fortified, we whisked through Mont St Michel and on to Avranches. There are a number of places in this area that we have stayed in and can recommend, including Hotel de La Croix d'Or in the centre of Avranches, which has a good restaurant, (hotel-restaurant-avranches-croix-dor.com).

A favourite stop off for us is Auberge du Terroir in the sweet little hamlet of Servon, which we found by accident a few years ago. Owned by Thierry Le Fort and his wife, Annie, it now has a Michelin Bib, so you will need to book ahead, (Tel: +33 2 33 60 17 92). Also look out for Auberge de Selune in Ducey (selune.com).

Moving up along the Manche peninsula, we headed for L'Auberge aux Marais, where we had a double room with breakfast at €65 for two! This has been recently taken over by a delightful couple from Paris, Sophie and Laurent Cardoso, who told me it has long been their dream to leave the hectic Parisian lifestyle. Enthusiastic bikers, they have travelled a lot of the world.

The rooms there are tres simple and the restaurant offered two choices on each course. Laurent is a great chef and for under €20 each we shared muffin au poireax (a mini leek tart), Nordic dilled salmon, amazing turbot and fillet steak, with gratin Dauphinoise, sauce Bearnaise, finishing with chocolate mousse, (auberge-aux-marais.com).

This is very convenient for Sainte-Mere-Eglise, which was the first town to be liberated by the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions on D-Day in 1944. The town's church spire still has a replica hanging from it of a parachutist who got caught in the landings but who survived by playing dead (the incident was portrayed in the movie The Longest Day).

We then drove out to Utah Beach and up along the sun-drenched coast through Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue and Barfleur before heading for Hotel Des Isles on the water's edge at Barneville. Barneville-Carteret are two side-by-side holiday resorts and are very convenient for Cherbourg, being only 36kms away. For many years, we have stayed at the Carteret end, at Hotel La Marine, which has a Michelin starred restaurant.

I was curious to see what Hotel Des Isles, which had been done up in recent years, had to offer. It didn't disappoint - straight out of an interior design magazine - chic and gorgeous in a very contemporary fashion.

We whirled up to find the outside deck area packed with people having Sunday lunch and we thought that we were in heaven. Our room here was €139, (hotel-des-isles.com).

Next day, having picked up more vino at Carrefour in Barneville, which was very good and totally peaceful, we moved up to La Marine in Carteret. The hotel is set on an estuary (which has a legendary 'pong') and is designed like a great, gleaming beached yacht. We had booked a basic room here, facing onto the street rather than having a seaview, on a deal at €103 - perfect for a stopover.

If you were going for a few days you might want to treat yourself to one of their fantastic suites, but we were only in and out. Dinner was superb, it's very much a fine dining experience, but if you wanted something more casual, there is a place along the quay called Le Cap which serves a fantastic sole meuniere as well as superb chargrilled lobster. Very often, I just prefer that kind of great, straightforward food! (hotelmarine.com). Bon Voyage!

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