An Encounter With Sacred White Lions in Africa

An Encounter With Sacred White Lions in Africa


The White Lions of Timbavati are under threat of extinction.
Thanks to conservationists like Linda Tucker, founder of the Global White Lion Trust, they are being protected and bred in their natural habitat at a special reserve near the Kruger. Gina Baksa relates her own up-close encounter with the magical star lions…


Like a lover’s caress, the rhythmic pulse of South Africa is intoxicating. Once under your skin, her visceral warmth, energy and wildness remains forever in your senses and your heart.

My first visit to the country was earlier this year and I still feel her heartbeat. A life-changing inner and outer journey that took me to Johannesburg and the Kruger National Park, via the White Lions of Timbavati to the breath-taking scenery in and around Cape Town and along the Cape Coast.

The view from Table Mountain, diving with sharks, glamping at Ngala reserve, the Avatar-like scenery at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and a moving visit to Robben Island – all were outstanding. Yet the absolute highlight was a 3-day visit to Tsau! – home of the sacred White Lions of Timbavati and headquarters of the Global White Lion Trust founded by conservationist Linda Tucker.

The Timbavati region lies in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa – an hour’s flight west of Johannesburg – and borders the immense Kruger National Park. Located on the fabled Nilotic meridian (line of First Time and river of gold) and so linked to the Giza Pyramids and other sacred sites in Africa, this region bestows a powerful transformative energy to all who visit her.

The white lions originate from this magical land and are regarded as sacred throughout Africa, especially for the local Shangaan people of the Timbavati who believe these majestic beings have been sent by God to protect humanity at a time of crisis on Earth. They consider the white lions to be Star Lions – messengers from the Sirius constellation. In fact, the word ‘Timbavati’ means ‘falling down of a star’ in Zulu – these beings truly are interstellar in origin. 

Today, there are less than 13 white lions in their original habitat, but countless numbers have been bred across the world, mostly for petting zoos and circuses, and for the despicable canned hunting industry. And despite enormous international pressure, they are still not protected by national or international law.

After a life-changing encounter with a pride of lions in the bush – where she and her party were rescued at night by sangoma (medicine woman) Maria Khosa – Linda went back to her advertising world, but was compelled to return to Africa a few years later, determined to track down the woman who’d saved her life.

Her encounter with Maria, chronicled in her books Mystery of the White Lions and Saving the White Lions led to her being recognised by Maria as ‘Keeper of the White Lions’ and as a result Linda has dedicated her life to saving these incredible beings. Powerful meetings with Zulu shaman Credo Mutwa further amplified her intuition and her knowing that her life’s purpose was to save the white lions from extinction and re-introduce them to the land of their birth – the sacred Timbavati.

Together with her partner and fellow lion ecologist Jason Turner they re-introduced the first white lion to its natural habitat – on their 2500 acres of bushland in Timbavati. Here a pride of white lions live and hunt – protected from poachers and canned hunters.

My four-day group visit to the Tsau! conservancy was an incredible adventure in consciousness and a dream made manifest. Seeing the majestic white lions in their natural habitat and in such close proximity was awe inspiring. 

Arriving mid-afternoon, our first drive at magical dusk richly rewarded us with an encounter between tawny lioness Tsalu, calling to her friend Cleopatra, who was then living on a neighbouring property. Meeting each other at the fence every day, the lionesses primal need for company overpowering both their natural instincts. For Cleopatra the instinct to stay with her pride and for Tswalu the instinct not to bring another female into the Tsau! family of white lions. Happily the two lionesses were reunited last month, with Cleo now resident at Tsau!

As Tsalu approached our vehicle, my heart leapt into my throat. Majestic, powerful – neither words adequately describe the sheer magnificence of this powerful predator. And the deep love I felt for her as she drew near. Advised not to maintain eye contact for long, I looked into her piercing blue eyes for a second or two, before lowering them, in complete reverence. So much more than a ‘lion’ this star being and her tribe are emphatically from another realm. I felt honoured, exhilarated and incredibly grateful to experience her greatness; her all-seeing, all-knowing presence that she gifted us with. 

Later, we followed male lion Zukhara along the path as he met his brother Matsieng, rubbing their heads together in greeting. A truly beautiful sight, the lions in this pride are so tactile and loving with each other. Monitered twice a day – they wear radio-tracking collars – signals are picked up by the rangers using GPS. Not only does this make tracking easier, it also safeguards the lions against poachers – an ever-present threat.

Hearing the white lions roar during a rosy-fingered dawn, however, can be a terrifying sound – especially for the first time. It creates a primal urge to run – even when you rationally know you are safe. Most lion’s roars are followed by 15 or so huffs, but the white lions huff around 30 times. Their resonant calls a reminder to allow our own voice and our own truth to come from deep within us.

On the night of the peregrine moon – when the lunar planet comes closest to Earth – we gathered around the intoxicating fire pit, silent with our own thoughts and visions. Sleep was welcome after a long day; dreams deep and vivid. Lions came to me with messages for my present and my future. 

We stayed in comfortable rondavels (round houses) and food was delicious and plentiful, shared around a long dinner table open to the camp. 

Each dawn morning before the day’s drive, we were greeted by a palpable vibration of sounds and smells; pregnant with possibility. Africa is completely life-affirming. She demands your attention. And she demands you inhabit your body. Fully. 

We were blessed to share Camp Unicorn with Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s daughter Mpho Tutu, who accompanied us to an incredible dance performance at a local school, funded by the Global White Lion Trust. Her striking speech: “We are all learners” resounded around the sun-baked schoolyard as the children were acknowledged – as powerful souls in their own right and as potential future leaders.

I’ve never experienced such love as those children gave us. We high-fived each other as the music from their songs danced in the almost-dusk air. They have very little according to Western idea of wealth, but their eyes show their souls are rich beyond measure. What fierce leonine pride they showed us of their birthright. Their right to be here. To be seen and heard. 

A short drive to nearby Mufanyani cultural centre gave us the chance to join tribal dancers by the roaring fire, eat Mopani worms and have our bones read by Sarah – Maria Khosa’s sister – herself a revered Sangoma. The in and out breath of Africa; the smell of the earth: rich and lustrous, enveloped me in an embrace like no earthly Mother. It was the Mother – our Mother – who held me close during my time in South Africa. 

Soft dusk, orange sky oozed across the limitless sky each evening, the roar of the lions a reminder of our past – and perhaps of our future. Africa grounded me. She helped me lovingly inhabit my body again. She helped me reconnect to the source of my power, my being. And she reconnected me to my brothers and sisters from Sirius – the star lions. 

A trip to the white lions at Tsau! is life-changing and enchanting. A return to love, your visit will be a profound homecoming. An inner and outer journey re-connecting you to Source, to your Self, and above all to Nature and the country’s spectacular wildlife and landscapes. If you are hearing that call now, go! In the words of the Shangaan: ‘Inkomo Shinene’ – thank you very much South Africa. 

Start the adventure
Lynda Tucker’s books Mystery of the White Lions (2001) and Saving the White Lions (2013
White Lion Trust: whiteliontrust.org
Campaign against Canned Hunting: www.cannedlion.org

A Ski Safari Adventure in France & Switzerland

A Ski Safari Adventure in France & Switzerland


Gina Baksa enjoys a 4-day ski safari in France and Switzerland, exploring the Portes du Soleil resorts of Les Gets, Morzine, Avoriaz =1800 and Châtel


The vast ski area of the Portes du Soleil offers skiers and boarders 12 connected resorts in France and Switzerland. Boasting 600km of beautiful pistes of various grades, many of them located in and above authentic Savoyard villages.

A ski safari is the ideal way to see more of a ski region. Why visit the same resort year after year? On a ski safari, organisers carry your luggage, allowing you to ski unencumbered between resorts. From dense, wooded valleys to snow-capped peaks offering incomparable views of the Dents du Midi, Mont-Blanc and Lake Geneva, the Portes du Soleil is magnificent. Stay two or three nights in the same hotel and then simply ski on to your next resort. One ski pass allows access to all 12 resorts in the area.

My recent ski safari took me from family-oriented Les Gets, to picturesque Morzine – famous for its après-ski – via the lofty heights of ski-in, ski-out, car-free Avoriaz culminating in a ski down to charming Châtel.

Day 1 Arrival – Les Gets
Resort height: 1,170m
Snow range: 1,172 – 2,002m

Located between Lake Geneva (less than one hour’s drive) and Mont Blanc, compact, family friendly Les Gets has a permanent population of around 1303, which swells up to 17,000 during the height of the season. We take a taxi from Geneva airport, driving through snow-laden pine trees, under cerulean blue skies to our first destination, the charming village of Les Gets and our accommodation at the Hôtel Nagano, located in the heart of the village next to the ice rink. Breathing in the mountain scenery is beyond magical – it’s life-affirming.

Les Gets is an authentic Savoyard village with easy access to the slopes – you can ski either side of the valley at Les Chavannes and Mont Chéry. The village offers an excellent range of accommodation with luxury hotels such as the Chalet-Hotel Marmotte and the luxury chalet Grande Corniche. The main après-ski entertainment is along the main street. Choose from 40 restaurants, a fitness centre, myriad bars, pubs, a bowling alley, nightclubs and even a cinema. We took a bus to get around the village, and another bus takes you to Morzine. Skaters are catered for at Les Gets’ own ice rink, and children and toddlers have their own dedicated fun-ski areas at the Grand Cry territory, the mauve Milka chocolate run and the Chavannes boarder cross.

We enjoyed a superb lunch (duck and goats cheese wraps with superb smoothie and coffee) at the new Wild Beets Kitchen. Run by English couple Jo and Mark, the restaurant brings a super-fresh mainly vegan-veggie smorgasbord to Les Gets. The perfect filler before a gentle yoga workout with Mel outside the Restaurant la Grand Ourse (1750m) on the slopes of Mont Chéry.

Suitably stretched and relaxed, yoga is the perfect way to limber up pre-or-post skiing with the bonus of outstanding views of Mont Blanc. I can vouch for the cake and chocolat chaud here too. Relaxing later in the Hôtel Nagano’s sauna and pool, I feel sufficiently recharged to savour an aperitif and dinner at acclaimed Savoyard restaurant Fruitière des Perrières. A visit to this orgasmic gastronomic experience is a must when you’re in Les Gets.

Great slabs of Abondance cheese – made on-site – is melted before your very eyes… scrape off this divine dairy confection to accompany a selection of fine charcuterie. Alongside a superb local Savoyard Chignan Pinot Noir. Choose from fondue, raclette, reblochonnade and goats cheese raclette. This is Savoyard heaven on a plate.

Day 2: Les Gets to Morzine
Resort height: 1,000m
Snow range: 1,000-2,350m

Our first destination after a great breakfast at Hôtel Nagano is the ski rental at Nevada Sports in Les Gets. I haven’t skied in a year, and although I can get down the blues and reds, I haven’t had a lesson in my life. Ahem… slower skis for me please. We take the télécabine up to Mont Chéry (1535m) with its stunning views of Avoriaz hidden in the trees, Morzine, Mont Blanc, Les Dents Blanches and – hidden in the clouds – Mont Blanc.

The weather is fabulous and the views magnificent: Skiing down the red runs of Epervier and Chamois back down to Les Gets was drama free and I began to get my ski legs back – thanks to brilliant instruction from Chrys, our guide and a Morzine local. We also explore Les Perrières and Ranfoilly/Rosta areas. Lunch – superb – is at the Vaffieu restaurant at the top of the Folliets chair lift where we meet Sara who is guiding us for our afternoon spin down to Morzine. Book ahead since the gourmet French cuisine here is delicious, and very popular.

Crossing over to the other side of the valley we take the Charniaz chairlift up for a red run back down to le Grand Pré and then le têtes chairlift towards Chamossiere. From here we enjoy a selection of blues and reds (Arbis, Coutalays) between Chamossiere and Nyon, culminating in a gorgeous and easy (for me) tree-lined run via Lievre and Retour des Nants down into Morzine.

Morzine
Picturesque Morzine is famous for its lively après-ski scene as well as excellent access to the slopes and the 600km of pistes in the Portes du Soleil region. Choose from more than 100 restaurants, from Savoyard specials at La Rotonde via pizzas at the Alpine Lounge to Michelin-starred cuisine at L’Atelier, Hôtel Le Samoyède. Bars include the Dixie and the Cavern where you can sample some of the local Green Genepi.

If you’re aching after a hard day on the slopes I can recommend Morzine Massage. They do hotel/chalet visits across the Portes du Soleil region and are very good. I used the pool and jacuzzi at the Hotel Alpen Roc beforehand to loosen the muscles. Roll off the massage table into a hot bath before dinner at the fab Chaudanne restaurant. Popular with locals and tourists the welcome is warm and the a la carte menu fabulous. Great variety of meat, fish as well as Savoyard options. And a good wine list.

Luxury chalets in Morzine include the Luxury Chalet Joux Plane and Consensio Chalets. If you’d rather stay on the slopes then L’Equipe and Champs Fleuries at the base of the Pleney slopes have easy access to the village.

Day 3 – Morzine to Avoriaz 1800
Resort height: 1,800m
Snow range: 1,000-2,350m

Today’s ski safari takes us across to lofty Avoriaz – at 1800m – the highest resort in the Portes du Soleil region. Starting at the Super Morzine télécabine we are blessed with sunshine as we ski Super Morzine down to Proclou to start, then around Les Crêtes de Zore followed by a gentle run down into the centre of Avoriaz. This impressive purpose-built resort looks stunning in the winter sunshine – not at all how I’d imagine; the wooden-clad high-rise apartments somehow looking natural in this spectacular setting.

Our second guide Aurelie suggests a stop for coffee at the Village Igloo ice bar and restaurant. Open daily during the winter season, this massive igloo has indoor and outdoor areas and even offers overnight accommodation. Suitably fortified we took the Choucas chairlift up to the formidable Swiss Wall. I declined the 90-degree descent in favour of the chair lift, watching in comfort while my fellow skiers negotiate the giant moguls below. Gliding into Switzerland in such stunning scenery and incredible weather is magical. I’m in heaven! A short ski here and we lunch at another fabulous mountain restaurant – La Buvette des Clavets.

A hearty croute au fromage and salad, accompanied by fine Fendant wine from the Valais and we are off, across to the Planachaux and Grand Paradis near Champéry. The skiing here is amazing and the scenery out of this world. Not too crowded either. Heading back to Avoriaz via the Abricottine run we stop for an aperitif at the new Folie Douce bar before checking in to the Atria-Crozat apartments.

Founded by skier and visionary entrepreneur Jean Vuarnet, purpose-built Avoriaz is a bit like Marmite. You either love it or loathe it. Frankly all the photos I’ve seen just don’t do this stunning resort justice. The high-rise apartment buildings blend into the scenery; its built on a high plateau and is ski-in, ski-out. No lugging your gear onto buses or trams. And blissfully the resort is car-free.

Our luggage was collected by horse and sleigh and deposited at our fabulous Atria-Crozat apartments. Located in the Crozats district, the new Pierre & Vacances Les Crozats residence offers south-facing panoramic views over the Avoriaz and Portes de Soleil mountains. And has direct access to the ski slopes and the resort centre.  It also boasts a gym, sauna and hammam and heating ski lockers. Watching the sunset that evening before dinner at La Cabane in the centre of the resort (highly recommended) was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Avoriaz is ideal for beginners since the nursery slopes are next to the main resort. Intermediates also fare well with 240km of red and blue trails, while advanced skiers and boarders can head over to Chatel, Morgins and Champery as well as try the massive moguls on the Wall, head for pow or try the expert Les Haut Forts racing line. Off-piste opportunities are plentiful and there are four cross-country ski areas. There are 5 snow parks in Avoriaz including The Stash board park. As well as the 2000m2 indoor water park, Aquariaz, there are opportunities for ice-skating, sleigh rides and snowshoeing.

Day 4– Avoriaz to Chatel
Our day begins with a sumptuous breakfast at the only hotel in Avoriaz, the fabulous 4-star Hôtel des Dromonts. With more than a nod to the Sixties in décor and personality, this chic hideaway uses natural materials and makes full use of its refined yet quirky layout to make you feel you’ve stepped into a Bond movie. Avoriaz is car-free – instead people and luggage are carried around the resort by horses and sleighs. There are around 100 horses here – and they are all very well looked after. Our own sleigh ride and a visit to the horses’ stables proved that.

 We begin the day with blue run through the snow park The Stash – the first giant eco snow park in Europe and a haven for boarders and skiers. Designed by snowboarder entrepreneur Jake Burton, his vision was to create a forest area dedicated to freeride and freestyle.

It’s a spectacular area. We continue along the Combe à Fleurey towards our lunch stop in the quaint goats village of Les Lindarets. The portions at Restaurant La Crémaillére are immense! Goats cheese salad is superb and there are plenty of Savoyard options. Suffice to say you will never go hungry at any mountain restaurant in the Portes du Soleil – the standard of cuisine is very high.

Our new guide, Lionel Vuarand, took us across the Plaine Dranse down to Les Combes chairlift then we skied down into Châtel arriving at Pré-la-Joux. That night we dine at the fabulous Le Fiacre – very popular with tourists and locals the food is superb – a great selection of seafood as well as local cuisine. We stay at the centrally located Hôtel Macchi, a gorgeous family run hotel with its own spa and pool. And the best Ayurvedic massage ever. And a very friendly welcome from the hosts.

Day 5 – Châtel and La Chapelle d’Abondance
Resort height: 1,200m
Snow range:
1,100-2,200m

The most fabulous breakfast at Hôtel Macchi is followed by a brief tour of the village. Chatel is a low-rise chalet-style resort and quieter than its Portes du Soleil neighbours and well suited to families and couples. Savoyard character and charm is plentiful here with local restaurants and bars and a calmer après-ski. The skiing in Châtel is separated into two distinct areas, Barbossine-Super Châtel and Linga-Pre la Joux, with the former connecting to the Swiss face and the latter heading over to Portes du Soleil’s Avoriaz and beyond. We spent the morning skiing at the Super Chatel lift and skied in the Morgins area – very close to the Franco-Swiss border, then headed to La Chapelle d’Abondance via the télécabine La Pantiaz. There are some lovely gentle runs through the trees around Châtel, perfect for beginners to intermediates. And superb black runs at Super-Châtel and Linga – linked by chairlifts – for advanced skiers.

For those who prefer a more gentle pace, the area offers 40km of snowshoe trails. Non-skiers are well catered for with plenty of walking trails, two cinemas and a fabulous aquatic centre, located next to the Hôtel Macchi. The brave – or foolhardy – may want to try the Fantasticable – a 1,200m zip wire at the top of the Rochassons chairlift. Apparently it reaches speeds of up to 100km/h.

Many Châtellans (inhabitants of Châtel) continue to work in agriculture today (about 30 families in all), farming several hundred Abondance cattle, producing the famous Abondance cheese (AOC since 1990). We visited cheesemaker Mme Vuarand at her farm –  a cheesemaking family for four generations who even supply Harrods in London. The flavour is divine – and apparently for 8kg cheese they need 100 litres of milk. Inside for the winter her family’s dairy herd is non-stop manufacturing.

Recommended restaurants in the village are the Le Fiacre – we loved it – also Le Macchi at the Hotel Macchi, La Poya and La Fleur de Neige. Great lunch stops in the mountains are Changabang at the top of Les Prodains cable car Chez Nannon (Troncs Express chairlift) and the unique La Paika (Vorosses piste). This former shepherd’s hut serves up fabulous steaks and seafood.

Suffice to say I put on weight with all the local indulgence but what a pleasure! A Portes du Soleil ski safari is such a great way of experiencing different resorts in France and Switzerland. Ideal for beginners, intermediates and expert skiers and snowboarders as the Portes du Soleil has 32 challenging black runs and .

Ski Safari Portes du Soleil 
The Portes du Soleil is a huge ski area linking 12 French or Swiss village-resorts. Each resort has its own beautiful location with Lake Geneva on one side and Mont Blanc on the other. On a week’s holiday here, you can sample several of the 12 connected resorts in Switzerland and France. Best of all, just one ski pass gives access to all 12 resorts. From dense, wooded valleys to snow-capped peaks offering incomparable views of the Dents du Midi, Mont-Blanc and Lake Geneva, the Portes du Soleil is magnificent. Stay two or three nights in the same hotel and then ski or snowboard on to your next resort. I felt as if I’d been away four weeks not four nights. Highly recommended!

How & Where
The Portes du Soleil Ski Safari package includes:
* 8 days ski pass in Portes du Soleil.
* 7 nights with breakfast and city tax in 3 different properties in Switzerland and France.
* Welcome pack (map of the ski area, gifts and vouchers).
* Luggage transfer (1 luggage per person, max 23 kg).

On request:
* Ski equipment rental.
* Ski teacher / ski guide.
* Transfer from / to the airport.
* Concierge service for restaurant booking, activities, spa treatments etc

Ski Safari Packages:
Package Ski Safari premium – 2 191 CHF / 1 932,19€  per person (VAT included):
* Les Gets: Hôtel Marmotte – superior room.
* Avoriaz: Hôtel Les Dromonts – superior room.
* Champéry: Hôtel  Beau Séjour – lifestyle double room.

Package Ski Safari deluxe – 1 698 CHF / 1497,50€ per person (VAT included):
* Morzine: Hôtel Sporting – double room.
* Châtel: Hôtel Fleur de Neige – privilege room.
* Morgins: Hôtel Helvetia – double room

Plan the adventure – visit lesgets.com and morzine-avoriaz.com for more. 

 

Discovering Bordeaux’s Sustainable Side

Discovering Bordeaux’s Sustainable Side


Gina Baksa visits some of Bordeaux’s largest wine producers, to find out how they are leading the way in sustainable practices and environmental management


Sustainability is the mot du jour across many industries – and never more so than in the competitive world of wine making. According to a recent report from just-drinks.com, climate change is the main factor affecting global drinks companies who are fast adapting to unpredictable weather patterns that can decimate their profit margins. A case in point, the spring frosts of 2018 which wiped out some vignerons in the Bordeaux area. As a result, many Bordeaux growers and winemakers are now working together to create a safer and more environmentally sustainable environment. 

Crus et Domaines de France is the Bordeaux specialist arm of Groupe Chais de France and one of Bordeaux’s largest producers. It owns 16 châteaux covering 500 hectares of some of Bordeaux’s best terroirs -left and right bank, as well as having exclusive distribution of over 150 other châteaux.

The Grand Chais de France Group is the world’s largest exporter of French wine – UK drinkers will know them from the JP Chenet (80 million bottles sold worldwide in 2017) and Calvet brands. With annual sales of 400 million litres of wine and 35 million bottles of spirits in 173 countries globally, their resources (€1,089 billion in 2017) are sufficient to have acquired 15 properties in Bordeaux, including highly regarded left bank Crus Bourgeois, and some well-known right-bank estates, including St Emilion Grand Cru Classé Château Cantin, and Clos Beauregard in Pomerol. Using the expertise of oenophiles Michel Rolland and Hubert de Boûard the Groupe dominates the Bordeaux region, with exclusive distribution of 11 Bordeaux Grands Crus classé properties. The company is still privately owned by the Helfrich family based in Alsace.  

I’m in St Emilion, on the eastern edge of the Bordeaux wine-growing area, to visit premium properties that best embody Les Grands Chais’ commitment to environmental certification and setting the highest standards for sustainable practices across Bordeaux. St Emilion enjoys a favourable microclimate and is blessed with the presence of four rivers, as well as a predominately clay-limestone soil. This is ideal for maintaining the coolness and humidity required to growing Merlot – the premier grape of the region. 

My last visit to the region was decades ago. I can remember enjoying a snakebite or two before a Cure concert at Bordeaux University… fast forward and I’m at Château La Dominique in St Emilion, imbibing something altogether more sophisticated – the vineyard’s own Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2011. Over lunch at the trendy La Terrasse Route restaurant (literally in the heart of the vineyards) I chat sustainability with GCF Export Manager Emma Thienpoint.  

“Our main goal at Les Grand Chais de France is to help protect the environment,” she tells me. “We have 21 properties covering some 650 hectares that are being managed according to SME and HVE standards. You could say we are leading the way in sustainable production and management.”

Since 1997, the GCF’s goal has been to “produce a healthy grape to produce a quality wine to satisfy our customers while respecting the environment.” As a result, the SME (Environmental Management System) and HVE (xxxx) classifications have been introduced to encourage vignerons to improve their viticultural practices and minimise their impact on the environment through sustainable means. 

“It is envisaged that by 2020, every wine grower in the region will subscribe to best practices and then be granted the coveted SME logo on their bottles,” says Emma. 

 “Our goal is not about prestigious labels but about health, the environment, wine quality and vineyard sustainability.”

Château Cantin, St Emilion Grand Cru
Our first stop on our sustainable wine tour is elegant Château Cantin whose 17th-century outbuildings were built by Benedictine monks. Located on a limestone-clay plateau the vineyard’s 33 hectares are planted to Merlot and overseen by consultant oenologist Michel Rolland since 2009. GCT bought the estate in 2007. 

We meet GCF Bordeaux Head Winemaker Vincent Cachau who explains the restructuring that has taken place, including moving the Cabernet and Merlot around the vineyards and extensive replanting. The overall vision is “quality over quantity,” he tells us. Some of the oldest vines here are 40 to 50 years old.

Since 2006 Vincent has overseen the development of all the Grand Chais properties where respect for the environment is key to rehabilitation of vineyards. 

 

“We now manage close to 600 hectares of vine across our properties in the Bordeaux region,” he tell us. “From 35 hectare vineyards such as Château Cantin to a two-hectare vineyard at Margaux and even a 100-hectare Bordeaux Supérieur property. 

The main goal of Les Grand Chais de France is to achieve SME (Système de Management Environmental) certification across its Bordeaux portfolio. A commitment to promoting environmentally viticultural practices across the region. Sign up to the SME system you have a consultant allocated who guides you through the process. And can speak to other properties to share information.  Learn from each other. Recent change in attitude to consider the others. Societal expectations are changing more collaborative and more environment focused. 10 to 15 years. 

 

Vincent tells us the at the GCF philosophy is “to create the best grapes – and thus the best wine” which is why emphasis here is on viticulture not creating fancy cellars.

“We have 21 châteaux in the Bordeaux portfolio and our first steps are all about restructuring when we purchase a property,” he adds. “Creating the right planting density and good care of the root system. If you want good wine you have to have good fruit. You also have to have the right vegetation for each parcel of land. And use the right clones to achieve complexity of flavour.”

The key challenges to many winegrowers currently are the effects of climate change, with unpredictable weather patterns. As a result many owners have installed heaters in their vineyards, as well as weather stations to record precipitation, the results are then fed through to smartphones. This method also helps to predict frosts. 

Traditional techniques alongside modern technology
“For the last three years we have used satellite mapping (Oenoview) of our blocks,” says Vincent. “This helps us to understand the strength of the vine in each block via colour coding. Blue or purple signifies lack of nutrients, while dark and light green signifies good vigour. It’s precise to the metre”

Such accuracy (a photo is taken every two to three years) tells Vincent which grasses should be grown between the rows, and whether or not to increase competition in the rows. Thanks to the Oenoview technology, fertilizers can be added in different measures across the same plot. Instead of using the same amounts across the entire vineyard. A revolutionary concept yielding fruitful results, especially since spreaders are now embedded with GPS.  

“The GPS in the spreaders also helps us in winter for weed management, in spring for new plantings and in summer for de-leafing, soil analysis and in autumn to time the harvests.”

The real step change is that quality has taken priority over quantity. And GCF is unafraid to experiment. Previously at Château Cantin, the Cab Sauvignon was in a low-lying area due to frost risk. “Now we have decided to put Merlot in there, knowing the frost risk but it will produce better fruit. It’s all about the quality. Extraction is now better since the grapes are more balanced,” says Vincent. 

Organic fertilisation
The fertilizers used at GCF properties are all organic matter. No synthetics are used at all and the tractor is programmed so it gives specific doses in each vineyard parcel. This is more economical financially and also healthier for the vine.

Harvesting techniques
Harvests across the Bordeaux portfolio are decided according to traditional berry tasting, as well as chemical analysis and photo technology. Each harvest is tailored to each château and each block. As a result, Vincent’s harvest begins in August in the Entre deux Mers properties with white wines and finishes in late October with the last blocks of Sauternes. 

Are there any farmers with small parcels who are selling now? “Yes, increasingly,” Vincent tells me.  “As the average age among the Bordeaux vineyard owners the issues of succession and inheritance arise – especially if the vineyard isn’t profitable.” 

Prices for vineyards depends on the appellation. They can start at €20,000 a hectare up to €6,000,000 a hectare in Margaux. Wine is big business. 

Wine Extraction
Objective of harvest is to secure fruitful wines, so extraction is generally soft and delicate during the fermentation and maceration. The group uses Burgundian barrels so not to overpower the fruit. So at Château Cantin 50% are matured in new oak casks and the rest in 1-year old barrels. 

SME: Collaboration and respect for the community
SME accreditation means following best practices. Respect vineyard and the people and neighbours. Based on ISO1400 – standards of accreditation. Creating an environment working and living in the safest and healthiest environment possible. Not just about the vineyards getting better production but conscious of who estate impacts. Meet local community. Growers/schools/neighbour. Come and find out how the estate is being managed. Waste water effluent spray regimes and what chemicals if any and when. 

As well as pest control. We use sexual confusion (pheromones to confuse the males). 

Château Cantin Wine Tasting
Now for the tasting! We are at the table, spittoons and enthusiasm at the ready – eyeing up a wonderful selection of GCF wines – all available to buy in the UK via distributors such as Waitrose, Oxford Wine Company, Ocado and more. I can honestly say they are all superb. Not one that jarred.

Château Soutard Wine Tasting and Overnight
Our tasting complete we head over to Château Soutard just a few meters from the centre of St Emilion village. This stunning château – approached by an avenue of linden trees – dates back to 1513 and is one of the oldest properties on the Right Bank. It first rose to fame as a vineyard in the mid-1800s and is now owned by French insurance company Mondial. The beautiful 30-hectare estate is planted 63% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc, 8% Cab Sauvignon and 1% Malbec. The full-bodied flavours are thanks to the rich limestone plateau the vineyard is planted on. 

Completely renovated – both inside the château and all the wine-making facilities – by architect Fabien Pedelaborde the state-of-the art cellars are magnificent with chandeliers the centrepiece to steel vats, and a very Bond-like cave tasting room. Inside the mansion house the exquisite public rooms are warm and inviting and include four bedrooms, two seminar rooms, a library, reception rooms and beautiful gardens to explore. Château Cantin has received prizes for its wine tourism programme – highly recommended. 

We are staying overnight and my bedroom on the first floor is something out of Versailles. Wide canopied, high four poster, wonderful fabrics and prints and such bucolic and timeless views from the windows over the estate. 

Over a superb dinner I chat with Jean-Marc Dulong, the Director of Crus et Domaines de France, along with Adeline Tanguay Brand Ambassador of Château Cantin. Both share how wine tourism is opening up the once-private and often secretive Bordeaux wine estates to a wider public and the resultant beneficial effects. More visibility for the estates and greater awareness from the public.

We tasted the following wines that evening:
• Château Fonroque 2012 Saint Emillion Grand Cru classe:
• Château Soutard 2015:
• Château Grand Corbin Despagne 2011:
• SO Sauternes 2017: 

Château Cadet Bon
Replete from a fine petit dejeuner in the old kitchen at Château Soutard, we drive – literally around the corner in St Emilion – to Château Cadet Bon. This Saint-Emilion Grand Crus wine has received many plaudits from the industry and critics alike, and the vineyard has been in production since 1867. Planted 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, on a chalky-clay soil, the estate’s south-facing slopes occupy 7 hectares. With 5ha of Grand Cru Classé and 2ha of Grand Cru. In 2003 the Château stopped using all weed killer and herbicides as they could see it stopped oxygen from reaching the root system. Roots grow up not down when soil is compacted. 

Head winemaker Antoine tells us the vineyard is following SME guidelines and plans to become fully biodynamic – their first organic label will be in 2012, since it takes five to seven years for the root system to regenerate. The vinification procedure involves storage in small capacity gravity-fed thermoregulated tanks, with authentic soft and low fermentation of between five and ten days to ensure good ripeness and flavour. The grapes are blended for the very best complexity. And that I can attest having tasted the following here: 

Château Soutard: Saint Emilllion Grand Cru 2010, 2011 and 2016:
Petit Soutard:
Château Fleur de Lisse – St Emilion Grand Cru 2015:
Château Fonroque Saint Emillion Grand Cru classe:
Chateau Larmande Saint Emillion Grand

We also tasted superb vintages for their sister vineyard Château Bastor La Montagne 76, 89 and 97. 

And so it was that we continued to the home of these great vintages with their focus on expression and balance. Located in Preignac, one of five communes in the Sauternes appellation, Château Bastor La Montagne has 52 hectares planted to 80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc with a hit of Gris producing rich, full-bodied wines. The estate – on a landscape of sand, limestone, gravel and clay has royal connections having been owned by both the King of France and English royalty during the Middle Ages.

Tragically, during the great frost of 2017 almost half of this organic vineyard was lost to mildew. As a result special precautions are now being taken, including the installation of a weather station, and the chateau is confident of a great harvest for 2019. Located between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, humidity can get trapped on the land in between. There are no mechanical harvests here – the vines are all cut by hand – usually by the same crew each vendage. 

The last of our tastings, the wines we enjoyed included Les Remparts de Bastor-Lamontagne and Chateau Bastor Lamontagne Bordeaux Sec and Chateau Bastor Lamontgne???  All beautifully nuanced and refined. Perfect to drink on their own as well as an accompaniment to fish and meat. 

A worthy and refined finale to our whirlwind tour of some of the very best Bordeaux vineyards. I found it encouraging to see the collaboration between the estates, as well as the use of sustainable best practices to ensure the survival of one of the world’s greatest, most noble and most profitable businesses. The respect given by the growers to the land is tangible – they understand that the terroir and the vines are living organisms with a sensitivity to match. 

Today more than half of all winegrowers in the St Emilion area have SME status. The aim is that by 2023 all growers will be involved in the process. Otherwise they will not be able to market themselves with the St Emilion brand. A UNESCO Heritage site, St Emilion celebrates its 10 years of UNESCO status with a festival celebration between June 28 and 30. There will be grand party with wine tasting, concerts, pop-up food stalls and the chance to meet the talented men and women who run the region’s fabulous vineyards. Long live the grape! 

“To drink wine is to drink genius,” Baudelaire once said. I couldn’t agree more…

Review: Harmony of the Seas Inaugural Sail

Review: Harmony of the Seas Inaugural Sail


Ship ahoy! Gina Baksa climbs aboard Harmony of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship for a pre-inaugural sail from Southampton


Titanic is arguably not the right adjective to describe the Harmony of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s latest £800-million addition to its Oasis class, but this behemoth of a supercruiser certainly defies superlatives.

Invited by Royal Caribbean to come aboard for Harmony’s pre-inaugural trip, as a cruise virgin I was incredibly excited. Likewise my 82-year-old mother, who’d only had two hours sleep the night before and was now running on pure adrenaline.

I’d seen news reports of the 227,000-tonne Harmony of the Sea’s arrival at Southampton, marvelled at the statistics (60ft greater in length than the Statue of Liberty, weighs more than 17,000 African elephants, 2,747 staterooms, 20 restaurants, 7 neighbourhoods, more paintings than the Louvre, 6,780 guests and 2,100 international crew) but nothing could prepare me for my first sight of The Real Thing.

Royal Caribbean International’s Harmony of the Seas, the world’s largest and newest cruise ship, sails into Southampton, UK.

A floating city, skyscraper tall; we were dwarfed at the quayside in Southampton. Our iPad check-in was swift and efficient, and we easily found our way to the elevators and our stateroom on deck 9. It wasn’t the claustrophobic little cabin I’d imagined. Instead the light and spacious room boasted wall-to-ceiling French doors and a good-sized balcony and loungers. The kingsize bed was very comfortable and the compact bathroom had an excellent power shower. Fittings were all of good quality and there was plenty of storage space and good lighting, plus a widescreen TV on the wall at the end of the bed.

With a top cruising speed of 22 knots (25mph), this 215.5ft wide, 1,188foot long mamma took just 32 months to build at the shipyard at St Nazaire. I met one of her French builders in the lift who told me that Harmony had been delivered to Southampton ahead of time – hence the many snagging items still to be fixed and the presence of contractors.

As we discovered, Harmony of the Seas is strategically divided into 7 zones: Pool and Sports, the Boardwalk (with the amazing AquaTheater), Central Park (home to a tropical garden as well as some of the ship’s speciality restaurants), the Royal Promenade, the Entertainment Parade, the Youth Zone and the Vitality Spa areas.

The upper decks beckoned in the midday sun and cocktails in hand, we relaxed in one of the hundreds of (then) empty sun loungers, simply taking it all in and dealing with sensory overload. As you’d imagine there is a plentiful supply of alcohol available at the many indoor and outdoor bars. The Rising Tide Bar levitates over three decks, while the Bionic Bar robots will take your order via iPad and get cracking with the ceiling-mounted optics. It makes around two cocktails a minute.

A snifter of Dutch courage was all I needed to descend into the Ultimate Abyss – the tallest slide on the high seas, which drops 100ft from the Pool Zone on deck 16 to the Boardwalk on deck 6. Suffice to say I will not be doing it again, but the 12-second descent was incredibly fun – and scary! Screaming helps.

Adrenaline seekers will also love the two FlowRider surf simulators – located at the aft of the ship – where you can stand up or boogie board. Flanking the AquaTheater are two impressive rock-climbing walls, and I couldn’t help but notice the scary Zip Line experience – taking guests across an 82ft gap suspended nine decks above the Boardwalk. Not for the faint of heart!

Neither the Perfect Storm nor Splashaway Bay water pool areas appeared open during our visit but they looked ideal for families. The Perfect Storm is a spiralling waterslide, five decks above Central Park where three waterslides come together. Kids can race each other to the finish down three decks, while younger children and toddlers will love the Splashaway – a waterscape with slides, a massive drench bucket and multiplatform jungle gym. Take to your skates on the rink in Studio B and have a climb of the massive walls reaching up from the AquaTheater – both located on Deck 4.

Large visual deck plans on each floor by the elevators (there are 24 lifts in total) will give you your bearings, so despite my initial reservations, it’s easy to find your way around this monster of a ship. Most importantly, Voom Internet is accessible throughout Harmony of the Seas (apparently the ‘fastest Internet at sea’) according to Royal Caribbean. So if elderly parents wander for a coffee (or G&T) you can always track them down. My mother did get lost a couple of times and told me she’d always been rescued by ‘friendly and helpful staff’ who guided her back to her cabin.

Of course it’s the staff on board that can make or break a cruise holiday. From Alex our happy and helpful cabin guy to the lady at the Windjammer restaurant at lunch and the superb service at dinner, we were met with courtesy and a genuine desire to please. Many of the 2,100 crew members have left their families in Nicaragua, Jamaica and other countries for six months or more.

Our captain, the rather dashing Captain Gus Andersson was a calm presence throughout the cruise. In the press conference, he told us that Harmony of the Seas is wider than its sister ships and is very stable, due in part to innovative new technology. “We’ve changed the hull shape to make it more aerodynamic, and we have also used an air lubrication system to make it faster, reduce friction and improve efficiency.”

He also told us that Harmony is around 20% more efficient than her sister ship: “She uses less fuel, has had energy efficient light bulbs fitted throughout, and the air con units are more energy efficient.”

What is it like to handle the fastest ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet?

“It’s fantastic!,” he told us. “She is very easy to manoeuvre. When we turned around in the basin in Southampton yesterday, she turned on her axis (362.12 metres – the length of the ship) with very little force. We didn’t even use all the bow thrusters.”

Tasty food is a priority for most cruise ship guests. Alas, two days wasn’t long enough to sample all the 20 restaurants on Harmony of the Seas, but we made our way around a few. Lunch (and breakfast) at the Windjammer on deck 16 was superb: a smorgasbord of cold meats, cheeses, a wide variety of meat and veggie hot and cold dishes, a fabulous array of bakery and a great choice of deserts. It’s a huge space, so you can always find a window seat and look down on the zip liner and the mini golf below. Try speciality restaurant Izumi on deck 4. We loved their selection of hand rolled sushi, fresh sashimi and authentic hibachi. The elegant main dining area – with an eclectic menu – is situated over decks 3, 4 and 5. Our waiters were knowledgeable, friendly and gave us superb service. We enjoyed a succulent beef tenderloin and seafood linguini, paired with a bold Aussie 2007 Yangarra Estate Vineyard Cadenzia from McLaren Vale.

Jamie’s Italian has an outlet here, just one of the many restaurants in the Central Park area on deck 8. Unfortunately we had to leave our exquisite prawns mid-mouthful having been summoned to a muster drill. Duly assembled at the AquaTheater we were shown how to put on a lifejacket, but at no time during the presentation – or after – were we actually told where to find them. Mum and I played ‘hunt the life jacket cupboard’ until we got distracted at the Casino Royale on Deck 4. Replete with table games and machines, it’s also a smoker’s den, so avoid if you’re allergic.

A less toxic feature – for us anyway – was the art gallery on the same deck. Harmony of the Seas features a $6.5 million art collection of more than 3,000 works curated by International Corporate Art, and led by curatorial director Mariangela Capuzzo. The striking works combine painting, sculpture and installations like the impressive metallic ‘Head’ installation in the middle of the Royal Promenade. Designed by Czech artist David Cerny, the pieces consists of five tons of steel and embedded motors that move multiple plates to create a 3D head. Stairwells and corridors provide the backdrop for more artwork, while the Royal Loft Suites feature work by Benjamin Garcia, Steven MacIver and Irene Mamiye.
Harmony of the Seas offers three grades of luxury suite: Star, Sea and Sky Class, offering guests bespoke VIP concierge services, from planning a perfect date night to restaurant reservations and complimentary laundry and pressing. I had a look inside several staterooms that would make a cruise truly luxurious. The Crown Loft Suite with Balcony on deck 17, the Presidential Family Suite on 12, the Royal Family Suite with Balcony on 10, and the Aqua Theater Suite with Balcony on deck 8 were all superb. Cocooned in one of these suites you need never mix with anyone else and can enjoy all your meals in-house. Perfection! The luxury theme continues with superior retail outlets including Cartier, Hublot, Omega and Bulgari.

If you’re worried about weight gain on Harmony of the Seas, fear not. The Vitality at Sea Spa and Fitness centre has a massive gym area with a wide selection of cardio and resistance equipment, 29 treatment rooms and healthy dining options. Children also have their own fitness zone, the YSPA.

There are times when I completely forgot I was on a cruise ship in the English Channel sailing towards Jersey and France. It really felt like a giant shopping mall at times and somewhat reminiscent of the fabulous movie The Truman Show. I found I had to get out on deck for my brain to recalibrate.

Entertainment is always a highlight of any cruise, and this is where Royal Caribbean often excels. We enjoyed an outstanding version of Grease – far better performed by its talented cast than many West End shows I’ve seen, who thoroughly deserved their standing ovation. Likewise the ice skating talents in the magical show 1887. The main theatre has 1,300 seats, almost twice as big as London’s West End Garrick Theatre. Seats were very comfortable with excellent rake and legroom. Well done everyone in the cast. We also loved Azure – an American jazz singer from Hawaii who sang her heart out in the Jazz on 4 stage. A superb talent, catch her if you can.

By the time Mum and I had disembarked early on the Sunday morning, we’d changed from cruise-averse travellers to confirmed cruise-fans, having thoroughly enjoyed our 48 hours on board Harmony of the Seas. The great aspect of cruising on such a massive ship is that it’s the perfect multi-generational holiday – there really is something for everyone. In fact we enjoyed it so much we are booking a trip to the Norwegian fjords and the Med – both with Royal Caribbean. As Ratty said to Mole in the enchanting Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” – and that includes mega supercruisers like Harmony of the Seas.

My trip was courtesy of Royal Caribbean. A seven-night western Mediterranean cruise costs from £1,037pp all-inclusive for an interior room. Phone +44 (0)844 493 4005 to find out more and make a booking.