COGNAC, France — "Making a great cognac is easy. All you need is a great-grandfather, a grandfather and a father who have done it before you," says Cyril Camus, the current head of the family that founded the Maison Camus, one of the top five houses in France's Cognac region.
The other four — Martell, Remy-Martin, Hennessey and Courvoisier — get more ink, but the 150-year-old House of Camus is the only one that remains independently owned.
I am here to test Monsieur Camus' theory that making cognac is easy. I don't have a great-grandfather, grandfather or father giving me guidance, but I do have the encouragement of Frederic DeZauzier, the brand's global ambassador.
With the intensity of a chemistry student, I measure out the number of ounces of each sample cognac provided to create my own special blend. I must look bemused, as the ever-gracious DeZauzier rewards me with a beaming smile — the toothy equivalent of a thumbs-up. Easy for him — he won't be the one drinking my eventual concoction.
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Still, it's all in fun, and visitors to Camus can tour the impressive distillery and then come up with the recipe for their own cognac. A few things I learned about cognac while touring: The amber liquid, so prized by connoisseurs, was created to avoid the tax on wine (although it's made 100 percent from grapes, which are boiled down to make brandy, resulted in a lower tax); making it involves a double-distillation process in copper pot stills, and it must be aged at least two years in French oak barrels (premium brands require a minimum of six years aging).
Another lesson learned: if Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux have gained international fame as a result of their eponymous libations, Poitou-Charentes, home of cognac, remains something of a mystery to most travelers. That's a shame. Located 100 miles north of Bordeaux, it is one of France's most unspoiled regions, with a landscape that includes forests, meadows, beaches and marshlands.
It's claimed that the region has more sunny days than any part of France except the Cote d'Azur, but its major appeal lies in the 20-mile radius surrounding the Charente River. That radius is known as the Golden Circle. Here, the cognac houses produce their liquid gold.
The town of Cognac lives up to every American's image of a charming European town. It's situated mainly on the left bank of the Charente, and its medieval quarter consists of timber-framed buildings erected between the 15th and the 18th centuries. Their richly adorned façades boast sculptures of fearsome gargoyles and less-fearsome salamanders, the symbol of King Francois I, who was born here in 1494.
To get into a cognac state of mind (the drink, not the town), head to the Bar Louise at the Hotel Francois 1er, where the garrulous barman Yoann Saillard will mix up a few of his specialty cocktails. He does a flaming concoction that is pure theater.
La Rochelle and the islands
Once you get your fill of cognac (if you ever do) and want to see what else the region has to offer, head to the port of La Rochelle and the lovely islands — Ile de Re, easily accessible by bridge, and Aix, a ferry ride away.
La Rochelle might be something of an unknown to most Americans, but the picturesque port on the Bay of Biscay is the third most visited city in France by Europeans, with good reason. Founded in the 10th century, it has an impressive history, which includes Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Knights Templar, the Huguenots and the infamous Cardinal Richelieu. The 1627 siege of the city by the cardinal was part of the plot of Alexandre Dumas' novel The Three Musketeers.
Nowhere does that history come more alive than in the Vieux Port (Old Harbor), one of the loveliest in France, and now home to a fleet of pleasure boats. Visitors can walk along La Rochelle's walls, where three 14th-century stone towers stand sentinel over the harbor. The Tour de la Lanterne is especially noteworthy for the messages scrawled on its walls by English privateers once imprisoned there.
The city's 21st-century attractions include a first-rate aquarium and myriad outdoor cafes scattered along the waterfront.
Ile de Re, reachable by bridge from La Rochelle, was known as far back as Roman times. The island came under English rule when its chatelaine, Eleanor of Aquitaine, married the English king, Henry II. It bounced back and forth between English and French rule until the 14th century, when it was returned to France.
Wandering around the main town of Saint-Martin-de-Re, with its gleaming white buildings and café-studded harbor, I thought it resembled one of the Greek islands. With air scented in equal parts by tangy salt from the sea and from flowering bougainvillea and jasmine, and narrow cobbled streets boasting traditional white cottages with green shutters, the town is storybook picturesque.
Still, it might be a case of look but don't touch, unless you're a frequent visitor, like Princess Caroline of Monaco or Johnny Depp. Its high-end boutiques and galleries have prices that equal those in Paris — because Ile de Re is the vacation getaway of choice for France's rich and powerful.
You might call it the Hamptons of France. Those with multi-million-Euro homes here are notoriously clannish and unwelcoming to those who try to enter the island's housing market. If you're just visiting, not buying, there's much to see, including a 17th-century lighthouse, Phare des Baleines, one of the tallest in France.
The southwestern side of the island has beautiful sandy beaches, and the northeast is made up of oyster beds and salt marshes (the region's oysters are arguably the best in France, and its sea salt some of the best in the world). For an unusual travel experience, tour the salt beds by foot, bicycle or canoe.
A more low-key, affordable option to Ile de Re is its sister island, Aix (pronounced X). With 215 permanent year-round residents, the island population swells in summer to about 5,000 — day-trippers and those in search of a real get-away-from-it-all experience.
With no cars on the island, visitors get around on foot, bicycle or horse-drawn carriage. A good introduction is the one-hour carriage tour, which takes visitors past a varied terrain of beaches, marshes and pine forests.
Aix's primary attraction is the two-story house built by Napoleon I when he first came to the island in 1808. It is here that he spent his last days on French soil before heading into exile on St. Helena in 1815, after his defeat by the British at the Battle of Waterloo.
The house, now a museum, has one unique feature: All the clocks show 5:49 a.m., the exact time of Napoleon's death on May 5, 1821.