As the average barge cruise may only travel about 20 or 25 miles during a six-night cruise, the pace is both leisurely and relaxing, and guests may take as many (or as few) of the (included) excursions along the way.
With my daughter, I experienced a barge cruise through France’s Lower Burgundy Canal aboard European Waterways’ (www.gobarging.com) 12-passenger L’Impressionniste. Our holiday began with a one-night stay in Paris, which allowed us to relax after the overnight flight and see a little of the city before boarding the Mercedes mini-bus which transported us to L’Impressionniste, a 1960s Dutch cargo barge that was converted to a hotel barge in 1998 and refurbished a few years ago.
A champagne welcome by Captain Rudy and the crew (five in all) set the tone for the voyage, which included soft drinks, beer, wine, liquor (“name” brands) and shore excursions.
Each cabin has a private bath and closet; ours had an L-shaped configuration of two single beds; a nearby cabin occupied by a couple had a double-bed arrangement. The public areas include a “saloon” with a lounge, bar and dining room and a deck for dining, lounging, picture taking and scenery-gazing. (There’s also a Jacuzzi.)
With more than 4,000 miles of navigable inland waters and a centuries-old, 100-canal waterway system, France may be the world’s top barge cruise destination. Part of the “entertainment” along our route was watching Captain Rudy navigate some of the 200 locks in the Burgundy Canal each day, skillfully steering the barge within a space that was only inches wider than the barge, as it was raised and lowered, from between 200 feet to almost 1,000 feet above sea level. If the lockkeeper was having his lunch (or mid-day rest) when our barge arrived, we would wait until he emerged from his home alongside the canal, often with his dog, so we could proceed.
The waiting doesn’t matter, as this is a cruise for relaxing, reading, sipping something delicious or just taking in the scenery: verdant cultivated fields, vineyards, handsome white Charolais cows and occasionally, a picnicking family who waves at us while we snap pictures. Dedicated walkers can easily disembark and catch up with the barge at the next stop; cyclists may take one of the onboard bikes and explore on their own.
Among our memorable shore excursions (by minibus) were trips to Dijon and Beaune, two wine-tastings and a visit to the medieval castle, Clos de Vougeot, one of Burgundy’s oldest wineries and home to the Chevaliers du Tastevin, a society devoted to promoting the region’s wine and viniculture.
As Dijon mustard is known worldwide, that city has, of course, a Museum of Mustard as well as the 18th century Boutique Maille, which sells more than 40 kinds of mustard, flavored vinegars, oils, specialty mayonnaises and cornichons. The city center was easily explore-able and our small group of passengers fanned out to see the other medieval buildings, the art museum and the weekly market (where a fair amount of shopping took place).
Our visit to the ancient city of Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy, was equally satisfying, with photo opportunities that included the Gothic Hotel-Dieu, a 15th century hospital that had actually been in use until the 1970s; a pretty town square, engaging old streets and scores of wine shops. (As our guide James knew virtually all the shops, he volunteered to help any of us who wished to ship home some vintages that were not available outside of France.)
Excursions aside, this trip was very much about food and wine. Breakfast each day was continental-style and included cold cereals, cold cuts and cheese and divinely fresh French bread and croissants.
Lunch was always a multi-course feast, with a change of wines with each course. While Chef Selby was always ready to prepare a vegetarian or other special-requirement entree, most of us reveled in the parade of such French classics as quiche Lorraine; rack of lamb, seared foie gras, escargots, duck confit, ham en croute with coarse grain mustard and Chablis sauce. The selection of Burgundy wines at lunch included Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus, sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne, crisp Chablis, red Sancerre and many more.
At dinner, the stakes were raised, with such entrees as coq au vin, scallops in white butter sauce, lamb with minted peas, pan-fried duck breast and, for our final dinner, filet of Charolais beef with mushroom sauce. Wine selections included a lovely Meursault, a Pernand Vergelles, an excellent Pouilly-Fuissee and a Beaune du Chateau.
As this was France, desserts were always worth the calories, but it was the selection of cheeses, some 20 in all, offered at lunch and dinner (and accompanied by wine) that had many of us overindulging.
All this wining and gourmet dining takes place in a thoroughly casual atmosphere. Jeans and comfortable clothes are fine most of the time. Some passengers choose to change into slightly dressier garb in the evening and add a little something special for the Captain’s Farewell supper.
Tips are not included in the fare, which runs about $4,750 per person for a twin/double en suite cabin. The recommended tip amount is between four and seven percent of the voyage cost, either in Euro (preferred)
Though this particular cruise was focused on the food, wine and history of Burgundy, the company also offers theme cruises for special interests, such as tennis, art and golf. The 17-barge fleet travels other waterways in France, as well as those in Italy, the British Isles, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg.
French Country Waterways (www.fcwl.com) offers a similar Burgundy itinerary aboard its 12-passenger barge, Adrienne. That company’s four barges, like those of European Waterways, can also be chartered by groups, with itineraries customized to suit various interests.
Orient Express (www.orient-express.com) has five barges; three are only available for charter.