Taking a barge cruise along one of Europe’s canals can be a great alternative to cruising on oceans and rivers-for the client who understands the unique nature of the product and the ways that it differs from ocean and river cruises.
One of the big differences is size (and price). Whereas a river boat may carry a hundred or so passengers, hotel barges typically accommodate anywhere from four to a dozen or so passengers, though some of the newer vessels carry as many as 24 or more.
Most barges have fewer frills and amenities than their larger cousins; they typically have two decks (occasionally three), a combination dining room and lounge and smaller staterooms and bathrooms. These may seem starkly simple to clients who are accustomed to the space and amenities, as well as elevators found on ocean (and some river) ships. (And forget about room service on barges-they just aren’t set up to provide that.) Some barges have whirlpool tubs, small pools and exercise equipment.
Yet the cost may run from $350 per person per day to more than $1,000 per person per day. Barges are also available for private charter, which can cost between $15,000 to more than $60,000 per week.
A barge normally cruises within one region of one country (most often France) while a river cruiser can travel through several countries and on several rivers during one sailing.
Another major difference between a river cruise and a barge cruise is the distance covered. A six-day barge cruise may travel 25 miles or so, while river cruisers typically cover a few hundred miles.
As transiting the locks along the canals can be time-consuming, passengers sometimes prefer to walk or bicycle along the canals’ banks - even outpacing the barge. This isn’t necessarily a negative on a “slow” cruise, for part of the daily “entertainment” is watching the captain navigate the 200 locks on the various canals each day, skillfully steering the barge within spaces that may be only inches wider than the barge as it is raised and lowered, from between a couple hundred feet to almost 1,000 feet above sea level. If the lock keeper is having his lunch or mid-day rest when a barge arrives, everything stops until he or she emerges from the home alongside the canal, often with a dog, to set the cruise in motion once more.
The waiting doesn’t matter for fans of barge cruises; for them, the cruise is for relaxing, reading, sipping something delicious or just taking in the scenery: verdant cultivated fields, lush vineyards, grazing cows, occasionally a picnicking family who waves while passengers snap their 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.
A plus on barge cruises is the level of service, as crew members often outnumber the passengers. Another plus for those who like to socialize: with so few fellow passengers, it’s possible to really get to know people and to actually forge friendships. (This could be a minus for clients who are not very social in nature.)
For clients who love good food and wine, a barge cruise is the hands-down winner. With so few passengers, the barge chef not only creates in-season menus based on the destination, he or she also considers the special needs and preferences of the passengers. Many foods, like breads, cheeses or eggs are sourced locally, further elevating the dining experience.
On a barge cruise I took through Burgundy, breakfast included truly superior baguettes and croissants, delivered warm each morning by a local baker. Lunch and dinner were multi-course feasts, with a change of excellent wines accompanying each course. While our chef was always ready to prepare a vegetarian or other special-requirement entrée, I reveled in the parade of such French classics as rack of lamb, seared foie gras, escargots, duck confit, ham en croute with coarse grain mustard and Chablis sauce, coq au vin, pan-fried duck breast and filet of Charolais beef with mushroom sauce.
As this was France, desserts were always worth the calories, though it was the selection of cheeses, some 20 in all, offered at lunch and dinner (and accompanied by wine) that had passengers cheering.
What I especially enjoyed about all the gourmet dining was that it was not necessary to “dress up” to enjoy it. Jeans and comfortable clothes were fine most of the time, though some passengers chose slightly dressier attire in the evening.
In between all the meals and the pre-dinner cocktail hour, we were free to sample the premium liquors and wines offered at the open bar in the lounge.
A valuable component of the superb dining is the opportunity to learn about food ingredients and recipes-and the wines offered in the area. (In France, some passengers end up buying shipments of the wines sampled, as many are not sold in the U.S.)
Most barge trips include daily excursions by minivan to nearby points of interest, such as medieval castles, vineyards (for wine tastings). Visits with local artisans or food producers may include dining with locals at colorful bistros or top-tier restaurants. One of the excursions on my tour was the trip to the market in Dijon of mustard fame. Fellow passengers loved the excursion, which provided the opportunity to taste and buy various mustards, as well as some French luxury goods (Longchamps, among others).
While watching the passing scenery and learning about life in the small towns and villages along the canals is an integral and unique part of the barging experience, other activities are offered on many itineraries-and are usually add-ons to the base price. Typical offerings are hot-air ballooning, horseback riding, specialty guided tours, tennis and golf.
Typically included in the base price are: drinks, fine wine (occasionally champagne), gourmet cuisine, pickup and drop-off from local airports, train stations and hotels, shore excursions and all entrance fees to places included in the cruise package. Complimentary bicycles are generally available for use
The oldest (40+ years) and biggest (17 barges) company is European Waterways, which operates in nine countries. The company has recently undertaken a $500,000 upgrade program to enhance deck areas, redesign interiors and modernize bathrooms. A spa pool was added on the La Bella Vita, which cruises in Venice and new sun canopies on La Belle Epoque in Northern Burgundy and Finesse in Southern Burgundy. Plans include upgraded lighting and sound systems and new soft furnishings on some barges. (La Belle Epoque, called the Grand Dame” of Burgundy, was acquired by European Waterways in 1993 and transformed into one of the regions first “floating boutique hotels,” with marble en suite cabins, a wood-paneled saloon and a sundeck with hot tub.) In addition to classic cruises, the La Belle Epoque itinerary can highlight golf, family, culinary, and walking vacations.
Among the new 2019 experiences on some barges is a demonstration of the medieval sport of falconry at the Château de Commarin, where guests can interact with hawks, owls and eagles, under the watchful eye of a trained falconer. Later, guests will meet Count Bertrand de Vogue, the current resident of the château and 26th generation of the de Vogue family for a private tour of the building.
Celebrating 35 years of slow cruising, French Country Waterways operates five stylish luxury barges carrying eight to 18 passengers.
For 2019 (April through October), the line offers all-inclusive, six-night sailings traversing the wine regions of Burgundy, the Upper Loire, Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine.
Onboard chefs blend classic cooking techniques with lighter, healthier cuisine accompanied by some two dozen fine wines (more than half bear Grand and Premier Cru labels) and countless French cheeses. Stellar service is given by an attentive, knowledgeable and fluent-in-English crews.
In addition to the fine wines and gourmet dining, the line’s barges offer some exceptional excursions.
For example, eight-passenger Princess, which spends the season in Alsace-Lorraine, was once the private barge of shipping magnate Daniel K. Ludwig; it has two grand king suites and two king suites, all with private bathrooms and double closets. The itinerary includes dinner at the Michelin two-star Villa René Lalique; visits to Baccarat’s famous Crystal Museum and showrooms; the 13th-century Chapel of the Cordeliers in Sarrebourg, illuminated by a stunning Marc Chagall stained glass window.
Guests on the 12-passenger Nenuphar, which explores the region of Champagne, dine at the Michelin-starred Les Crayères; tour Notre-Dame de Reims, the Gothic Cathedral where French kings were once crowned; enjoy a private tour of the 16th-century Château de Condé and visit the American Cemetery and World War I battlefields at Belleau Wood.
Guests on the eight-passenger Horizon II, which travels the Upper Loire Valley, learn how the prized French faience is produced during a private factory tour in Gien; tour the thousand-year-old chateau of St. Fargeau, once the home of Louis XIV’s cousin, Anne-Marie-Louise d’ Orleans; taste pralines at world-renowned Mazet de Montargis; cruise on the Briare aqueduct—and dining at the Michelin-starred Côté Jardin in Gien.
CroisiEurope, a smaller and younger company has five barges sailing in France, with a high percentage of European clients. The 24-passenger Raymonde, Jeanine, Anne Marie and Madeleine and the 22-passenger Deborah are relatively new, so accommodations may be more refined than those available on older barges. Passengers with reduced mobility may be able to use some of the cabins offered by some CroisiEurope barges.
For clients with specific needs, check out some of the smaller Europe-based companies. For example, the 12-passenger Luciole, operating in Northern Burgundy has two single-occupancy cabins.
The 8-passenger Savoire Vivre cruising in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, is an interesting option for clients more interested in an intense culinary experience than in amenities. The cruise on this barge includes dinner on shore each night at a different bistro, with breakfasts and lunches delivered by a top local chef and served on board.
Clients seeking the highest level of luxury might prefer the 8-passenger Prospérité, one of three barges operated by Elegant Waterways. In addition to top-notch amenities and service, the barge has truly spacious cabins and bathrooms with both showers and tubs.
Bottom Line: For the right client, the gentle adventure, superior food and personal service of a barge cruise can be the perfect choice.