What is Barge Cruising? Jump aboard!
Countless canals and rivers weave in and out of Europe, passing through medieval towns, fortified cities and old villages, all often surrounded by spectacular scenery. This intricate lacework of waterways staked countries such as France, Scotland and Germany in the map for leisurely barge cruising, and opened up a whole slew of wonderful experiences for travellers who wish not to just visit a country but to actually immerse in it. If you wish to see Europe’s world-famous sights, discover off-the-beaten-track destinations, learn of each region’s history, listen to stories and legends not found in books and savour regional specialties without the usual rush and noise of crowds and in utmost comfort and luxury, barge cruising is absolutely for you.
TO BARGE OR NOT TO BARGE?
Oh, isn’t that the question. If you think you’ve done cruising, think again. Barge cruising is not some quick sailing through canals and rivers or hurried stops at crowded port towns or cities. It is all about taking your own sweet time. Once you hop on a hotel barge, all you have to do is relax and take it all in while you journey from one destination to another. Knowledgeable crew attend guests all the time and whereas cruise ships cater to hundreds of passengers at a time, a hotel barge accommodates only a limited number of guests, usually around eight to 15, to ensure intimate service and enriching experience. Each hotel barge is fully furnished with every thinkable creature comfort and some even have spa pools where you can soak in, bubbly in hand.
Another great thing about barge cruising is the many unique vantage points that it makes accessible to guests. Imagine seeing a popular attraction aboard a hotel barge, say Chateau de Chenonceau spanning the River Cher or Urquhart Castle sitting beside Loch Ness, but from a completely different and refreshing angle that no land tour can offer. Instead of walking to that busy path toward the stunning chateau, you’ll be coming from the river and passing under its graceful arches. As for Urquhart Castle, who knows you might even spot the fabled monster while your luxury barge slowly makes its way through the lake to the breathtaking ruins.
The main draw card to barging, however, is the beautiful yet remote inland destinations that don’t make appearances in most cruising itineraries. Because the hotel barges are small, they can easily pass under low bridges and navigate narrow canals and rivers that larger vessels can’t access. Capestang, one of the old and most charming villages in France, for example has one of the lowest stone-ached bridges on the Canal du Midi whose arch is just big enough to let a low, small barge pass. There’s also picturesque Minerve, dubbed the quintessential medieval village, perched on a peninsula where the Cesse and Briant Rivers meet reachable only by the same rivers, and mighty Carcasonne on its hill overlooking the Aude River. There’s no way you’d reach such must-see gems aboard any other cruise.
WHAT TO EXPECT?
Options will vary from barge to barge, however you can expect to enjoy most of the following no matter what barge you choose to hop on to.
Barges with stories
Wonder starts as soon as you step onto a hotel barge. Europe’s water highways controlled the trade in the continent in the past and shaped the heritage and history of entire countries. Barges and boats wound their ways from city to city through rivers and canals, carrying passengers, goods and even munitions during war time. Most of the hotel barges cruising the same waterways today are the same ones that existed decades (or even centuries) ago when barges were primarily relegated to transport purposes. For instance, La Belle Epoque, a luxury barge cruising the lovely Burgundy Canal, was built in the Netherlands in 1930 to carry timber from Burgundy to Paris. Another is the premier-class Athos built in 1964 and which was used to transport sand, grain and wine. Athos was renovated in 1982 and now cruises the historic Canal du Midi from Argeliers to Marseillan.
Luxurious rooms and on-board amenities
Luxury barges are called luxury barges for a reason. They might be old and historical, yes, but they are in NO WAY outdated. The barges are fitted with modern comforts, making them essentially floating hotels. Cabins have their private en-suite bathrooms and deeply comfortable beds and amenities include elegant lounges, hot tubs and spa pools, with some even boasting a grand piano! Another thing: the barges are all tastefully refurbished but don’t be surprised to find some antiques inside. Cruise Burgundy aboard the Belmond Amaryllis for example and you might find yourself sitting on a decades-old Louis XVI chair or staring at an original trompe l'oeil wall mural.
Whoever said that barge holidays are moving gastronomic feasts couldn’t have summarized the dining experience aboard a luxury barge better! A barge cruise is a surefire way to indulge your tastebuds with the flavours of the region. Each barge has its own master chef and the crew sets forth early in the morning to comb the local markets for fresh produce for use in the day’s meals. You’ll also wake up to freshly-baked bread, fruits and pasties brought on-board by the crew from the local shops. Each meal is a flavourful masterpiece prepared by your master chef with locally-sourced ingredients and chances are you’ll be looking forward to each one, particularly dinner which is usually a multi-course affair and the gastronomic highlight. You’ll also find an excellent selection of fine regional and international wines to relish each meal. Speaking of wines, here’s something for wine aficionados out there: you’ll absolutely want to include a wine appreciation cruise in your itinerary. Taking you through the top wine-making regions such as Burgundy, you will have ample opportunity to sample each region’s specialty along the way. Get ready for wine tasting marathons!
Well-planned, escorted excursions
Exciting adventures to forgotten ruins, hilltop citadels and obscure villages, relaxing walks amidst rolling hills and lush vineyards, or a busy afternoon shopping for bric-a-brac in a pretty little town; the options are virtually limitless. Itineraries proceed at a leisurely pace so you won’t have to breeze through or feel rushed. Take your time exploring Narbonne’s medieval quarter, admiring the 13th century Cathédrale St-Nazaire in Béziers, or walking the Le Pont de St-Marcel, Le Somail’s 17th century stone-arched bridge. English-speaking guides also accompany guests and many of them are locals ready to regale with tales and myths you would not hear anywhere else. Learn about the myths shrouding Avignon’s iconic St Bénézet’s Bridge, how thousands of Huguenots drowned in the waters of Canal du Midi, or how the formidable Catherine de Medici and lovely Diane de Poitiers battled over the gorgeous Chateau de Chenonceau.
Bikes & barges
Pedal your way through some of Europe’s most amazing landscapes! Hotel barges often have bicycles at the guests’ disposal and cruise routes often pass through tree-lined towpaths perfect for leisurely biking. There are even themed cruises with cycling as the main activity and which bring guests to the best cycling routes in the continent. Go wander a bit, explore the refreshing countryside and talk with the locals; your floating hotel is always within reach. After all, there could be no better way to burn off some of the calories from those delightful gourmet meals on-board!
Barge trips have an intimate, friendly ambiance thanks to the limited number of guests and highly-professional, attentive crew. Each barge has its own experienced captain and hostess, and friendly crew members are always available to attend you and share their rich, local knowledge. You can even go with them in the morning when they go ashore to visit the local markets and shops—that is, if you can get yourself out of bed early enough.