One of the things we’ve been working on during the last six months is our focus on itineraries and travel styles that meet our hallmarks, and today I share more about a little know mode of cruising – canal barges. Barge sounds industrial, but these vessels and experiences are luxury all the way…
A Canal Barge Cruise in Europe
When we talk about traveling through Europe on the waterways, one naturally thinks of river cruising, which has become extremely popular in the last ten years. It offers the luxury and convenience of going through the heart of a region. Cities grew up around the rivers as the hub of trade routes, so the rivers are a perfect way to explore those historical centers.
But there’s another way to explore from the waterways of Europe that is not very well known, and that is canal barge cruising. It’s an entirely different experience than a river cruise or any other small ship cruising.
The barges are very small vessels, typically 6 to 10 people, with some barges holding between 12 and 20 people. Because of the cruise’s intimate nature, the service is highly attentive, and there is a focus on exceptional cuisine at every meal. This travel style offers the slower pace to experience smaller towns and regions to become more connected with the culture.
Canals in Europe
There is a linking of the ancient waterways, of rivers and canals, snaking through the countryside of Europe. Years ago, these were used for commerce, and now those canals host these barges – floating intimate hotels – that provide an experience with luxury accommodations, engaging sightseeing, and gourmet meals. The crew is English-speaking; there’s always a private chef creating regional menus based on seasonal local produce, and there’s a tour guide who handles the shore excursions. The pace is leisurely. Typically, the barge covers about fifty miles over the course of a week, so it is an immersive travel style with a focus on one particular country to experience it at a deeper level.
The canal barges are most prevalent in France. There are three key areas offering barge cruising –
France’s Burgundy and Upper Loire Valley area, the southern region of France near Provence, and the Champagne and Alsace areas of the east part of France. There are also canal cruising options in
Italy’s Po Valley area near Venice, Scotland, England, Ireland, Germany, and The Netherlands.
A Day in the Life of a Barge Cruise
A day spent barge cruising is quite different from a river cruise or ocean cruise. The barge sails during the day rather than at night, so you can enjoy sitting on the deck and watching the countryside. Because you’re traveling on the canals, there are usually not great distances involved, so it’s more of a true cultural immersion in the area that you are traveling through at a slower pace. It offers the opportunity to see a country from a different perspective and stop at small towns off the beaten paths.
There are no early morning excursions – you might sleep in and then enjoy breakfast whenever you wake up. You can sit out on the deck with a cup of coffee or perhaps enjoy the spa tub on the deck. There are bicycles on board so that you might take a bike ride along the shore.
The included daily sightseeing excursions may happen after breakfast or during the afternoon, depending on where you’re sailing. There’s less of a structured pace in barge cruising. At some point each day, you’ll enjoy a guided excursion to a local point of interest. These may include historic chateaus, local markets, wine tasting at a vineyard, famous museums, and quaint villages.
During cruising, guests can relax on the barge and enjoy the scenery as it glides by, or those who want to be more active might take a walk or bicycle to the villages along the canal.
The canals usually have locks, so it can be fun to stay on the barge while the ship goes through the lock, or it could be a good time to hop off the barge and go for a walk in the nearby area or take a bicycle ride. The barge sails at about four miles an hour, so it’s easy to get off and explore and catch up a little bit later.
One of the great things is that your barge has a private chef who creates gourmet meals. You can expect three-course meals for dinner and lunch, and there are typically numerous cheese tastings where you can sample the region’s cheeses. The chef focuses on creating food and wine to celebrate the regional highlights. Fresh local ingredients are sourced several times at local markets along the cruise route. There is an open bar stocked with fine local wines and top spirits.
Since many of the barge destinations are in wine regions, tastings at family vineyards or wine pairings using a wine produced at a vineyard you just visited can be a memorable aspect of your trip. In some areas, you’ll have excursions to local vineyards and visit the wine cellars and tasting rooms and meet the vintners to hear about the wines they produce. You may stop at a local market where you’ll meet the locals selling cheeses, fruits, and produce.
Travel in times of COVID-19
While we hope for vast improvements with the pandemic issues, where distancing and sanitizing is a way of living, the canal barge in Europe can be a perfect vacation option for a family or small group of friends. With the ability to take over a small six- or eight-person vessel, a ‘travel pod’ could enjoy this exceptional means of travel and maintain a controlled environment. It’s a wonderful way to travel and spend some time with people who truly matter. Imagine sitting with a bunch of friends, catching up on life while tasting classic wine and listening to the birds chirping onshore as you sail in a canal in France.
A barge cruise is an all-inclusive vacation
Not only is barge cruising a totally immersive experience in the destination, it’s also an all-inclusive experience. Most every aspect of the trip is included, with all your gourmet meals, all beverages, other alcoholic and non-alcoholic, onboard wine and cheese tastings, all sightseeing excursions, museum entries, and transfers to and from the barge. The only additional cost is the crew gratuity, which is discretionary, but highly deserved based on their high level of service and attention to the guests.
A canal barge cruise is quite different – unique in its own way. For a deeply engaging experience with a destination, a canal barge offers that plus high levels of service and exceptional cuisine created by your private chef.