Imagine traveling on a floating home-away-from-home, on flat, calm, canal waters in the rural French countryside, just a couple hours from Paris. Slow-boat-barging, 50 miles, not per hour, but in six days, is a gift. It’s family-fun time, alone together, on a fully staffed péniche (a former commercial barge converted into a floating hotel for six to 12 passengers).
I have cruised on three European Waterway barges in Burgundy since 2002, when my late husband and I traveled on l’Art de Vivre, a six-passenger vessel, and, subsequently, on the 12-passenger Belle Epoque. More recently, my friend and I cruised on the 12-passenger L’Impressioniste. Last September, I returned to the pristine, rural region, visited two of its walkable cities (Dijon and Beaune), ate regional foods, drank my favorite Burgundian wines (Olivier Leflaive, Chateau de Pommard, Chassagne Montrachet, Rully) and saw sights I had first discovered via barge excursions. That grape harvest experience reminded me of another bucket trip on my list: a multigenerational barge cruise.
Ease of travel is one reason why it’s a great trip. Barges offer all the advantages of any cruise — unpack once for an all-inclusive vacation with land excursions and all meals and drink, including a well-curated, well-stocked bar with local specialties. (Most importantly, no driving after drinking.) Plus, it’s a far more intimate and flexible experience. When the gangway touches land, kids can get off, run, jump, take a bike ride and — even while the barge is moving — reach its next stop, often arriving first.
Another is comfort. Be assured, people don’t suffer motion sickness on the flat canal waters. And, the luxury, air-conditioned barges feature comfortable, albeit minimalistic, cabins with private baths on the lower level (down about eight stairs). The gracious main-level saloon and outdoor decks are reserved for dining, lounging on banquettes, playing games or, for fun, frolicking in the heated spa pool.
The barges are fully staffed with a bilingual crew (usually, English/French): captain, chef, hostesses, deck-hands and a tour guide. At least one van transports guests from (and back to) Paris, and travels en route on daily excursions and on errands. Kids love the 7 a.m. run to a nearby boulangerie (bread bakery) for the morning croissants and baguettes! Onboard, they may have the chance to steer the boat with the captain, make crèpes suzette with the chef, fold a napkin, creatively, with a hostess or experience the intricate moves of getting into a lock.
Land excursions are part of the experience and, though they vary, every cruise in Burgundy is the opportunity to discover the region. Perhaps there’s the chance to chat with a lockkeeper, watch all-white Charolais cattle grazing, visit a farm while the owner hand-feeds geese and learn history at a medieval castle, at Abbaye de Fontenay or Chateau de Bazoche or Clos de Vougeot, (clos is a walled vineyard) where monks first made wine in the 12th century.
On classic itineraries, there is some flexibility to substitute child-friendly excursions: visit to a zoo, swim indoors or out in Auxerre, play at a sport center in Dijon or go canoeing. (Some activities cost extra: hot air ballooning, horseback riding (12+), tennis, golf or quad-biking.) On charters, an accommodating staff can individualize the itinerary.
Just being on a barge introduces the French canal tradition; they were constructed to link natural waterways and transport wine, grain, freight and goods between farm and Paris. (The canal du Briare, in Burgundy, opened for navigation in 1642.)
And, of course, being in Burgundy is an opportunity to eat French food — at the table, in a village patisserie (pastry shop) or at a local marché on market day. Onboard, a full and hot breakfast is displayed buffet-style, with all those fresh baguettes and patisseries, Lunch, with its array of salads, perhaps soup, charcuterie and more, is either a buffet or served. Multicourse dinners are more formal, served with paired wines and include some regional specialties, such as Boeuf Bourguignon (red wine beef stew), Magret de Canard (duck) and a regional favorite, escargots. Each itinerary includes one special meal on shore (perhaps Abbaye de la Bussière or at a privately-owned chateau) and the region is rich with Michelin-star restaurants. My husband and I taxied to memorable lunches at two Michelin-star restaurants, l’Espérance and Maison Lameloise.
Best, it’s the chance to experience French daily life, it’s the chance to hear, read and speak the language and be introduced to popular activities — like pétanque (lawn bowling) or falconry. (New, for 2019, the two larger barges view falconry displays at the Chateau de Commarain with Count Bertrand de Vogue.)
Cruising en famille is popular; if I had my druthers, more families would consider the simple life aboard a barge.