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Pampered Luxury: What Is It Like To Take A Barge Cruise?

September 6, 2018
Take a barge cruise: Panache on a canal

Gazing at the huge plane trees lining both sides of the canal while holding a cocktail, one of our fellow travelers remarks, “It’s like slow cooking, it brings out all the flavors.” His comment aptly captures the richness of what it’s like to take a barge cruise through the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France on European Waterways’ 12-passenger hotel barge, Panache.

Barging is distinctly different than either ocean or river cruising. It is slower and far more intimate. It is also more authentic, taking passengers to smaller locales that are inaccessible to larger vessels.

Slow and steady

A form of slow travel, barging fully immerses travelers in their surroundings. Hotel barges leisurely meander through canals (and, occasionally, other relatively small inland waterways) at speeds averaging no more than 4 or 5 miles an hour.

There are often only inches of space to spare between the boats and the banks of the canals that hug them. The motion of the boats is so gentle that it’s virtually impossible, even for the most squeamish guest, to feel queasy. Each evening, barges moor until the next morning at places too small to be called ports. (Barges aren’t allowed to travel after dark).

Panache, moored for the night

Panache, moored for the night

Barges bring travelers up close to the small towns and villages dotting the landscapes; each place seems to have its own personality. The forests and fields are marked with vineyards, churches, castles and characteristic homes. Given slight encouragement, locals—who ride bicycles, walk their pets or jog along the towpaths—are eager to wave, say hello and engage in conversation with passersby.

A tobacco field

A tobacco field

Typically, a barge passes through a number of locks each day. Operated either manually (by lockkeepers) or mechanically, these marvels of engineering equalize the levels between two stretches of water. The captain and deckhands on the barge skillfully navigate the locks. Some of the small lock houses are still inhabited and decorated with cascading flowers.

What is it like to take a barge cruise? Panache passing through a lock in Saverne, France

Panache passing through a lock in Saverne, France

Lockhouse in Plobsheim, France

Lockhouse in Plobsheim, France

Guests can opt to get off the boat, to walk or bicycle along the towpath, and figure out where to meet the barge at an upcoming lock. They can get to observe the indigenous birds and wildlife, and cattle grazing in pastures.

Intimate and small

Barges vary in size. Some hold up to 20 passengers although most are smaller. Panache has room for 12 guests but only five others are on our trip, making us a group of seven: two other couples from Australia and a young woman from New York.

Small groups like this make for fast friendships. Passengers are generally sophisticated travelers, kindred spirits who are open to new people, foods, ideas and cultures. Before long, everyone feels close, almost like a family. Ours takes the young millennial under wing and we learn that she has much to teach us boomers.

All hands welcome us on deck!

All hands welcome us on deck!

The impressive crew: passenger ratio (6:7 on our barge) allows for very personal service. If we want something, we simply ask, but the experienced and solicitous crew generally anticipates any need. This cohesive, multilingual team includes a captain, pilot, deckhand, two servers/housekeepers and a French chef. They’re knowledgeable, experienced and friendly. Experts at efficiency, they seamlessly trade roles to make sure everything goes smoothly.

Luxury devoid of glitz

Barging is a luxury product that has the patina of age. Before the advent of the railroads, flat-bottomed barges used to carry heavy goods up and down the waterways of Europe. When they fell into disuse in the 1960s, many were repurposed and converted into floating hotels. Although the vessels are continually updated, they look their age.

Our comfy cabin

Our comfy cabin

The 150-square-foot junior suite on Panache is smaller than most staterooms on ocean and river-going vessels but is extremely comfortable and well equipped. Although below deck, a large window over the queen-size bed in our air-conditioned stateroom often puts us face to face with elegant swans. The private bathroom has a full-size shower and double-sink stocked with L’Occitane toiletries.

A swan peering in our window on the canal in Krafft

A swan peering in our window on the canal in Krafft

The stealthy twice-a-day housekeeping service keeps everything shipshape. Each evening, we find fine chocolates on our pillows.

Food, glorious food

MentionIng the chef only in passing is a grave understatement. Few culinary experiences can compare to the gourmet food and wine experiences one has on a barge trip in France.

Although there’s an occasional visit to a local restaurant, most meals take place at the elegant dining table, a gathering place on the main floor of the barge, beside the large bar/sitting area. Chef Holly creates farm-to-table meals that rely on seasonal local products, often from artisanal producers.

Salted butter or a rose? Take a barge cruise and find out

Salted butter or a rose? (Credit: Jerome Levine)

He asks about and accommodates each guest’s food allergies, aversions and preferences. His beautifully presented creations often make food look like art, an accomplishment made all the more remarkable given the diminutive size of the galley where he works. He explains each delicious dish, often tracing its DNA back to a family recipe.

Before we awaken each morning, one of the crew makes a run to a local bakery bringing back fresh breads and croissants. The buffet breakfast includes juices, fresh fruits and cereals as well as made-to-order hot specialties. One morning, we wake up early to participate in the bakery run and watch a fifth-generation boulanger (baker) make French bread.

Cabbage salad, part of a country lunch

Cabbage salad, part of a country lunch

Deviled eggs, part of the country brunch

Deviled eggs, part of the country brunch

Lamb chop dinner

Lamb chop dinner

At lunch and dinner, one of the two servers alternately assumes the role of sommelier introducing us to the two or three new regional wines that are paired with our multi-course meals. Our wine education is paralleled by our introduction to French cheeses during every cheese course that follows lunch and dinner.

Take a barge cruise to enjoy one of many, many bottles of memorable wines

One of many, many bottles of memorable wines

Cheese course, after dinner, before dessert

Cheese course, after dinner, before dessert

Truly all-inclusive

Barge guests can place their wallet in their cabin safes until it is time to disembark. In addition to the premium wines served with dinner (many Grand Cru and Premier Cru) and creative cocktails before, guests partake from a very well-stocked open bar 24/7.

Open bar on Panache

Open bar on Panache

During our 7-day/6-night voyage, we visit museums, vineyards, breweries and churches, take city tours, always without any additional charges. (Another post will recount the whirlwind of experiences that filled our days). Local transportation—from the meeting point to the canal and back—is in a spiffy, company-owned, air-conditioned Mercedes van, again at no extra cost. Gratuities are not included but it is a pleasure to reward people who work so hard to please.

Looking back: What is it like to take a barge cruise?

 Our European Waterways barge trip to Alsace didn’t take us very far (about 35 miles) but the experience was a deep and intimate one. We felt pampered by crew and made new friendships that we hope will endure. We returned with wonderful memories of the foods, wines and culture of a region of France we had only known from afar.


All photo credits: Jerome Levine



Also on MoreTimeToTravel:

European Waterways Barge Cruise Through Alsace & Lorraine

My Article on Forbes:


Read my friend and colleague Jo Castro’s wonderful article:

 


Disclosure: A portion of our barge cruise was sponsored by European Waterways but any opinions expressed in this post are our own.

  • Reply
    Debbra Dunning Brouillette
    September 6, 2018 at 9:15 pm

    This European Waterways barge trip sounds like something I would love, including the wines, the food and the voyage itself!

  • Reply
    Tam Warner Minton
    September 6, 2018 at 9:20 pm

    I love it! I’ve never heard of a barge cruise!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      September 10, 2018 at 11:14 am

      Certainly less popular than river or ocean cruises but well worth exploring!

  • Reply
    Carol Colborn
    September 10, 2018 at 10:46 am

    I have never heard of a barge cruise. It looks like having a chef on board for 7 people would be an ultimate luxury. I wonder, however, how it compares in cost to river cruises? Maybe this will be a way for us.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      September 10, 2018 at 11:16 am

      Because of the small size of the vessels, high crew:passenger ratios, and all-inclusiveness, barges are more expensive than the starting room categories on river and ocean-going vessels. They may be more comparable to the price of suites on luxury vessels. It is worthwhile to compare!

  • Reply
    Lori
    September 10, 2018 at 6:14 pm

    This is my kind of cruising. Small group, quieter settings (even the outdoor setting have an intimate feel about them), and the food. How creative and beautifully prepared. No doubt this comes at a higher cost but I’m thinking the experience would be well worth the splurge!

  • Reply
    Jeff Bryant
    September 10, 2018 at 9:35 pm

    We had never heard of barge cruising prior to this article. It looks like you had a luxurious and comfortable trip. We will certainly need to do some research.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      September 10, 2018 at 10:32 pm

      It’s a sleeper but well worth looking into~:-)

  • Reply
    Doreen Pendgracs
    September 11, 2018 at 8:22 am

    Oh man, Irene. Your descriptive writing has really caught my attention! I have no doubt that a European Waterways barge tour would satisfy my love of slow travel, glamor without glitz and all inclusive luxury. Count me in!

  • Reply
    Jackie K Smith
    September 11, 2018 at 10:07 am

    That sounds like a lovely way to savor slow travel. I felt I was strolling along side you and my mouth is still watering over those beautiful shots of food!

  • Reply
    Charles McCool
    September 11, 2018 at 10:07 am

    This is great. I have wanted to take a barge cruise for so long.

  • Reply
    Irene S. Levine
    September 11, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    Certainly appropriate for “happy travelers” like you!

  • Reply
    John Roberts
    September 13, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    This is so fabulous. A barging trip has been on our wish list for a bit now. You describe just what I thought it would be — wonderful relaxation and constant interesting scenery. Love the intimacy.
    That swan is a riot. What a pic! Lol.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      September 14, 2018 at 8:47 pm

      Glad you enjoyed this post! As a perpetual traveler, I have a feeling you’ll be on a barge trip soon!

  • Reply
    Gail Barraco
    September 13, 2018 at 12:40 pm

    I want to take a barge cruise. Are their rooms for single travelers?

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      September 14, 2018 at 8:48 pm

      Yes, there was a single traveler on our barge trip. With such a small group, it feels very comfortable to come solo.

      • Reply
        Gail
        September 14, 2018 at 9:35 pm

        Thank you. I am definitely going to do this.

        • Irene S. Levine
          Reply
          Irene S. Levine
          September 16, 2018 at 7:40 am

          I don’t think you’ll be disappointed! Au contraire!

  • Reply
    Debra Borchert
    September 13, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    Top of the bucket list! What month did you travel, Irene?
    Debra

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      September 14, 2018 at 8:49 pm

      We traveled in September. I think the weather is best in shoulder seasons.

  • Reply
    Michele
    September 14, 2018 at 1:25 pm

    I’ve been curious about barge trips so thank you for the very comprehensive post! European Waterways sounds like a great choice

  • Reply
    Rachel Heller
    September 16, 2018 at 10:39 am

    I’ve never even heard of a barge cruise! It sounds absolutely heavenly! Must convince my husband… or go alone!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      September 16, 2018 at 9:16 pm

      Since you live in Europe, you should develop take advantage of a barge cruise!

  • Reply
    Patti Morrow
    September 17, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    I’m more of a speedboat than a barge girl, but I’d like to try it — you just never know what will surprise you!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      September 18, 2018 at 3:54 pm

      To know barging is to fall in love with the experience!

  • Reply
    Sue Reddel
    September 17, 2018 at 11:36 pm

    We took a barge cruise in Burgundy a few years back and it was by far one of the best trips we’ve ever taken. It was pure luxury. We’d happily do another one.

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