Barge Lady Stephanie kicked off her barge travels this year on the Canal du Midi, with an unforgettable birthday cruise aboard barge Esperance.
Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the major engineering achievements during the reign of Louis XIV, the Canal du Midi’s 300-year history offers a living glimpse into France’s aristocratic might and political power. Now a placid backdrop for recreation and relaxation, between April and October the Canal du Midi plays host to a number of all-inclusive luxury barge cruises.
Among this handful of hotel barges, the 4-star, 6-passenger barge Esperance welcomes her lucky guests into a convivial atmosphere of good taste and carefree lifestyles, perfectly enhanced by elements of local flavor, fine dining, and gracious hospitality. It is this delightful mix of Continental chic and carefree ambiance that this exceptionally beautiful barge offers, and it is where I spent an indelibly memorable birthday week in April of 2019, savoring every moment of my Canal du Midi cruise.
From the moment the barge comes into view, the Esperance is easily identified as one of the most glamorous vessels on the Canal du Midi. Owned by the sophisticated and seasoned Mathias Gilles,pictured above, and flawlessly operated by handpicked crew, stepping onboard the barge is akin to entering a holiday villa tucked away along sunny beaches in south of France. “We try to create a chic but relaxed ambiance onboard the Esperance, ” Mathias says. “We love to see happy people; we love to hear them laugh. All the little touches we do is to give our guests an unforgettable experience.”
The Esperance’s inviting interior is carefully designed to ensure guests feel right at home. A lovely salon decorated in appealing shades of white and caramel beckons for hours of lounging. The state-of the-art open kitchen next to an intimate Chef’s table ensures the Esperance’s gourmet French cuisine appears right before your eyes. Modern lighting and luxurious extras in some of the most spacious cabins on the Canal du Midi ensure nicely appointed havens of quiet comfort.
Outdoor spaces on the Esperance have been curated to be just as comfortable as her congenial interior. Sipping freshly brewed coffee in the wheelhouse’s the new reading corner with a good book was a favorite activity during the daily cruises. Sunbathing and snoozing on the deck’s loungers provided another decadent option to pleasantly pass the time. Of course, late night dips in the hot tub proved a most soothing nightcap.
No luxury barge cruise in France is complete without an exceptional culinary experience, and while I have dined well on all the boats I have been lucky enough to visit, the Esperance’s dining program was one of the most memorable highlights of the cruise. From the freshly baked breakfast pastries to the lavish luncheon buffets to the gourmet dinner parties every night, the authentic French fare showcased the season’s best ingredients and the region’s signature specialties. A standout meal by Chef Jean-Luc was an omelet made with locally-gathered eggs served with a green summer salad and a side of herbed rice — basically the Canal du Midi’s rustic palate presented on a plate!
Typical of wine programs of luxury barge cruises, dinners were paired with red and white wines selected from nearby Languedoc vineyards. “The majority of the wines we serve onboard are from the region because I strongly believe they will be the best to pair with the wonderful local products used by our Chef,” Mathias explains. “As a wine lover I spend time discovering new wine shops, new wine growing areas, special organic wines, and passionate winemakers. My selection is always a mix of what think is interesting in term of taste and what I think our guests will enjoy.”
Indeed, the real stars of the show proved to be the local roses generously poured at lunches. Fresh and flirty with floral aromas and fruity finishes, they were the perfect liquid companions to luncheon’s spring produce and lighter dishes. An AOC Corbiers from Chateau Luc made from 20% Cinsaut, 80% Grenache was especially enjoyed. From its beautiful pale blush color to the lush notes of ripe peaches, this rose hit all the marks as a welcome companion to Chef’s exquisite cuisine.
Rounding out the Esperance’s many charms is the onboard crew, primarily Pilot Corey and Hostess Helen. Not only are they both experts at their respective positions on the Esperance, they are true hospitality professionals who attentively see to their guests every need while infusing the cruise with a genuine sense of welcome and warmth, smiles and sunshine. Spending time chatting with Corey in the wheelhouse as he steered the Esperance was always a treat and receiving impromptu table setting tips from Helen added immeasurably to the onboard fun.
The Canal du Midi’s hidden gems, must-see towns, and signature attractions come alive thanks to Rex, the Esperance’s popular Tour Guide. His easygoing demeanor is matched only by his encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s historical import. Most memorable of the shore excursions was a visit to the extraordinary indoor market in Narbonne, made even more special thanks to a foodie fun challenge! Each guest was asked to select 10 euros worth of shared appetizers for that evening’s cocktail hour. A most delectable spread of bread, cheese, and olives was presented, along with a smashing dish of grilled watermelon.
As a Barge Lady, I am extraordinarily blessed in that I visit barge cruises as part of my job, and my Canal du Midi cruise on the Esperance was of course one of many professional delights. I am, however, beyond honored to name Mathias, Helen, Corey, Rex, and Jean-Luc as my friends. It is these profound connections, these glorious memories, and these lingering laughs which I uniquely experience only on the inland waterways of Europe. Many thanks to the Esperance for everything, everything, everything (encore cruise soon, yes?!).