As a second-generation Barge Lady, I am beyond blessed to regularly explore Europe’s antique canals, petite rivers, and inland waterways. From the classic canal cruises of France to the timeless charms of the River Thames in England to the epic natural beauty of Scotland to the whimsical windmills of Holland, my barge travels over the last five years have introduced me to the cultural treasures, culinary pleasures, and historical highlights of the Continent. Each cruise is my favorite; each meal is exquisite, each excursion is enthralling, and each route is unique.
Welcome to the southwest of France, from where I am honored to spotlight my week in gorgeous Gascony and beautiful Bordeaux on the 3-star, 6 guest barge Saint Louis. Connected by the River Garrone and the Canal de Garonne, Gascony and Bordeaux reside side-by-side within France’s largest administrative region, the Nouvelle-Aquitaine, which stretches from the Pyrenees in the south to the Loire Valley in the north, and from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Massif Central in the east. It was on Gascony’s inland waterways and in Bordeaux’s iconic vineyards where I experienced the perfect alignment of classic French canal cruising paired with the indulgent delights of contemporary travel, as the Saint Louis effortlessly offers the expected and the extraordinary.
Serving as the crucial link in the 375 mile route across southern France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the Canal du Garonne is a working French canal dating from the mid-19th century. Directly connecting the city of Toulouse to the village of Castets-en-Dorthe, the remainder of the waterway’s man-managed route to Bordeaux uses the Garonne River. While the Garonne River and Canal du Garonne were still commercially active as late as 1970, these wonderful waterways are now home to only pleasure craft and local tourism. Between April and October, the canal and river plays host to a select group of all-inclusive French canal cruises.
Within this coterie of hotel barges, the Saint Louis welcomes lucky guests onto a lovely boutique vessel for a week of splendid sailing, polished service, and regional discovery. Offering four itineraries within two cruising routes in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine, the Saint Louis gently glides through the countryside of Gascony and along the vineyards of Bordeaux. Owned and operated by Captain Wendy and Tour Guide Peter Carrington, the barge’s modern ambiance and convivial atmosphere onboard speaks to their personal passions of culinary excellence and relaxed hospitality. Having relocated several years ago from Ireland to the southwest of France, Wendy and Peter are especially pleased to serve as trusted travel guides and local experts when it comes to river cruising in Bordeaux, canal cruising in Gascony, and, of course, the culture and cuisine of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine.
Boasting a sleek bow painted in navy and white and a spacious deck festooned with fresh flowers, the Saint Louis is instantly identified as one of the most beautiful boats in the southwest of France. Stepping into the salon, which serves as the social center of the barge, guests are greeted by soothing color schemes of subtle gray, rich cream, and dusty blue. Comfortable seating entices guests to linger over craft cocktails made from the well-stocked open bar, while the space is further enhanced by romantic low lighting, artfully placed bibelot, and eye-catching baubles.
Breakfast buffets, daily luncheons, and nightly dinner parties are presented with festive flair on the dining table, set each day with elegant tablecloths, sophisticated dishware, and all kinds of adorable napkin rings! Upon retiring, cozy cabins provide stylish havens of quiet comfort with deluxe details such as fine linens and clever storage. Bathrooms are equally as premium, thanks to upscale toiletries and plenty of counter space.
Outdoor areas on the Saint Louis are as fabulous as her interior. A wooden dining table on the deck provides the perfect perch for al fresco lunches and impromptu book clubs. Sipping a glass of locally produced Sauternes while lazing on one of sun loungers is another popular option to pleasantly pass the time.
Captain Wendy’s open wheelhouse proved to be the perfect place for reveling in the breathtaking views of the gorgeously green Canal du Garonne. “The Canal du Garonne is, for me, the epitome of canal cruising at its best,” Wendy says. “Relaxed, unspoiled, tree lined, filled with birdsong and altogether beautiful. A wonderful mix of culture, nature, and tradition as we gently cruise our routes.”
As the home to some of France’s most fertile farmlands, these shores along the canal of which Captain Wendy speaks are evidence of Gascony’s agrarian bounty. Close to the river Garonne, where the air is cool and moist, boutique orchards of stone fruits beckon with apples, kiwis, peaches, nectarines, and the many types of plums for which the region is known.
South of the river Garonne, the warmer and drier climate nurtures hearty root vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and parsnips. Fowl, especially duck, is raised here on family farms alongside the Gascon cow, ensuring eggs and dairy are fresh and flavorful. Pampered grapes are grown for making the region’s signature small batch spirits as well as the sweet dessert wines of Sauternes.
It is from this corner of Southwest France where Gascony’s culinary concept on the Saint Louis comes richly and robustly alive. “This region enjoys an abundance of locally produced produce that is both varied and seasonal,” explains Peter, who coordinates carefully with the onboard Chef in crafting the Saint Louis’ exquisite dining and drinking programs. “Couple this with the gastronomic heritage handed down through past generations and our Chef’s skill, the dishes that are prepared onboard are tailored to reflect the best of the best, whilst respecting our guests’ individual dietary needs and preferences.”
Accordingly, the pleasures of the table are revealed on the Saint Louis meal by meal, dish by dish, wine by wine. Breakfast begins the gastronomic games with an explosion of flavors and colors. Pastries still warm from the oven are presented alongside freshly baked bread, slices of mild cheese, and beautifully arranged platters of fresh fruit. Light lunches, based on the season’s market offerings, are comprised of rustic salads and crunchy crudites, partnered with generous pourings of crisp summery whites and smooth round reds. “Fine wines from some of the best local producers are paired with our weekly menu to both compliment the dishes and to introduce our guests to varietals they would not typically experience,” Peter reveals.
In France, however, it is at dinner where the most delicious of secrets are revealed, and on the Saint Louis I was made privy to much of this culinary confidential. One of the many sumptuous dinners included a starter of foie gras with nectarines flambeed in pastis, served with a shot of Armagnac, which essentially summed up the region’s bounty on a plate! The cheese courses are torrid affairs of florid aromas and seductive shapes; semi-soft sheep’s milk cheeses such as Le Brebiou are served alongside a full-flavored cow’s milk Bleu d’Auvergne with plenty of nuts and fruit and bread for even more edible decadence. Desserts, which were totally unnecessary but very appreciated, range from classic profiteroles served a la carte to deconstructed s’mores complete with homemade marshmallows and decadent chocolate bites.
Of course, no luxury barge cruise in Gascony or Bordeaux is complete without a multi-faceted immersion into the Nouvelle Aquitaine’s locally-produced wines and signature spirits. Through small group excursions, private tours, and guided tastings, the celebrated vineyards of Bordeaux and the micro-distilleries of Armagnac are accessible in the most exciting and exclusive of ways. A full day exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site of St. Emilion culminates with a Bordeaux wine tasting in the private cellar of Vignobles Et Chateaux, a wine merchant lauded for their superior inventory of regional reds. Of the five wines offered by Eric Delcros, a professional wine consultant, some of them leaned toward the mid-bodied enlivened by the tang of youth, others revealing a softer lingering finish with mature notes of tart fruit and loamy tobacco.
Another highlight is an afternoon excursion to the small distillery of Domaine de Laperyade, where Armagnac, Gascony’s signature brandy, has been made by the same family for three generations. Not nearly as well-known as its cousin, Cognac, Armagnac is produced exclusively in the southwest of France and, since the 14th century, has been, rightly or wrongly, touted as a medical tonic with a myriad of health benefits. Our hostess for the afternoon, the effervescent Brigitte Cervera, is a third-generation Armagnac producer, and presents a fascinating overview of its heritage within the constellation of regional French spirits as well as traditional distillation methods still employed today. Best of all, she offers tastings of the Armagnac made from the grapes grown in her grandfather’s vineyard and then patiently aged in oak barrels stacked deeply within the onsite cellar.
With so many culinary and cultural connections found on the Saint Louis, however, it is Gascony itself that truly shines as the star of the show. Revered for its “douceur de vivre” (sweetness of life), Gascony’s pastoral pace, rural charms, and natural beauty combine for an indelibly singular travel experience. The Canal du Garonne, arguably the most gorgeous inland waterway in all of France, boasts miles of delightfully manicured towpath shaded by plane trees, so even on the sunniest of days cycling and walking along the cruise route is pleasant. “The beautifully maintained towpaths along the Canal du Garonne offer our guests the opportunity to enjoy cycling or walking alongside the canal as they wish,” enthuses Captain Wendy.
Indeed, the towpath’s ample charms beckon for leisurely exploration, offering amazing opportunities for active guests. Sunrise strolls while the barge is docked are bested only by hours of exhilarating cycling during slow summer sunsets. Visual feasts along the towpath include sunflower fields, fruit orchards, and sleepy villages, while the soothing sounds of lapping water, rustling leaves, and chirping birds are often the only audible noises. Skies of cloud-dappled cerulean blue and endless expanses of abundant farmlands flawlessly frame this idyllic immersion into the secrets of France’s southwestern inland waterways. This is “la France profonde” in which the Saint Louis sails – sumptuous and splendid, gloriously free of crowds, and devoid of daily distractions.
It is this dynamic alignment of the old and the new, the antique and the au current, and the classic and the contemporary which translates into the indelibly pleasurable memories made in Gascony on the barge Saint Louis. Many thanks to Peter and Wendy for a marvelously memorable week full of astonishingly beautiful cruising, hours of leisurely cycling, so many delicious meals, glasses upon glasses wonderful wine, and, best of all, lots and lots of laughter. Let’s do a Bordeaux cruise soon, yes?!