Feel like being pampered and so well looked after that you never want to leave? Do you want to drink some of the best wine France has to offer and share it alongside food that you would expect to come from a fine dining restaurant?
The luxury travel market continues to grow as travelers seek out exotic locations and unusual adventures, fueling a desire to travel, but travel in style. Travelling luxuriously is not confined however to being on land. Nor is it the domain of the open seas. Hotel barging, whilst not a new type of holiday, is emerging from its cocoon to be the “go to” option for those wanting to combine all aspects of luxury, with unique experiences and gourmet culinary experiences. So, grab a glass of your favorite wine and take a moment to relax whilst we allow you to live vicariously through our six-night, seven-day sojourn aboard European Waterways’ flagship luxury barge, Renaissance. Soon, I’m quite sure, you’ll be wanting to swap that glass of wine for one on this glorious floating hotel.
The week-long barge cruise begins in the small town of Montargis, a mere 77 miles (125 kilometres) south of Paris, where we all gather first at a pre-arranged meeting point. Soon we are on the highway, willing captives in a luxury transfer to Montargis. A few hours later, we are making friends with our crew. As we walk up the gangplank, one by one, a glass of French champagne is offered up as the first temptation of what will be a week of decadence. Anyone who welcomes me with a glass of France’s finest is sure to be my friend for life.
We won’t go too far this week, covering around 32 miles (52 kilometres) until we reach the final destination of Châtillon-sur-Loire. We’ll travel first along the Briare Canal and finally into the Canal Latéral à la Loire, the narrow waterways that divide the Upper Loire and the Burgundy regions. What we don’t do in distance, we will more than make up for by living the dream. We sit alongside four Americans who are about to experience their first luxury barge cruise. It’s the first evening onboard and they have plenty of questions for the captain, Hadrien, a former deckhand now a masterful pilot of this 39-metre long barge. There’s an air of excitement and wonder. They are part of an ever-growing group of people who see barging as the perfect way to travel and to be pampered at the same time.
It’s at this point that my husband and I feel very special, for this is our second journey aboard such a barge. As the images of the tree-lined canals and smooth waterways provide an almost tangible visual portrait for us, we know the week ahead is going to be magnificent too. With the initial excitement over, it’s time to see what’s behind the door of our cabin. To say that we were surprised was an understatement, and a clear sign that just because you’ve been on a barge before, doesn’t mean they are all the same.
Lovers of great literary works would immediately recognize the names of the four cabins, located on the lower deck. Moliere, Dumas, Hugo and Voltaire, all iconic names in French literary history, are to become our home base. Barges are quite often associated in people’s minds being small, narrow and confined spaces where you are in close proximity to everyone else onboard. This couldn’t be further from the truth and certainly not the case on the Renaissance.
The Renaissance is a beauty, all 128 feet (39 metres) long by 16.4 feet (5.02 metres) wide. She was formerly a working vessel that carried grains and cereals along the canals. Like anyone who has worked hard all their lives and looks forward to a long retirement, she was renovated extensively in 1997, turning her into a hotel barge. Today, she keeps the company of guests from all over the world, transporting them ever so slowly along some of the oldest canals in France.
She is indeed spacious. Without gunnels along the sides of the boats, the barge has been fit-out to utilize all of its width, meaning the cabins and common areas are incredibly generous. Two of the cabins, Moliere and Voltaire offer the largest space at 265 square feet (24.5 square metres). Dumas and Hugo are only slightly less at 235 square feet (21.5 square metres). When it comes down to it, the only difference is just a little more floor space around the bed and a different wardrobe configuration. There’s plenty of plush carpet underfoot, a very comfortable king size bed with ample room either side to have side tables. Storage, which might be also considered a luxury on board a boat is plentiful, with wardrobes and shelving, along with space to keep even the largest of suitcases out of sight. Being able to unpack completely and not live out of a suitcase adds to the feeling of relaxation here.
The cabins are fully air-conditioned and have portholes that let in fresh air, should you require it when moored for the evening. The luxury is extended to both the size and amenity of the bathroom. With a full-size shower, excellent hot water and pressure, it’s easy to forget you are on a barge. Heated towel rails, fluffy bathrobes, a hairdryer, slippers and fresh bottled water are all on hand. It’s as quiet as a mouse once you are in the cabin. The only sound to be heard might come from a tolling church-bell nearby, or one of the many English channels you’ll find on your television. Mooring each evening in quiet country locations further protects the quiet ambience you’ll enjoy.
The rest of the barge follows the same style, with all furniture and adornments carefully selected and in keeping with the overall design. Whilst downstairs is spacious but classically understated with muted tones and an air of privacy, upstairs is the extroverted one, singing loudly from the songsheet and celebrating everything that is fun and vibrant. Upstairs, the saloon, dining room and bar occupy most of the space. It’s a stunning area with full-size windows allowing the light in and our gazes out. From any vantage point inside, we can see the canals and the life that plays out along it, each and every day.
The bar, open 24/7 and full of almost any kind of alcohol you could imagine, sits at the rear of the upper deck, just outside the kitchen. Here you can perch on a high stool and watch hostess Claire mix you up something original and delicious for an afternoon cocktail. Or, you can watch the bubbles make their way up the glass as Carla pours a French sparkling. Other times, it’s great to just have a chat with the girls, and hear the stories they have to tell about their lives living on the barge for 26 weeks of the year.
It’s great to be able to have options when eating, something we did quite a lot of. The inside, more formal dining table hosted us each evening. Our preference was to take advantage of the beautiful weather during the day and eat lunch outside. If the truth be known, I could have quite easily sat outside the entire time. Need some time out or a chance to catch up on some reading, but not keen to hideaway in your cabin? The saloon, with a super comfy red leather lounge, is the best spot to pull up a pew and just hang out. It’s the perfect vantage point for keeping in touch with everything that is going on and handy to the bar for your favourite tipple as well.
Throughout the week, we will all take advantage of every part of this barge. At times, all guests will hang out together, especially around meal time, where we all come together to share stories. During the day, depending on the schedule, some will take a little time out in their cabins, resting their bodies for the next onslaught on activity or food event. Mostly, however, when we weren’t doing an on-shore excursion, we all just sat around on the outside deck. Here we waved to those we passed on the towpath. We watched, fascinated, as a barge fan followed us to four successive locks, talking to the crew each time we passed through. Occasionally, we passed another boat, but on the Briare Canal, there was much less water traffic that we had experienced last year on the Canal du Midi. The process of the locks, no matter how many times we’ve seen it, is still fascinating to watch and even more interesting is the lives of the lock-masters, who live nearby. Their job, to assist those coming through these ancient engineering masterpieces, is one steeped in tradition.
“What’s that?”, I hear you say, “This barge journey sounds quite sedentary, where all we do is laze about all day on a deck chair drinking wine”. Whilst it might appear that way, I can assure you, there’s also plenty of activity. The daily excursion program, filled with everything from visits to château, wineries, pottery factories and local markets are perhaps one of the most under-rated and unknown aspects of a barge holiday.
Like the pairing of our food and wine, the activities are also carefully planned, showcasing the perfect blend of the more well-known areas and locations with our favourite, those that were more likely to have never been heard of. Think privately owned châteaux and a private tour of the French Military’s equestrian school and you’ll start to understand just how special these activities are. The activities are purely voluntary, although on the two cruises we have now been on, participation in them is always high. With such a wide range of wonderful things to do, it’s no wonder everyone wanted to take part. The same luxury van that brought us from Paris to Montargis is used throughout the week to transport everyone to and from the barge, for each activity. Mostly, the locations are around 40-45 minutes maximum away, although sometimes it was a little longer.
Irrespective of how you travel, no visit to the Loire region of France is complete without paying homage to at least one château. Dotted throughout the countryside, these fairy-tale castles built centuries ago, usually as a form of defense, now tempt travellers like us at every turn. It’s always a wonder who lived there once, and who lives there now. Many have been turned into public offerings, attracting huge crowds in summer. Others are much smaller, may now be the house of a particular winery or just be less well known to the touring public. Many, are in the hands of private owners, many of which you will only sneak a glimpse of through a forest as you pass by on a bumpy rural road.
How lucky we were then that we got to see not one but three châteaux of varying kinds up close and personal. From the richly opulent Château de Fontainebleau built for royalty, to the lesser known Château de la Bussière and Château de Ratilly, where the owners still live, carving out a living making pottery. These are the special experiences, the ones built around the guests and the ones that differentiate a barge holiday from other types. These are the moments where the full value of your choice to come aboard a smaller barge starts to make sense. It’s when you realize you’ve done the right thing.
During the week we will learn how the famous Gien crockery is made, much of it still done by hand. In an era where carbon-copy manufacturing and cheap copies have changed the landscape of what we buy, it was refreshing to see people hand painting intricate designs on plates and cups. With all of our wine learning and tasting on board, and the rows of grape vines we see climbing the hills, there’s perfect alignment in visiting a winery. At the Henry Bourgeois Winery in Sancerre, we take the corks out of a dozen bottles so that we may taste them all, and take a tour of the vineyard and learn more about their production process. Another highlight was crossing the Briare Aqueduct, built in the 19th-century by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame.
Onboard, we wind down after a busy day by taking advantage of the hot tub. Nothing speaks luxury more than kicking back with some champagne or a cocktail. As the long summer twilight looks like it’s finally going to give way to darkness, the bright and ever-changing colors of the tub provide a strong contrast against the darkening green waters that surround the barge. Bicycles are provided and are perfect for doing some slow exploration of the villages that lie close by the canals. You can ride, if you like, at the same slow pace as the barge, always keeping it in your sight. If however, you’re like us, you’ll probably take off as quickly as you can, feeling the breeze in your face as you put some distance between yourself and the barge. This gives you more time to get into the villages, ready to meet the barge back at the agreed lock.
Food and Wine
Without a doubt, the food and wine experiences both on and off the barge were some of our most memorable. As the resident chef, Hannah brings yet another delicious plate of food to our table, it’s hard not to feel relaxed and ready to take on the food challenge. With four courses served at each lunch and dinner, there’s so much time to explore the fresh produce of the local region and to do what the French so love doing…..eating slowly.
As entree morphed into main then into an ever-changing cheese selection and finally dessert, so too did the time. Often, we found we were still sitting at the table, providing commentary of the matched wines and generally chatting the time away, many hours later. From roulades of veal cooked ever so slowly using the sous vide method, to creamy vanilla pannacotta offset with fresh berries, risotto, soup, duck, fish, and the tasty Charolais beef, the main offerings were thoughtfully designed and executed. Each meal was a gastronomic delight and yet another example of how well we were looked after on this barge. The chef loves what she does and it shows on the plate, every time.
Lovers of good cheese will delight in the variety and quantity of cheese served after each main meal. Always from the region, quite often aged, smelly and soft, and sometimes drizzled with honey, it was a part of the eating regime that we looked forward to. Of course, in France, no meal is complete without the addition of wine and it’s a custom we were all quite pleased to participate in. Matched wines for each course, preceded by an explanation of the wine itself and why it was being paired was a fun part of the occasion.
The intimacy that comes with having only a handful of guests on board cannot be underestimated. It might sound clichéd, but booking a trip on a canal barge is equally about the journey as much as it is about the destination or the places you will visit along the way. Having a maximum of eight guests on the Renaissance means that you feel special all the time. The personal attention transcends everything from the small touches of chocolates on your pillow at night, to the supply of your favourite drink just when you want it. It’s the care and attention given to special needs.
Here, you can spend time with the captain up in his wheelhouse, getting the lowdown on how to move a 250-tonne barge through a 17-foot wide canal, with only inches to spare. Or, if food is your thing, you can hang out in the kitchen with the chef. These are all things that can be easily done on a barge of this size, adding to the unique experience. You definitely won’t be bored, and with a bit of luck, you’ll find some new friends along the way. It’s a chance to do something different and great for those who love having everything organised. Even for people like us, who don’t usually like anything too organised, the program is such that it is not overly prescriptive. Not once did we feel as though we being herded into doing anything we didn’t want to do. Whilst there are some processes that are put in place for expediency sake, like timing of the meals, in general, there’s no “one size fits all” approach.
The crew onboard the Renaissance are part of the winning formula here. Lead by the captain, their roles are both defined and integrated, working in well with one another to deliver the ultimate customer experience. With a new group of guests on board each week, their personalities are flexible enough to adapt to a new set of preferences, cultural differences, habits and requests. Without this team, the barge is just a barge. Luxuriously equipped, but lacking the soul, vibrancy and character that they bring to your holiday.
The Renaissance cruises along the canals from April through to October each year and may be booked individually by travellers, or as a complete charter for friends and family wanting to spend time together. The Renaissance offers all-inclusive price including food, wine and daily excursions. Unless you are shopping in the small villages you will visit, or ordering an exclusive bottle of champagne, it is unlikely you will find any reason to open your wallet for the duration of the trip. Tips are the only exception and can be provided to the crew at the end of the week, completely at your discretion.
The proof is always in the pudding, as they say. For me, the proof was revisiting a question that I was asked last year, having returned from our inaugural barge cruise on the Canal du Midi. The question was simple. Would I go again? My response at the time was also simple. Yes. With the passage of time now between both cruises, and a little more exposure to life on the canals, would my answer still be the same? Would the cruise be too similar? Would I feel as though I’d “been there, done that” Not only is my answer still exactly the same, but I feel even more certain about the whole experience now.
The only similarity really is that you are on a barge on a canal. That’s where it ends. The layout of the barge, the crew, different guests, the food, the region, the activities and even the weather make each trip different and entirely memorable. So, ask me the question again. Ask me as often as you like. The answer will still be a simple “Yes”.
Kerri McConnel is a travel writer and photographer for The Fit Traveller.