I would be hard-pressed to present to you an experience as rewarding as barge cruising. In fact, I enjoy this relaxed pace of travel so much that for the past four years I have chartered 22-person barges for trips in the South of France (between Arles and Sete) and along the Petit Seine from Paris to Joigny. Each of them ranked among the best trips of my life.
I’m not slowing down either. My October 2019 barge trip in Alsace sold out early last year, emboldening me to book three barge trips spanning the month of April 2020, two in Burgundy and another in Alsace. Clearly, I love this mode of experiencing the French countryside.
What makes barging so enjoyable? It may help to compare barging to another mode of travel that many of you coming to this site already know, river cruising.
A Day Of Life On A Barge
Barges typically are smaller and carry fewer passengers than river cruises. While river cruising is the more common type of experience that travelers seek, canal cruising represents some of the best travel experiences available on the European continent.
The watery inroads that barges transit are often no more than 40 feet wide and take you to quiet villages and small towns. You’ll feel as though Europe has opened its closely guarded vest to reveal its most cherished possessions. Plus, that intimacy translates to the onboard experience, too, with barges being the only means of transit capable of carrying no more than 22 people on average and sometimes as few as three couples.
Often these vessels once carried cargo and were gutted to house a “hotel” structure. It’s best to refer to them as “luxury hotel barges” to counter the common association of cargo barges. Unless you’ve been swindled, you won’t be traveling with coal or cattle. A few examples of companies offering high-quality barge sailings in Europe include CroisiEurope, European Waterways, and French Country Waterways.
CroisiEurope’s barges were built specifically for transporting guests. When compared to river cruisers or ocean-going vessels, staterooms on CroisiEurope’s barges appear small (110 square feet), but they are optimally designed for living and storage (of clothing and luggage). You’ll only sleep and shower in the room, after all.
Foregoing the need for spacious interiors opens up a world of new possibilities – with more than 5,000 miles of canals in France alone. The most popular canals for barging are in France. A few examples other than those mentioned above in Burgundy and Alsace: the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, which links the Rhine with the Marne, and between Canal Latéral a la Marne, a canal that follows the course of the Marne river, passing through the heart of Champagne; and Canal Latéral a la Loire, which follows the course of the upper Loire. (Latéral indicates that the waterway parallels the course of the river. Some rivers, like the upper Loire, are not navigable, hence the latéral.)
What makes the experience, aside from the scenery and slow pace along the canal, is the intimate size of the barge. Not surprisingly, like-minded people are the ones who book these trips, so the group dynamic, in my experience, always ends with people who want to – and do – stay in touch with one another.
What happens on the barge serves to complement what happens outside. The slow pace along the canal and the beauty of the waterway are the major draws for this type of trip.
A typical day could begin with awakening to coffee that you carry out into the fresh morning air as you admire the landscape. You might have a breakfast of fresh croissants, usually picked up earlier the same morning from a boulangerie in town, along with bacon and eggs cooked to order and fresh-squeezed orange juice. No matter what your dietary requirements, the chef can cater to you.
There may be an included excursion in the morning, then return to the barge for lunch (with that tempting glass of wine), and a rest. Often there is a second tour in the afternoon, or you may decide to stay on board and relax. And if things get too sedentary for you, take a bicycle from the barge to pedal along the canals, or use your own two feet to go for a long walk in the French countryside. Due to their size and relative engine power, barges move at a slower pace than river cruisers, allowing for you to step off at locks to walk, run, or pedal.
An aperitif before dinner, and then a memorable evening begins. Dishes are out-of-this-world delicious, and you’ll find yourself questioning how the chef does up something so good in such a small galley. Not to be forgotten are the fine wines served with dinner and the cheese presentations after dinner. These sound like small things, but those who have traveled with me know that these are the things that make the trip so special.
How Prices For Canal Cruises & River Cruises Differ
The differences between river cruisers and barges are vast but essentially boils down to this: Barges are much smaller, able to navigate canals as well as rivers, and, as mentioned, host no more than two dozen people. Typically, you’ll travel with friends and family, or like-minded individuals, on quiet waterways through the bucolic countryside. Your means of conveyance features all-inclusive menus that include tours, bikes, beverages, and gourmand-worthy cuisine.
Luxury barge cruises along the picturesque canals of France are not inexpensive vacation experiences. Rates range from $500 per person per day up to more than $1,000 per person per day, plus suggested gratuities from 5 percent to 10 percent of the total cost of the cruise, depending on how generous you’re feeling. For a $10,000-a-cabin barge cruise, that can mean paying up to $1,000 per person in gratuities at the end of the voyage.
My hosted barge trips go for just under $500 per day per person or a trip total of $3,495 per person, with a suggested 100 euros per person in gratuities handed over to the crew on the final day of the trip. These rates represent an exceptional value when compared to other barges, and even when compared to the cost of river cruises.
Join Me On A Canal Cruise
Out of all types of cruises, I find canal cruising to be the most foreign to North American travelers. I’ve included more extensive recaps of my voyages at the links below to better provide insight into these unique trips. My fondness for this type of travel is undeniable, but I understand that this much more discreet form of cruise travel isn’t everyone’s idea of the perfect vacation.
If it is, you can always join me!
Although my barge cruises for 2019 are sold out, I will offer three barge cruises in 2020. Two of the itineraries will cruise through Burgundy; one from Montbéliard to Besançon on April 2-8, 2020, and the other from Besançon to Dijon on April 9-15, 2020. The other cruise will sail through Alsace from Strasbourg to Lagarde starting April 17 and ending on April 23, 2020. See Cruise With Me for details.
From previous trips …
- Our 2018 Barge Cruise In Photos: Abundance Of Nature
- Feature Video: A 2017 Barge Trip Along France’s Petit-Seine & Yonne Rivers
- Barging In The South Of France 2015: CroisiEurope’s Anne-Marie, Day 10, Our Trip Comes To An End, Wrapping Up