There are river cruises, then there are barge cruises. The two are worlds apart, or at least waterways apart. River cruises take place on Europe’s major waterways on vessels that typically carry from 100 to 200 guests. By contrast, barge cruises operate on small canals (you could skip a stone across many of them) and typically carry no more than two dozen guests. To say that the experiences are similar would be a quite a stretch. Sure, they both operate on water, but they are markedly different modes of transport. How so? In this post we’ll take a look at 10 reasons to choose a barge cruise.
The first reason to choose a barge cruise is intimacy. Within minutes of stepping on board, you’ll get to know nearly all there is to know about the barge.
On CroisiEurope’s barges, for example, there are only three decks: the bottom deck, where most of the staterooms are; the main deck, where there is outdoor seating, a Jacuzzi, a lounge, one cabin and the restaurant; and the top deck, which is the sun deck.
And within a few hours, you’ll become acquainted with the crew and your fellow bargers. Now, you may not be a person who prefers such intimacy. I am. What I have found is that with a small group (say, 22 people), dinners become looked-forward to affairs.
On the trips that I host, I encourage people to change tables each evening. More often than not, that occurs naturally. There is something about spending a week with a small group that makes the dinners less tiring than on ships that carry a few hundred guests. Conversations seem less contrived on barges. You’re traveling with a group of like-minded people, and even if there are political divisions, talk of politics rarely comes up. In fact, something magical happens over the week, a bonding of sorts among 22 people who, at the end of the trip, want to keep in touch (mostly via Facebook) and who continue to barge cruise with one another year after year.
Barges are just downright cozy. The lounge resembles a living room, one with an all-inclusive bar. It never fails to amaze me how there can be one person in the lounge reading a book. Then another person comes in and takes a seat to relax, then another and another. You feel as though friends are joining you in the living room. It’s not like on a larger ship, where you may not have seen this person before. You don’t have to get to know the person all over again. There’s that bond that is difficult to describe, but you feel it. You’re both exploring a beautiful region of the world via a cozy means of conveyance.
3. Do Things You Can’t Do On Rivers
In October of this year and in April of 2020, I am hosting barge cruises in Alsace. Two fascinating aspects of this trip are the 1.4-mile-long Arzviller Tunnel that we’ll transit and a ship “elevator.”
I’ve enjoyed candlelit lunches in the past when transiting the tunnel. Again, we go back to that cozy feeling of the barge discussed above.
The “elevator” is actually a boat lift that lowers boats and barges about 150 feet in four minutes, eliminating the need for more than a dozen locks that would have been required to cross the Vosges Mountains. These are engineering marvels that are fun to experience.
4. Go Places You Can’t Go On Rivers
On a barge cruise a few years ago, we began our trip with a cruise around Île de la Cité (where Notre Dame is located) and Île Saint-Louis, two remaining natural islands within Paris. It was beautiful to stand out on the top deck to take in the sites. None of the big river cruise vessels can navigate this part of the Seine.
Barges typically spend time in the countryside of France. You’re on smaller canals exploring a part of France that larger vessels cannot get to.
5. The Food
Certainly you can get exquisite cuisine on river cruises. What’s different about dining on barge cruises is that the chef is preparing meals for fewer than two dozen guests. It’s like a big dinner party. And often the chef has been in the towns and villages that the barge visits to buy local food from the markets.
6. Wine & Cheese
France is known for its wines and cheeses, and barge cruises are great for experiencing the finer things in French life. One fun aspect of our barge cruises is the cheese presentation, where each evening we learn about two or three of France’s 365+ cheese varieties. And the wine? This is France. Say no more.
7. Unique Excursions
Sure, barge cruise excursions do all the things that river cruises do, and that is take you to the marquee attractions. But barge cruising also allows you to get to the hinterlands of France, and those hidden jewels can be exceptionally rewarding.
8. Bike & Hike (or walk)
Just check out the photo above. Typically paths will line the banks of the canals. These are great for biking or hiking 0r walking. You needn’t worry about getting left behind. Just hop back on the barge at the next lock.
See the gangway in the photo above. In less than 10 steps, you’re on the barge. That makes things especially nice when you want to step outside for fresh air or go for a walk in one of the villages where the barges dock.
10. Water Levels
If there is one thing cruisers fret about, it’s water levels. We know. We field dozens of questions a week about water levels. On a barge cruise, you need not fret. Water levels are controlled by the locks, and we’ve never heard of water levels running high or low, or hindering passage.
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. 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.
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.
June 23 UPDATE: April 2-8 is waitlisted; only one cabin remains for Burgundy, April 9-15; and also only one cabin remains for Alsace April 17-23. See Cruise With Me for details.
How often do you see something like this? Outside my window on an Alsace barge trip a few years ago.