Having been in the wholesale travel business for many years, I thought that I knew everything there was to know about most every product. Boy, was I ever wrong.
My first trip on a hotel barge was scheduled for early November, not exactly peak season, and I was very concerned that I would genuinely freeze or at least be severely discomfited by the cold and the rain. My vision of a canal barge consisted of a garbage scow, refurbished a bit, and in cramped and primitive conditions, I would be cruising uninteresting waterways in the back country of France. Surely I would enjoy lots of wine and maybe even some good food. A unique "off-the-beaten-track" product.
My first surprise was that the cost of my barge holiday was pretty inclusive and covered the transfers from our pick-up point to the barge, all meals freshly prepared on board, daily sightseeing, bar drinks (on most hotel barges), wines, and drop off at the hotel from which we were picked up in Paris. And, lest I think that I could get away with not doing much exercise for the week, my barge even carried wonderful all terrain bicycles which the crew was happy to provide just about any time we wanted one.
Upon arrival at our barge's mooring, we were welcomed by a cheerful group of young crew, some taking our luggage to the cabins, some serving marvelous freshly prepared hors d'oeuvres accompanied with a kir royale, and of course our leader i.e. Barge Manager (captain). My next surprise was that our small (20 passengers) barge Libellule had its very own, classically trained, chef on board. Wow!
Looking around at the rich wood paneling, lovely built in sofas, pictures, and beautiful window treatments, I couldn't believe that this was a barge this was what I had pictured as a garbage scow. When I got to my twin cabin, not large but efficiently furnished with full, comfortable twin beds, minimal yet practical storage space, and ensuite bathroom, individually controlled heating (and air-conditioning), I knew then that this product was and is the best kept secret in travel.
After relaxing and unpacking, we began getting to know our fellow travelers while enjoying an aperitif and inhaling the glorious aromas already emanating from the kitchen.
Looking around the saloon (barge living room and dining room) the tables were already set for dinner, candlelight and all, and I remember thinking what on earth will I wear to such a formal dinner? It took only an instant for us to realize that this was an elegant life-style that one can enjoy in jeans or casual clothing. Elegance enjoyed in comfort. That's for me!
After we all took any seats at the table, feeling in good humor, our glorious leader gave us a brief overview of the next day's sightseeing followed by a splendid description of the evening's wines. And then, oh my, out came the first course. Well now, here, my education and use of the English language is sorely lacking for I have no words with which to describe just how wonderful that meal was. What I didn't know then, but know now, is that it kept getting better every day. I don't know how, but it did.
Each and every day we relaxed as our very own floating country inn made its way along the winding canal in the heart of Burgundy, the route of this particular barge following the picturesque river Soane. Each morning we awakened to the wonderful aroma of croissants and fresh baguettes, with a feeling of calm and happiness looking forward to cycling, walking along the tow path, just being able to get on and off almost at will, to interesting sightseeing (there were excursions to Besancon, Dijon, and Beaune), good conversation and superb dining.
Oh, I must confess, it did take me a few hours to get accustomed to not having a phone, a computer, television, and the trappings of civilization. Call it communications withdrawal. After that, who cared? For the first time in years I was truly in an environment that forced me to feel unstressed. The scenery was captivating, the sightseeing interesting, food great, the wines were wonderful, and the other passengers fun to talk to and enjoying the trip as much as I was. The crew made us all feel special and exuded charm, wit, and general good nature,
It would not have made one bit of a difference to me if I had been in another region of France, or on another barge (there are more luxurious, smaller and larger ones), or if I had gone in another season. The genre or product made this trip so very special. It is the sum of its parts, an active yet stress-free, elegant yet casual, fun experience that gives you a glimpse into the very soul of the country.
photos: European Waterways