Offering one of the most unique ways to taste and tour your way through France and other destinations, barge cruising is the best European vacation you’ve never heard of. Plying the exquisite inland waterways, barges function as floating boutique hotels, usually carrying just two to twelve guests. We find out more about this unique holiday experience by spending the day cruising with UltraVilla experts Ellen Sack and Stephanie Sack of The Barge Lady Cruises, the world’s top experts on canal barge vacations.
Since 1985, the Barge Ladies, who now include both of Ellen’s daughters, Caroline Sack Klein and Stephanie Sack, have offered guests expert insight into the dynamic world of barge cruising. Barging is like any other kind of cruise: there are lots of choices as to level of luxury, location, and on board ambiance. But the true charm of barge cruising lies in its intimate view into the European countryside, through which the barges float at five miles per hour! “Guests are immersed into the culture and daily life through guided excursions to working vineyards, local markets, and family-owned chateaux,” says Ellen. Life on board also reflects a genteel lifestyle, as passengers are pampered by English-speaking crew, including their own private chef, who creates seasonally-inspired continental cuisine.
So welcome to your barge cruise! Here is how a day on the French canals might unfold, hour by delicious hour:
8:00 a.m. Wake up to breakfast – and do not even TRY to resist the chocolate croissants!
Barge breakfasts are informal affairs, taken in the salon, dining room, or perhaps al fresco on deck. A selection of cereal, yoghurt, fruit, cheese, and juice await. But the real point of breakfast might be the village-baked croissants, just warm from the oven. Your choice: One or two chocolate croissants? Finish off with hot coffee or a perhaps selection of herbal teas. Now you are ready to begin another delightful day floating, bicycling, tasting, and sightseeing in the French countryside.
9:00 a.m. Begin to cruise, relax, and explore
Barges in France cruise on historic man-made canals, built in the 17th, 18th and 19th century to carry cargo. Now these vintage waterways have been renewed as routes for vacationers. Today your barge will cover approximately 10 miles, heading towards the next port. At such a relaxed cruising pace, you can WALK faster than the barge can cruise! So what to do this morning? Well, there’s relaxing on deck and watch the gorgeous scenery drift by. Or, take out a bicycle and explore the passing villages. So many ways to immerse yourself into the passing countryside – and then return to the comforts of your floating home away from home!
10:00 a.m. The lockkeeper needs help – doesn’t he (or she)?
Canals are bisected by locks, which raise or lower the barge to the water level of the next section of the canal. Although many of these are now operated electronically, along certain sections of the canal, lockkeepers still manually open and shut the system. On certain routes, lockkeepers still live in petite houses right on the canal and will often welcome your barge with wine and fresh produce for sale. Ask the Captain: Can you jump on shore and help turn the cranks to raise or lower your barge? Many guests enjoy playing lockkeeper – an adventure they could have nowhere else!
11:00 a.m. Hang out with the Captain – maybe he’ll let you steer the barge!
In the always-open wheelhouse, you’ll be welcome to join your Captain for a chat. He knows local lifestyle and personalities (aka gossip) and will introduce you to the intricacies of operating the barge. Try steering – it’s fun but a LOT harder than it looks!
Noon. It’s time for lunch and introduction of wine
Already?! The barge has moored now and everyone gathers in the dining room or on the deck for lunch. Many barges offer a lavish buffet, featuring a different daily selection of salads, main dishes, quiches, and cheeses, paired with a selection of light local wines. At each meal, the accompanying wines are introduced by the crew, and during your week on board you’ll be offered 22 different vintages.
1:30 p.m. Sightseeing – a special introduction to the landmarks, lifestyles, and even secrets along your cruise route
It’s a private chauffeured and guided tour showcasing those special experiences that can be found only on a barge cruise. Accompany the Chef to market – meet the vendors and perhaps pick out tonight’s cheese selection. Or delve into the history of a preserved family-owned chateau, with the owner as your guide. What about a private introduction to a local artist, going truffle hunting, or perhaps a VIP tasting at an olive oil cooperative? Meet local craftsman or shop in enchanting cobblestoned streets. Sip the local wines at historic cellars which have produced and stored varietals for generations. Other choices, depending on your region, may include chocolate samplings, champagne tastings, enchanting villages, ancient churches, and local museums.
4:30 p.m. Back on board – relax and rejuvenate
Does your barge have a hot tub? Or a petite swimming pool? Many do, especially the newly-built vessels. Late afternoon is a wonderful time to relax in the water and enjoy a pre-dinner aperitif. Or, take a nap…or curl up with a book in the salon…or stroll the towpath next to the canal and snap pictures of the adorable lockhouses.
7:30 p.m. Dinner is served!
Glistening glasses, starched linen napkins, and flower displays set the scene for a dinner party with friends…and you’re invited! Light and flavorful cuisine showcases local ingredients and variety in the four-course menus. Dinner’s plating and presentation are partnered with the nightly wine pairings, which are expertly introduced and generously poured by the crew. A cheese platter and a decadent dessert round out the day’s edible adventures. As with the wine, each cheese is specifically introduced. You’ll taste at least 18 different cheeses – and maybe more – during your cruise.
10:00 p.m. Under the stars…a last enchantment!
End your day with liqueurs served on deck as the stars come out over the canal.
Article written by Ellen Sack and Stephanie Sack. Photographs by Kelly Weiss. To experience your own day, or rather week, on a barge cruise contact Barge Lady Cruises here.