Certain things instantly come to mind when France is evoked: heavenly food and wine, picture perfect villages; majestic castles, intriguing historic sites and breathtaking scenery. Most visitors are hoping that their vacation in la Belle France will include most of these, though on what is often a rushed city-hopping trip, this goal can be hard to achieve. For an extraordinarily authentic French experience, escape to the countryside, slow down to a snail’s pace and hop aboard the Luciole hotel-barge, something our editor Lily recently had the chance to do. Here’s what has made her fall in love with the Luciole and experience of a luxury barge holiday.

Luciole Barge group on deck

More Than your Average Boat

Built in 1926 as a mule-drawn freight vessel and subsequently converted into a floating hotel in 1966, the Luciole is one of the oldest hotel-barges in France. The recently refurbished vessel is in the fine repertoire of Barge Lady Cruises, the world’s top experts on canal barge vacations. The 5 x 34 meter boat has eight luxurious double and twin en-suite cabins, a spacious lounge with comfortable seating and dining areas and lastly a large raised sundeck. It has been managed with pride by the Liley family for over 40 years.

John Liley undertook a detailed exploration of Europe waterways in the 1960s, during his time as editor of a British yachting magazine. His travels inspired several books include ‘France – the Quiet Way’, an exploration of the entire French canal and river system which brought him to discovering the gorgeous 200-year-old Nivernais canal. He knew he’d come across the perfect place to establish a hotel-barge business, which he did in 1976. His wife Penny is now at the helm and their sons have also taken up a passion for barging and are involved in the business.

Superbly Stunning Scenery

Only two hours from Paris, this hidden area of Burgundy has remained far removed from the region’s well trodden tourist destinations like Dijon and Beaune. This has allowed this very rural and extremely picturesque area to retain its genuine character and charm. The canal is little traveled by other cruising boats, adding to the sublimely serene atmosphere aboard. One of the pleasures of a barge cruise is being able to truly savour the scenery, something that you can’t really do while driving. As we gently cruised along we could peacefully admire the passing pastures dotted with buttercups and grazing cows, the gentle slopes of cascading vineyards or cluster of village houses in the distance, plus a few stretches of dramatic cliffs and other unique natural wonders. If you’re nice to Captain Francisco, he may even let you steer the boat, but you’ll have to keep more of your eyes on the canal than the pretty landscape!

Immensely Charming Villages

France is known for its lovely villages and the itinerary of the Luciole includes some unquestionable gems. The cruise begins in Auxerre, where the barge is moored in the center of town, in the shado its impressive medieval cathedral. Our first morning our friendly and knowledgeable local guide Andy who accompanied us throughout the week, led through its narrow laneways and charming city-center with it enchanting 15th-century clock tower. The barge also stops close to Noyers-sur-Serein, considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. Stopping in on market day, we had a peek at the colorful stalls of seasonal vegetables, homemade sausages and fresh cheeses before wandering the crooked streets in search of medieval towers, stone walls crawling in wisteria, boutiques displaying artisanal leather goods, pottery and creative gift items. On several nights we were moored in a tiny village found along the way which could be explored early in the morning after breakfast – a moment when we could witness it rising: a villager sleepily venturing out for his morning baguette, the postman calling, the sun twinkling on the canal beneath the lock-keeper’s cute cottage.

Stoic Churches and Striking Castles

Another highlight of France is certainly its attractive and important historic sites, usually in the form of castles and churches and the Luciole’s route included a number of these. This started from day one with Auxerre’s mystifying gothic Cathedral of St Étienne with its beautiful stained glass windows and sculpture work and built up to our much anticipated visit mid-trip to the awe-inspiring Vézelay Abbey. Crowning the hilltop of a splendid town, the 11th-century basilica was the starting point of two French Crusades and is still an important site of pilgrimage. Another day we toured the Château de Bazoche, the former residence of the Marquis de Vauban who was Louis XIV’s innovative fortress designer, thus in essence, helped France become the country (and the size) that it is today.

Divine Gastronomy

A trip to France wouldn’t be complete without enjoying many of the country’s vast culinary pleasures and these are taken very seriously aboard the Luciole. This begins right at breakfast which includes a variety of fresh bread, croissants and other viennoiseries, acquired straight from oven of the best local bakeries along the route.

Then all morning the barge’s talented Scottish chef Jade has been busy preparing a “light” lunch of creative salads, sophisticated sides such as stuffed summer squash or broccoli-chevre quiche and a traditional-themed pièce de résistance of garlicky snails, battered frogs’ legs, mussels or magrets de canard. We are meant to save room for the cheese or dessert course, though it was hard to refuse seconds. With any luck, an afternoon of biking along the canal would prepare us for the exquisite dinners. Here is where Jade’s skills and imagination really shine.

The four-course evening meals featured beautifully presented innovative dishes using seasonal ingredients and contemporary flare – marveling our eyes and our stomachs. The dishes were paired with mainly local wines from Chablis and the Yonne Valley (two of which we visited on excursions) and were followed by a cheese course (accumulating in over 20 varieties by the end of the week) and a to-die-for dessert. Hostess Kimberly and Naomi always made sure the meal ended well with coffee, or a local Marc de Bourgogne or other digestif.

La Joie de Vivre

Perhaps the most important element of the cruise was intangible. Whether it was the personable and professional staff who become our friends by the end or the barge’s owner Penny popping throughout the week for a warm hello, our interactions with a jovial local shoemaker or the laughter and smile of a café owner, the quintessentially French joie de vivre attitude was underlying our whole week. The French take their time, they enjoy the finer things in life from gastronomy to quality goods and these were the force which fuel the experience aboard the Luciole.

The Luciole can be book exclusively or on a single or double occupancy on scheduled small group trips. Learn more about booking your own unique holiday aboard the Luciole by contacting Barge Lady Cruises here.