Slow and easy, relaxing and delicious are some of the adjectives that describe my barge cruise aboard European Waterways’ 12-passenger L’Impressioniste. My holiday — a six-night itinerary through France’s Lower Burgundy Canal – began with a one-night stay in the Hotel Westminster in Paris. This was a special treat as it allowed for a good rest after the overnight flight from New York, as well as the opportunity to do a little sightseeing in the City of Lights.
The following day, passengers staying at the hotel were picked up by a Mercedes mini-bus and transported to L’Impressioniste, a 1960s Dutch cargo barge that had been converted to a hotel barge in 1998 and refurbished a few years ago.
A champagne welcome by Captain Rudy and the crew (five in all) set the tone for the voyage, which included complimentary soft drinks, beer, wine, liquor (name brands, available any time) and shore excursions.
Each cabin has a private bath and closet. As I was traveling with my daughter, our cabin had an L-shaped configuration of two single beds. A nearby cabin occupied by a couple had a double-bed arrangement. The public areas consisted of a “saloon” with a lounge, bar and dining room and a deck for outdoor dining, picture-taking and scenery-gazing. There is also a Jacuzzi, which, depending on the weather, may be operational.
With more than 4,000 miles of navigable inland waters and a centuries-old, 100-canal waterway system, France is the world’s top barge cruise destination. Part of the “entertainment” along our route was watching Captain Rudy navigate some of the 200 locks in the Burgundy Canal each day, skillfully steering the barge within spaces that were only inches wider than the barge as it was raised and lowered, from between 200 feet to almost 1,000 feet above sea level. If the lock keeper was having his lunch or mid-day rest when our barge arrived, we would wait until he emerged from his home alongside the canal, often with his dog, so we could proceed.
The waiting doesn’t matter, as this is a cruise for relaxing, reading, sipping something delicious or just taking in the scenery: verdant cultivated fields, lush vineyards, handsome white Charolais cows — and occasionally a picnicking family who waves at us while we snap their pictures. Dedicated walkers can easily disembark and catch up with the barge at the next stop; cyclists may take one of the onboard bikes and explore on their own.
As the average barge cruise may only travel about 20 or 25 miles during a six-night cruise, the pace is both leisurely and relaxing, and guests may take as many (or as few) of the included excursions along the way.
Among the memorable excursions (by mini-bus) were trips to Dijon and Beaune, two wine-tastings and a visit to the medieval castle Clos de Vougeot, one of Burgundy’s oldest wineries and home to the Chevaliers du Tastevin, a society devoted to promoting the region’s wine and viniculture.
Excursions aside, this trip was very much about food and wine. Breakfast each day was a continental style buffet that included cold cereals, some charcuterie, cheese and, best of all, divinely fresh French bread and croissants.
Lunch was always a multi-course feast, with a change of wines with each course. While Chef Selby was always ready to prepare a vegetarian or other special-requirement entrée, most of us reveled in the parade of such French classics as quiche Lorraine, rack of lamb, seared foie gras, escargots, duck confit and ham en croute with coarse grain mustard and Chablis sauce. The selection of Burgundy wines at lunch included Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus, sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne, crisp Chablis, red Sancerre and many more.
At dinner the stakes were raised, with such entrées as coq au vin, scallops in butter sauce, lamb with minted peas, pan-fried duck breast and, for our final dinner, filet of Charolais beef with mushroom sauce. Wine selection included a lovely Meursault, a Pernand Vergelles, an excellent Pouilly-Fuissee and a Beaune du Chateau.
As we were traveling in France, desserts were always worth the calories, but it was the selection of cheeses, some 20 in all, offered at lunch and dinner (and accompanied by wine) that had many passengers overindulging.
All this wining and gourmet dining takes place in a thoroughly casual atmosphere. Jeans and comfortable clothes are fine most of the time. Some passengers choose to change into slightly dressier garb in the evening, especially for the Captain’s Farewell supper.
The fare runs about $4,750 per person for a twin/double en suite cabin and does not include tips. The recommended tip amount is between four and seven percent of the cruise cost, either in Euro (preferred) or U.S. dollars.
Though this particular cruise was focused on the food, wine and history of Burgundy, the European Waterways fleet travels other waterways in France. The company’s 12-passenger barge Adrienne does a similar Burgundy cruise. All four barges can be chartered by groups, with itineraries customized to suit various interests, such as tennis, art and golf.
For more information about European Waterways please visit www.gobarging.com.