Barge cruising is a small segment of the overall cruise industry, but it has been growing steadily, with an increasing number of cruise repeaters seeking new and different experiences. John Wood-Dow, director of European Waterways, recently said: “Barging is growing fast as more agents and travelers become aware of what has been a very niche product, up to now, and recognize its benefits. It is being pulled along by some of the same general drivers impacting the wider cruise industry, such as the growth of the gray market and appeal of cruising and being on the water. The fact that your luggage and ‘hotel room’ travel with you also has great appeal.”
However, anyone considering a barge cruise for the first time needs to thoroughly understand the product so that the only surprises on their holiday are pleasant ones. For example, cruisers who have enjoyed river voyages need to know that the hotel barge experience has little in common with that on a river boat.
Size. While river boats may carry a hundred or so passengers, hotel barges typically accommodate anywhere from four to a dozen or so passengers, though some of the newer vessels carry as many as 24 or more. Those who like to socialize and meet lots of new people might see a disadvantage in the small number of fellow passengers—especially if they dislike any fellow passenger
Amenities. Most barges have fewer frills and amenities than their larger cousins. Staterooms and bathrooms tend to be smaller. With a typical configuration of two decks, the barges have a combination dining room and lounge. No balconies and no room service, yet the daily cost per person is typically higher than that on river cruises: from $350 to more than $1,000.
The pluses. Cruisers who appreciate fine food and wine will find a lot to love on a barge cruise. With fewer passengers to serve, chefs on hotel barges go all out to impress, often with luxury products like caviar, foie gras, premium fish and meats. At both lunch and dinner, courses are beautifully paired with delicious wines. Also, with so few passengers service is likely to be attentive and personalized.
The experience. While a river cruise may travel several hundred miles, often through multiple countries and along more than one river, a barge normally cruises within one region of one country, covering 25 miles or so during a six-day cruise. In short, a barge cruise experience resembles a stay in a pleasant country house with opportunities to explore nearby areas—while dining well and being comfortable served.
A valuable component of the fine dining is the opportunity to learn about food ingredients and recipes—and the wines offered in the area. Most barge trips include daily excursions by minivan or coach to nearby points of interest, such as medieval castles, vineyards (for wine tastings). Visits with local artisans or food producers may include dining with locals at colorful bistros or top-tier restaurants
One estimate puts the number of barges currently operating at about 70. While most cruise the canals of France, they also can be found on the waterways of Holland, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Scotland, England and Ireland. Barge season starts in late March and runs through the end of October.
The oldest (40+ years) and biggest (17 barges) company is European Waterways, which operates in seven countries. In addition to “classic” cruises, the line offers golf, family, culinary, and walking vacations. Mr. Wood-Dow pointed out that “although the origins of barging were in France, new destinations are now developing in other European regions with cultural and gastronomic heritage – in Italy, the Scottish Highlands, Holland, and Ireland, for example – that are also appealing to a wider variety of travelers.”
Celebrating more than 35 years of slow cruising, French Country Waterways operates five stylish luxury barges carrying eight to 18 passengers, traveling on France’s inland waterways. Their cruises often include dining at Michelin-starred restaurants.
CroisiEurope, a smaller and younger company has five 22-passenger barges sailing the canals of France.
New for 2020, Beyond Cruises now offers a seven-day barge cruise, roundtrip from Dublin, aboard the 10-passenger Shannon Princess, traveling Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon. Departures are scheduled from April through September.
Solo travelers don’t pay a single supplement aboard the family-owned Luciole, which has eight en-suite cabins. The barge sails week-long itineraries along the Nivernais Canal in Northern Burgundy.
The 8-passenger Savoire Vivre cruising in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, is an interesting option for clients more interested in an intense culinary experience than in amenities. The weeklong cruises on this barge include six lunches by visiting chefs and six dinners off-board.
A Rick Steves favorite: the 100-year-old hotel barge Nilaya, which has two en-suite cabins and cruises France’s waterways “informally,” traveling where bigger barges cannot.
Cruisers who insist on luxury and are willing to pay for it ($54,000 to $60,000 for a six-night charter) will like the 8-passenger Prospérité, which cruises southern Burgundy; it’s one of three barges operated by Elegant Waterways. In addition to top-notch amenities and service, the barge has truly spacious suites (270 square feet) and bathrooms with both showers and tubs.
Looking toward the future, John Wood-Dow says: “I see growth continuing both short and longer term. Barging the small canals and waterways of the destination is the archetypal ‘experiential trip.’ You’re ‘embedding’ yourself into the countryside, getting off the beaten path at leisure and meeting people and doing things in the company of just a few like-minded, fellow travelers that you couldn’t do on your own, or as part of a 100 person tour. You also have the unique selling proposition of the ‘whole barge charter,’ which represents half our business. Guests can book the entire boat as a multi-generational family or a group of friends and it becomes their own private floating villa. The excursions can be tailored to everyone’s interest – whether for golfers or kids, in a way which would be impossible on a bigger ship – unless you’re a billionaire!”
Bottom Line: Asked to offer a persuasive pitch for barge cruises, Mr. Wood-Dow quotes a European Waterways repeat client who says: “Here, you’re part of it, you’re immersed in it, and that makes it really special because you don’t get that on other cruises.”
Cover Photo: European Waterways La Belle Epoque, courtesy European Waterways
We have numerous stories about barge cruising if you search our site for “barge.” See another All Things Cruise journalist’s story about one day of his barge cruise experiences here:
Cruising in France: La Belle Epoque, Courtesy European Waterways