Could I possibly adjust to the slow paced nature of a canal barge cruise? That was the big question as we embarked on the Esperance, a hotel barge that sails through the Midi Canal in the south of France. After several months of fast-paced travel where other people and companies were always dictating my itinerary, arranging a six-night stay on the Esperance was a breath of fresh air, if not just a little bit unnerving.
From the moment that I started arranging travel plans with France Cruises, I could tell that something was just a little bit different. I could choose how and when I arrived in Beziers, France, for my journey to the Esperance. At the end of the cruise, I could choose which city along the route that I would like to leave from to continue my travels throughout France. There were no set times, no set schedules, just a relaxed atmosphere that encouraged me to relax in the south of France. And I liked it.
Our journey to the Esperance began in Paris, where my husband and I boarded a high-speed TGV train to Beziers, about a 4-1/2-hour journey. The train ride was excellent, with varied landscapes, smooth travel and a cafe onboard to snack along the way. We were told that someone would be at the train station in Beziers to greet us, but other than that, much of our itinerary still remained a mystery.
Up to six passengers sail on the Esperance for each passage, and all of us ended up arriving at the Beziers train station within 10 minutes of each other. Meeting the other couples was a much anticipated event, but we were blessed with excellent traveling companions. Both couples were from Toronto, Canada, yet did not know each other. Audrey and Brent just flew into Paris that morning and hopped right on the train. Paulette and Tom had spent the night in Dijon, after having explored Switzerland, and took a train to Beziers.
Our luggage was loaded into a minivan and we drove off to board the Esperance, about a 10-minute drive away. The canal was a bustling, thriving spot of activity on a Saturday afternoon, as families and children enjoyed the simple pleasures of walking and biking along paths parallel to the water. A restaurant and snack bar were open, along with a souvenir shop. Electric boats were slowly puttering the waterway, competing with larger family houseboats. It was a scene of happiness and contentment of several generations enjoying the beautiful scenery and mild weather. The scene would be repeated on every day of our journey.
As we got out of the minivan, the only two staff members of the Esperance welcomed us to the barge. Mathias, the captain and owner, and Oliver, the chef, grabbed our luggage, asked us our names, and quickly put our luggage into the corresponding cabins. It’s the only time that I’ve ever had someone in a tall paper chef’s hat carry my luggage for me. Again, this cruise was going to be different.
After learning that we wouldn’t be sailing anywhere that night, and that dinner was still a few hours away, my husband and I took a stroll along the paths lining the canal, while the others chose to unpack and take a nap. The crowds were quickly disappearing as dinner time got closer, leaving a tranquil moment to enjoy the series of seven locks at Beziers, with the loud water tumbling over the walls into a dramatic cascade of seven waterfalls.
When it finally got too dark to walk along the canal, we went back on board the Esperance. Dinner might have been a casual affair with dress, as we all agreed not to dress up for dinner that night, but it was by no means casual for the palette. We were quickly introduced to the amazing culinary talents of Oliver, whose meals would soon become the highlight of each day.With full stomachs and great expectations of what lay ahead, we quickly retired to our cabin after dinner. Rested and content, we couldn’t even have envisioned what was still to come….
Photos by Kimberly Button