There is five star service by the book with lots of boxes to tick and there are the real five star experiences that can be very different delivering pleasure in so many more ways. Quietly, hotel barges are cruising the most attractive waterways of Europe which offer supreme experiences for small parties, either by whole vessel charters or on a cabin booking basis. Most people associate the word ‘barge’ with rather grubby and run-down cargo carrying vessels; nothing could be further from the reality with the hotel barges on which we have cruised. Our cruise was on the Bourgogne canal on European Waterways ‘Impressionniste’.
The pace is appropriately leisurely but that is deceptive as there can be much going on both on board and ashore, as the barges are accompanied by minibuses that are used to put on excursions each day. Everything is flexible, whilst the planned schedules match guests’ anticipated expectations; there have been changes on each of our three trips as our parties’ preferences have been taken into account. Our latest trip on the Bourgogne canal was not far from the great wine towns of Beaune and Dijon so it was themed on wine. However, that did not dominate as there were numerous other interests included so we were all were indulged. We are inveterate travellers but we really dislike the hassle of changing hotels, packing and unpacking each day, so reaching new destinations with changing scenery each day is a real bonus.
The Hotel Barge and Its Lifestyle
There were eight guests on board l’Impressionniste, (NOTE: single ‘) the capacity was twelve guests with accommodation in double and twin en suite cabins, everything was well-fitted out and exceptionally well maintained with service to match. However, any vessel is only as good as the crew and we had a great vessel, the work ethic of our six crew members was almost tiring to watch, but everything was carried out with a smile and a good sense of humour. The atmosphere was relaxed but the crew discipline was ever present.
I cannot sit still for long and have a curiosity for seeing as much as possible wherever I go; not a problem as there are bicycles and maps on board so that whilst some others are watching the world go by, usually a couple of us explored the nearby countryside and villages catching up with the barge later. Cycling also has other benefits as there is an endless flow of delicious food, wine, cocktails and canapes to indulge, but more on those later.
These European canal barges were built to fit the standard size of lock; there is no room to spare with their 38m. length and a beam which is so tightly fitted, they cannot even have thin rubbing strakes. Quite daunting when 250 tons of vessel has to be manoeuvred into place using just the rudder and one propeller. Vincent, our helmsman, let me helm under his watchful eye, normally, it is best to hold steady with little movement of the wheel but I found that constant adjustment was the order of the day.
We had a very large awning over one of the seating areas on deck that could be raised and lowered for bridges at the push of a button, an excellent addition as the sun was too hot to be in the open for extended periods. There was also forward seating area and a Jacuzzi Pool that despite the heat went unused. Within the barge, there was air conditioning throughout; each of the six bedroom suites had individual units.
The main saloon and dining room was very spacious and comfortable with full glazing on three sides. The wide doors to the deck (no steps) were invariably open so the deck area and saloon felt as though they were one area with seats wherever you wished to sit. Dining was either al fresco or in the saloon.
All cabins were a deck below but they and the passageways had natural light through the portholes. Importantly the beds were large whilst overall they were fine, however, space was limited but well thought out. The sound deadening was very effective.
The lifestyle for guests was free and easy, everything throughout the entire trip was included so no chits to be signed or waiting if you wanted a drink, etc. Whilst a crew member was always around for any request, there was little formality for the guests although we changed for dinner which was addressed by both the chef on the menu and a hostess on the wines. A formality that was very welcome was that on returning from any excursion, one of their minibuses which accompanied us, a hostesses would be waiting with a tray of cocktails whilst another had canapes. The open bar was more than comprehensive; one day we mentioned the pleasures of Mirabelle – a bottle was on the shelves the following day.
The generosity of any form of drink was admirable, I particularly hate the much vaunted ‘welcome glass of champagne’ on arrival when at least a couple of glasses would normally be needed to overcome enduring any form of public transport. Here, champagne was available at any time, every day, it is those touches which run right through a truly memorable holiday.
The pace of the barge is slow but the interests are many and varied so that boredom never comes to mind. The countryside is quite charming along the canal as it wends its way along the wooded valley passing hills (when cycling, some are higher than you might imagine) and small villages. You can observe the simple life enjoyed along the way, cows being tended, small fields cropped, timber felled and sawn. More specifically, the locks were frequently very characterful with the small keepers’ houses, some offering vegetables, fruit and drinks; one even had a very extensive collection of ancient farming tools running alongside the canal for some distance.
For shorter personal excursions, there were plenty of opportunities to walk, just taking two examples; a couple of hundred metres behind the attractive Abbaye de La Bussiere in La Bussiere, was an enchanting church square that had bags of unspoilt character as the focal point of this village with the school children gathering for some event. Another not to be missed was the chateau gardens at Les Jardins de Barbirey. As a bit of a personal challenge, I decided to cycle up what turned out to be a tortuous road to chateau Neuf which was perched on a high promontory; everything about the village was delightful; a couple of intimate streets, ancient houses galore and views to die for. As a party, we were driven up to the village; nothing was lost in its charm on my second visit on the same day.
The option of an excursion per day was enjoyed; several included wine tastings and opportunities to talk with local wine experts, but we were not short of other interests to experience. A fascinating tale attached was made to chateau de Bussy, once the home of the Comte Roger de Bussy-Rabutin. He was exiled to his estate due in part to his scandalous lifestyle and satirical chronicles of French nobility which found him in great disfavour with King Louis XIV. The bitter Bussy-Rabutin amassed a collection of portraits that included his former mistresses, mistresses of French kings as well as military greats of the time.
Château du Clos de Vougeot headquarters of the esteemed Chevaliers du Tastevin; it is set off beautifully as it is in the midst of endless vineyards. The buildings were massively constructed and fascinating but the sight of the gigantic grape presses was beyond my comprehension.
Beaune, capital of Burgundy wine country with a history going back over 2,000 years. We absorb the fascinating 15th century Hotel Dieu Hospice before visiting another one of Burgundy’s oldest winemakers; Bouchard, Pere et Fils. We walked all around their chateau de Beaune; from elevated walkways with interesting topiary all around to the dark, cool cellars which housed ‘the collection’ that comprised their most valuable and sought after wines. None can be sold without express permission from the head of the family.
Back into the sunshine, the very elegant l’Orangerie now serves as their restaurant where the highlight of a superb lunch cooked by their celebrity chef: Pierre Le Beautin. Beaune has a sophistication that absorbs you whilst Dijon’s atmosphere captivated us despite also being on a tourist trail, it was very much a town for the locals which included a superb market.
Our cruise fulfilled every element of our criteria and those of fellow guests; we comprised a party of four well-travelled couples with diverse interests drawn together with a common interest of curiosity in travel experiences and wines. However, there was both the space and flexibility to make the holiday our own. Whilst wine was the theme of the cruise, it was the sheer pleasure of the combination of the widest interpretation of an interest in wine from the local culture to the tasting experiences. Every day we drank and tasted mouth-watering, wines of rated vintages throughout both aboard and in the chateaux, nothing was stinted.
Paris Back to Paris
European Waterways collects and returns guests from, and back to Paris. Their favoured hotel is the centrally located Hotel Westminster in the Rue de la Paix, very close to Place Vendome where so many global brands compete to show off their best of the best.
We stayed at the Hotel Westminster; we chose a traditionally styled room at the front of the hotel; it was both very comfortable and pleasantly quiet. The staff were both personable and always happy to answer our continuous stream of requests for information and directions. A highlight was the dining experience, we ate a simply dissectible meal of fish with a pomme puré followed by a Mirabelle tart – we now understand why the French are so mad about Mirabelles. And, you can guess it – the wine was excellent.