Cruising: Luxury on the Loire
Canal barging in France: so easy, so luxurious, si doux
When I mentioned to our friends that for our anniversary, my husband and I had decided to take an ultra deluxe French canal river barge trip on one of European Waterways’ barges, there was a pause in the conversation and almost in unison, eyebrows were raised.
Didn’t we mean the larger, more exclusive river cruisers? was the first query. Not quite the same, I explained. The barge is narrower and smaller but it has all the gastronomical highlights plus the scenery of the little villages along the way.
European Waterways operates a series of luxury barges with up to 12 guests; ours was the Renaissance. Cruisers have many more on board. In our case, we were only six guests travelling in a most lavish style with all-inclusive amenities, including the local wines, personal service, visits to historic treasures and, best of all, floating through the Loire country. The Renaissance turned out to be exactly what we wanted and needed – serenity, a slow pace, cruising gently and being tended to as the royal French families were before they lost their priveleges and a few beheaded.
Once cargo vessels, about 30 years ago these barges were bought and cleverly remodeled into floating boutique hotels. The Renaissance was refitted again in 2009, and can accommodate eight guests. We three couples were treated in great style and, best of all, it proved to be a wonderful mix of intelligent and amusing conversations.
The mode was slow and easy. Take a walk, or use the available bikes to go overland and meet at the next stop. No need to rush off into a crowded lobby to line up for tours as they must in the large cruisers.
Our point of departure was just over an hour outside of Paris. The first day we learned to appreciate what would become an exciting ritual – observing Captain Laurent navigate the locks of the river. None of us took these experiences for granted. In fact, the navigation had to be very precise since one could actually touch the sides of the narrow canals, only inches away. Captain Laurent was totally dedicated and never distracted, never leaving the wheelhouse.
The deck, though not large, was where we could lie back and watch the glorious scenery. We had options for activities each day that we discussed as we nibbled on our buffet breakfast, which contained surprises each day. Chef Ollie had already been to the town where we had stopped for the night to get the freshest breads, fruit, fish and meat.
My favourite stop had been on my priority list for the longest time. Chateau Fontainebleau is one of the most beautiful palaces I’ve seen and it’s been kept in an impeccable state. Luckily, since it’s not on most visitors’ itineraries, it was easy to move through the wondrous halls and rooms and get a close look at the furniture, objets and drapery.
Another unusual highlight was Pont-Canal in Briare, an elegant town with a most unusual canal designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame circa 1895. This aqueduct, or bridge, was constructed as an elevated canal across the Loire River below. Imagine being on a canal over a river!
There were other visits to privately owned manors, a very quirky chalet with a moat, and a morning market in the village of Gien that sold everything. Gien is known for fine china and porcelain, and I found the cheeses, bread and clothing boutiques to be quite fine as well.
While in Briare, the other five opted to go to an ancient castle, Sully-sur-Loire, a medieval fortress. One of its claims to fame is that Jeanne d’Arc came to visit on many occasions. I decided to walk through the streets of the small town – I have seen quite a number of castles over my years of travel writing. In this lovely, tiny village, I met a few locals as I sipped coffee at an outdoor cafe. There wasn’t one person who didn’t say bonjour when they passed.
Small French towns have a tendency not to take themselves too seriously, and instead of the snobbery seen in Paris, here they were pleased to help out a stranger. With all my walking, I was feeling tired and it must have shown, since I was offered and accepted a ride back to the barge. Merci monsieur.
How can you talk about the French and not discuss food and wine? Chef Ollie was a master. There was no pressure to dress for dinners; however, we did all manage to wash up well and look spiffy in our casual chic ensembles as we sat around the formally set round table each evening. Chef Ollie, although English, is as French with his cuisine as possible. Each was a true repast with tremendous, innovative menus.
The Captain’s dinner was superb. It included white Chablis and red Infant Jesus as the wines, to go with fois gras with fried bread and port reduction, cured salmon with capers and cornichons, a splendid trio of lamb (slowly cooked shoulder, roasted rack and fillet), with dauphinoise potatoes. No meal went without a fine cheese tray – St. Maure de Touraine, Epoisses and Roquefort – ending with an amazing creme brulée. Since many of the cheeses aren’t pasteurized it’s difficult to find them in North America.
One night went dined out an acclaimed restaurant in Les Bezards and at the end I concluded tha Chef Ollie’s reputation was safe.
And the accommodations? What a surprise when we saw our suite. There are only four suites, all similar. They compare well with many of Paris’ five-star, small hotels.
Another opportunity for activities was wine-tasting. I can’t recall a trip that had something for everyone from the finest wine, cheeses, meals to the supreme comfort level. No wonder many guests return.
Other notable French canal barge trips are available.
• European Waterways: gobarging.com; 877-574-3404
• The Barge Company; bargecompany.com
• Viking Rivers: 877-523-0549
• French Waterways: French-waterways.com
• French Cruises: 866-489-3920
Prices for a six-night cruise aboard the eight-passenger hotel barge Renaissance are from $6,350 per person in a twin/double en suite cabin, including all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers. Visit gobarging.com.