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France Barge Cruise

Barge Cruising In Southern France

I’m up to jumping on any cruise, anywhere and anytime. I’ve experienced every imaginable type of cruise, unheard of destinations and every type of vessel from mega ships, yachts, sailing vessels, Indonesian phinisis to polar expedition ships, each with its own identity and appeal. When it comes to barging and charting a course through the canals and waterways of France it’s a different world, one that requires the assistance of an agent specializing in this niche style of cruising. Like our previous eight barge cruises, we relied on the expertise of The Barge Lady, aka Barge Lady Cruises to find us rare last minute availability on two barges based in southern France.

Life In The Slow Lane

Barging is a slow paced adventure of personalized navigation on back country canals, visiting landlocked hamlets, medieval villages and cities inaccessible to ocean going vessels and sharing the unique experience with fewer than 12 other persons.

Rather than vast open seas, you’ll glide through narrow canals and rivers that wind their way through hillside vineyards, farm lands and forested pathways. Consider these cruises as off the radar nautical sailings minus multi deck atriums, nightly entertainment and poolside activities. It’s a laid back, never rushed journey of unplugged exploration curated by a personal guide, the welcoming hospitality of an accommodating crew and creative cuisine prepared by the talents of a gourmet chef.

I’ve experienced this unique cruising style on the canals of Burgundy, Provence, Ireland and Scotland and every one has proven to be something extra special. Like the small hotels that dot the French countryside, these floating holiday accommodations are star rated but regardless of the vessel’s rating, each one boasts an endemic set of standards. Cruising France’s Canal du Midi on the 3 star 10 passenger Athos followed by sailing the rivers of Provence on the 12 passenger, 5+ star Belmond Napoléon rekindled the passion for this type of relaxing retreat.

The Ups and Downs Of The Canal

These man made aquatic pathways were originally designed in the 1600’s with horse drawn barges providing a means of transporting goods to landlocked destinations prior to motorized navigation. With the advent of the railroad facilitating faster and more efficient transport, the canal system fell into a sedentary period. Then in the mid 1960’s inspired by the idea of enhanced recreational use, the concept of barge hotel cruising began, giving new life to these historic waterways.

Canal navigation is full of engaging sights but none more intriguing than passing through the canal’s ingenious lock system. While envious onlookers watch from the shore, guests onboard enjoy front row seats to the spectacle of the lowering and raising of the barge through a series of lock chambers. In the case of the Athos, it not only passes through several individual locks, it is also raised or lowered in nine consecutive locks after departing Pezenas and shortly thereafter crosses over a river by means of an elevated aqueduct.  

What A Difference Every Day Makes

Breakfast onboard is generally followed by inclusive daily excursions exploring well known destinations as well as secret gems known only to locals. Guests aboard the Athos visit the medieval fortified city of Carcassonne followed by lunch served under the upper deck canopy. The barge lazily floats its way to a late afternoon secluded mooring spot before a pre- dinner wine tasting experience at a family operated vineyard. Each ensuing day reveals another destination full of local history, color and charm, visiting the open markets of Narbonne, the village of Minerve, the cathedral of Capestang and the ancient alleyways of Pezenas, interspersed with surprise attractions along the way.

Connoisseurs of wine and Michelin style cuisine preparation will find the esteemed reputation of the Belmond brand carried out flawlessly aboard the Napoléon. The vessel evokes an aura of class and sophistication in its furnishings, a spacious salon and elegant dining room, while outdoors you can bask in the sun of southern France on the open upper deck, enjoy personal solace under the canopy or soak up the ambiance of cruising the Rhône River in a hot tub. It’s positioning on the Rhône provides luxury access to the beauty of Provence and Burgundy.

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With a champagne toast and introduction of the vessel’s endearing staff the adventure sets sail from the walled city of Avignon. With exceptional dinners, a peaceful night’s rest and breakfast under our belts, the Napoléon’s personal guide curates a series of daily excursions starting with a tour of Arles. It’s Roman amphitheater and massive colosseum style arena dwarf the colorful alleyways that wind their way through the stomping grounds of Van Gogh and Gauguin. A follow up day in Avignon provides a glimpse into the towering Pope’s Palace and the famed Pont du Gard. Visit Chateauneuf-de-Pape, pass through the second deepest lock in Europe, savor the taste of truffles in Grignan, the aroma of lavender growing in the fields and sample the vintage wines of Mr. Ferraton in Tain l’Hermitage.

The attributes of epicurean excellence and pampered service are proudly on display in this shining star of Belmond’s 6 vessel fleet. The Napoléon is periodically available for individual reservations while others operate exclusively on a charter basis.

The Art Of The Meal

Regardless of itinerary or vessel, daily excursions contribute to the intrinsic appeal of barging but it’s the dining experience that is the piece de resistance that sets barging apart from mainstream cruising. Crystal glassware and fine china set the table for a personalized candlelit ambiance, an environment impossible to duplicate on larger vessels.

Multi-course gastronomic presentations are paired with top shelf wines of the region and main courses supplemented by a selection of premier artisanal French cheeses. Delectable desserts cap off the culinary extravaganza but an after dinner drink under mother nature’s surrogate chandelier of twinkling stars is an indelible encore of these amazing holidays afloat.

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As a former Cruise Director, Steve has been cruising the world for the past forty years. Bringing a new dimension to cruise journalism, he continues to spin the globe searching for off the grid cruise adventures and unplugged destinations to share with Porthole Cruise Magazine readers.