Barging in Burgundy

The pastoral landscape and kaleidoscope of color greeting us as we stepped out of our cabin was reminiscent of a Monet painting. Fields of vibrant yellow sunflowers blanketed the hills and the purple of wild lavender painted the banks of the serene Canal du Nivernais. Were we really on a cruise? In the traditional sense no, yet here we were onboard a boat floating through the historical narrow canals that dissect the interior countryside of France. 

We had been onboard less than twelve hours and had already enjoyed a champagne and canapé greeting, dined on a gourmet dinner, sampled three premier wines and somehow found room for three artisanal cheeses. This is what barging is all about.

Embracing life in the slow lane aboard a barge hotel in France has become one of our favorite summer pastimes. Our home for the next six days in mid July would be the delightful Elisabeth, navigating the gentle waterways of Burgundy.

As with our past experiences, we had relied on the guidance of The Barge Lady, the prominent agency specializing in this niche style of cruising. Adding to our good fortune we were surprised and blessed to be sailing with Stephanie Sack, a crucial cog in the wheels that make The Barge Lady so successful.

Barge Elisabeth

If you’ve never enjoyed this form of cruise experience, it’s the emphasis on gastronomical excellence, the intimacy of small group travel and total inclusivity that rank high on the innumerable elements that make it so special. It is a slow paced adventure of navigation on back country canals, visiting landlocked hamlets, medieval villages and cities inaccessible to ocean going vessels.

Consider these voyages 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 dining like royalty on meals prepared by the talents of a gourmet chef.

We had been met on arrival at the Paris airport and transported to the Elisabeth by Yolanda our personal guide for the week. The smiling faces of co-owners David and Matthew greeted us as we stepped aboard and the pop of the cork on a premier bottle of champagne signaled the beginning of six days of personalized pampering. After a short briefing on our upcoming voyage, assistants Anna and Marin escorted us to our rooms.

This would be our ninth barge cruise and the three spacious and tastefully decorated accommodations aboard the Elisabeth rank at the top. This six passenger vessel of comfort affords all the accoutrements of a charming French cottage with a welcoming salon area, a flowered sectional sofa and a comfortable dining area exuding all the comforts of an indulgent home.

The Ups and Downs Of The Canal

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 while Captain David and Marin supervise the lowering and raising of the Elisabeth through a series of water filled chambers.

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 of disrepair. 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.

The journey along the canal affords new discoveries as our private van and Yolanda magically appear at new destinations each morning for complimentary excursions. Quaint villages the likes of Gurgy with its fascinating history and buildings, the amazing 12th century basilica of Vizelay and the colorful alleyways of Joigny all contribute to the charismatic charm of Northern Burgundy. Visits to boutique family owned vineyards and the endearing village of Chablis provide opportunities to sample Premier Cru and Grand Cru vintages of the endemic fruit of the vine.

Auxerre France

From our mooring near Vincelles we explored the deep depths of the Grottes D’ Arcy, a cave system where stalagmites and stalactites line the pathway to a chamber dappled with prehistoric cave paintings. The cathedrals, abbeys and unique architecture of Auxerre reveal a side of France rarely experienced to visitors.

Back onboard, Chef extraordinaire Matthew is busy throughout the day preparing his hallmark multi-course Michelin style meals. Each expertly plated dish brings locally sourced creative cuisine to the table, perfectly paired with two or three different wines. Three renowned French cheeses are displayed prior to the nightly parade of delectable desserts. Top off the evening with a tipple of fortified wine, rum or after dinner specialties and it’s another day of memories for your travel journal.

I’ve experienced this unique cruising style on the canals of Burgundy, Provence, Ireland and Scotland and every one has proven to be something unique. The intimate size of the Elisabeth makes it the perfect solution for sharing the journey with family or friends as a charter. It’s like living the dream on your own vessel with a willing crew catering to your every whim. C’est si bon!

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.