Last Updated on February 3, 2021 by Jim Ferri
River cruises have soared in popularity, but few travelers know about barge cruising. They’re small and intimate ships with only a few passengers and, oftentimes, a lot of gourmet food and wine.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
By Marcia Levin
Canal holidays, barge holidays or, as some call them, “French river cruises,” have become quite popular in recent years. They are quite different from your normal ocean or river cruise.
Ocean cruise travel, in the 21st century, can refer to anything from a mega-ship carrying 6,000 passengers to vessels with 2,000-3,000 cruisers or smaller, more intimate ships with no more than 200-500 on board.
River cruises are much smaller, with most ships carrying 100-200 passengers. In recent years they’ve taken to rivers throughout Europe, in South America and Asia.
Canal holidays on a barge, one of the oldest forms of water travel, introduce you to a much smaller ship carrying just a handful of passengers.
Barge Travel Basics
A barge, according to Merriam-Webster, is “any of various boats: such as a roomy, usually flat-bottomed boat used chiefly for the transport of goods on inland waterways and usually featuring a towline.”
Barge travel dates back to the 15th century.
“Elizabeth,” a 1998 biopic dealing with Queen Elizabeth I’s imprisonment in 1554 in the Tower of London shows what barge travel entailed in those days. The queen was brought to the tower on a barge sailing on the Thames.
More recent Thames barging is nowhere near as dramatic – and engines replaced towlines over the years.
But barging is a delightful way to see the world.
What to Expect on a Canal Holiday
Barges are by definition small, carrying up to 18 passengers, with 12-passenger boats most common. It is an intimate, family-style setting in comfortable surroundings offering glorious views of the countryside as the boat sails the canal and guests enjoy the relaxed luxury.
Most canal-holiday sailings are six days in length and transfers are provided. Some “theme” cruises might include golf, museums or other special interests.
Because of the pace of a barge cruise as it navigates the canal and goes through the locks, some travelers opt to ride alongside the barge on bicycles (furnished on the vessel,) or take a scenic stroll walk alongside the vessel. Don’t pack a tuxedo or ball gown, a shirt and pants will do nicely.
Barges don’t offer big production numbers as entertainment. Expect a musical trio, a vocalist or similar offerings in a relaxed setting in the comfortable lounge. A sense of comfort and congeniality is noticeable, and strangers become friends quickly.
On older barges, some of the cabins are very compact, but storage space is plentiful. Public areas and deck space are sprawling.
Some years back my husband and I sailed on a European Waterways’ barge from Oxford to Windsor. It may not have been as dramatic a trip as that majestic outing taken by Queen Elizabeth I, but it was memorable. We toured Oxford and its time-honored buildings, historic Windsor, and picturesque Henley-on-Thames, home of the eponymous Regatta, and other charming canal-side villages.
The food on board was excellent and wines and drinks superb, all elegantly served. It was an exciting week, and we met some lovely people.
A large number of Americans, Brits, and Australians enjoy barging.
Shore excursions are included. I recently enjoyed a canal holiday on the canals of Burgundy and found the experience totally enjoyable and enriching.
Travelers who opt for a canal holiday are generally well traveled and enjoy the opportunity to revisit a favorite country or learn more about its wineries or historical sites
Canal Holidays in Europe – Who’s Going and Where?
Two major firms offer canal holidays.
Britain-based European Waterways is a significant player in river cruising, with a 35-year history in the business. The company offers itineraries in England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.
Barge cruises boast accommodations for up to 12 passengers (one vessel has room for 13.) All sailings are all-inclusive, offering the same caliber of fine cuisine and wines we experienced some 20 years ago. The crew is very accommodating and short excursions on a minibus are included at each stop.
The America-based French Country Waterways concentrates on French wine country on their French river cruises. Their varied tours stress visits to chateaux and wineries. The company has been barging for 30 years. Five boats accommodate from eight to 18 passengers.
The firm’s barges will sail in Burgundy, one of the best places to visit in France, between Dijon and St. Leger-Dheune, the Upper Loire between Montargis and Satur, Alsace-Lorraine between Nancy and Saverne, and Champagne between Chateau-Thierry and Courcy.
Two boats will operate on the Burgundy run.
If You Go:
European Waterways: www.europeanwaterways.com
French Country Waterways: www.fcwl.com