Many travelers migrate towards large cruise ships, which tend to
offer the most lavish arrays of food and entertainment, with the least physical and
intellectual demand on of the guest. Once one boards, there are few decisions to make, and
none are very important. But for those who prefer more intimate experiences, large vessels
may not seem as appealing.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find the perfect balance in France.
Not on the coast, or in any city, but along a few of the 4,800 miles of rivers and canals
winding gracefully through the countryside. For one glorious week on a barge converted
into a luxurious, small drifting hotel, we were wined, dined and toured in the grandest
style, at the gentlest pace one could desire, amid picturesque rural settings, and
time-warped towns and villages.
French Country Waterways is one of the handful of carriers plying
those idyllic aquatic paths. Its five barges, with crews of 4-7, host 8-18 passengers.
Each lavishly-appointed floating inn creeps through an itinerary of about 30 miles,
allowing passengers to vegetate on board; take escorted tours of nearby towns, chateaus,
and wineries; or peddle one of its bikes along the canals' trails. The barges move so
slowly - especially when passing through the system's many locks - one can outpace the
vessel on foot.
From pickup on Sunday in Paris, to drop-off the following Saturday,
one can completely surrender to the hospitable staff, and the leisurely tone of the
environment; no currency, language or logistic issues. Since virtually all the patrons are
North American, the crew speaks English, unless you choose to test your French skills. If
so, they are quite patient with those of us who fumbled through our vaguely-recalled,
thoroughly-atrophied remnants of required courses from long ago. The cruise price includes
all meals, open bar, day trips, and, of course, free time for shopping.
The ship's sumptuous meals are not only a treat to the palate, but an
education. The 10 lunches and dinners on board are accompanied by two wines and three
cheeses. On our vessel, the Nenuphar, two charming young ladies provided informative and
entertaining insights into the region's bounty, while serving the finest examples of it.
Thirty cheeses later, I'd become a bigger fan of roqueforts than before, and discovered an
array of goat cheeses, far beyond the feta so familiar in Greek dishes.
The company's five vessels offer similar formats in their respective
territories - Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace-Lorraine, and the Moselle and Upper Loire
Valleys. The man-made canals were begun in the 1600s for commercial navigation. Most of
that is obsolete, but the French Government maintains them primarily for tourism and
recreation. These narrow waterways are frequently interspersed with locks to control the
depth of water, and maintain the gentle, almost imperceptible current. Anyone developing
motion sickness on this voyage, would likely tend to queasiness in his own bathtub.
The ships cruise by day (usually at speeds of 3-10 mph). Each morning
and afternoon provide optional trips by comfortable motorcoach to the closest attractions,
or simply a stroll through the town of that night's mooring. Each week is a one-way trip;
the next group enjoys the same in reverse order.
Our voyage started at Chatillon-sur-Loire. The canal traversed an
aqueduct over the Loire River, for the stunning oddity of floating on one body of water
across another, 50 feet below. Our first day trip was to the fortified hilltop village of
Sancerre, for a breathtaking view from atop a medieval tower, and tasting of regional
Other cities included Gien, which is renowned for its elegant
ceramics. Some were delighted by the selection (and prices) at the factory's shop. I was
mesmerized by the massive twelfth-century stone bridge spanning the Loire, which handles
vehicles that were invented 800 years later. Sens featured a magnificent cathedral of
similar vintage. Each stop was more fascinating than the one before. I never knew
"quaint" could come in so many appealing flavors.
We visited two of the valley's myriad chateaus, including
Vaux-le-Vicomte, which aroused such extreme envy in Louis XIV, that he imprisoned its
owner, Nicolas Fouquet, and commandeered his architect and landscapers to upgrade
Versailles. (Important lesson - be careful whom you invite to your housewarming party.)
But the Nenuphar's greatest appeal was the unprecedented state of
relaxation the week induced for its passengers. Our staterooms were surprisingly spacious
and quiet. The lounge and deck areas were as cozy as a weekend home. The narrow, curving
canals served an unending panorama of picture-postcard beauty, lined by stately trees, and
dotted with sleepy villages. At the pace we traveled, we'd exchange greetings with locals
strolling or fishing along the way. Each of the 54 locks gave an opportunity to walk or
bike along the path, or through one of the smaller towns. No phones, TVs or radios on
board - the bliss of isolation.
As we drove around for the day trips, I noticed most of the cattle
was white, and usually prone, mirroring both the Chardonnay grapes so abundant in the
region, as well as the languid style of life there. Our late fall trip featured a rainbow
of transitional foliage colors. The boats cruise from April to October, providing a choice
of seasonal scenery. Each has its own chef, with menus that vary, depending on the best of
available local provender.
Compared to big ships, the final advantage is the personal touch. Our
delightful guide, Julie, would do her best to adjust the day trips to our particular
interests. Chef Richard repeated his splendid carrot- in-citron-sauce dish by popular
request, and shared the recipe with us. Our group of six blended well with the other six
passengers, adding a special treat to our experience. The net result was a unanimous
desire to return, or to try one of French Country Waterway's other vessels some day. Who
could ask for more?
For more information, contact:
French Country Waterways
P.O. Box 2195
Duxbury, MA 02331
To learn about their offerings, along with several others who operate
in the region, consult Shirley Linde's comprehensive guidebook The World's Most Intimate
Cruises (Open Road Publishing, $16.95).