Indulging in good food is an important part of any cruise experience, and nowhere is that truer than on a barge cruise in France. A luxury barge cruise with European Waterways is unlike any other cruising experience, and the meals presented on board are equally unrivaled.
First created to move commercial goods, France’s canal network and the barges that cruise them are now used for recreation. European Waterways has acquired some of these historical and utilitarian barges and converted them into luxury floating accommodations with highly trained staff, including very skilled chefs.
I’ve cruised twice with European Waterways, and each provided some of my most memorable travel experiences. On La Belle Epoque, I explored France’s upper Burgundy Region, discovering off-the-beaten-path historic sights and boutique wineries. On Renaissance. I toured the less-visited locales in the Loire Valley.
Barging: An intimate experience
If you’re unfamiliar with barge cruising, it’s like being in a floating boutique hotel for a week, complete with the highest quality amenities and services. The guest-to-staff ratio is very, very low.
On my La Belle Epoque cruise, we were five guests and six crew. On my Renaissance cruise we were four guests and four crew. Even when a barge is full, the maximum passenger capacity is only eight to 12 guests.
The food and wine on a barge cruise: Ooh-la-la!
Although the barges are roomy and comfortable for guests, they’re not large enough to store a week’s worth of groceries for the galley. So most of the ingredients for our meals are sourced each day at the villages where we are moored.
On a barge, locally sourced truly means local. So, my mornings always started with a crispy, flaky, melt-in-my-mouth croissant or pastry from the nearby bakery and freshly squeezed orange juice. And other cook-to-order breakfast items were always available.
Beautiful presentations are as much a hallmark of French cuisine as are the ingredients. And the chefs on my barge cruises set a high standard. Each dish was extremely tasty, and its colorful presentation added to the culinary experience.
Lunch and dinner menus included traditional French recipes as well as French-inspired preparations. Chef Hannah’s coq au vin was divine, as was her bouillabaisse and cheese souffle. I also enjoyed classic quiche Lorraine, gazpacho, rabbit, and various seafood dishes.
Although these meals also included cheese courses, we were introduced to just a fraction of the wide variety of cheeses France produces. In addition, on each cruise, we had a chance to shop at a local market. When I saw all the different cheeses for sale at the cheese stands, I wanted to take home one of each!
Deserts were equally delicious, and I had to remind myself to leave room for them. I loved the crepe Suzette, swooned over the silkiest chocolate tart ever, and enjoyed all manner of other creative and tasty concoctions.
And the bread! Crispy baguettes in a variety of flavors were offered at each meal. While I would have been content with just French bread and cheese (my weaknesses), I was more than happy to clean my plate for all the other dishes offered.
Gastronomic experiences ashore
On each cruise, we also had a unique dining experience off the boat. On La Belle Epoque, we savored a delightful lunch with the Count and Countess de Tesne at their chateau home. Delightful conversation and wines from their property accompanied a classic French meal.
On Renaissance, our tour of the artist Rosa Bonheur’s home included a delicious and colorful three-course menu served in what had been her private salon. The food and presentation were a fitting complement to the creative environment we had just toured.
And, since this was France, wine pairings and wine tastings were de rigueur. Lunch and dinner on the barge always included a red wine and a white wine chosen to complement the dishes served. I liked that our hostess always told us where each wine was from and its tasting notes. For those who are not experts in French wine, these descriptions provided a good lesson on the many varieties of wine produced in France.
And each barge cruise included at least one winery tour with a behind-the-scenes look at the wine-making process. These informative tours included a private tasting for our group. I liked that the wineries we visited were not on the typical tourist routes. And I appreciated that European Waterways set up these memorable tasting experiences in wineries that we would not have been able to visit on our own.
Slow travel on a barge cruise
Barge cruising spoiled me in so many ways. This slow way of travel hits a perfect balance between activity and relaxation. I enjoyed biking alongside the barge on the towpaths and getting a friendly “Bonjour” from passersby. And I always learned something new on each day’s excursion.
Most of all, these barge cruises indulged my taste buds with some of the best-tasting French meals I have been privileged to enjoy.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- A barge cruise offers a small and intimate setting with very personal and attentive service.
- Itineraries focus on more unique and off-the-beaten-path sights.
- This is a good way to easily experience the remote and rural areas of France, especially for non-French speakers.
- A barge cruise in France is an easy way to taste a wide variety of French cuisines and French wines.
- Cabins are located on the lower level of the barge and can only be accessed by stairs.
- Due to the intimate nature of a barge cruise, it doesn’t have the large entertainment activities and venues available on larger ships.
All photo credits: Rose Palmer
Disclosure: The author was a guest of European Waterways, but any opinions expressed in this post are her own.