I’m ready to jump on any cruise, anywhere and anytime. I have experienced every type of cruise imaginable, new destinations and all types of ships, from mega ships, yachts, sailboats, Indonesian phinisis to polar expedition ships, each with their own identity and appeal. When it comes to navigating and plotting a course through the canals and waterways of France, it’s a different world, requiring the assistance of an agent who specializes in this style of niche cruising. Like our previous eight barge cruises, we relied on the expertise of The Barge Lady, aka Houseboat cruises to find us rare last minute availabilities on two houseboats based in the south of France.
life in the slow lane
Barging is a slow-paced adventure of personalized navigation on hinterland canals, visiting landlocked hamlets, medieval villages and towns inaccessible to ocean-going vessels and sharing the unique experience with less than 12 other people.
Rather than vast open seas, you’ll glide through narrow canals and meandering rivers through hillside vineyards, farmland and forest trails. Think of these cruises as off-the-radar watercraft minus the multi-deck atriums, nighttime 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 have experienced this unique style of cruising the canals of Burgundy, Provence, Ireland and Scotland and each has proven to be something very special. Like the small hotels that dot the French countryside, these floating holiday accommodations are star-rated, but regardless of the ship’s rating, each has a set of endemic standards. Sailing the Canal du Midi in France on the 3-star 10-passenger Athos, then cruising the rivers of Provence on the 12-passenger, the 5-star-plus Belmond Napoleon has reignited the passion for this type of relaxing retreat.
The ups and downs of the channel
These man-made waterways were originally designed in the 1600s with horse-drawn barges providing a means of transporting goods to landlocked destinations before motorized navigation. With the advent of the railway facilitating faster and more efficient transportation, the canal system fell into a settled period. Then, in the mid-1960s, inspired by the idea of enhanced recreational use, the houseboat cruise-hotel concept began, bringing new life to these historic waterways.
Navigating the canal is full of captivating sights, but none is more intriguing than passing through the canal’s ingenious system of locks. While envious onlookers watch from shore, guests on board enjoy front row seats for the spectacle of the barge lowering and rising through a series of lock chambers. In the case of Athos, it not only passes through several individual locks, but is also raised or lowered in nine consecutive locks after leaving Pézenas and shortly afterwards crosses a river by means of an elevated aqueduct.
What a difference each day makes
Breakfast on board is usually followed by inclusive daily excursions exploring well-known destinations as well as secret gems known only to locals. Guests aboard Athos visit the fortified medieval city of Carcassonne, followed by lunch served under the canopy of the upper deck. The barge floats lazily to a secluded mooring spot in the late afternoon before a pre-dinner wine tasting experience at a family vineyard. Each following 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 alleys of Pézenas, interspersed with surprise attractions in progress. road.
Connoisseurs of Michelin-style wine and food preparation will find the esteemed reputation of the Belmond brand realized flawlessly aboard the Napoleon. The vessel evokes an aura of class and sophistication in her furnishings, spacious saloon and stylish dining area, while outside you can bask in the southern French sunshine on the open upper deck, enjoy personal comfort under the glass roof or soak up the atmosphere of a cruise on the Rhône in a whirlpool bath. Its positioning on the Rhône offers luxury access to the beauty of Provence and Burgundy.
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With a champagne toast and introduction to the ship’s endearing staff, the adventure begins in the fortified city of Avignon. With exceptional dinners, a peaceful night’s rest and breakfast under our belt, Napoleon’s personal guide organizes a series of daily excursions starting with a visit to Arles. Its Roman amphitheater and huge coliseum-style arena dwarf the colorful alleyways that wind through Van Gogh and Gauguin’s favorite haunts. A follow-up day in Avignon offers a glimpse of the imposing Palais des Papes and the famous Pont du Gard. Visit Châteauneuf-de-Pape, cross the second deepest lock in Europe, savor the taste of truffles in Grignan, the aroma of lavender growing in the fields and taste the wines of Mr. Ferraton in Tain l’Hermitage .
The attributes of epicurean excellence and attentive service are proudly displayed in this shining star of Belmond’s 6-ship fleet. The Napoleon is periodically available for individual bookings while others operate exclusively on a charter basis.
The art of the meal
Regardless of route or vessel, daily excursions contribute to barge’s intrinsic appeal, but it’s the dining experience that is the piece de resistance that distinguishes barge from traditional cruising. Crystal glassware and fine china set the table for a personalized candlelit ambiance, an environment impossible to replicate on larger vessels.
Multi-course gourmet presentations are paired with premium wines from the region and main courses complemented by a selection of top-notch artisan French cheeses. Delicious desserts top off the culinary extravaganza, but an after-dinner drink under the chandelier of mother nature’s twinkling stars is an indelible reminder of that incredible vacation afloat.