Though most barges were built in the early 1900s, they’ve been converted to feature modern amenities. // © 2017 European Waterways
Feature image (above): Nymphea sails the Loire River. // © 2017 European Waterways
Most cruise lines boast about having the newest fleet on the water, but guests on European Waterways’ luxury hotel barges are often cruising on a piece of European history.
Derek Banks, owner of the British-based company, has always been fascinated by the stories behind the barges that now carry pampered guests along the waterways of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, England, Ireland and Scotland.
“The barge itself is a character in the week of discovery,” Banks said.
His passion for small boats dates back to his childhood; his father at one time had 16 boats of various kinds in the garden of his family home on the River Thames.
Banks says all European Waterways boats contain stories. The 13-passenger Belle Epoque, for instance, was used during World War II for airmen shot down over Germany; it originally launched in 1930 in the Netherlands as the Savornin Lohman and carried logs between France and Amsterdam and beyond.
In 1995, it was converted to an Art Nouveau-style hotel barge with on-theme fabrics from the Belle Epoque, an idyllic period between 1871 and the 1914 start of World War I. It now cruises through Burgundy on the Burgundy Canal with seven staterooms, some with showers and some with full baths. The outer deck is partly covered and has a six-person hot tub along with lounges, tables and umbrellas, and sometimes meals are offered there. Belle Epoque carries 10 bicycles, and guests can have a leisurely ride along towpaths to meet the ship at the next mooring site.
The eight-passenger L’Art de Vivre has an even longer pedigree; passengers joined the crew this year in toasting her 100th birthday. It was built in England in 1917 during World War I as a munitions supply vessel for the allied troops of the Somme and a hospital vessel for airmen shot down over Germany. L’Art de Vivre’s origin is unrecognizable today as it sails through Burgundy as a luxurious hotel barge with a sundeck, a Jacuzzi and a saloon.
Fans of the six-passenger Nymphea — whose mahogany paneling, stained glass and brass starred in “Rick Stein’s French Odyssey” for the BBC in 2005 — might be surprised by its former life. It was originally built in 1921 as a Dutch barge that carried barley and hops to a brewery and returned with barrels and bottles of beer. At the time, the owner lived in the bow cabin with his wife and seven children.
Nymphea was first converted in 1978 to carry 20 scouts in hammocks and then became a hotel barge in 1985. It was then brought to her new home on a huge flatbed truck, its shallow draft enabling it to cruise the Cher, a tributary of the Loire. Three crew members cater to the six guests.
The 13-passenger L’Impressionniste, a Dutch cargo barge constructed in 1960 and converted in 1996, made quite a journey to take her place in the European Waterways fleet. Banks described its trip from the backwaters of the Netherlands up the Rhine, traveling 1,000 miles through 1,000 locks. The barge repeats the route every year, sailing from Avignon, France, to Amsterdam from the end of October to Christmas. This takes place on the Rhone, Seine, Rhine and picturesque smaller waterways for 1,000 miles. This cruise is available for charter with a minimum of eight guests; it acts like a European barging version of “the world cruise.”
About the same age, the 12-passenger Panache was originally the Marjorie 2, a working barge launched in the late 1950s; it emerged from total renovation 40 years later. It now has staterooms featuring bathrooms with double sinks and oversized showers. There are panoramic windows in the saloon and a large sundeck and hot tub. Twelve bicycles allow passengers to explore the towpaths and surrounding villages in the Netherlands from March to early May, visiting the tulip fields and the gorgeous Keukenhof gardens. From June to October, the ship sails in Alsace-Lorraine, France.
In England, the eight-passenger Magna Carta, formerly a 1936-built sand cargo barge operating in the Netherlands, was transformed in 2001-2002 into an elegant vessel showcasing mahogany, teak and oak. It has unusual features for a barge: underfloor heating; a spa pool; a small exercise room with a treadmill and a bike; and a lift for wheelchairs. It sails the River Thames, combining Royal Berkshire, historic Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, giving guests access to sites from Hampton Court Palace to Christ Church College at Oxford. On some departures, it visits Highclere Castle, setting of the “Downton Abbey” series.
Guests on European Waterways’ converted barges are primarily 50 years old or older, international, well-traveled, English-speaking and mostly from North America and the U.K.