John Wood-Dow, owner of European Waterways, said that he feels travel agents are ready to make the jump to river barge cruises, now that they are familiar with river cruising on traditional river vessels.
“We are another step away from big ship cruising,” he said. “Hotel barges are all about total immersion in the region. We cover much shorter distances than river cruising, and we move at a walking pace. Our passengers can get off and walk, bicycle, explore the ports and then catch up.” He noted that the cruises are all-inclusive with an open bar, ship transfers, etc. part of the ticket price. All crewmembers speak English, and special dietary needs can be met if at least four weeks’ notice is provided. However, while there is a wheelchair-accessible stateroom on one European Waterways barge, these vessels are not really suitable for passengers with serious disabilities.
European Waterways has been developing its product since 1974, launching in France, where there are more than 2,700 miles of inland waterways and an integral part of this system is a 750-mile network of canals linking up the main rivers. These provide especially suitable cruising channels for the barges and, when the 1960s saw a drop in freight transport on the canals, many barges were converted into luxury floating hotels, usually with a very strong emphasis on gastronomy.
European Waterways’ first cruises were in Burgundy, France, where the cruise line was drawn by the food and wine in the region. European Waterways still has its biggest concentration of boats in the area, picking up their guests from a Paris hotel and taking them back to Paris at the end of the trip.
Another major sailing region is the Canal du Midi, where the company hasthree barges, and guests sample more of a Mediterranean atmosphere. The rich history of the area and distinctive cuisine are a major part of the experience, and European Waterways’ chefs lead guests in excursions to regional markets. Because the number of passengers is so small, if a guest shows a preference for something he or she sees in the market, the chef may purchase it and incorporate the item into the evening meal.
A new European Waterways barge route is in Alsace, and the company also offers cruises in Scotland, England, Belgium, Holland, Ireland and Italy.
“Hotel barging is like staying at a floating house party,” Wood-Dow said. “It’s very intimate, and we have time to explore the culture, food and wine of each region. We may cruise for about three hours, stop for lunch and an excursion, and experience the culture, special dishes, cheeses and wines it produces.”
Wood-Dow characterizes the average client as well traveled. He or she has seen the standard sights and is ready for something different, from having tea with a countess to seeing olive oil made. The core market runs around 50-70 years old, but there is quite a bit of multigenerational travel, particularly with whole boat charters, which is a real opportunity for agents, since the boats hold only six to 20 passengers, and putting together a group of that size is comparatively easy. Family charter cruises offer equipment for babies and children, generally cribs, travel crib, high chair, car seats, toys, children’s bicycles and baby bicycle seats. The line also customizes charters as special interest theme cruises.
Cruises run from six nights in a single region to a six-week voyage onboard hotel barge L'Impressionniste from Provence, France, to Holland along some of Europe’s great rivers, including the Rhone, the Seine and the Rhine. This 1,000-mile cruise explores the regional cultures, cuisine and wines of Provence, Beaujolais, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, the Moselle and Rhine valleys.
European Waterways offers a starting 10 percent commission to agents, enhancing the rate for strong producers. They also have an online real-time reservation system; agents need to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a password.