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As a frequent mega-liner cruiser, I didn’t know what to expect out of French Country Waterways’ river barge cruising. I’m used to itineraries covering several islands and many miles, so what kind of trip would this be where we’d journey only 90 miles in one week in France’s Champagne region?
The adventure began when I was picked up from my Paris hotel, and five couples and I were transported to the 12-passenger Adrienne luxury barge which was moored on the banks of Chateau-Thierry. Our voyage began along the Canal de l’Aisne a la Marne en route to Maizy, exploring historical sites and towns along the way. The goal was to taste champagnes from wine houses, take in beautiful country scenery and dine on gourmet cuisine daily. The trip promised to be both an educational and tranquil experience and quite a departure from the hectic, 4,000-passenger ship vacation experience.
After being greeted with a glass of bubbly (the first of many to come) by the six-member, English-speaking crew on the large teak sundeck, our group explored the inside of the bi-level ship. The main deck’s large, wood-paneled living room with its French provincial-style furniture doubles as the pre-dinner setting for nightly hors d’oeuvres, cocktails as well as the captain’s daily briefings about the menu and the following day’s itinerary. There is also a self-serve, fully stocked bar, a small library and a dining room where all meals are served.
The lower deck holds six suites, and I fully expected to find a cramped cabin on a ship that was only 128 feet long. Instead, I was delighted with my stateroom’s king-size bed (easily converted into two twins), table, maple-wood armoire and ample-size gold-gilt and marble bathroom with shower and Bulgari products. Missing are televisions, telephones and clocks — on purpose and meant to enhance the experience. While there was a single laptop onboard the vessel, we were warned that service could be spotty throughout the journey and to plan on being unplugged during the voyage.
Life onboard the Adrienne quickly settled into an easy routine that went along with the line’s typical passenger make-up — mature and well-traveled. We fell into a rhythm that was as smooth as sailing the Marne River. Each breakfast began with a large selection of fruits, muesli and cereals. Chef Tadek Zwan would also prepare made-to-order items — eggs Benedict and omelets were crowd favorites. Afterward, we disembarked for the day’s excursion with our personal guide. One stop was the cellars of Moet & Chandon in Epernay, the capital of the Champagne region. Drinking before noon seemed a little odd, but our hosts assured us that our taste buds were at their best in the morning before lunch, so it was the optimum time to sip. And who could argue with science?
After another activity, such as a visit to the World War I battlefields at Belleau Wood or the American Cemetery, we headed back onboard for lunch. The menu always entailed three types of specialty salads, a quiche or a hot dish, as well as a cheese selection from the unbelievable 28 types available — from chevre de Figue Rose to Brie de Meaux and all varieties in between.
If not gliding on the river, the afternoon brought more action, either walking or cycling alongside the canal on one of the onboard bikes as the boat traveled through one of the 34 locks along the river. The beauty of a river barge tour lies in its mostly hop-on, hop-off culture which has a relaxed, anything-goes vibe — if you decide not to do anything but park yourself on the canopied deck with a lounge chair and book, then there’s no pressure to do otherwise. A nice touch is that, at each evening’s happy hour, new champagne was introduced. We sampled Dom Perignon and a boutique bubbly from the house of Ployez Jacquemart.
Dinners were four-course affairs, featuring chef Zwan’s dazzling dishes of simple, but well-executed creations. Our plates saw sauteed duck, roasted pork with cider sauce and spaetzle, lavender creme brulee and coconut panna cotta — all served with an impeccable selection of carefully chosen Premier and Grand Cru wines, many from the Burgundy region.
For a change of pace, one day, we headed to the town of Tinqueux, France, and its two-star Michelin restaurant, l’Assiette Champenoise. There, we feasted on tomato-parmesan tarts, blue lobster with pea puree, potato mousse with smoked ham and a delectable and almost never-ending assortment of savory cheeses and desserts.
Nights meant decompressing onboard, save one evening when we visited Reims, the coronation city of French kings, to watch a light show impressively illuminated on its Gothic-style cathedral. The last night, the captain’s night, was the most fun. Everyone joined captain Gaetan Boza at the dinner table for one last gastronomic extravaganza. It ended with the party adjourning to the living room, which became a makeshift dance floor. The iPod docking station pumped a gamut of music that was tailored to everyone’s tastes — which is really what a French Country Waterways river barge cruise is all about — customizing your experience.
The Adrienne splits her season between the Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine regions. Six-night cruises, from Sunday afternoons to Saturday mornings, depart weekly, April through November. All-inclusive cruise rates are priced from $5,095 per person, double occupancy, with discounts of up to $1,000 per person available during the final sailing periods in October and November.