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Cultural travel involves stepping into someone else’s shoes, and renting a home has become a popular way to experience life in Europe as locals live it. However, there’s an alternative that allows travelers to interact with multiple destinations on an all-inclusive personal vacation: a luxury hotel barge charter.
Groups between six and 20 people can charter a private barge with European Waterways and arrange six-night Family & Friends Charter Cruises along canals and small rivers in France, Holland, Germany, Italy, England, Ireland and Scotland. The fully crewed vessel includes a chef, housekeepers and a host or hostess with a deep fund of insider information to share.
John Wood-Dow, president of European Waterways, says six-night charter rates vary depending on the barge, but for a normal itinerary, they run from approximately $25,000 for six-passenger cruises to nearly $80,000 for 20 passengers. Pricing includes meals, an open bar, the use of onboard bicycles and daily escorted excursions to wineries, castles and markets, or to see craftsmen at work. Families or groups can arrange customized activities with a focus on interests such as golf, gardens, art, tennis, walking, gastronomy, theater and wine. For some activities, there may be supplementary costs (greens fees, for example).
The dynamics of the charter groups can vary, from old friends and common interest groups such as bridge clubs to family parties. A growing trend is multigenerational groups, with grandparents (who are often bankrolling the trip to celebrate a landmark date) happy to relax and watch the world go by, parents busily engaged in all the wine tastings and children actively using the onboard bikes or following their own arranged itinerary. The small size of the group allows a great deal of flexibility in terms of pickup and drop-off points or varying the activities.
Charters are usually booked well in advance, often more than a year ahead; until April 2017, bookings are being accepted at 2016 rates.
“Nonetheless, there is now some last-minute charter business, more for family groups — something that was not the case a few years ago,” Wood-Dow said.
He points out that a barge charter gives a group of family or friends their own private space, similar to a ski lodge or catered villa — with the added advantage that it moves and includes all the excursions that connect guests to local life. And the word is getting out: Whole boat charters represent about 50 percent of European Waterways’ total business, and all 17 barges in the program offer them.