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River cruising is growing quickly, but there is a similar way to travel Europe’s rivers — barging on canals. Barges are like floating hotels with as few as eight passengers and are often quite opulent. An example is the small fleet of French Country Waterways, a U.S.-based company that offers stylish, high-quality barging experiences in Europe.
I recently experienced a six-night cruise in the Champagne region of France onboard the cruise line’s 12-passenger Adrienne.
Passengers are collected from the Raphael, a classic Paris hotel. To get to the barge, they are driven in a comfortable Mercedes executive bus to Chalons-en-Champagne, around a 90-minute drive from the city.
Arrivals are handled smoothly, with champagne and canapes on offer from the smartly dressed professional crew, all fluent in English.
The lower deck has six double staterooms (on my cruise one was set up as a twin), all spacious with adequate wardrobes and drawers. Bathrooms are a good size and the showers are first class. Amenities are by Lanvin. The decor, like the rest of the vessel, is a pleasing combination of 18th-century French manor and modern functionality — such as the efficient air conditioning.
The main deck hosts an elegant lounge, dining room and bar. The galley is aft, while forward is a partly covered deck with tables and chairs. This makes a wonderful platform to sit and watch France go by. Passing through locks makes it easy to step on shore and walk or bike to the next stop. Barging enthusiasts will say that this is the most significant difference between canal and river cruising.
Onboard, the passengers are mostly American, 50-plus, wealthy and well-traveled (minimum age is 18). Occasionally, a few Australians are onboard. One Florida resident was on his third trip, while another was there because a colleague in his golf club “who has been everywhere, said it was the best vacation he’s ever had.”
It’s not hard to enjoy the Champagne region, with its legendary wine and food. The history extends back to the Roman era and the area has endured two world wars.
Each day, there was an excursion. The first was to Reims, a center for champagne, which is also known for its magnificent cathedral. Our bus driver doubled as a well-informed, multilingual tour guide, and we also had a chance to research the region on our own thanks to the barge’s onboard Wi-Fi.
The second day, we visited the town of Ludes, where we were taken deep into the cellars of the Champagne house, Ployez-Jacquemart. This small, family-owned company also provided a tasting of a vintage champagne.
We stopped next in Epernay, where we visited the grand cellars of Moet & Chandon. In what appeared to be a very special tour (superior to a public visit, which costs $35), we shared two bottles of a vintage Dom Perignon, which is Moet & Chandon’s top brand. Next, our barge joined the River Marne, and we tied up at the town of Chateau-Thierry, a delightful setting with a history of fearsome battles, including Belleau Wood, where American forces won a great victory but suffered terrible losses in World War I.
Our final excursion was to a brie cheesemaker, where our tasting came with a 2009 Bordeaux wine. It was an appropriate ending for a week that was mostly about gastronomy.