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The only thing better than tasting creamy brie is washing it down with a glass of bubbly Champagne — and both can be accomplished with ease onboard a barge floating through the scenic French countryside.
If river cruising provides a good alternative for veteran ocean cruisers who are tired of the same old coastal destinations, barge cruising provides an even deeper dive into the waterways. I discovered as much while onboard the charming Raymonde during CroisiEurope Cruises’ barge sailing on the Marne-Rhine Canal from Epernay to Paris.
Travelers looking to avoid the couple hundred passengers on a traditional riverboat will find Raymonde’s maximum of 22 guests a refreshing count. However, it helps if you’re the social sort. A private cabin — compact but complete with a larger-than-expected shower — always serves as a brief retreat, but guests should keep in mind that they’ll be seeing the same folks repeatedly in the restaurant and lounge, and on the sundeck and shoreside tours.
Excursions are where the benefits of such a small group become immediately apparent. Thanks to the intimate group size, I was always close enough to hear the guide’s commentary. There was no in-ear device to remove me from the experience of simply being present in the moment. In fact, the entire barge experience can best be compared to sharing a private yacht with new friends.
Barge life is also delightfully slow. First, we flew into Paris, and our journey began with a transfer to Epernay to begin the cruise itself. What took only a couple of hours to drive takes a week on a barge, due in part to the meandering waterways. The ship’s idle speed also afforded me the chance to do something I have never done on my 140-plus previous cruises: take the helm (safely, and with expert supervision). Gearheads like me will love controlling the vessel’s azipod propellers while getting a feel for navigating the ship.
Onshore, visiting Reims and its sister cathedral after the heartbreaking fire at Notre-Dame de Paris was a moving experience. The two are remarkably similar and, until the latter is repaired, the one in Reims is a worthy facsimile. It is also home to Champagne houses such as Veuve Clicquot, while Epernay’s Avenue de Champagne is where you’ll find the likes of Moet & Chandon. Surprisingly, we drove past the more famous ones to stop at Champagne Demiere, an independent house. Nonetheless, it made for a tasty educational visit, and we also had the opportunity to see the final resting place of Dom Perignon at Hautvillers Abbey.
Since Raymonde does not sail at night, shore excursions run mostly in the morning, and cruises take place in the afternoon. Alternating between touring and relaxing made for a perfect pace. Onboard breakfasts, lunches and dinners are delicious, but clients shouldn’t expect a wide range of choices. The barge accommodates special diets and offers several courses — including a highly anticipated midday cheese plate — but unlike larger riverboats, it does not provide multiple selections at each meal.
Learning about and sampling brie in Maux was a pleasant send-off, and if clients are Disney fans, the final day’s docking locations make for a convenient detour to Disneyland Paris via taxi or Uber.
I place this form of micro river cruising in the same category as I put the “Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquee de Remy” ride at Disneyland Paris: Both make me eager to be a repeat guest.
The DetailsCroisiEurope Cruiseswww.croisieuroperivercruises.com