Imagine drifting along the Upper Loire Valley of France in a luxury canal barge, a glass of Chablis in hand. The pressures of daily life slip away under a cerulean blue sky. All you hear is the soft purr of the engine and the gurgle of the canal. White cows dot green pastures. Swans and mallards trail along hoping for a crust of baguette.
Unlike commercial river cruises advertised on PBS that accommodate hundreds of passengers, canal barges are private charters for just four to ten pampered guests. Viva la difference! Our captain, Olivier, met our group of four couples at our Paris hotel and chauffeured us in a Mercedes van to Sancerre, two hours south of the City of Light. As we stepped aboard the aptly named C’est La Vie, we were greeted by six smiling crew members. Let that ratio sink in. Six crew … eight guests. They had me at “Bonjour.”
Following a champagne welcome with tempting gourmet canapes—prunes marinated in Armagnac wrapped in duck, smoked salmon with crème fraîche, and melon gazpacho—we were shown to our cabins. Confession: I have a mild case of claustrophobia and was concerned that all four cabins were on the lower deck, below the water line.
I needn’t have worried. Our cabin was larger than any ship’s I’ve ever been on—and more elegant. There were fresh flowers, stunning bed linens and six charmingly
draped portholes. But it’s the spacious bathroom that made me gasp. A circular glass-enclosed shower, heated towel rack, fluffy robes and slippers, and L’Occitane toiletries. I wanted to take it home with me. By the end of the week, that sentiment applied also to the crew.
On our first night, we gathered around an impeccably appointed dining table, and chef Maxime described the feast to come: Aubergine caviar, Charolais beef with olive mashed potato and steamed broccoli, followed by a cheese platter. For dessert? Poached pear with dark chocolate sauce and homemade vanilla ice cream. Are you vegetarian, or do you have dietary requirements? Pas de probleme. The chef is happy to comply.
Another crew member presented the wines: a Mersault-Charmes Cru 2013, Domaine Prieur-Brunet, and a Volnay Clos Des Chenes, Cru 2011, Domaine Chateau de Mersault. These are but two of the over 3,000 bottles from Olivier’s personal wine cellar, each selected for its pairing with the courses served.
One evening, we are whisked to Auberge des Templiers, a Michelin-rated restaurant. What can I say? After too much bubbly and a succulent rack of lamb, I almost fell headfirst into my Grand Marnier souffle. By the end of the week, I’d sampled 24 wines and as many cheeses—and don’t ask how much French butter I slathered on crispy baguettes.
Fortunately, there are ways to work off these indulgences. You can walk the towpath between canal locks, borrow one of the barge’s 21-speed bikes, or do yoga on the gleaming teak deck. Plus, every day, there are guided tours to local points of interest.
We went through dozens of canal locks, the most beautiful of which was at the Pont Canal, the famous aqueduct designed by Gustave Eiffel. A veritable bridge of water, the aqueduct rises 30 feet over the Loire River at Briare. The views are breathtaking. Although canals existed since the 12th century, it was Leonardo da Vinci who invented the ingenious system of canal locks, allowing barges to navigate from one level of water to another.
One thousand years ago, the six-towered Chateau de Saint Fargeau was built as a fortified hunting lodge for the illegitimate son of King Hugues Capet. In 1652, it got a major makeover when King Louis XIV’s first cousin, Anne-Marie Louise d’Orleans, was exiled there. The heads of indignant wild boars and stags still stare, glassy-eyed, from the walls, along with portraits of Anne-Marie. It was purchased by mere mortals in 1730. The chateau’s current owners continue to live on the beautifully landscaped property, which is open to the public March-November.
Before visiting Chateau de la Bussiere, a 12th-century fortress that became a private castle in the 17th century, we were told we might glimpse the current tenant, the Countess of Chasseval. She never appeared—and I don’t blame her. Since 1962, the public has been trooping through her ancestral home. The stunning grounds, orangerie, stables and water views more than compensated for a selfie with the countess. Other tours included the Gien dinnerware factory, the Mazet confectionery shop, famous for its pralines, and a wine tasting at Henri Bourgeois Vineyard in Sancerre.
Ultimately, barge cruises are a meditative experience, unplugging you from the frenzy of normal life and the incessant ringing of cellphones. If you’ve ever wanted to slow your world down to the timelessness of gliding swans, here’s your chance. With dozens of barges cruising 10 different regions of France, it’s not an easy choice. Fortunately, Ellen Sack of Barge Lady Cruises has done all the homework for you. Since 1985, Sack has specialized exclusively in European barge cruises.
Dubbed the “reigning expert on barge cruising” by Peter Greenberg of the Today Show, Sack sees her role as a matchmaker. “My goal is to find the perfect barge cruise for each client from among the 47 barges we represent in France alone,” she says.
Barge cruises run from April through October. Best advice? Plan your experience early. Charters fill up a year in advance.