Irene S. Levine, Contributor
July 14, 2021
Barging on a canal or river in France can be one of the most bespoke, intimate, convenient, and memorable vacation experiences. Even pandemic-reluctant travelers are opting to explore the inland waterways of France on a hotel barge.
Barging is pretty much hassle-free. Like ocean and river cruising, guests only need to pack and unpack once and don’t have to deal with the logistics of getting from place to place, booking accommodations, or making reservations for meals and activities.
And because barges cruise very slowly (generally less than four miles an hour) and travel only short distances (often 30-50 miles) along a waterway, generally within one region, it offers a slower, deeper, and more immersive way to travel.
Here are some reasons to consider a barge cruise in France now:
1. Get away from madding crowds
In the age of COVID, many travelers are crowd-avoidant. Much smaller than riverboats, hotel barges typically hold only 2-20 passengers and 4-6 crew, reducing the numbers of people with whom they come into direct contact.
“Our barges provide guests with an exclusive home that moves with them,” says Gary Franklin, Vice-President of Trains & Cruises at Belmond .
“Excursions are mostly private and can be adapted to everyone’s needs,” says Derek Banks, managing director of European Waterways . “Many of our clients charter the whole barge to create their own secure private space or ‘travel bubble’ for friends and family,” he adds.
Itineraries emphasize visits to small towns and villages as opposed to excursions to dense cities filled with tourists. “Guests are able to design their own cruises, too, including deciding when to relax on board or when to explore a perfect little French village or an amazing vineyard or chateau,” says Franklin.
One additional perk of barging: The small-group setting allows travelers to ease into post-lockdown socializing.
2. Savor regional foods and wines
A recent article in The Washington Post called this the “summer of reservations” because restaurant capacity restrictions and the preference for outdoor seating have made it tough to snag reservations at many destinations.
But barge menus are tailored to gourmet tastes and fine dining is integral to the barge experience. Moreover, meals are easy and informal: most meals are enjoyed in the dining room with fellow passengers or on the deck, although some barge cruises include several meals at fine restaurants.
While ship galleys may be small, dishes tend to be big on flavors because recipes are regional, and ingredients are local and seasonal. In fact, a crew member is likely to get up early each morning to pick up freshly baked bread and pastries at a nearby boulangerie or patisserie .
With a limited number of guests, onboard chefs are able to cater to food allergies, aversions, and preferences. If a guest has a passion for foie gras or a certain type of Cremant, they can simply tell the cook or captain. Especially in France, barge guests can count on spectacular wine pairings and a flight of flavorful after-dinner cheeses.
Excursions include visits to wineries, meetings with producers, and tastings. For guests who prefer bubbles, Belmond has a new Vintage Champagne Cruise in partnership with LVMH and European Waterways offers Cruises in Champagne , with a stop in Reims, considered one of the champagne capitals.
3. Seize opportunities to enjoy the active outdoors
Just because barging is slow, doesn’t mean it’s sedentary. Canals are so close to the banks that guests have ample opportunities to bike, walk or jog along the scenic towpaths and arrange to meet up with the barge at one of the upcoming locks. One Belmond itinerary even offers an ATV riding experience. European Waterways has modified its excursions to emphasize outdoor locations.
4. Partake in shared responsibility for health and safety
The relatively small scale of hotel barging allows companies to be attentive to COVID-related health and safety concerns. However, keeping infection rates down is always a shared responsibility. On Belmond barge cruises, guests are required to respond to a short wellness questionnaire and provide a negative PCR test, taken no more than 48 hours prior to departure.
“In addition to our already robust health and safety guidelines, we have implemented enhanced protocols,” says Belmond’s Franklin. “Crew wear masks on board, while guests are welcome to move freely about the guest areas without restriction.”
“While wishing to maintain the ambiance of a barge cruise that makes it unique, we are aware that standards of hygiene and health security need to be maintained at the highest level,” says Banks. “As a result, our health protocols include crew and passenger temperature checks as well as deep cleaning and disinfecting of all cabins and public surfaces on the boats. Our primary aim is to avoid any positive tests during the cruise through pre-departure screening and testing,” he adds.
In addition, Banks points out that barge travelers don’t need to be concerned about different border entry requirements or restrictions along the way, as might be the case on an ocean cruise. “Our cruises usually stay within the same region, where they are subject to the same requirements for the duration of the cruise,” he says.
5. Take advantage of all-inclusive pricing
Barging is one of the most cost-inclusive ways of traveling. In an era of dynamic pricing, there’s no need to reach into one’s pocket all the time because barges offer open bars, cover all costs of meals and other beverages, and arrange for daily small group tours and/or excursions. Guests only have to pay for air transportation, gratuities, and their personal purchases. They know the approximate cost of their vacation upfront.
Because of these uncertain times, many companies have modified their booking, cancellation, and refund policies to make them more flexible. See the details of European Waterways Book With Confidence policies and Belmond’s Flexible Booking Policy posted on their respective websites.)
More than ever, deciding where, when, and how to travel has grown more complicated. But it’s not surprising that Industry trade publication Travel Weekly has reported that luxury tour operators are seeing a growing demand for small-boat products, like barges.
Note: The U.S. is on France’s list of “ green countries ” allowing vaccinated travelers to enter without a PCR test result and unvaccinated travelers to enter with a negative PCR or antigen test.
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