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You amble off your barge into a cobblestoned European village, enjoy a fresh-baked croissant and steaming cafe creme at the shop on the corner, then wander the streets, discovering a closet-sized clock shop and a charming handmade-toy store. After an hour or two, you reboard your floating hotel for a leisurely water journey past farms and vineyards to the next picturesque village.
Sound like a dream? It's one that can come true. Touring by barge offers one of the most comfortable and relaxing ways to explore Europe — and without having to pack and unpack your bags at each new destination.
What to expect
Conditions vary from barge to barge — and from budget to budget — but generally, even the smallest cabins are similar to what you'd find in a cozy country inn, with comfortable beds and private bathrooms.
Barge passengers are guaranteed a much more intimate experience than on a large cruise ship. The smallest barges accommodate four or six passengers, and the largest up to 32. This is one reason barge journeys are ideal for multigenerational family vacations or for a special celebratory getaway with a group of best friends. But many travelers voyage solo or as couples and enjoy the camaraderie of newfound friends.
Cabins at the small end of the scale generally range from 90 to 100 square feet. At the more expansive end, you'll find some closer to 160 square feet and others as spacious as 230 square feet. These usually come with similarly splendid accoutrements and furnishings.
The most popular destinations follow canals and rivers in France, England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. Some companies also cruise in Croatia, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic.
Most cruises are six nights and seven days, and cover about 30 to 50 miles. Barges usually make a few stops each day, where you're free to wander on your own or relax on board; in some places, a local guide and land transportation will be provided to allow you to visit a chateau, cathedral, winery, cheesemaker or other notable site. Onboard crews range from two people on the smallest vessels to 12 on the largest; virtually all crew members speak English.
On canals, most vessels travel so slowly that you can walk the towpaths that parallel the waterway and reboard your barge at the next stop. Many vessels carry bicycles as well.
Meals and beverages
Dining is a highlight of most barge cruises. Whether your meals are taken on board or in local restaurants, they typically showcase regional specialties and wines, using ingredients purchased that morning in the market. Many ships also invite local dance troupes and musicians to perform.
Rates range from about $2,500 to $6,000 per person; if you're flexible, you can sometimes find lower special offers. All costs are included except airfare, transfers to and from the meeting point, and crew gratuities. Some trips also offer a half-board option, meaning that breakfast and either lunch or dinner is included. This is worth considering since dining in local eateries is one of the prime joys of these off-the-beaten-path explorations.
There are numerous companies that offer European barge trips. Here are four experienced and reputable companies that specialize in barging and offer a full range of options.
The Barge Company: Offers include half-board cruises, plus special food and wine cruises.
Barge Lady Cruises: Themed feasts include chocolate and wine tours in Burgundy, Bordeaux and the upper Loire Valley, and a culinary cruise on the Canal du Midi.
European Waterways: Offers Christmas and wine appreciation cruises, plus lots of other themed itineraries. The line also features a six-week thousand-mile voyage between Avignon in southern France and Amsterdam in the western Netherlands.
French Country Waterways: Special offers include an imaginative "quinquennial anniversary special" for couples celebrating a quinquennial (five-year, 10-year, etc.) wedding anniversary. The discount, applied on select departure dates, is equal to the number of years married — a 5 percent discount for five years, 10 percent for 10 years, and so forth, up to 50 years.
Don George is a travel writer with more than 25 years' experience and the author of several books, including Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales From Great Fiction Writers and The Kindness of Strangers.