Imagine sauntering down the canals of rural Europe in a boat of your very own. Nibbling on cheese picked up from a country farmers market. Enjoying a bottle of the finest local wine, bought direct from a cellar door. All while you soak up the sight of medieval villages and rolling green countryside as you float by in slow motion.
In a world so fast-paced that everything passes by in a blur, the slow steady chug of a barge along one of Europe or the UK’s stunning lakes, rivers, or canals makes for a holiday where you can unwind and really take the time to appreciate your surroundings.
With more state-of-the-art boats than ever before, and a choice of basic self-drive or fully-staffed luxury vessels offering everything from gourmet cuisine to fine wines, more holidaymakers than ever before are taking to the world’s rivers.
The barging difference
A completely different beast to the much bigger river cruises, barges generally offer fewer amenities and usually carry just a handful of passengers, and never more than a couple of dozen, meaning small groups of family and friends can book an entire barge for the ultimate in privacy.
Where a busy river cruise boat may cover a greater amount of territory on their set itineraries, the slower barges clock up not-so-earth-shattering speeds of around five to eight kilometres per hour, stopping to pass through the locks that separate stretches of water on different levels. So you’ll travel less distance but enjoy a more intimate and bespoke experience.
The staffed barge experience is generally all-inclusive with all beverages, gourmet cuisine, pickup and drop-off from airports and hotels, shore excursions to explore the surrounding villages and countryside, and all entrance fees included in the fare.
Like travelling in a floating villa, barging offers an intimate and immersive holiday experience, with something new around every turn but all the comforts of home. It’s a holiday that allows time to truly savour the surrounding countryside with no need to rush from one destination to the next, unless you really want to.
The grandest canals
Those looking to enjoy holiday life in the slow lane can traverse the canals of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales. Or the thousands of kilometres of rivers and canals that run through Europe.
The most popular barging destination of them all is France, not in small part due to celebrity Chef Rick Stein’s famous French Odyssey series, that saw him travelling by barge along the 241-kilometre Canal du Midi, from Bordeaux to Marseilles, in search of the region’s best food and wine.
With thousands of kilometres of networked canals providing many idyllic cruising routes through countryside that is culture-rich, produce packed and utterly captivating, barging is the ultimate way to discover the romance of rural France. What better way to explore its gastronomy, charming local traditions and history than from the comfort of your own boutique cabin aboard a beautifully fitted barge, where the gentle lapping of water will lull you to a satisfied sleep each night?
Small group tour specialists, Back-Roads Touring, offer a splendid journey on the luxurious and modern MS Jeanine along Burgundy’s vineyard-fringed Le Canal de Bourgogne, drifting past vineyards, visiting fairy tale pretty towns and UNESCO World Heritage sites, all from the comfort of a boutique barge with a spacious lounge with bar, sundecks and a Jacuzzi. With a handpicked selection of authentic experiences, your local captain and crew will not only introduce guests to local secrets, but your on-board chef, schooled in the art of crafting authentic local cuisine, with spoil them with exceptional meals and wines.
But if you have a hankering to follow in Rick Stein’s gentle wake, Barge Vacations offer beautiful bespoke itineraries along the historic Canal du Midi, which has been in operation since 1681. Start the journey between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic on the luxurious Tango, a former grand transport barge that been delightfully restored and refurbished with French art deco fixtures, Provençal ivory linens, and rich teak wall panelling for a 1930’s vibe.
Enjoy fresh mussels and oysters the Mediterranean is famous for, roasted fresh over an open fire, before taking the ‘slow lane’ along the meandering canal. Under the dappled light of plane and oak trees you’ll putter gently all the way to the Atlantic Coast, as you pass aromatic meadows of lavender, thyme and rosemary and vibrant sunflower fields. Stop, as you please, to explore perfectly preserved medieval cities, enchanting villages, pretty vineyards and local market towns, where you can stock up and taste local delicacies or roam the cobbled streets to find the region’s famous cassoulet.
Or for the ultimate in both elegance and adventure, cruise the Canal du Midi from Carcassonne to Castelnaudary on authentic 1950s French barge, Mirage with owners Mimi and Pascal, a former air force pilot, and their dog Lola. Not only will guests indulge in the finest regional cuisine with unique gourmet experiences in vineyards and trufferies, they have the option of taking to the sky in a classic Comet biplane over Medieval Carcassonne and its castles.
This is Britain
Britain’s waterways shouldn’t be overlooked as a barging destination. Barge holidays are available across Southern England, the Midlands, Northern England and Scotland with meandering journeys through rustic waterside villages with atmospheric country pubs, nature parks and vibrant riverside towns, past royal palaces and crumbling castles.
Putter along calm canals at Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon to watch a play, explore the Thames, or meander through the small mill towns of Lancashire. Chug along the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – a navigable aqueduct high over the valley of the River Dee in northeast Wales – or cruise Scotland’s stunning highlands. Whichever of the UK’s network of rivers and canals you choose to explore, history will unfold before you.
Downton Abbey fans will especially enjoy the seven-day cruise along the Royal Thames on The Magna Carta with European Waterways, Europe’s largest luxury hotel barge cruising company. Highlights of the itinerary include a visit to Highclere Castle, better known as the home of Downton’s fictional Crawley family, which is sure to thrill fans of the show. The Magna Carta offers intimate luxury for a maximum of eight guests, with four en suite cabins, gourmet cuisine, fine wines and an on board hot tub for soaking in style after exploring the estate made famous by the drama.
Further north, Scottish Highlander, an eight-passenger barge finished with tartan and brimming with the atmosphere of a Scottish Country House, offers canal cruising with exceptional regional cuisine including local salmon and Aberdeen Angus beef, plus a superb selection of single malt whiskies. Scottish Highlander cruises the Caledonian Canal between Fort William and Inverness. Guests can soak up the views of towering castles, moors and Highland scenery or try their luck spotting Nessie on infamous Loch Ness.
Bike and Barge Germany
Criss-crossed by numerous waterways, including the Rhine, Danube and Elbe, connected by a network of picturesque canals, exploring Germany by barge is a great way to experience the country from a different perspective.
Barge along the spectacular Mosel River Valley as the autumn leaves are turning and the grapes are in harvest. Explore Berlin from via the 100 kilometres of canals that flow through the city or combine two types of travel with Outdoor Travel’s Bike and Barge tour through pretty villages along The Rhine from Ludwigsburg to the 2000-year-old town of Koblenz, the gateway to the terraced vineyards and ruined castles of the Rhine Gorge.
A great choice for active travellers, you can cycle your way along the River Rhine, Moselle and Neckar, sampling the white wines and delicious local cuisine that the region is famous for, before returning each night to a wonderful meal and a comfortable cabin aboard a fully crewed 12-cabin barge.
The Netherlands is famous for its tulips and its windmills, but it is a land that also has a rich artistic and cultural history, and a myriad of hidden gems. The perfect way to experience the best the country has to offer is by luxury barge on the famed network of canals, rivers, lakes and even inland seas that criss-cross the landscape. A floating holiday on European Waterways’ stylish 12-passenger Panache offers the perfect way to explore. From March to May, visitors can soak up the sight of the blooming fields of flowers that stretch across the horizon from the panoramic windows in the saloon, or from the large sun deck and spa pool.
Visit the spectacularly colourful tulip displays at the world-renowned Keukenhof Gardens, stop for a spot of cheese making in Gouda, marvel at the country’s incredible architecture and engineering, view the art of Dutch Masters in the renowned museums of Amsterdam, Leiden and Haarlem, or simply relax as you cruise and cycle through the pretty countryside and dine on gourmet regional specialities and fine wines prepared and paired by Panache’s own master chef.
Chocolate! While you may not need any more reason than the famous couverture of Belgium to explore, there’s so much more to this culturally and naturally rich nation. From windmills, meadows, marshes and sandy beaches to looming castles and enchanting towns, there is plenty to explore.
Le Boat’s Little Flanders Short Break departs the beaches of Nieuwpoort, famous for fresh seafood, along inland waterways where the past emerges at every turn in historic cities and castles. The final port of call is Ypres, itself steeped in World War I history.
But it is Bruges, beloved for its world-famous chocolates and cobblestoned, fairy story canals and streets, that is the main barging attraction in Belgium. The capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders, pretty Bruges is also home to excellent shopping, wonderful museums and a choice of Michelin-starred dining.
One of the loveliest ways to explore its canals is on the Johanna, a recently converted hotel-barge with crisp, neat and simple décor that is more like a bed and breakfast on water. The Johanna traverses the UNESCO World Heritage canals of Bruges and nearby Ghent before wending its way along picturesque waterways to France and the Champagne region or Paris, with sumptuous regional cuisine prepared on board and served with renowned Belgian beers and French wine. •
Photography by Back-Roads Touring & Barge Vacations.
• Back-Roads Touring: backroadstouring.com
• Barge Vacations: bargevacations.com.au
• European Waterways: gobarging.com
• Le Boat: leboat.com.au
• Outdoor Travel: outdoortravel.com.au