Sitting in the sun and the breeze on the deck of a hotel barge, midway between a good lunch and a good dinner, with a book and a glass of cold Diet Coke? Evian? wine? on the table before you as you survey the scene, you wave hello to an old paysan fishing on the green bank of the canal, admire a pair of swans swimming, and chuckle fondly at a children's kayaking class--could there be any more idyllic way to see France? You've spent the morning tramping around historic sites, and soon the barge will be tying up at a little town where you can go for a walk and buy an ice cream or a newspaper.
Last summer I spent six days floating through the Champagne region on a barge named the Esprit, as a guest of its owners, French Country Waterways, and I was intrigued to note that it seemed to be just a few inches narrower than the locks through which we passed several times a day on canals and rivers. The Esprit, like most of the dozens of hotel barges plying their trade in various regions of France, has been retrofitted with heating and air-conditioning, guest cabins (the Esprit's are very clean and comfortable, though far from sybaritic), a dining room, a bar and lounge, and, out on deck, patio chairs, pots of geraniums, and a rack of bicycles.
Every other mode of transportation within France has limitations and disadvantages vis-à-vis barging. If you restrict yourself to planes and taxis, you are in effect turning your back on the lovely countryside. If you travel by train, you'll have to keep shlepping your bags from the station to the hotel and back. Rent a car and you'll not only have to keep packing and unpacking but also have to drive. Bicycling, too, presents the packing and unpacking problem, and it's a lot of work besides. A cruise ship will limit you to major ports on major waterways. Hotel-barge travel tends to be priced comparably to cruise travel in a nice cabin on a nice ship: about $300 to $500 per person per day, including all excursions, cocktails, meals, and wine. Then again, it is possible to rent a do-it-yourself barge quite inexpensively--say, $1,000 a week for a barge that sleeps four--although doing so will not make for a logistically simple trip. The difference is like that between a good hotel and a rental condo--except, of course, that you never have to pilot a condo or learn the drill for maneuvering it through locks. Because Europe's waterways are mostly ancient (some of the canals date back to the Romans), barging offers one other, minor advantage I hadn't expected: often towns, and grand old buildings, face the water, not the highway.
Many of the barges that now carry travelers once carried freight, but this mode of transportation is no longer particularly economical for hauling commodities around Europe, and an abundance of barges are available for sale cheap. What's more, the pool of travelers whose thinking runs along the same lines as mine is ever widening. Thus hotel barges are a growth industry. I can't prove it, but seemingly so are houseboats. In Paris on the Seine, or in any of the towns where the hotel barges visit, you'll see snug vessels tied up along the quays or the banks, with jungles of houseplants and chic natural-canvas umbrellas on deck. These tend to be owned by French people or foreign retirees, and the owners have tales to tell about their journeys as far afield as Belgium and Germany: continental Europe altogether has more than 6,000 miles of navigable inland waterways.
The hotel barges are for the most part booked and crewed by Americans and English people. On my trip last summer all thirteen guests were American (the Esprit, which is relatively big for a hotel barge, has space for eighteen guests; some others accommodate no more than six or eight). Five of the six crew members were young and English; the sixth, Sondrine, was young and French. They provided lovely service. One guest couple, evidently more accustomed to five-star hotels than most of us, found their attitude too informal. The couple were displeased, for example, that the crew rarely called us by name. But I was happy not to get responses like "I'm afraid the captain is unavailable just now, Ms. Wallraff." I was told instead, "Ian is showering. Would you like me to give him a message?" In general the effect was of friendly, natural, well-spoken young people doing everything they could think of to please us--and being happy to do it. Every now and then, while we were sitting at dinner, we'd hear the crew burst into song out in the galley. They had perhaps been nipping at what was left of the good wine they'd served us the day before. (The company says that leftover wine and food are given to lockkeepers along the route.)
AH, the wine. And the cheese. At every lunch and every dinner we were served a good French red wine and a good French white, and at the end of the meal a tray of three cheeses was presented. No wine or cheese ever repeated, and each was introduced, or explained, by a member of the crew: where it was from, what the history of its name was, and so on. We all came to look forward to the droll "cheese chats," as the crew called them; we began to call them "cats du fromage." The majority of the wine was from premier- and grand-cru vineyards: better stuff than most of us would order for ourselves day in and day out--especially in France, where a fairly ordinary bottle in a restaurant can easily run to $40. And in a restaurant if you wanted just one more taste of the red to go with your cheese, you'd never call for another bottle. But on the Esprit, whenever anyone wanted, another was cheerfully brought to the table.