Europe's Bargain Barges
A fun and inexpensive family vacation on the Continent for as little as $400 per person per week (that's for the self-drive variety)
Before my family and I booked our barge adventure in France last summer, I had only heard about one kind of barge trip--expensive, luxurious, and not for kids. Turns out, after much exploring, that there's a whole hidden world of really low-priced (okay, sometimes downright cheap) barges and boats of all sorts that let you travel on the canals and waterways all over Europe, going where you please, when you please.
But this wonderful, inexpensive underbelly of barging is a world many travel professionals like to keep a trade secret. Or, in fairness, they may just not know much about it, as it is only in the last few years that barging has become so popular in the U.S. that smart tour operators (see Barge Contacts below) have come up with bargain options to feed the growing demand.
"When I started arranging barge trips 11 years ago, there were two barges in all of Holland--now there are 40, with hundreds more throughout Europe," says Elfriede Wind, founder of 4Winds Specialty Tours. "Back then it was only Europeans who did it; now half of my travelers are Americans."
Even now, when I started my search for barges, most of the agents and Web sites described hotel barges in France first--gorgeous vessels carrying three to ten couples, with marble bathrooms, minivans, and tour guides to take you en masse into the occasional town, three gourmet meals a day on board, and wine flowing from the taps.
OK, maybe that doesn't sound exactly like hell on earth--until you hear the price tag: about $2,000 to $5,000 per person per week. Not the vacation for my family, with two active teenage boys, two independent parents who aren't fond of group tours, and one college tuition in progress.
Still I kept on searching for a barge because there was only one thing the whole family could agree on--the vacation had to be on the water. We all felt much like Ratty in The Wind in the Willows when he explained the river's appeal to Mole: "There is nothing--absolutely nothing-- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.... In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it."
A ton of options
Fortunately, I found out that such charm now comes in a wide range of barge possibilities to suit many tastes, temperaments, and budgets. (I also found out that "barge" travel actually includes narrowboats, cabin cruisers, and a range of barges sleeping anywhere from four to 24; but more on that later.)
You can travel the canals of Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, Holland, Germany, France, and, most recently, Venice as well--there are 20,000 miles of waterways being restored for pleasure travel. You can be as lazy as you wish or as active--taking walks or bike trips into town or along the beautiful canal paths. And the way you save money--by keeping service to a minimum or even driving the boat yourself--has the additional benefit of making the trip more customized to your needs as well as more adventurous, while still being supremely relaxing in a way that only "messing about" on the water can be.
There are basically three bargain options, all to be had for anywhere from $350 to $1,000 per person per week (not including airfare):
You can get a fairly large barge with a captain and crew providing one or two meals a day.
You can go with a minimal crew that just drives the boat and leaves you to venture into town to find your own meals and see the sights.
Or you can drive the barge, narrowboat, or cabin cruiser yourself.
Here's a taste of each. I'm sure Ratty would like them all, but you may have your preferences. I'll tell you about my trip first.
1. Biking and barging in Burgundy--no frills, with crew
My family chose the mid-range option: a small barge (sleeps six but four were even happier) with minimal crew to steer the boat, but no meals (except a lovely first-night dinner with champagne), no tour guides (except that our captain and his wife pointed us in all the right directions for food and sights), with wonderful 21-speed bikes (which most barges will provide), all for about $1,000 per person per week.
Here was our plan. We decided to knock ourselves out with sightseeing in Paris in July for a full week before, so by the time we got onto our barge we'd be ready to kick back and relax.
Sunday afternoon our captain picked us up at the train station in Clamecy (a 90-minute trip from Paris) and drove us to La Chouette, the 70-year-old barge we would call home for a week. We'd be cruising along the Nivernais Canal, smaller and less-traveled than the region's other canal: the Burgundy Canal.