A classy but inexpensive family vacation for as little as $400 per person per week
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.
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.
We unpacked and were treated to a lovely champagne and coq au vin dinner by the captain and his wife (the only such meal they'd provide). From then on we were on our own - and the boat was ours. We had the run of the front sitting room, the kitchen, the TV room, a bedroom for each of us, two full bathrooms, and of course, the deck above.
After a lazy late start, we walked into the town of Vincennes where our barge was moored and had a tasty lunch. Then we set off on our bikes along the canal path for a ten-mile ride into Auxerres. We passed people fishing, cows grazing, and the quaint little houses by the locks that are surrounded by blooming gardens. The beauty of these canal paths is that they are flat (so the pedaling is easy), perfectly maintained, and it's impossible to get lost. If you follow the path, you'll meet up with the barge sooner or later, as we did in Auxerres. So you don't feel as if you need a guide - and any trip into these largely medieval towns is filled with historical treasures - cathedrals, basilicas, galleries, and wonderful food shops.
We stocked up on food basics so we could have breakfast or lunch on board when we didn't feel like venturing off the barge. For dinner we splurged at a fancy place called Maxime's in Auxerres. The high point of the fabulous three-course dinner for Evan, my then 12-year-old son, had as much to do with the animals as the food: The French bring their dogs everywhere - there were several sitting quite patiently at their masters' feet, largely hidden by the thick white linen tablecloths. But we found that the French love nothing more than for your children to come pet their dogs - which prompted a lovely couple to come over to our table, dog in tow, to chat about dogs and life.
For the rest of us, the food was the thing. My older son, Alex, age 20, had the Charolais beef for which this region of France is famous. Though it's said to be the tastiest beef in the world (and Alex was duly wowed), I felt, after having seen these cute white cows along the hillside all day, that I'd try the escargots.
French Lesson Number One: It's very hard to get a bad meal in France.
French Lesson Number Two: And the farther outside of Paris you go, the harder it is to find an expensive meal.
Lunch on the boat. We discovered that the barge glides so smoothly that when you're down below in the bedrooms or the kitchen, you can't even tell you're moving. It was only when we went up on the deck and noticed we were passing cows and fishermen along the banks that we could sense we were making progress. Forget being gently rocked to sleep, as with smaller boats on wilder waterways. But also forget any risk of that wretched seasick feeling.
We all cycled into the village of Bailly and visited a few art galleries. Then we pedaled on to some caves at the top of a very long hill for a wine tour and tasting.
Note to self: Next time, skip the tour - 90 minutes in a freezing cold cave, conducted in very fast French. Better just to drop in for a taste of the wonderful Irancy sparkling wine - a local specialty so popular that the region consumes everything produced and exports none.
Dinner was an amazing feast - and adventure, as well, as it turned out - at Alain Renaudin's restaurant in Irancy. The chef, Alain, loves to mingle. That's what I called it - the boys had a different take on things.
French Lesson Number Three: French men love to flirt.
Alain (though we were hardly on a first-name basis at the time) came out and sat with us to take our order. When I went inside to the ladies' room (we were eating at patio tables across from the restaurant overlooking the canal) the chef popped out of the kitchen, telling me how the famous San Francisco chef, Alice Waters, had just visited his restaurant a few months ago. He then put his arm around me to point me in the right direction. Oh, those friendly French, I thought.
By dessert, things got interesting. Instead of my chocolate mousse arriving in a delicate cup, the waiter delivered a huge, polished stainless steel TUB of mousse. Imagine the size container you might strap on a horse to feed him for a day or two. (Do French horses like chocolate mousse?) Well, I can tell you my husband and both kids did, as I definitely had to pass it around. Then the chef brought out some complimentary sweet wine, Ratafia - a local treat he said we just had to taste.
The bike trip back to our boat proved a bit more wobbly than the ride over. Fortunately, it was less than a mile, so we had only one close encounter of the four-wheeled kind.
It wasn't until the next morning that the real adventure began.
While still nestled under the covers, we heard a shuffle of footsteps above decks, muffled voices, more shuffling. When we ambled above, our captain told us that the chef from the restaurant we'd been to last night had come to our barge to invite our family back to his restaurant that morning "for a surprise."
Our captain was astonished - he'd never heard of this happening. We had to go, he said, even if we didn't know what the chef had in mind. So off we went on our bikes. Once we reached the restaurant, Alain finished draining a gigantic, boiling pot of lobsters, and scooted my family into his Mercedes (his restaurant was doing very well, even in the countryside).
"I'm going to take you on a tour of the town," he announced. We drove off the main road, onto narrow tractor paths only the farmers know, through wine vineyards, straight to the top of the highest hill. The view was unbelievable: Alain pointed out the village of Irancy at the center below, the hub, surrounded by 24 pie wedges of tidy rows of grape vines comprising the 24 tiny vineyards of Irancy (each about 14 acres), owned by 24 families.
On the way down the hill, Alain stopped at the homes of two vintners to bring us in for wine tastings in their private cellars. We tasted the new Chablis first - then they pulled out the best years, which Alain assured us was a great and rare honor.
French Lesson Number Four: It is very hard to find a bad local wine in Burgundy. This year, Irancy, after making wines for thousands of years, was finally granted the treasured A.C. - Appellation Controlee. The wines we were tasting would soon double and triple in price because of those two little letters.
So we sipped our last drops and headed back to Alain's restaurant. Then the good-byes began.
French Lesson Number Five: Kiss and kiss again. In Paris, you kiss hello or good-bye twice, once on each cheek. In Burgundy, you kiss three times. In Irancy, after sampling many wonderful wines, French chefs try for four...or more.
French Lesson Number Six: Know when it's time to say good-bye and leave (see Lessons Three and Five). We all got on our bikes and waved to Alain as he returned to a steaming stockpot in his kitchen. Someone else was in for a treat that night. We set off for a ride that would take us to a different restaurant and then met up with our barge for a short late afternoon cruise to a new town, and a new adventure.
We woke up early to walk into Mailly-le-Chateau where we'd been told there was a three-time gold-star-winning boulangerie. We bought fabulous French bread and croissants, our usual breakfast fare. Then we ambled up to a thirteenth century church and the grand mansion at the top of the hill of the three Mailly sisters (for whom the town is named), who were all mistresses of Louis XIV. (Or maybe it was XV - our captain couldn't quite remember which Louis. But no matter, he remembered where the bakery was.)
In the afternoon, we rode our bikes to Chatel Censoir, home to an international climbing center. We hiked 15 minutes up a short, steep path to the top of the Rochers du Saussois cliffs, where we watched students slide along a wire cable secured between two cliffs and dangle upside down.
French Lesson Number Seven: Bring binoculars so you can see the look of terror (or was it the look of too much local wine at lunch?) on the faces of dangling cliff-climbers. Note to self: Do not try this at home...or in France.
Our captain called us a taxi so we could drive to Vezelay, a medieval town midway between the Burgundy and Nivernais Canals - and well worth the schlep. It's one of the best shopping spots in Burgundy, for art galleries, crafts, and clothes. Don't miss the knitting shop at the bottom of the hill or the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene at the top.
We taxied on to the next town, Coulanges, where we met our barge and cruised on to Clamecy. We moored next to a big fancy hotel barge - our captain told us it was one of those $30,000-a-week rentals. We waved to the folks on their deck - they smiled and waved back and chatted a bit.
French Lesson Number Eight: Boat people are the friendliest group on earth. It doesn't matter if you're in a dinghy or a yacht, we are all equals in sharing Ratty's water passion.
We sat on our deck sipping wine, munching the pate and fresh brioche we'd bought in town, and tossing yesterday's baguette crumbs to a quacking family of ducks circling our boat. It was our last night on board. As we waved one last time to the other boat's captain on our way into town for dinner (about two blocks away), we felt very smug to be experiencing all the joys of messing about on the same canal-for a fraction of the price.
2. Self-drive narrowboating in England
Judy and Jim Graham, from Littleton, Colorado, picked the smallest boat they could find for just the two of them-$1,000 per week or $500 apiece - started their trip about 150 miles northwest of London in a town called Market Harbor, and ended up at Warwick Castle.
"It's a lot different from a barge - more like camping in an RV," Judy explains. "Inside you have two bunk beds and the dining table flips and turns into a double bed." Other narrowboats can handle as many as ten people - they're a lot longer than the Grahams' 60-foot boat. But none is wider than about six feet. "That's about as wide as a double bed," says Judy with a laugh. Jim chimes in: "If you went with another couple, you'd have to know them pretty well - or by the end you sure would."
Most of the narrowboats ply the waters in England, rarely in France, because the English canals are especially narrow and shallow, four- to six-feet deep. "To steer, you stand outside, at the back, and operate the tiller," Judy says. "It's like driving a bus."
But it isn't hard to handle. "When you start out, they give you instructions and a map that shows where all the locks are and where you refill your water tank for the shower," Judy says. "But next time, I'm not getting a chemical toilet - we'll get one that flushes. The chemical toilet has a bit of an odor." Hmmm, note to self....
Jim says he opened 72 locks on their journey, many of which involved turning a crank manually. "I told Judy, after the first three I felt like Spartacus." But he liked the fact that it gives you a chance to talk to the lockkeepers and other boaters passing through the locks (which can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes as the gates close and the water either fills or empties).
"You can pull over whenever you want and walk on the towpaths or into town. In the evening, we'd go to pubs and meet local people or people from other barges and narrowboats. The boaters tend to have large extended families." The English have spent a good deal restoring the canals in the last 20 years, and many natives find it a great family holiday - for all generations.
"The best part was we could be independent, pull over when we wanted," Judy says. "The narrowboat is very intimate."
3. Self-drive narrowboating in Wales
"We've gone on three barge trips in two years, all well under $1,000 for the two of us," say Al and Rosemary Martin, from Westchester County, New York. "We found it very romantic," continues Rosemary. "It gave me new respect for my husband. He was able to drive it and do everything. And we could tie the boat up for a cup of tea, or go for a walk or whatever."
Rosemary did say that the boat is so narrow you practically have to walk sideways when you pass each other. And "the beds are rather small," though she didn't say if that last fact was a plus or a minus in her book.
"The only problem is that it rains a lot in Wales in the spring - and the food isn't as good as in some other countries," Rosemary says. "We loved the boat, but hated the food."
"So the next time, we chartered a cabin cruiser in Belgium," Rosemary explained, and launched into a description of that trip.
4. Self-drive cabin cruisers in Belgium
Rosemary and Al liked the small cabin cruiser even better than the narrowboat. "We picked up an adorable 29-foot cabin cruiser that says it sleeps three or four but is really better with two," Rosemary says. "You have a galley with a full kitchen, you're protected when you steer, and you get rocked to sleep at night." Cost: $800 for the week, $400 apiece.
"One of the highlights was Bruges, a medieval city called the 'Venice of the North' - they make lace there," Rosemary says.
Driving the boat is simple, Rosemary insists, but sometimes accidents can happen. "On this last trip, I don't know what I did, but I backed up and broke the rudder."
Rudders happen. But the repair was no big deal.
"We called the boat owners-remember, you're only ever about 15 to 20 miles away from where you started. We took a walk for a couple of hours until the repairman fixed it." Her advice: Buy the $50 insurance for the boat.
Otherwise, navigation is a piece of cake. "You get a total navigational guide about how long it takes to get from one lock to the next, the towns you'll hit, and the restaurants along the way. They show you how to fill the water tank; the gas usually lasts the whole trip. You can only go 5 mph - you can't hurt anybody or anything-and you can't even get a B&B for this price.
"We're thinking about Holland or Italy next," Rosemary says. And she promises not to drive backwards.
5. Biking and barging in Holland
Carol and Rollie Cahalane say they rarely bike ride at home in Denver, Colorado. But they had no trouble doing 35 to 45 miles a day on their bike-and-barge trip in Holland, all meals included: $775 per person per week.
"We went at tulip time in spring," Carol says. "The weather was warm - and when you're bicycling you don't want hot weather. We would have a typical Dutch breakfast on the barge - cold cuts and fruit. We'd take some of that breakfast and pack a lunch. Then we'd ride off on our bikes - with a guide - and go through the little villages. The boat would move on down the canal. Then we'd hook up with the barge at the end of the day for dinner. We had an excellent French chef," Carol says.
In Holland there are very few self-drive boats - the barges tend to be larger than elsewhere in Europe and require a captain and crew. Because they accommodate a larger group, the prices can be excellent, even with full meals and organized tours.
The Cahalanes knew almost half of the 22 people on board. But part of the fun, Carol said, was getting to know the others, too. "Every night we'd all try to sit with somebody different at dinner - we tried not to be cliquish. We'd mingle with all the other couples - and we got along great. I wouldn't mind going on a trip where I didn't know anyone. But every time I mention to friends that we want to go on a barge, before I know it we have a whole group that wants to come."
The best part about being on the barge? Carol doesn't miss a beat in response: "Not having to pack up every night - even though you're moving to a new town every day. And you go at a slow pace and see things the average tourist will never see. On the bikes, you're on back roads that buses will never go on."
For Donna Ferullo, another member of a similar bike-barge trip in Holland, the best part was the bike paths. "They were paradise - you never had to look over your shoulder for cars; they all yield to the bikes," says this Bostonian who is used to riding "with cars on my bumper."
And of course, there's the price. "At these prices you feel like you can do one a year," says Carol. "Next year we want to try France."
6. Self-drive barging in the Loire Valley of France
Though many veteran barge travelers stress the slow, relaxed pace, Chuck and Julie Feinberg of Flushing, New York, insist these trips are not just for folks who want to take it easy.
"We go scuba diving in Southeast Asia and rollerblading in Paris," which Chuck insists is the best city in Europe for that sport. "And then we get on a small boat in the Loire Valley, just for the two of us - 55-feet-long and 15-feet-wide - and go. It's luxury roughing," he adds with a laugh. Cost: $1,600 for ten days; less than $600 per person per week.
As fifth-grade elementary school teachers in Brooklyn, Chuck and Julie have done their homework. "Most people stay at the base for the first day and start off in the morning. But this is our third year, so we go right off to the first lock," Chuck says.
"We chose the Mayennes because there aren't a lot of locks - way up north there are a whole bunch," Chuck explains. "The further north, the more antiquated the locks are and the more manual the locks." That means a little more time and effort is required to pass through than in the automatic locks - maybe 20 minutes per lock instead of 10 or 15.
He and Julie have meals down to a science, too. "We know where all the best markets are to stock up our kitchen." And Chuck's willing to share his homework: "The best food markets are in Chateau Gontier and in Lion d'Anger and Laval."
And cooking is no problem. "You can tie up anywhere you want - at the locks or anywhere along the banks of the river, any tree. Sometimes as I grill my beef on the hibachi, all I see are the cows who come to check you out."
What's the best part? "The freedom, and relaxation," Chuck says. "You don't have to find a place to park your car - you get out and walk and you'll find a boulangerie, charcuterie, fromagerie. You're not that far from the Atlantic - you get the freshest fish. Every single night we had great food. And we picked out wines from the area - Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc - the red grape of the Loire valley. And the local cheeses are fantastic - chevre you can't even find in the most wonderful gourmet stores in the States."
"I was a little skeptical at first about our doing it on our own. My French isn't even conversational," Chuck says. But Chuck, along with everyone else I spoke to who spent time in the French countryside, insists that the French, despite their reputation as cool and patronizing, are welcoming to Americans.
Besides, the real language of France is food. "One night we tied up not far from a little restaurant," Chuck recounts. "I woke up in the morning and saw a car delivering fresh bread to that restaurant. He noticed us, honked, and came by to sell us fresh-baked baguettes. We love this area. And the boats-you just get more adept at it - so it's even more relaxing."
Bargain barge contacts
Each of the several barging trips described in this article can be booked from the first three of the four barge brokers named below; all three handle the entirety of the barge trips we discuss here - and at the prices we've quoted.
For France only, barge trips can be booked from the fourth (and last) company we've named, and that firm should very definitely be considered (along with the others) for that excellent barging country.
Tips for better barging
Final words from barge experts
It's easier than it sounds - even if you drive yourself. "Since the waterways are narrow and you are going in one direction, all you really have to remember is pointy end forward," says Shirley Linde, editor of SmallShipCruises.com. And one more thing with narrowboats, which operate on a tiller: push right to go left, left to go right. Barges and cabin cruisers use a steering wheel: no tricks there. Adds Debbie Petermann, president of Le Boat, Inc., "If you have a driver's license, you're overqualified."
You don't have far to go - and you only need to travel slowly. "The most territory covered in a week on a barge is about 50 miles; the shortest, seven," says Derek Banks, managing director of European Waterways Ltd., which specializes in the more expensive barge trips. But whatever the price, Derek says, all the boats can only go 5 mph max.
Barging - especially the self-drive option - is not so much for a certain age as a certain type. "It's really for active people who want contact with real people in the country and on the boat," says Elfriede Wind, founder of 4Winds Specialty Tours. "We often see people age 50-plus. But we're getting more younger people now and families with kids or with three generations. The younger go bicycling, the grandparents stay on the barge or go for walks - and they can still share their meals and spend time together."
It's not just a cheaper way to travel, it's better. "I don't think of self-drive boating as 'no frills,'" insists Evelyn Gresser, founder of Le Boat, Inc., whose daughter Debbie has now joined her in the business to handle the growing demand for barging. "I think of it more as an 'I'll do it myself' kind of holiday, just perfect for people who don't want to follow the tour operator's flag. We have a very large percentage of doctors, lawyers, and academics who are devoted to these trips. As the waterways belong to the public in most of Europe, one can stop wherever the mood takes one," Evelyn says.