The Burgundy region is a microcosm of all that we love about France: a rich history rife with art and architecture, pristine countryside pocked by stuck-in-time villages and flourishing vineyards, and mouthwatering cuisine offset by wine, glorious wine. Couple that with some 600 miles of navigable inland canals and waterways, and it's little wonder that the concept of barge cruising was birthed here.
A Burgundy barge cruise with European Waterways offers travelers in-depth regional exploration at an unhurried pace, and while they cover relatively little ground in terms of mileage, it manages to effectively broaden their cultural horizons (ok, and maybe their waistlines, too).
My recent sailing aboard the company's 12-passenger L'Impressionniste—essentially an intimate, floating inn—navigated our group through the culture, history, and gastronomy of Burgundy, all fueled by the region's diverse and delectable wines. With no telephones or TVs onboard, an array of excursions thoughtfully planned out, an experienced captain at the helm, a cook working his Burgundy-inspired magic in the kitchen, and a free-flowing open bar stocked with a selection of premier local wines (all of which comes included in the price), there was little left to do but absorb the region's cultural and historical heritage—while channeling Bacchus à la Burgundy, of course.
The Company: European Waterways
A pioneer for the European hotel barge biz with nearly 40 years' experience, Britain-based European Waterways operates the continent's largest network of barge cruises in nine different countries. Its fleet of 16 barges has been fully transformed from former incarnations as Dutch cargo ships into intimate vacation vessels, designed to transport anywhere from 4 to 20 passengers. Barge styles range from rustic to refined, and all-inclusive rates are reflective of the luxury of the ship, along with the season of sailing.
The Cruise Ship: L'Impressionniste
The 12-passenger L'Impressionniste offers a rustic country inn atmosphere, with quarters that are intimate and informal. The two-deck configuration puts six staterooms on the lower level and common rooms and an outdoor deck on the top floor.
The highlight of the ship is its spacious outdoor sundeck, with a railing rimmed by colorful flower boxes, two seating areas with tables (one is canopied), and a bubbling Jacuzzi for six. An indoor lounge with ample seating, oak flooring, and panoramic windows, offers diversions like (spotty) Wi-Fi, iPod-hookup stereo, and reading materials (a small lending library is downstairs); the bar comes well-stocked with assorted spirits.
The connecting dining area is the setting for all meals, anchored on a large common mahogany table, overlooked by large picture windows and an apropos print of Renoir's festive Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Six snug, simply appointed staterooms borrow names from Impressionist painters (a nod to the ship's name), with prints from artists like Monet and Degas adorning their corresponding cabins. Rooms are outfitted with light oak furnishings and newly upgraded beds, available in twin or double configurations; en-suite bathrooms are stocked with L'Occitane products. Phones, stereos, alarm clocks, and televisions are absent, as per the "unplugged" nature of the sailing, though individualized climate control and a safe are provided.
Life Onboard L'Impressionniste
The real joy of the Burgundy barge vacation is the laid-back pace. Days are typically split between an organized morning or afternoon excursion, and leisurely canal cruising past pretty lockhouses, sleepy villages, and white Charolais cattle; the barge moors overnight.
Numerous daily lock stops ensure ample time to embark and disembark at will for walks or bike rides along the canal-side towpaths or in the quiet country towns; L'Impressionniste's sedate sailing pace is slow enough that guests can catch up with her at the next lock.
Life onboard allows for contemplation of the passing countryside panoramas—even from the hot tub. Onboard diversions are largely limited to reading, though our group was prone to indulge in lively conversation and cocktails. A duo of local guitarists was brought onboard one evening play beautiful classical music.
Onboard dress is casual, with a slightly more polished look for seated evening dinners; the captain's farewell dinner was the one occasion requiring formal evening attire.
L'Impressionniste does food well (and often), with an onboard chef regularly preparing French specialties with local ingredients, served in tandem with fine Burgundy wines.
Buffet-style breakfasts are rather simple affairs, offering basic breads, pastries, cereals, yogurts, and fruits.
Multicourse lunches and dinners are served in a single seating around the main dining room table. Lunches highlight buffet-style servings of salads, quiches, and an entrée (usually fish or meat platters). The onshore lunch at the Michelin-starred restaurant L'Abbaye de la Bussiere was a highlight, where the notion of food as an art form was delectably realized. Dinner dishes showcase an impressive roster of French specialties, while the more robust captain's farewell dinner is served on an exquisite floral table setting.
Both lunch and dinner come paired with a selection of two French wines (a red and a white), and a cheese course. Naturally, plenty of Burgundy's signature complex wines are showcased, with abundant pinot noir and chardonnay varietals on the menu.
The intimate barge quarters and regularly shared meals and excursions are ideal for individuals keen on interacting with like-minded guests; full charters for families or other groups are another popular option (note children under 12 are not permitted on standard sailings).
L'Impressionniste tends to attract a well-travelled, well-educated American clientele (with a sprinkling of Australians and Canadians), ages 50-plus, with an appreciation for French culture, food, and wines.
The Itinerary: Burgundy
L'Impressionniste's six-night sailings through the Côte d'Or department of Southern Burgundy incorporate excursions to requisite old-world attractions—castles, cathedrals, markets, and vineyards.
Complimentary ground transfers from Paris are provided via Mercedes minibuses to the embarkation point in Fleurey sur Ouche; reverse itineraries from Escommes are offered on alternating weeks.
Daily half-day guided excursion highlights included the viticultural capital of Beaune, the 12th-century Abbaye de la Bussiere (the setting for a superlative Michelin-starred lunch), and a duo of private wine cellar tastings.
How to Book It
L'Impressionniste's rates include all meals, wines, and "open bar" onboard; an onshore lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant; daily guided excursions; bicycle usage; and transfers to/from Paris. Six-night sailings start from $4,550 per person (based on double occupancy); full boat charters are also available. Note that an optional gratuity of five to ten percent of the total cruise fare is also recommended.
L'Impressionniste sails Southern Burgundy through late October, and resumes the route for the 2013 season in April. Book by August 31 and save $1,000 off per cabin for select fall 2012 sailings.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of John Garay