Charting a course of luxury on European Waterways

“Belle époque” is French for “beautiful era”; meaning European Waterways’ 12-passenger barge La Belle Époque, which plies the canals of Burgundy, is aptly named.

The leisurely pace of the barge is perfectly suited for passengers who wish simply to exhale and drink in the pastoral countryside; to savor the best of regional wine and cuisine and enjoy excursions to historic sites; to wander green, sloping vineyards and traipse through charming villages.

For centuries, barges played an important role in France’s economy as they transported goods down its shallow waterways, diligently towed by horse and manpower. It was a cherished tradition which endured until the end of the 19th century, ending only with the advent of the diesel engine.

Even as the diesel engine and more established roads marked the decline of water transport, they fostered the birth of a new form of floating commerce: hotel barging. Over the years, water transports were re-fitted to carry guests, not goods. The La Belle Époque, originally built in 1930 to move freight, was renovated and christened as a hotel barge in 1995 and further upgraded in 2011. The once strictly utilitarian barge now glows in rich mahogany; Its cargo hold now a lounge area, replete with comfortable sofas, dining area, and generous open bar.

Here, guests may take advantage of a small library, board games and selection of CDs. Outside, armed with relaxing chairs and lengthy table (an umbrella protects as needed), the sizeable deck poses an ideal spot to watch the world go by in slow motion. Passengers view rural stone houses with pastel shutters and doors; watch graceful swans and flocks of birds. They smile and wave at the locals who might be fishing or gathering on the banks to watch the barge go by. Passing underneath ancient bridges, many adorned with colorful flower boxes, barge passengers float from one photo opportunity to another.

Traversing the innumerable locks is a feast of fascination and history. These locks, which date back centuries, remain an integral part of the canal and river system. The boat’s captain and first mate navigate through historic hydraulics with admirable finesse, aided by the lockkeepers who still crank open and close the gates by hand.

At some locks, guests may hop off the barge and either walk or bike along the towpath. Twelve bicycles are on deck, including a charming tandem. Trekking the towpath might reward nature lovers with fields of bright yellow sunflowers. Guests may opt to go back aboard at the next lock, or stay on the towpath longer. The captain and first mate keeps everyone informed of the distance between locks.

Besides the captain and first mate, the English-speaking crew includes a tour guide, two stewards and a gourmet chef – who has his own herb garden on board. The cuisine is splendid; every meal is a special event.

A sampling of culinary pleasures includes pan-fried foie gras with spiced apple, served in a brick pastry basket; boeuf bourguignon; crepe suzette; warm goat cheese salad with cider vinaigrette; and marinated brochette fillet of pork with lemon rice salad. Of course, superb regional red and white wines and a variety of cheese plates are served at lunch and dinner. Wine and cheese selections are described in illuminating detail.

While La Belle Époque generally stays on the canals of Burgundy, it has access to an impressive 750-mile network of canals that link to the main rivers of the Seine, Loire and Rhone. European Waterways also takes travelers on barge trips to the Canal du Midi, Alsace-Lorraine, Loire Valley, Gascony, Champagne, Paris, and Picardy. A fleet of 16 all-inclusive floating hotels (from eight to 20 passengers) also travels the inland waterways of Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg, Holland, Italy, Scotland, England and Ireland.

Price for a six-night cruise aboard the 12-passenger hotel barge La Belle Époque is from $4,550 per person in a twin/double ensuite cabin. The price includes all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers (passengers are picked up and returned to Paris). Full boat charters (wonderful idea for families or friends’ getaways also are available. For more information, call (877) 879-8808 or visit European Waterways’ Web site at www.gobarging.com

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