If your idea of luxury is speed, then a European Waterways ‘Hotel Barge’ trip is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for tranquillity and calm, then a six-day trip on La Belle Epoque is a golden ticket.
So here we are, four Americans, one Brit (me) and a small crew of various nationalities. The vessel is a 1930’s barge that originally carried logs from Burgundy to Paris, but has been skilfully converted into a delightful ‘Floating Hotel’. She has been designed with both elegance and passenger comfort in mind and offers a sun deck with spa pool, wood-panelled saloon/dining room and other luxury amenities.
So, whether it’s grabbing a sun lounger to watch the scenery unfold, or pounding the tow paths on one of the onboard bicycles, passengers can be as ‘sinfully lazy’ or smugly active as they choose. Though, I do seem to be the only one who fancies himself as a bit of a Tour de Francer.
With such a small group, it’s surprising how well everybody gets along, both guests and crew. At mealtimes, nobody hogs the conversation, or tries to outdo anybody with tales of ballooning across the Serengeti. The banter is good-natured and the camaraderie quickly becomes infectious. Incidentally, balloon rides over Burgundy are available on this trip, but are not inclusive. (Prior booking needed.)
La Belle Epoque is 128-feet long, with two junior suites and four staterooms, all with ensuite shower and toilet. The cabins are on the lower deck, with portholes at eye level – which can be rather disconcerting if a swan or duck paddles by.
The dining room is located on the main deck, as is the always-open inclusive bar. There’s no designated barman, but one of the crew seems to miraculously appear each time a drink needs fixing. How do they know?
Up a short flight of stairs is the sun deck, a top spot for taking in the picture-book scenery as we chug merrily along. And then there’s the food. Each day, Selby the (English) cook, creates three miraculous meals in a kitchen the size of a snooker table. Having Selby onboard is like having our own private chef. Whenever we suggest a favourite dish he pops down to a local market to pick up the fresh ingredients. Throughout the week, we sample such delights as crayfish, quail, guinea fowl and… er… Strawberry soup. On one occasion, he’s given the night off and we’re treated to dinner at Le Rive Gauche, in Joigny, an excellent restaurant on the banks of the Yonne River. (Also, it’s included in the price.)
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Way to go
With stress-free travel in mind, I decided to take the train/ferry/train option from London Victoria to Paris, where our pick-up point was. As an alternative to flying, or high-speed train, I wanted to experience the almost forgotten luxury of travelling without timetables. Simply turning up at the requisite station or port and jumping on the next available mode of transport is such a breeze. Yes, it takes a little longer, but with no queues to worry about – no baggage hall torture, or delays to stress me – it’s the purest form of travelling. One I highly recommend.
In Paris, our air-conditioned Mercedes minibus picks up the group from a designated meeting point and whisks us off to Burgundy, a mere two hours away.
Vincelles to Tonnerre
For the next six days we navigate a total of 35 locks and cruise just short of 100 kilometres. We travel along two canals – the Nivernais and Bourgogne – and down into the Yonne River. The scenery is consistently and miraculously beautiful and it’s no exaggeration to say that certain moments feel damn near spiritual.
Around day two, we settle into a pleasant routine, becoming more familiar with the crew as we go. Each day we begin to feel more like close friends, or even family, which is pretty much what European Waterways aim for. From Akim, the cool-headed pilot, to Perrine the unflappable cruise director, who has unknowingly created an onboard catchword by saying “Voila” whenever she sorts anything out: which is often. We all find ourselves repeating it, endlessly.
Excursions are usually done in the afternoon: a short drive to a key town, a village, a cathedral, a market, or a nearby château to sample the exquisite local wines.
I find the excursions to be wholly in tune with the week; relaxed and leisurely. Invariably, there’s a local guide to make sense of everything for us. Lola, one of the crew, is usually our driver. We do get lost, on one occasion, which I find rather annoying. But, then I quickly get annoyed with myself for being annoyed. Note to self: relax. Lola is so generous in spirit and equally full of local knowledge it’s impossible not to enjoy her company. But, then again, I can say this about all the crew – they’re not only professional, but they’re also very kind and friendly.
Inevitably, the end of the week comes far too soon and it’s a real downer to be trudging along the gangplank for the final time. As we leave, cruise director Perrine remarks that it’s unusual for the crew to hug the guests. But hug we do and it feels totally natural. After all, it’s what departing friends do. Et Voila.