While we admire those stalwart souls who set out along France's canals in self-drive rental barges, we confess to a streak of hedonism, preferring to let someone else do the work so we can sit back and enjoy the countryside.
Last summer we cruised aboard the Liberte, a vintage eight-passenger hotel barge from French Country Waterways, with three other American couples and a crew of four, who introduced us to French villages we had never encountered and gave us a graduate course in French cuisine at every lunch and dinner.
We left the driving to Mark, the cooking to Jane, the sightseeing excursions to Natalie and the selection of wines and cheeses to Severine. During a July heat wave, we spent six romantic days meandering along the scenic Nivernais Canal between Auxerre and Clamecy in Burgundy.
Now the mail renews our daydreams of reliving that week with news that French Country Waterways is offering a discount for April sailings--bringing prices on the Liberte down to $2,895 per person, double occupancy, which includes all wines, cocktails, transfers from Paris, daily excursions and dinner in a Michelin two-star restaurant. (This offer is available only on individual bookings, not charters.)
The Liberte, built in Holland in 1971, is as sturdy and sensible as a pair of wooden shoes, and as trimly rigged inside as a sailboat. There are four passenger cabins, each with built-in beds and cabinetry and a bath, air conditioner and windows that open and close. While it seems compact, there is plenty of room to store everything. During the heat wave, the dress code aboard was casual, usually the same shorts and T-shirts we wore for excursions.
There is a bar and sitting room on the same level as the cabins and, one level up, a dining table with a banquette along one wall and five chairs on the other side and at the head and foot. A sideboard filled the wall behind the chairs, and windows all around closed with leather straps.
Doors are low, so passengers have to duck going in and out of the barge and up and down the stairs. People in wheelchairs or with walkers would not be able to navigate the passageways outside or below decks.
Smoking is banned on the barge; so are children younger than 18.
The wide deck is flat, with an outdoor dining table and eight chairs, plus eight plastic loungers arranged between tubs of bright petunias, marigolds and geraniums. There is no awning or sun cover, but rather a series of umbrellas that occasionally have to be lowered when a low bridge is ahead.
Food, especially local wines and cheeses, is a highlight of any barge cruise, and the Liberte served the most delicious meals that we can recall in a decade of hotel barge sailings. Jane Martin, the English chef, presented lunches of fresh vegetable salads--fresh corn salad with mayonnaise and herbs, tiny fingerling potatoes boiled and tossed with whole-grain mustard and fresh rosemary, poached turkey breast with toasted pine nuts and sliced fresh artichoke hearts--with local cheeses and fresh fruit for dessert, and accompanied by chilled local wines.
We often lunched on the deck under the shade of a giant umbrella. Dinners were sit-down affairs in the dining room, with white and red Burgundies, grilled fresh foie gras or cold tomato soup, grilled duck breast with port or salmon filet with fresh ginger, salad and cheeses, a warm tart with homemade apple sorbet or a chocolate mousse with banana pecan ice cream.
The Nivernais Canal is much less traveled than the Burgundy Canal, and we encountered more self-drive rental barges than other hotel barges. The itinerary begins in Auxerre one week, Clamecy the next, and includes an afternoon of wine-tasting in the village of Chablis, a visit to the Basilica of la Madeleine in Vezelay, a dinner at the two-star Michelin restaurant L'Esperance, a walking tour of historic Auxerre, a visit to the medieval village and chateau at Druyes-les-Belles-Fontaines, a steep hike uphill to Mailly-le-Chateau and a tour of the castle and park of Bazoches, home of Louis XIV's great military engineer Marechal de Vauban.
There was plenty of time to hike or bike along the towpaths; the barges travel only about 5 mph, and they carry enough bicycles for all the passengers to take on and off at the locks. Our six fellow passengers were in their 60s.
Everyone showed up promptly for breakfast, most of us having already explored the village where the barge was tied up for the night. After breakfast we walked along the towpaths or sat on deck in the breeze as we navigated the locks, waving at fishermen and greeting the dogs that seemed to be waiting for the Liberte. We soon learned why: Natalie tossed bread to the swans and fed scraps of ham to the dogs when she leaped off the barge to secure the ropes at the locks.
After lunch some of us napped, while others read and dozed on the deck if there wasn't an excursion planned. In the evenings, after a long dinner, we sat out on deck in the dark, chatting or just listening to the sounds of the canal as we sipped coffee or cognac.
French Country Waterways represents not only the Liberte but four other barges that cruise in France, the Horizon II and Esprit in Burgundy, the Nenuphar in the Loire and the Princess in Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine. All carry from eight to 18 passengers. To get more information, contact a travel agent, call French Country Waterways at (800) 222-1236 or log on to www.fcwl.com.
Harry Basch and Shirley Slater travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears twice a month.