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Barging Through Europe

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barge canal skyDo you come back from your vacations feeling like … you need a vacation?

Instead of dashing around in a blur of monuments and museums, how about floating past unspoiled vistas with time for leisurely meals and long village strolls?

True, you won’t cover as much ground, but you’ll have time to soak up the sun, and breathe in lavender- or heath-scented air as you navigate Europe’s waterways.

Unlike river cruising (and very much unlike large-ship cruising), barging is an intimate experience, as these vessels hold only four to 22 people and travel at a slow-paced four miles per hour (you could walk it faster).

You’ll get to know everyone on board, but some choose to charter an entire boat for friends and family. There are no set itineraries once you dock in a waterside town: you might go wine tasting, sample local cheeses, take a long walk through an impossibly old-world village, or even go hot-air ballooning.

One popular option is bike-and-barge tours in which guests can step off the boat and explore the countryside on a guided bike tour.

Ellen Sack, aka “The Barge Lady,” is a broker of European canal barge vacations and is widely considered to be the reigning expert on the subject of barge travel.

Barge CanalShe advises combining a week-long barge tour with a larger vacation to get “the brief overview as well as experience a smaller part of the country in greater depth.” If you charter a boat with a small group, you can even customize the trip around your interests, such as antiques, wine, cheese, art, or even beer. “Just let your boat captain know in time to come up with suggestions, and you’re on your way to your personal adventure.”

One note: If you’re an inexperienced traveler, a backpacker, or simply prefer the urban scene, barging probably isn’t for you. The demographic tends to be “retired, active but low-key 50-70 year-olds who are educated, well-traveled, and appreciate excellent food and wine.”

However, one of the recent trends is for three generations to charter a boat: grandparents, parents and children. “It’s a wonderful chance to reconnect, make memories and share new experiences,” says Sack, who has been selling barge trips for more than 30 years.

The biggest drawback? Barging is not generally a budget option. You can expect to pay at least $4,000 per person for a week-long trip, including meals, wine and excursions. However, there are some options to help keep costs down, such only including one or two meals a day, or a “bare-boat” which includes no meals or excursions—you’re just there for the ride.

At least 90 percent of all barges float along France’s 5,000 miles of waterways, which were constructed hundreds of years ago to connect rivers for trade. These small boats meander along stunning chateaus, medieval villages and the country’s famous wine regions. Since gastronomy and France pretty much go hand in hand, you can often find full-on gourmet meals prepared by a private chef, paired with wines and plenty of cheese (an average of 21 different cheeses are served each week!). The chefs on board take pride in showing off regional flavors and local ingredients.

On the Elisabeth, up to six guests can barge through Burgundy on a “Chocolate and Wine Cruise” where, over the course of a week, owners Pete and Sheena Jenner will arrange chocolate tastings, dessert-making demonstrations, and cheese tastings between walking tours along cobbled streets to abbeys, chateaux and the storybook village of Flavigny, the film location for the movie Chocolat. Week-long cruises on the Elisabeth start at $4,300 per person, including meals and excursions.

Various FruitsThe Fandango, a family-run boat that floats from Dijon to Escommes along the Burgundy Canal, welcomes up to six guests to come into the kitchen for impromptu French cooking lessons with the chef. Hazel Young, the owner and sometime chef, even published a cookbook called A Week on the Water, created from favorite recipes served onboard. Your chef will also guide you through the colorful covered markets of Dijon, selecting cheeses and fresh produce for that night’s dinner, as well as any specialties you might like to sample. Top-notch cuisine isn’t the only luxury on board: Handmade Provençal tiles grace the bathrooms, and Fandango’s décor has been featured in French home-decorating magazines and TV shows. Weekly rates start at $5425 per person.

The good news is you’re not limited to traveling in France. Wherever there is a river, you can find a barge:

The Shannon Princess, another “gourmet barge,” follows the River Shannon, a series of lakes, rivers and canals in the middle of Ireland. Chef Olivia Power, trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School (credited for vastly improving the reputation of Irish cuisine), picks fresh mushrooms and includes Irish cheeses and wines on her menu. The 10-person barge glides down the idyllic Shannon Waterway between Glasson and Killaloe, and when you’re not gorging on artisanal farmhouse cheeses from the farmers markets or on berries picked fresh from Portumna Castle’s kitchen garden, you can go on excursions to Leap Castle (reportedly the most haunted castle in Ireland) and the ruins of a 6th century monastery. Rates start at $4,700 per person.

Amsterdam Flower MarketThe 12-passenger Savoir Faire was built in 1932 as a Belgian transport barge and takes passengers on a week-long Tulip Cruise around Amsterdam along the Amstel river and through the cheese-lover’s Mecca of Gouda. As if Dutch cheese weren’t reason enough to sign up, the tour also takes you through Delft, famous for its pottery, and the Keukenhof Gardens which boasts the largest display of flowers in the world- hundreds of varieties of tulips, hyacinths and other bulbs. Rates begin at $4,600 person.

Do as the Kings and Queens of England have done for centuries, and travel by boat in luxury down the Thames through Surrey, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Frequent stops allow passengers to explore the riverside towns, villages, and lush natural beauty most visitors to England rarely see.

The eight-passenger Magna Carta is owned and captained by Dominic Read, formerly a private tour guide who knows both the famous and hidden places throughout the British Isles, and who is happy to take passenger requests and suggestions for itinerary. Don’t worry about getting chilly in the English air—this boat comes with under-floor heating and a Jacuzzi. Ask about the theme cruises: You can immerse yourself in WWII lore, explore English gardens, or go antique-hunting with other travelers. Prices per person range between $3,200 and $4,150.

Getting There

Barges are usually privately owned by specialist barging operators. However, it is common to book your trip through a barge broker who is familiar with a variety of boats and can help you choose which tour suits your interests. They may also arrange itineraries, check availability and plan pre- and post-barging activities.

Barge Lady Cruises, 800-880-0071, www.bargeladycruises.com

Barges in France, 877-642-2743, www.bargesinfrance.com

European Waterways, 800-394-8630, www.gobarging.com

Canals of France, 866-550-3447, www.canalsoffrance.com

The Barge Company, 800-688-0245, www.bargecompany.com

By Lauren Van Mullem for PeterGreenberg.com.

Previously by Lauren Van Mullem:

Don’t miss more foodie adventures in our Culinary Travel section.

Barging through Europe was on the list for South Florida Sun-Sentinel Travel Editor Tom Swick in his Personal Picks: Expert Travelers’ Favorite Destinations, so check out his take here.