Travel Tips

Barge Travel in Burgundy, France: Behind the Scenes of a River Cruise

Locations in this article:  Budapest, Hungary

The Prosperite Barge - Canals of FranceMoving slowly on centuries-old canals through the fields and scenic villages of provincial France, savoring the taste of a glass of vintage Burgundy, or the flavor of a flaky croissant pulled fresh from the oven, such is the pleasure of touring France’s charming waterways by barge cruise.

But for some, this isn’t simply a holiday, but a way of life. 

Lea Hutchins discovers what daily life is like for a French barge captain and his family.

With a reputation as one of the premium barge cruises, the Prospérité is a boat that makes it easy for people to, as Captain Spencer Hayes says, “make themselves right at home.”

Containing four staterooms for eight passengers, the barge travels through the canals between Vandenesse and Dijon, and docks in other villages such as Pont d’Ouche, La Bussière, Gissey-sur-Ouche and Fleury-sur-Ouche, all within driving distance of the heart of the Burgundy region, Beaune.

Why river cruises are a great way to travel: Video Tip: River Cruising

Bikes on the Barge - Canals of FranceAs the barge leisurely motors from one town to the next, guests may hop on and off to walk the tree-lined towpaths, or grab a bike from the boat to pedal through the villages.

What began as a summer job for a young Englishman has grown into a career, a lifestyle, and a family. As captain of the Prospérité since 2001, Spencer says that actually running the barge is the easiest part. “People come on board and don’t see what goes on behind the scenes,” he says.

The day-to-day varies by the cruising schedule, but the captain is always present to socialize with the guests, fix the boat if things go wrong, and manage and organize the crew. Because of these obligations, Spencer typically stays on the boat three nights out of seven during the week.

It would be difficult to apply one job title to Rèjane, Hayes’ wife, but can best be summed up as “tour guide” and “cruise director.”

Like to bike? Don’t miss Touring France & the Tour de France.

French Vineyard Born and raised in Dijon, France, Rèjane began barging at 19 years old, in addition to a time selling wine and marketing for the Vougeot cellar. With her extensive knowledge of wines in the Côte d’Or region and a masters in French history, visitors aboard the boat are never at a loss for information during one of the many excursions ashore into the various villages or wineries.

As well as escorting and driving the guests on these outings, Rèjane must also clean the van and make sure it always has gas, pick up supplies for the boat in the morning, drive to Dijon to drop the laundry and pick up any fresh food from the market that the chef may need, in addition to any special requests from the guests.

A week on the Prospérité is a pricey experience–only full charters are available for $39,900 to  $49,900 for up to eight passengers. Because of its luxury status, guests are accommodated with almost any request.

Learn more about barge travel with Barge Travel: Barging Through Europe.

Canal lock on a French canal“There is a limit of doing things for guests, but only when it’s not physically possible,” says Spencer. Visitors may inquire about any special needs or wants before the cruise begins, such as a specific wine or bottle of liquor they would like to have on board, special food requests, or additional excursions apart from the given itinerary.

Spencer fondly recounted one such example of a man who planned to do something special for his wife. He set up a hot air balloon ride to view the beautiful region from the sky, but also wanted to have dinner prepared where they landed.

As a hot air balloon is directed by the changing winds, it cannot be made to land in one particular location. Spencer laughs as he described loading a van with a table, chairs, portable stove, and the chef to follow the balloon as it traveled through the sky. But the crew made it work and the guests were able to enjoy a beautiful dinner in the middle of a vineyard.

For more, don’t miss our France & Belgium travel section.

French countrysideThe cruising season begins towards the end of April, finishing at the end of October. But for Rèjane and Spencer, their work doesn’t stop there.

When the guests have all gone, they must handle the bills, before beginning to look for a new crew at the end of January.

Nevertheless, the Hayes family is undaunted. Spencer hopes to buy a share of the boat so that he will be able to stop being the captain, and simply manage the operation.

In the meantime, this little family continues to motor down the waterways, past the stone bridges and quaint houses, keeping their guests entertained and wine glasses full.

Other barges that sail through Burgundy’s northern and southern canals include:

Absoluut 2, from $3,950 per person, up to eight passengers.
Fandango, from $21,700 for a full charter, up to four passengers.
Luciole, from $34,50, up to 14 passengers.

By Lea Hutchins for

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