Barging holidays in France have increased enormously in popularity over the last few years; Janine Marsh goes boating on the beautiful Burgundy Canal and discovers a world of wine, gastronomy, luxury, lush landscapes, fairytale castles and a whole lot more…
Burgundy is one of the lushest regions of France, rich in architecture, culture, art and history. It is an area of beautiful countryside and glorious vineyards, fabulous cuisine partnered with sensational wine, picturesque villages, splendid castles and magnificent towns. To top it all there are 600 miles of inland canals and waterways to sail on so it’s little wonder that this is an area of holidaymaking that’s on the up and up.
After a stopover in the utterly stunning town of Dijon I was collected from my hotel by the captain of the barge I would be staying on. We headed off into the countryside and 30 minutes or so later we arrived at a little quay… where the “Who Knows” barge was moored up alongside several other barge “hotels”.
I met some professional tour operators from the US, New Zealand and Australia – they hit the decks immediately, they were there to review the barges, meet the owners and captains and snoop around the rooms. They wanted to sample the cuisine that barge chefs produce, take in the tours to assess the guides, taste the wines and meet the hostesses who would be looking after their clients. I was going to follow them and learn what it is that makes a barge holiday an adventure of a life time and what clients really want from a barge vavation.
I sat and talked to Captain Jason Ashcroft and his lovely partner Dawn Coles who is the chef on the Who Knows and they kept me mesmerised with tales of life on the river, Dawn’s amazing cake and glasses of champagne.
From the minute you get on board with a barge trip like this – you’re going to be spoiled – by the wine, fine dining, fabulous views and personally guided tours. This is the sort of holiday where you have a rare chance to broaden your horizons in the most lavish of ways (I might warn you that you may also need to broaden the waistline of your trousers!).
The barges that I saw were all sumptuous but very different. The Who Knows was once a famous barge moored in Paris and was the home of one Sterling Hayden, a rather louche Hollywood actor (Blazing Saddles, Johnny Guitar etc). His love of chasing the ladies was only matched by his love of life on the water and it is a very beautiful boat which Jason and Dawn have lovingly renovated and converted to a 6 berth floating au-barge. Despite its narrowness (it is a barge after all) there is a great kitchen space in which Dawn creates culinary magic. The dining area comfortably seats six and the lounge is stylish and has the feel of a luxury yacht. The boat has an intimate and informal feel to it, the rooms are snug but airy, the bathrooms were surprisingly big and the power showers are a joy.
Waking up in the morning on a barge on the river and seeing the mist rise over the hills around is an incredibly beautiful sight and every day I went for a wander along the side of the canal and discovered stunning little towns and sites. Every barge has bikes for guests to use and cycle at a leisurely pace alongside the boat while it cruises gently along or while going through locks. Sun decks are adorned with pots of colourful flowers and perfect for lying back and watching the exquisite countryside as you glide past stunning view after stunning view. You’ll pass ancient farmhouses, riverside inns where you’ll get a warm and friendly welcome, herds of Charolais cows look on curiously and picturesque, sleepy villages that are breathtakingly beautiful.
The Who Knows was the perfect barge for me, Jason, an expat Brit is a fabulous raconteur and an experienced host who has travelled the world. He’s also a wine expert and loves to share his knowledge with guests whom he takes on tour to some of his favourite places. I loved our visits, especially to the Hospice de Beaune, Patriarche wine cellars in Beaune and the beautiful vineyards surrounding the Chateau du clos du Vougeot with its medieval wine cellars. Essentially, these types of deluxe barge tours go at the pace the client wants, they also go where the client wants – everything can be tailored to the express wishes of guests and Jason, like all the barge captains and guides we met with, changes the itinerary, intensity, focus and content according to what interests his guests the most.
I had the chance to visit some of the other barges and their owners while I was there – I don’t think I have ever felt so completely pampered and indulged in my life! Every boat has a chef, the bigger and/or more luxurious boats will have their own guide, hostesses, sommelier – in addition to the captain and his mate. One boat I went on took up to 6 guests – and had 6 staff! Every boat we went on had a chef who wanted us to sample his or her skills and we are talking top level chef-ery here; bottles of Burgundy wine and Champagne were opened and Jacuzzis on decks bubbled in our honour.
A typical day would consist of a relaxed morning after breakfast, perhaps a spot of leisurely cruising, cycling or visiting a local area, followed by lunch and then an afternoon of touring (All the boats have transport for that purpose) with dinner back on board. Every time we returned to the boat it was filled with enticing aromas as Dawn made brioche, strawberry gateau, baked soufflés, baked peaches with a honey mascarpone and raspberry coulis… An evening on deck, watching the sun drop over the picturesque landscape is one of those memorable events that will stay in your mind forever.
Have no doubt, a barge trip on the Burgundy Canal is all about luxury, culture, gastronomy, history, wine, relaxation, friendship, fun, chilling out… and more wine and French cuisine!