Our France canal cruise with European Waterways transported us into the heart of Southern Burgundy via a luxury barge. If you’re considering this type of travel, expect to eat great food and drink world-class wines while experiencing the beauty of rural France.
Barging in France is not for the weak. This type of travel requires tenacious stamina to handle a never-ending onslaught of classically prepared French food and a constant flow of some of the world’s best wine for seven straight days. However, the rewards are high for those up to the challenge.
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Why We Took a Barge Cruise in France
As avid food travelers, we were game to give barge cruising in France a try. We previously dipped our toes into the cruise world during a river cruise up the romantic Rhine and then dove deeper with a two-week ocean cruise in Asia. But barge cruising, with jaunts through picturesque villages, immersive locks and century-old stone bridges, was a mystery to us.
Although we had heard good things about France canal cruising from friends and colleagues, we were skeptical. The idea of floating along French canals on a small boat seemed like it might become boring after a day or two.
And, to be honest, we wondered if the food and wine would really be that good. We’ve eaten in some of the best restaurants in the world, tasted amazing wines in destinations as far away as South Africa and California and stayed in the finest hotels in cities like Shanghai and Hanoi.
In other words, we have high expectations and have been disappointed before.
However, our love for France and its wine outweighed any minor concerns when the opportunity arose for us to travel through Southern Burgundy for a week. Plus, we’re always looking for excuses to return to great French culinary hotspots like Lyon and Paris, both of which are within a couple of hours of Burgundy.
What It’s Like to Take a France Canal Cruise with European Waterways
Cutting to the chase, we loved everything about barging in France with European Waterways. However, we loved the wine most of all.
Burgundy’s big beautiful vintages are reason enough to travel by canal boat in France. With this in mind, our European Waterways cruise team curated an amazing array of wines, both white and red, that ran the gamut from solid regional appellations to outstanding grand cru wines that astonished us on a daily basis.
Each day of the week was a culinary adventure in which we experienced a different aspect of Burgundian gastronomy. The epitome of slow travel, the barge’s leisurely pace provided ample time for us to relax and savor the region’s many flavors, often with a glass of wine in hand.
Our barge cruise on the L’Impressioniste kept us busy as it gently flowed through Southern Burgundy’s Ouche Valley. It sailed over serene canals and through fascinating locks from Escommes to Fleurey-sur-Ouche with detours to historic chateaux, epic vineyards and the Burgundian cities of Beaune and Dijon.
Though our cruise itinerary included all meals and an open bar as well as activities each day, we never felt overwhelmed. How could we when the itinerary allowed us to spend hours floating by medieval cities while sipping champagne?
The barge cruised at a snail’s pace, allowing us to walk along towpaths, pass cycling locals and savor the scenery. The canals drift pass some of the richest farmland in France where cows happily graze along verdant, sloping Burgundy hills.
Perhaps you’re considering taking a French barge cruise and are wondering what the experience will be like. Though we can’t speak for every barge cruise and every barge cruise company, here’s what life is like on European Waterways’ L’Impressioniste:
Built in 1960 and converted to a hotel barge in 1996, L’Impressioniste accommodates up to 12 passengers in four well-appointed staterooms and two junior suites. Keeping to theme, each room on the bateau (boat in French) is named after an Impressionist artist. Names like Monet, Degas and Renoir adorn entrances along a narrow hallway below deck.
Barge amenities include a six-person hot tub situated on the outdoor deck, a fleet of bicycles, various books and board games. We were the only passengers who utilized the hot tub during our cruise, though most of our companions were happy to partake in an open bar that included dozens of premiums liquors, wines and beer available on an unlimited 24/7 basis.
We stayed in the Sisley stateroom during our week-long barge cruise. Located mid-stern, this room features a comfortable double bed, three portholes and a modern bathroom stocked with L’Occitaine products.
This compact living quarters provided adequate room for us to unpack all of our clothing and personal items. Though we didn’t spend a lot of time there, it was a comfortable refuge after nightly multi-course meals.
L’Impressioniste hosted nine wine lovers (including us) during our barge holiday with room to spread out in both the common “saloon” area and outdoor deck. We often chatted with worldly fellow cruisers, sharing stories about past travels and favorite food experiences. However, we could always find a quiet spot to check email or share a private moment.
Though we enjoyed drinks and snacks in the lounge, we ate our meals at a communal dining room table. In many ways, this table became the hub of the boat. It’s also where we ate fabulous food while enjoying wine fit for royalty.
Oenophiles flock to Burgundy for the chance to drink and purchase wines like Chablis and Pinot Noir at Burgundian vineyards. These wine connoisseurs make advance arrangements to meet with negotiants or to visit winemakers. As we learned during our first trip to Burgundy, these appointments can be difficult if not impossible to secure especially during the harvest season.
During our Southern Burgundy barge cruise, we didn’t have to worry about making appointments yet we still drank copious amounts of Burgundy wine. Not only did the crew shower us with amazing vintages during every lunch and dinner, but they also had bottles available at the bar any time we wanted to drink a glass or two.
At some meals, we indulged in regional and village wines. We enjoyed these wines but the real thrill came from drinking premier cru and grand cru vintages during other meals. To us, exploring Burgundy’s world-class wine while drifting along its quaint canal system was the best part of the barge cruise experience.
Drinking wine beyond the barge’s confines was an unexpected perk. During our cruise, European Waterways whisked us to great Burgundian wineries.
During one excursion, Burgundy native Clair Burnez dazzled us with tongue-tingling Grand Cru Montrachet at legendary Domaine Bouchard in Beaune. She escorted us deep into Bouchard’s daunting wine cellars before guiding us through a tasting of Burgundy’s liquid elixir.
The next day, we sampled complex Grand Cru reds at intimate Domaine Quivy in the Côte de Nuits. Passionate winemaker Johan Chatelus introduced us to a variety of wines produced without pesticides or chemical fertilizers as is required in Burgundy. The family-run winery creates a range of classic Burgundian wines ranging in price from €12 to €200 at the time of our visit.
Starting with nibbles during Sunday’s welcoming champagne reception all the way to Saturday’s final breakfast, we ate well. As we discovered during the week, the crew sources ingredients at hyper-local markets on a daily basis as part of the barge’s culinary program.
Let European Waterways know if you have any dietary requirements. Barge chefs can make special accommodations for Vegetarians and passengers with eating restrictions.
Served for two hours each morning, breakfast on our barge was a leisurely meal with a variety of meat, cheese, croissants, yogurt and fruit placed on the barge’s large dining room table. Though these options were more than enough for us after the ship’s extraordinary nightly feasts, other passengers ordered specially prepared eggs and omelets from the kitchen.
Lunch on L’Impressioniste spans the bridge between breakfast and dinner in terms of scope and formality. We typically ate two-course lunches starting with savory dishes like salmon fillets and leek tarts before finishing with either dessert or cheese.
Before each dinner on our cruise, passengers nibbled on passed hors d’oeuvres while sipping on a wide array of beverage options. Some of our companions opted for cocktails at these times. Being in Burgundy, we always opted to drink ‘local’ wine instead.
The highlight of each day and the glorious culmination of the chef’s culinary efforts, our barge dinners were epic events featuring four courses and bottomless bottles of wine. Main courses varied every night with dishes like duck confit, rack of lamb, herb-crusted hake and locally sourced Charolais steak.
There’s a French expression that goes “triste comme un repas sans fromage” loosely meaning “What’s a meal without cheese?” We were never blue during our European Waterways barge cruise, except maybe when there was no more fromage bleu.
Like most meals in France, L’Impressioniste features an impressive cheese course during every dinner. The crew served us a number of fromage champions including oozy Brie de Meaux, pungent Epoisses de Bourgogne, umami-filled 36-month aged Comté, head knocking Roquefort and goaty Valencay.
If you love cheese, this is your cruise!
Cheese lovers won’t want to skip breakfast with leftover cheese from the previous night’s dinner. We call this excellent product repurposing.
We thought we were too full for dessert every night during the cruise yet we couldn’t resist desserts like caramelized lemon tarts, chocolate fondant and Italian tiramisu. In retrospect, we have no regrets for enjoying every decadent bite.
Discover the best French desserts and pastries.
Staff and Service
Our barge crew totaled six professionals including a captain, chef, pilot, hostess, host and matelot (i.e. sailor). Beyond handling logistics and transportation both on and off the barge, the crew made sure that we were well fed and hydrated at all hours of the day. And by hydrated, we mean filled with wine.
The ratio of crew to passengers is a major differentiating factor when comparing European barge cruises to river cruises. With a ratio of six to nine during our barge cruise, we felt fully pampered at all times. The international crew focused on hospitality as much as safety, ensuring a smooth sailing on all counts.
Despite the barge’s slow pace, we covered a lot of ground in Southern Burgundy during our week-long cruise. Daily excursions immersed us into local culture and left us yearning for a repeat visit.
These were our favorite excursions:
L’Enfant Jésus Vineyard
As much as we enjoyed drinking wine in Burgundy, we can’t overstate the impact of visiting a vineyard and experiencing the region’s unique terroir in person. Feeling calcareous soil under our feet and touching young grape leaves with our fingers gave us an appreciation to Burgundian wine that can’t be obtained from a book or class.
Local wine professional Clair Burnez provided a succinct introduction to Burgundy and its wine appellations during our visit at l’Enfant Jésus. Her informative words resounded as we stood on a sloping vineyard surrounded by rows of grapes as far as our eyes could see.
Domaine Bouchard Père et Fils
Burnez continued our accelerated wine education during a private tour at Domaine Bouchard Père et Fils. As interesting as it was to view the winery’s private collection stored underneath a former castle, the true magic happened while we tasted a variety of the famed winery’s Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines.
Our tasting including three red and two white varietals including 2013 vintages of Chapelle Chambertin Grand Cru and Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru. Having just encountered local terroir during our vineyard visit, we felt a surge of confidence as we identified local fruits and spices while savoring every sip.
Giddy from the experience of tasting world-class wine at Bouchard’s converted castle, we convened to the winery’s orangery for lunch. This multi-course meal featured gougères, smoked trout, guinea fowl, cheese and cassis-laden berries.
Meal highlight? We’d have to pick sharing a bottle of 2014 Beaune Grèves Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus Premier Cru wine produced from grapes grown at the vineyard we visited earlier in the day.
Winemaker Johan Chatelus greeted us at Domaine Quivy, a family vineyard located in an 18th-century mansion. Though he’s not part of the family, Chatelus spared no wines during an interactive tasting featuring the winery’s premier and grand cru vintages.
Tasting wine at a Burgundy winery is a bucket list experience for wine lovers around the world. Thanks to European Waterways, we experienced two different tastings in one week.
You can purchase wine at tastings like the one we did at Domaine Quivy. As a bonus, value-added taxes (VAT) are typically waived for shipments to destinations outside the European Union.
Château de Commarin
Historic Château de Commarin dates back centuries in the Côte d’Or. Beyond its classic architecture and many tapestries, the château is notable for having 26 generations of the de Vogue family reside on its palatial premises. While exploring the châteaux grounds with current resident Count Bertrand de Vogue, we even met the estate’s miniature pot-bellied pigs.
As an added treat, local aviculturists led us through an interactive demonstration involving exotic falcons and owls. The demo’s showstopper was a Siberian eagle owl with a 70-inch wingspan. Since this bird is a predator capable of killing large animals, including humans, we kept a respectful distance.
Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune
Founded in 1443 as a hospital for the destitute, Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune provides an intriguing glimpse into Burgundy’s storied past. During our visit, we explored the hospice’s history as well as the building’s classic Burgundian architecture and art. Our tour took us into the Room of the Poor, where patients slept, as well as through the chapel, pharmacy and kitchen.
Plan a separate visit to Beaune in November when the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune hosts its annual charity wine auction. The city is filled with festivities during the entire weekend.
More than spicy mustard, Dijon is a charming Burgundian city with a deep culinary tradition. Our Dijon excursion took us to the city center where we sampled local treats including macarons, cheese and mustard. However, this excursion’s highlight was visiting Dijon’s bustling covered market.
Built in the 19th century, Marche Les Halles Dijon is a grand market filled with vendors selling a melange of local products. Butchers sell Bresse Chickens and Charolais beef. Produce merchants sell fruits and vegetables plucked from the earth that morning. Traiteurs sell all manner of French specialties including large varieties of Pâte en Croute and saucissons.
Though our Dijon excursion was relatively brief, we had just enough time to fall for the city’s many charms. Not only did we enjoy a decadent slice of Pâte en Croute stuffed with Guinea Fowl and Foie Gras at the market, but we also indulged in colorful macarons at local pâtissier Pierre Hubert.
We hope to return to Dijon and more deeply explore the city’s cathedrals, shops and food. Especially the food.
What to Pack
Unlike most other cruises, European Waterways’ barge cruises do not have a dress code. During our week-long cruise, everybody dressed comfortably in what can best be described as business casual. Some of us dressed up on the last night, but this was optional with one of our companions opting to wear shorts that evening.
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Save extra room in your luggage for any edible souvenirs you buy during daily shore excursions. These edible souvenirs may include macarons, wine and Dijon mustard, of course.
European Waterways operates 17 luxury barges in its namesake continent. As you make your plans, consider the following:
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.
Original Publication Date: May 21, 2019