Luxury hotel barging in Burgundy
Words and images by David Powell
David Powell spent a week on the luxury hotel barge L’Impressionniste cruising through Burgundy. The Burgundy canal is one of the most attractive canals in France, winding its way through the heart of renowned vineyards, medieval towns, elegant chateaux, magnificent cathedrals, picturesque villages and wonderful local markets.
Monday mornings don’t get much better than this. I’ve had a lovely breakfast, the sun is shining and our luxury barge is about to set sail. There are 48 locks to navigate during our week on L’Impressionniste and I’m looking forward to every one!
But firstly, what is luxury hotel barge cruising? Still a little known niche concept within the huge cruise industry, maybe the term barge or barging conjours up images of narrow boats or coal boats? In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, most hotel barges started life as cargo vessels, L’Impressionniste for instance was built in Holland and carried cargo in the 1960’s, but they have since been painstakingly converted to offer luxury boutique accommodation for small groups of passengers, and all barges in the fleet benefit from an annual refurbishment of some description. This is cruising but probably not as you know it. The pace is slow with a 6-day cruise often covering less than 50 or 60 miles along a rural canal. Passengers can walk or bike along the towpaths and never get left behind as their floating hotel glides gently along. Cruising just a few feet from the towpath it’s easy to moor up and explore.
The hotel barge experience includes comfortable accommodation in air-conditioned staterooms, fully inclusive with gourmet meals prepared by the onboard chef, fine wines and an open bar. Daily escorted excursions in private vehicles, bicycles, an on-deck spa pool and personal service from an experienced crew.
Our Burgundy adventure starts at a centrally located hotel in Paris and it’s from here we are picked up at 2.30pm for our transfer to the barge by private chauffeured mini bus. Captain and tour guide Daniel and Matelot Sam introduce themselves to my wife and I, load our luggage into one of the two mini-buses and we’re off. A comfortable journey chatting to two of our fellow guests, a friendly professional couple from Sydney. Sam points out landmarks on the route and answers any last minute questions we have, although to be honest the pre-cruise information sent out by European Waterways was very comprehensive.
We arrive in rural Burgundy and spot the elegant L’Impressionniste for the first time moored at Escommes. Forget the luggage that will soon be safely placed in our stateroom by the crew, we enjoy a lovely champagne reception to welcome us onboard and meet the rest of the crew, Chef Joss, Pilot James and our two lovely hostesses Erell and Carolyn. More champagne and snacks and a chance to get to know our remaining fellow guests, two couples from Canada and a couple from California although originally from the U.K., bringing the total guests onboard to just 10.We’re a friendly bunch, getting on really well and all looking forward to a week’s cruising, exploring Burgundy and tasting the wine! But now time to investigate our stateroom before dinner.
Staterooms & Suites
Down a wide stairway of 12 steps from the lounge and here you will find the sleeping accommodation. There are 4 staterooms and two junior suites. This is a barge so space is at a premium but the staterooms, ours was called Sisley and located mid stern, are spacious with comfortable double beds, (some have single configurations) wardrobe and drawer space, bedroom tables and an en-suite wc and bathroom with shower. Staterooms are traditionally decorated to a high standard with port holes (ours had 3), air-conditioning and heating.
L’Impressionniste is certainly stylish, accommodating up to 12 guests. The lounge and open plan dining area are extremely comfortable with glorious panoramic windows, ideal to watch the world go by when cruising. The lounge is furnished with leather sofas and a coffee table and there’s a fully stocked bar built from oak with a drinks cabinet and fridge. The elegant dining table seats all guests at one sitting and the selection of prints, fabrics and wall coverings are reminiscent of the era after which our barge was named.
Meanwhile, outside, there’s a large sun deck and a heated spa pool, which I can confirm is good fun having tried it several times with champagne in hand! There’s a large table for outside dining and plenty of seating. There’s no shortage of bicycles for every guest to use and we took advantage of them several times during the cruise disembarking at a lock, cycling along the towpath in the beautiful countryside to meet the barge a little further along. Yes we were cycling faster than the barge!
Complimentary Wi-Fi is offered which worked well considering we were in a lot of rural locations, and as I mentioned earlier there’s two barge vehicles for transfers and excursions – a 9 seater Mercedes Sprinter and a 7 seater Mercedes Vito, so plenty of transportation space. A small library, board games and CD player were also available for use and Daniel would happily download from the internet a choice of music on request.
Our onboard chef, Joss, worked tirelessly throughout the cruise preparing fabulous 3 course lunches and exquisite dinners. Before each meal he would pop out from the kitchen and in a relaxed and friendly manner outline the delicacies and regional specialties he had prepared. Dinner was always a gastronomic experience created by this very talented chef. Fine wines and a varied cheese board admirably served and described by Erell and Carolyn complemented each meal.
Wonderful food, good company, fine outstanding wines, lots of cheese and Joss’ sensational culinary creations – the perfect combination!
Cruising and Touring
Back to my Monday morning. It’s our first full day and we set sail after breakfast from the canal summit at Escommes, 1250 feet above sea level and cruise to Vandenesse-en-Auxois. What a beautiful morning cruise, a great start! After lunch it’s time for our afternoon excursion to nearby Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin and here we see the portrait gallery created by the disgraced courtier of King Louis XIV and stroll around the gardens enjoying views of the chateau and its moat. Back to the barge where canapés and cocktails await our return.
The following day I’m up bright and early for our cruise to Pont d’Ouche crossing the only canal bridge on the Burgundy canal. This is a perfect day for a walk along the towpath. After another splendid lunch we visit the medieval village, craft shops and castle of Chateauneuf-en-Auxois, once an outpost of the Duke of Burgundy.
By day 4, Wednesday, after a short morning cruise, we’re deep into the Burgundy wine region and our excursion today is to the famous vineyard owned by the Domain Bouchard Pere et Fils. European Waterways arranged for a wine expert to accompany us, which was an interesting insight into the production of the domaine’s Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines. An exclusive wine tasting session and tour of the cellars at the Chateau de Beaune is followed by a gastronomic lunch in the orangery and a couple of hours to explore on our own the delightfully French town of Beaune.
By Thursday we’re totally relaxed enjoying every moment of this barge cruise which today takes us to Gissey-sur-Ouche, again with plenty of opportunity to walk or cycle alongside. We cycle between two or three locks then head back onboard to relax on the sun deck with a glass of wine as we gently slide past sleepy villages and pretty lock houses. I make a mental note to ask Daniel how many locks we have now passed through but promptly forget as Carolyn’s busy topping up our glasses and bringing snacks. I estimate we’ve probably done about 20 or 30 locks and get back to watching the Burgundy world go by in the sunshine. After lunch we visit picturesque Clos de Vougeot, headquarters of the esteemed Chevaliers du Tastevin, who award a special prized label to the finest Cote d’Or vintages every year. On the way back to the barge there’s another private wine tasting, this time the fine Burgundy wines of Chateau Andre Ziltener, a family run winery built on the foundations of an old Cistercian abbey. There’s an opportunity to purchase many of the wines with shipping arranged to any destination in the world. That evening before dinner during one of his regular information updates Daniel announces we will be choosing our own lunch tomorrow in the produce market of Dijon. But for now its time for after dinner drinks and a soak in the spa pool.
Friday and Joss joins us for the first part of our walking tour of Dijon. Here we visit the market and everyone gets a chance to choose what he or she would like to eat for lunch. Joss returns to the barge loaded up whilst we continue with some excellent shopping time including exploring the many mustard shops and the impressive Notre-Dame de Dijon. Returning to our barge and its time for our Dijon market extravaganza lunch – quiche lorraine, prawns, mussels, radish, green salad, pate, cheese selections, raspberry gateau and pear and caramel alongside a fine Saint Romain white wine and a red Fleurie.
This afternoon we cruise to our final mooring at Fleurey-sur-Ouche and the splendid Captain’s farewell dinner onboard.
Barging through Burgundy was a fabulous experience and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. My wife and I considered this to be one of our best holidays, we loved every minute! The highly professional crew on L’Impressionniste worked together as a team providing guests with a friendly service and experience that I would describe as outstanding. Nothing was too much trouble, guests were treated like royalty!
European Waterways delivered a specialised and professional service from start to finish and we will remember this cruise for many years to come. A superb way to see some of Europe’s finest scenery, experience the history and local culture onboard one of the many luxury hotel barges in the fleet. European Waterways offer a lot of cruise itineraries covering France, Holland, Italy, the U.K., Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.
Thank you Daniel and your wonderful team for making this such a special holiday … here’s to next time!
European Waterways offer luxury hotel barging. Prices for a six night cruise aboard the hotel barge L’Impressionniste are from £3450 pp in a twin/double cabin, including all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers. Full barge charters are also available for families and groups.
Website: EuropeanWaterways.com | Tel: +44 (0) 1753 598555
Facebook: @european.waterways | Twitter: @europewaterways
YouTube: Here there are plenty of short videos featuring the barges and various itineraries – Youtube.com/user/EuropeanWaterways