France is a country crisscrossed by a labyrinth of rivers and canals. Centuries ago, they were the backbone of the nation’s economy as they undertook their important role in the transportation network. Today, they are the lynchpin of something far more enviable; the world of luxury travel, offering visitors a unique way to explore France. A European barge cruise is a magical way to see this part of the world, as we experienced first-hand on this Loire Valley cruise, showcasing the beautiful Upper Loire and Burgundy.
A Luxury Loire Valley Cruise
Slow Travel in Style
Life aboard a luxury barge is the ultimate nod to slow travel. Doing it in France on a barge like the Renaissance elevates it to another very special level. A Loire barge cruise promises medieval villages and a patchwork of agricultural land that pull your into their daily life, each day. Grape vines, corn and bright yellow sunflowers danced in the breeze under the powder blue sky. 10th-century churches, lockhouses and chateaux passed us by in a seemingly endless display of ancient beauty. As we cruised, ever so slowly, along the canals, stopping to pass through countless locks, it felt as though we’d travelled far.
Travelling on a barge cruise slows everything down. It removes any thoughts or actions of our usual busy lives and creates this beautiful, positive and mellow state of mind. We had nowhere else to be so it allows you to really live in the moment and take some time out.
In reality, the Renaissance only covers a little over 52 kilometres (32 miles), something you could drive in a heartbeat. It’s the best way of explaining the life on a canal cruise in France is not about how much you can see in a day but rather how much you can soak it all up and savour every moment.
The hardest questions you might be faced with aboard the Renaissance is what drink you would like or when you’d like to eat. It’s a tough life, but someone has to do it, right?
“I could quite easily just sit here all day watching the scenery go by”, one of the American guests on board says out loud. Their inner thoughts met with a murmur of agreement from all of us, as we lounged on the deck chairs in the French sunshine.
Completely pampered for seven days and six nights, the only negative about our time on board the Renaissance was that eventually, like all guests, we had to leave.
The Renaissance Luxury Hotel Barge
The Renaissance is the flagship hotel barge in the European Waterways fleet. Built in 1957, she was restored into a luxury barge in 1997. Her former life as a hardworking transportation vessel carrying cereals and grains is now a distant memory. These barges are engineering works of art and provide a fascinating insight into the history of boat building. They are designed specifically to navigate through the shallow and narrow canals. The lock system in France adds complexity by being built differently.
The Canal du Midi, where we cruised aboard the Savannah last year, for example, is smaller than the canals of central France. All barges are built to the size of the canals they will be working on. This became evident at the locks. Measuring nearly 39 metres long (128 feet) and 5.02 metres wide (16.4 feet), this is where our captain, Hadrien, showed off his skills. The locks on our canals were only 5.20 metres wide. With this 250 tonne beast under his control, Hadrien moved the Renaissance through the canals with only centimetres to spare. There’s no room for error and definitely no room to stick your head out to get a closer look.
For all of her heavy-duty exterior, the Renaissance becomes more delicate and sophisticated inside. With no gunnels running down the outside, all of the width of the barge is taken up with living areas and the sense of space is immediately tangible. The spaciousness of the communal areas both inside and outside provide the opportunity for guests to take some time out away from others. Or, they can take respite in the air-conditioned comfort of the saloon when the temperatures rise outside.
Where in France Does the Barge Cruise Go?
The barge holiday commences in Paris where all guests assemble at a predetermined meeting point, often a hotel. A private transfer then whisked us away to our starting village of Montargis, a two-hour drive south of Paris.
Depending on which week you travel, the cruise will either commence in Montargis or in Châtillon-sur-Loire and will either go up or down the canal. Wherever you start, the crew will be waiting to serve you that first wonderful glass of French champagne.
The Renaissance cruises two canals along the border of the Loire Valley and Burgundy (Bourgogne). Our cruise departed from Montargis and ended in Châtillon-sur-Loire, via Montbouy, Rogney-Sept-les-Écluses, La Gazonne and Briare.
Whilst we travelled along two canals, most of the week is spent on the Canal de Briare. This canal is approximately 45 kilometres (28 miles) and connects our starting town of Montargis with Briare. The final stretch on the Canal Latéral à la Loire takes us only 7.2 kilometres (4.2 miles) until the final destination at Châtillon-sur-Loire.
Highlights of the Week-Long Barge Cruise
- No Loire Valley cruise or visit to the Loire region would be complete without seeing at least one chateau. We were indeed spoilt, with visits to three chateaux. Without a doubt, the fanciest was Château de Fontainebleau, but of equal value were the privately owned Château de la Bussière and Château de Ratilly.
- A very special tour of the French Military horse stables at Fontainebleau, led by a working Colonel.
- A private tour of a vineyard and a very generous and inspired wine tasting in the Sancerre.
- Visiting the Gien pottery factory and store.
- Local market shopping with the chef.
- Mooring for the night near the historical Rogney-Sept-les-Ecluses locks.
- The grand finalẻ, cruising over the Briare Aqueduct made famous by Frenchman Gustav Eiffel.
You’ve boarded your luxury barge, full of excitement about the week that lays ahead. You’ve read the brochures, perhaps done a little online research and you’ve got a general idea of the types of activities you will be involved in. It’s the reason after all that you decided to book the Renaissance. Your week, in essence, has been set up perfectly. This is certainly true, and when you come aboard this barge, the aesthetics are instantly comforting. You know you’ve made the right choice. However, that’s only part of the prize. A barge can be as beautiful as she wants but without the hospitality, knowledge, personality and overall generosity of the crew, it’s simply that. Just a beautiful barge.
The crew makes (or breaks) the cruise, in our opinion. Thankfully, when you book the Renaissance, you are booking with a team of professionals. Down to earth, engaging and with plenty of stories to tell, they are the centre of the barge’s operations and the people who will create a week of magic for you. In the background, everything just gets done. You don’t see it happening, you aren’t necessarily aware of what’s going on, but each and every moment aboard the Renaissance is coordinated and executed to ensure maximum pleasure for the guests. They do everything so you don’t have to. This is what true luxury travel is all about. Whilst for some people, like us, having others waiting on your all the time can feel uncomfortable at first, others book these types of cruises expecting that level of service. They come on board to be pampered, well watered and fed, and to not have to worry about how to get from point A to point B. Absolutely everything is taken care of for you without question.
Hostesses Carla and Claire work together like old friends attending to your every need, even when you don’t think you have one. They are ever-present and yet simultaneously hidden. They provide guests with exceptional service, anticipating their every need, without ever feeling as though they are in your way. They will serve you tea at your required hour or put ice in your glass because they know you like it that way. For me, they’d pop a glass of bubbly in my hand just because they know I would appreciate one. They are the little fairies who leave chocolates on your pillow at night, remember that you like sparkling water over the still variety and stay up long after you’ve called it a night to make sure that everything is ready for your breakfast in the morning.
Matthew, one of the five crew on the Renaissance has truly found his calling and the guests are the grateful recipients. With a degree in transportation and logistics planning in his back pocket, Matthew now splits his time on the Renaissance between being a deckhand and tour guide. “I love spending seven months of the year in the middle of nowhere”, Matthew said to me during one of our chats. When cruising, he is the eyes and ears of the captain, who uses Matthew’s guidance to steer the barge through the tight locks. When it’s time for the guests to go on the daily excursion, Matthew’s greatest prowess comes to the fore. Matthew has a great love of history and loves to share his learnings onto the guests. Whether it be a famous (or not so famous) chateau, a tiny 10th-century church in a minuscule village, or a pottery factory, Matthew enchants everyone with his stories and his depth of knowledge.
The kitchen tucked away at the back of the barge is the fiefdom of Chef Hannah. Hannah, a British-born former hairdresser, told me that she “developed a passion for food and French cooking, so went to school in France and learned how to be a chef”. As each dish is served, Hannah comes to the table to explain exactly what it is that we are eating. We always used this opportunity to gain a little more insight into how Hannah had prepared the meal.
Finally, Hadrien, Parisian-born and now a resident of Lyon in the south of France, rounds out the crew as the captain and leader of the barge. Young and engaging, Hadrien has oversight of everything that occurs on board the Renaissance, ensuring the guests are happy and that everything is going to plan. He also has what might seem like an arduous task to many of keeping the Renaissance in the right part of the canal at all times. His “wheelhouse” sits at the back, a long way from the front of the barge. He navigates this large vessel via two mirrors, one on each side of him or by watching the hand signals of Matthew when moving through locks or mooring. On many occasions, the barge passes underneath low overhead bridges, requiring Hadrien to duck as he cruises under them. It only takes a little bit of time spent with Hadrien to realise what an amazing job he does.
Taking a Tour of the Renaissance
“Wow!” This was the first thing I said as I walked through the door of our cabin, feet sinking in the plush grey-blue carpet. I couldn’t believe the size of it. Expecting a cabin half this size, I swanned around in here all week, never tiring of the luxury of having this incredible amount of space around us. This is a key feature of the Renaissance, where complete consideration has been given to ensuring that all guests have spacious cabins as well as spacious living areas.
Four cabins accommodate a maximum of eight guests. The cabins, all named after the French writers Dumas, Moliere, Voltaire and Hugo, are located on the lower deck, accessible by internal stairs. The number of guests has been deliberately restricted to eight in order to be able to provide larger than average cabins. The strategy paid off as the feeling of space that a 235 square feet (almost 21.5 square metres) cabin provides most definitely enhanced our time onboard, and the other guests regularly mentioned this. All cabins have a head height of approximately 6”6’. In fact, one of them mentioned that their last cruise, aboard a much larger ship, had a cabin so small they needed to take turns getting out of bed. There was simply no room for both to be up at once.
Two of the four cabins are also slightly larger at 265 square feet (24.5 square metres). Moliere and Voltaire, located at both ends of the cabins, extend from one side of the barge to the other, providing access to views via the portholes on both sides. This is slightly different to the two centre cabins, which only extend as far as the internal stairs on one side, meaning there are only natural light portholes on one side.
A king size bed, beautifully decorated with soft cushions, pillows and soft pastel linen sets the scene as soon as you walk through the door. Bedside tables and overhead lamps add to the amenity of this very comfortable and warm space.
Storage is also a strong feature in these cabins, with a large chest of drawers in the bedroom and generous storage accessed via a cupboard under the internal stairs. Inside is a large open-shelf unit, rail for hanging clothes and an area to store suitcases.
A full-size shower with awesome water pressure and plentiful hot water kept us very happy. Toiletries from French company L’Occitane en Provence are provided, with a continual supply of shampoo, conditioner and shower gel accessible via refillable pump packs on the wall.
A heated towel rail keeps the soft, white towels dry and fluffy too. Two four-drawer wicker units allow for all of your toiletries to be stored out-of-the-way and there’s also a hairdryer provided also.
All cabins include a television/DVD player, a safe (which is a fabulous idea) and are fully air-conditioned. Servicing is carried out on a daily basis with the hostesses checking in on the cabins several times a day to keep everything in your room looking exactly as it did on arrival.
As much as we loved our private hideaway downstairs, the upstairs deck was where all the action was, and unsurprisingly, where we spent most of our time.
As the Renaissance made her way along the canal, we divided our time between the outside area and the indoor saloon. Both were equally wonderful and offered the chance to mix up the cruise. They also offer an opportunity for guests to spread out, read a little, listen to music, chat or drink at the bar.
It was on the vibrant red leather lounges that we took a few minutes every day to glance at the New York Times or other magazines the crew provided or to read one of the many books found onboard.
At the bar, we perched on high bar stools, watching hostess Claire design incredible cocktails for us or Carla pour us yet another glass of France’s best sparkling. It was here that we engaged in lively conversations with both of them about their love of working on barges and their highly flexible and exciting travel lifestyles. Both from the south of England, they spend 26 weeks a year working on barges, dedicating their days to providing outstanding service for all of their guests.
The open bar provides 24/7 access to guests, tempting everyone with the finest of whiskies, vodka, gin and rum along with a vast range of liqueurs for the afternoon aperitif. We officially drank our way through about 20 wine labels over lunch and dinner, sampling some amazing local whites, reds and roses.
In the evening, we all joined together for dinner, seated around the indoor dining table, and ate and drank late into the night.
With plenty of large, clear windows, the best part of the saloon was that we could always see outside. With long summer twilights, the sun continued to provide light until at least 10.30pm meaning we could enjoy seeing life on the canal whether we were inside or out.
The Outside Deck
Under the protection of a permanent roof, we sat around the large stone topped table, usually with some kind of drink in our hand and often eating, contemplating the fortuitous situation we all found ourselves in. The French weather had turned on a treat for us and it was wonderful to sit outside and soak it all up.
The roof is an important feature and its value shouldn’t be underestimated. Whilst for us it kept us constantly protected from the sun, in times of poor weather, it will also ensure that your days or nights can still be enjoyed outside, instead of being confined to the indoors, as beautiful as they may be. It’s all about having options.
Several deck chairs occupy the upper deck and two smaller padded seats are nestled into the corner of each side of the barge.
The luxury doesn’t stop on the outside with a hot tub located at the bow. The thought of lying back with a glass of French bubbly in my hand whilst cruising had me super excited! It’s teasingly decadent but who am I to argue?
Approaching the locks were always a source of interest. Having seen how they operate on both barge trips, I still remain fascinated by the process and the art of manoeuvring them.
Unlike the Canal du Midi, where there were rental boats passing us constantly, here it was far quieter. When we did see another boat, however, especially a large barge, it provided us more entertainment as we watched how the captains moved the vessels to ensure they could pass side by side in the canal. No mean feat that’s for sure.
Services on Board
All cabins are fitted with sufficient power outlets running 220/240 volts, to be able to charge any of your equipment with ease. There are also several outlets in the common areas of the saloon. They are the standard European two pin plug so remember to bring your adapters if necessary.
Free wifi is available on board subject to local conditions. Cruising along the canals can put you into some rural areas where the 3G/4G network sometimes doesn’t exist.
If having a regular connection is important, consider adding international data to your own plan or hire a mobile hotspot device to use. We had one of these and found it useful to not be sharing the public wifi with everyone else.
The Food and Wine
A constant chorus of “lunch/dinner is now served” seemed to permeate the air on an all too regular occasion. Indulging and experimenting with fantastic food is a significant part of this voyage and you will never find yourself wanting to snack in between meals. The quantity and quality of the food are exceptional. From smooth vanilla pannacotta to rich double chocolate tarts, soft, tender veal cooked sous-vide style to the most magnificent of Charolais beef, it was a veritable feast of French food.
Our days started with breakfast buffets and hot dishes cooked to order. Lunch buffets cooked with food fresh from the local markets were featured. Formal four-course lunch and dinners saw us combine slow food, slow eating with slow travel.
We lingered, and lingered some more over each meal. Mostly, we found ourselves sitting at the dining table for hours. Conversation flowed between all guests, and We savoured the flavours, washing it all down with a carefully selected local wine. There’s no need to hurry when you are on a trip of this nature.
All food is sourced from carefully selected local vendors, some of which we were able to meet at a local market when Chef Hannah took us to buy the produce for our lunch. Great care goes into providing seasonal produce, and as you would expect, the menu is heavily French inspired.
We loved being able to go out into Hannah’s kitchen to chat to her about the food she was preparing, adding to our knowledge base a little more each time. There’s definitely a few dishes that we will attempt to make in our own kitchen.
Being on a barge doesn’t mean you stay on the barge. The daily activities add diversity to the cruise and are perhaps one of the aspects that many people who have not barged before don’t realise.
Many of the uninitiated that I have spoken to always offer up two comments usually. The first is that barge cruises are for the older tourist and secondly that it must get incredibly boring sitting around on a barge all day. Our experience having now been on two barge cruises couldn’t be further from the truth. Barging is well set up for people of all ages, especially if a group of like-minded people book a charter.
If I am to be totally honest, I will admit that as the week wore on, we were so busy and always on the go that I could have easily swapped out a day of activities for just relaxing on the upper deck. I could have done this of course as all activities are totally voluntary and you can tag out at any time. However, I also have a fear of missing out, so there was no way I wasn’t going to head out with Matthew to explore something new.
Over the course of the week, we visited three chateaux, a vineyard, churches, chocolate shops, local markets, military stables and a famous pottery factory. An air-conditioned vehicle transports us to and from these visits.
Even when you are on the barge, you can hop off at any of the locks and explore a local village, or simply walk along the towpath. Bicycles are also provided for this purpose. Getting back on is simply a matter of agreeing on the relevant lock with the captain and hopping back on.
A Barge Holiday is a Total Package
Booking a barge cruise on the Renaissance is fully inclusive of the following:
- Private transfer to and from the commencement point from Paris.
- All food and beverages on board provided 24/7. The only exception here is personal requests for some vintage wines and/or champagnes which may be arranged prior for a specific charter.
- All daily excursions that are part of the general itinerary, including private transfers.
- Use of bicycles.
The only other exceptions include events that you might wish to be involved in outside of the general itinerary eg hot air balloon rides.
Tips are also not included. However, this is purely at the guest’s discretion.
Book the Holiday of a Lifetime
A holiday on the Renaissance is a total sensory experience. Our eyes enjoy the beauty of the barge and all that she cruises in and around. The French countryside, especially that through the Upper Loire region offers up the timeless beauty of architecture, rolling green vineyards and country villages over and over again.
Our sense of fun, learning and enlightenment is married with the incredible places we visit and the experiences we undertake. We can’t help but live through the sights, tastes and smells of the incredible French food and wine that is integral to this journey.
All of these images, and so many more are forever etched into the minds of all of those onboard. Whether this is a once in a lifetime dream holiday or the continuation of a barge holiday passion, be sure to keep the Renaissance in mind.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of the Renaissance, European Waterways and Barge Lady Cruises for this cruise. The opinions, words and images are authentically our own.
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Kerri McConnel is the owner of travel blog Beer and Croissants.
A world away from the frantic corporate life she once lead, Kerri now chases her travel dreams with her husband.
Often in a motorhome, they love seeking out unique travel experiences that always include great food and wine.