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Serene Sailing on Barge Cruises

Small-scale vessels help capture the tranquil beauty
of waterways in Europe and the British Isles

By Lucy Spicer

Vacations Magazine: Serene Sailing on Barge Cruises
European Waterways
Oceangoing cruise ships are known for their impressive size and seemingly endless amenities, but the experience could prove overwhelming for the low-key vacationer. River cruises cater to smaller groups and travel at a more relaxed pace than their seafaring counterparts, but even the average riverboat sets sail with more than 100 passengers.

So what vacation style suits the crowd-averse?

Consider barge cruising. Like riverboats, barges float down rivers and canals, but these compact vessels carry a very limited number of passengers -- some as few as six -- and foster a relaxing and intimate onboard environment. After all, it's much easier to make friends when the entire passenger list could fit around one table at dinnertime. Small crafts also afford the opportunity for a family or group of friends to occupy an entire boat, turning the voyage into a private affair.

In addition to their modest size, barges also travel at a slower pace than other riverboats, so a weeklong journey on a barge could cover significantly less territory than seven days aboard a larger vessel. However, this doesn't mean there's any shortage of excursions, tours and activities in store for barge cruisers.

Similarly, the condensed space on board doesn't necessitate a sacrifice in comfort or luxury, although some grandiose features like ballrooms and theaters available on oceangoing ships obviously are absent here. Barge passengers are guaranteed an outside cabin with a window, and internet access and en suite bathrooms are the norm. A lounge, sundeck and on-site gourmet chef handling meal prep encourage no-pressure socializing in an all-inclusive atmosphere.

The number of companies that offer barge cruising is small, and some ships are shared by different brands, including a handful used by tour operators Abercrombie & Kent and European Waterways. Read on to discover itineraries that showcase the unique charm these vessels lend to canals and rivers in Europe. For help booking your leisurely barge cruise, contact the
travel specialists at Vacations To Go.

CroisiEurope specializes in small vessels, including a fleet exclusive to French canals. One of these is the Jeanine, a two-deck, 24-passenger barge that underwent extensive renovations in 2013. Adorned with funky, colorful decor, the cabins and common areas in this ship provide a high-energy contrast to the serene scenery of the French countryside.

Experience both on the seven-day "The Petite Saone & the Burgundy Canal" which begins and ends in Dijon in eastern France. This journey sails past the Route des Grands Crus, ensuring that tasting excursions are on the menu. Other perks of this CroisiEurope voyage include a complimentary tablet computer and Wi-Fi for guest use (presumably so you can stoke the envy of friends and family with updates about your vacation) and bicycles on board, which can be borrowed for scenic rides along the peaceful banks of the canals. This sailing departs on Aug. 4, with prices starting at $2,658.

Escorted tour provider G Adventures uses CroisiEurope's 12-cabin Daniele barge for four of its National Geographic-affiliated trips in the Burgundy region of France. All itineraries spend six nights on the Daniele and, depending on the length of your vacation, three to 10 nights in a hotel.

These itineraries begin in Dijon and end in Paris, combining the tranquil experience of floating along the Saone River with the excitement that accompanies a stay in the City of Light. Wine tastings, a tour of a charitable hospital founded in 1443, a bicycle outing to the charming village of Gevrey-Chambertin and other low-key activities fill the cruising schedule.

Plenty of free time in the country's capital lets you prioritize your own sightseeing, and 17-day itineraries also include excursions to see Monet's famous gardens and the sometimes-isle of Mont-Saint-Michel (depending on the tides). The 17-day trips, "Explore Normandy & Burgundy" and "Burgundy & Normandy Highlights" begin at $4,284, and the 10-day journeys, "Quintessential Burgundy" and "Burgundy by River Barge" are priced from $2,584.

If anyone should know barge cruising, it's European Waterways. Its barge fleet comprises 18 vessels, including a few that have been sailing for more than 50 years (though they've been meticulously refurbished). With a capacity ranging from six to 20 passengers, these vessels are small, but they retain comforts found on larger ships. Most have a pool on the sundeck and bicycles available for guest use.

These boats venture across Europe, from Italy to Belgium to the United Kingdom and more. European Waterways offers a bevy of seven-day trips with weekly departures, including "A Classic Cruise in Italy" a float down the Po River and across the Venetian lagoon on the 20-passenger La Bella Vita. Guided city tours of Mantua, Ferrara and Venice bring history to life, and a dinner at a 17th-century villa where a visiting Lord Byron wrote some of his most famous verses helps capture the magic of this region. Onboard meals showcase local specialties, including polenta, risotto and fresh seafood. Sailings are available through October from $3,890.

Another weeklong European Waterways cruise that will appeal to history buffs is " A Classic Cruise in Ireland." The aptly named Shannon Princess drifts leisurely down the River Shannon, the longest river in Ireland. Though it has just five suites on board, this vessel is the largest barge ship to cruise along these emerald shores.

Highlights of the journey include stops at four castles (one of which, Leap Castle, purportedly is the most haunted castle on the island). Immerse yourself in Irish culture throughout the week with live music in Shannonbridge, a traditional pub lunch in Galway and a hand-weaving demonstration in Killaloe. Prices start at $5,050 for departures through October.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Summer 2017. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 510-4002 for current rates and details.

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