How are river and canal cruises different? By definition, river ships cruise rivers, and barges cruise manmade canals just 35 to 40 feet wide. The primary difference in the vessels is, of course, size. A barge cruise, a much smaller vessel than a river ship, carries only a handful of passengers and can actually penetrate canals -- the most ancient of waterways in Europe, for instance, that are off-limits even to river ships. So, you visit even more off-the-beaten-track villages and small towns, whereas on a river cruise, you'll find more onboard features and call on bigger towns and major cities.
As for destinations, canal cruising is basically limited to Europe, and, more specifically, to only a handful of places. France is the most popular. Scotland is another great choice for a barge cruise. And you may find limited offerings in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
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Two companies dominate river barging in Europe and we've tried them out, finding both French Country Waterways and European Waterways (also, confusingly, known as Go Barging) to offer superb experiences, both onshore and off.
The sheer intimacy of a barge trip is intriguing and tantalizing, particularly for passengers wanting to experience parts of Europe that are even less accessible than those visited on river cruises. Imagine being one of six to 12 passengers, sailing on a boat that moves so slowly you can hop off with a bicycle in one village, have a nice lunch and a pleasant ride, and rejoin the ship a few stops down the canal.
Typically, companies buy old barges and then rebuild the living quarters, which are surprisingly beautiful. Inside, these luxury hotel barges offer all the comforts of home, and then some. (Do you have a private chef? You will on a barge.) Four-course candlelit dinners featuring fine local dishes, using local provisions and offering generous pourings of wine (and basically any drink that's available onboard) are part of the experience. Cabins can be more basic. (Few offer Wi-Fi, fridges or televisions, but I'll be honest -- we never missed them!) But they're still comfortable and pleasant.
Shore excursions are covered in the costs of the fares and can be quite personalized, depending on the cruise. If, for example, you and your family or friends have chartered the entire barge, you can dictate which excursions take place -- whether it is antique-shopping, visiting the grounds of a count's private estate or spending time with a really great chef.
English is the onboard language. It is interesting to note, too, that many of the people who crew on barges are native English-speakers from Britain, New Zealand and Australia.