I cut my nautical teeth on ocean cruises, followed by numerous river cruises on vessels carrying around 200 passengers. But for my last trip, I took my first barge cruise aboard one of CroisiEurope‘s four boats operating in France (24-passenger Jeanine, practically sharing my name), a lesser-known and smaller – in every sense – sector of the booming river cruise market.
I found some pleasant surprises as I floated through the canals and rivers of southern Burgundy past vineyards, green landscapes and small villages between Saint-Leger-sur-Dheune to Dijon on the vessel’s new ‘Emotional Journey’ itinerary. Here are some things to think about if you’re considering going small.
1. It’s impossible to miss the boat
We’ve all heard, or read, horror stories about passengers left stranded on dry land after they don’t make it back to port on time, their ship sailing off into the proverbial sunset. Nothing of the sort on Jeanine, which travels at a pedestrian 4 mph – an easy walking pace. It’s easy to hop off onto the bank, stretch your legs along the tow path and get back on, particularly on the stretch of the Canal du Centre between Chagny and Chalon-sur-Saone where there are 11 locks, some only ten minutes’ walk apart. Take one of Jeanine’s bikes and you can whizz ahead and cover as much mileage as you want, before waiting at a lock for the barge to catch up.
2. You can pack plenty into 130 feet
Jeanine is a fraction of the size of other river cruise ships, yet packs an amazing amount into 130 feet. I thought I might feel cramped, but there is plenty of room for everyone to spread out on the two-deck vessel, and it had everything you’d expect to find on other boats, including an al fresco lounging area at the bow (complete with a whirlpool), bar, sun deck and bicycles to ride along the bank.
Yes, my 97-square-feet cabin was compact in comparison with others. Space-saving features, though, included plenty of storage areas, a decent sized bathroom and shower and, cleverest of all, a TV that folds up into the ceiling.
3. A personal chef
There was just one chef on board who single-handedly prepared the three-course lunches and dinners for all 24 passengers (and did) the washing up without any extra help!) Although the barge has set menus, the chef was able to cater to special dietary requirements, a nice personal touch.
4. Maneuverability is easy
Like vessels on Europe’s larger rivers, Jeanine has to navigate narrow locks and low bridges. To handle them, the hydraulic bridge drops down to be completely flush with the sundeck (river vessels still leave room for the captain to see out and have fixed railings that fit beneath the bridges). It takes just 25 minutes for the captain and second mate to dismantle the ship’s railings – usually done at the beginning of the day – and lay them flat on the sundeck, which is then closed off until the boat clears the bridges. During this time, the captain steers Jeanine using a nifty hand-held device, akin to a computer game console (albeit far more technical!)
5. Barge on the outside, boutique hotel on the inside
Although barges have a very traditional look, appearances can be deceptive. Despite it’s old-style exterior, Jeanine boasts an unexpectedly contemporary and fun interior that was fully refurbished in 2013. Turquoise, pink and green cushions adorn white cow-skin sofas, the hand rails next to the stairs resemble a giant wine rack and ceiling lights run through an assorted color spectrum. The wood-decked dining room has clusters of round mirrors reflecting the wine theme, and circular colored lamps next to the tables add an Andy Warhol-style picture of the barge. The cabins are similarly light, bright and airy.
*Want to know more about barge cruises? Read our Canal Cruise Basics.