FLEURY-SUR-OUCHE, France – The morning mist rises slowly from the canal as L’Impressionniste glides almost silently through the water. A grey heron watching for its breakfast fish takes off from the edge of the canal as the hotel barge approaches.
Depending on your temperament (and how late you were up the night before), you might be still asleep, or looking out your cabin window, or sitting on deck with a morning cuppa, or riding a mountain bike along the towpath as the rising sun flickers through the trees along the shore.
You and 10 or 11 others are getting to know a way of life here in France’s Burgundy region in perhaps the most relaxed way possible – that is unless you are powering along on that mountain bike before breakfast and after dinner every day to work off the three gourmet meals, featuring 18 different regional cheeses and 21 different fine French wines (plus an open bar) served during the week-long cruise.
It’s such an amazing feeling to have this experience on so many levels: educational as you learn about the people of this area – their lifestyle, their history; self-indulgent as the crew of six anticipate practically your every need and want; scenic as you get up close and personal with the birds, fish and mating frogs (more on those later); above all, gastronomical as you feast on the specialties of the surrounding countryside.
So come along on what for me has been a particularly memorable travel adventure, something for almost everybody’s bucket list – and remember to bring your appetite.
Our adventure starts in Paris, where the 11 of us meet for the three-hour drive south to le canal Bourgogne (the Burgundy Canal). Lively laughter soon dispels any concerns about whether we’ll get along: six women who are either related or good friends plus two couples, all from the U.S., and I.
The cruise begins at the tiny village of Escommes, the high point of the canal 378 metres/1,250 feet above sea level. And there she is, tied up at the side of a pond, the lady herself: our home for the next six nights.
She’s a 38 metres (126 feet) by five metres (16.5 feet) hotel barge with six cabins, all with ensuite bathrooms, and a crew of six to look after the maximum 12 passengers. There’s a Jacuzzi up front, open and covered deck areas for sitting outside or doing yoga, and a dining room inside. Also on deck are the mountain bikes.
Dinner the first night sets the bar high: After a champagne reception with nibbles and then cocktails, we dine on asparagus with quail’s eggs and homemade mayonnaise; duck with puy lentils (the green variety from this area), cherry and cassis sauce; two cheeses – Langres, Morbier; mousse au chocolat.
How impressive to see all of this is prepared by chef Josh in a tiny galley with only two burners and a home-size oven.
The 33 glasses on the table are never empty: bottled still or sparkling water, Condieu white wine and a 2002 Moulin a Vent red. Plus three or four varieties of bread with that amazing salted French butter. And tea/coffee.
After dinner I really do need to jump on one of those bikes to burn off at least a little of all that food and wine.
I ride around the lake as the sun goes down, past locals who sit in folding chairs with fishing rods angled out over the water, past a lone white swan and some ducks, past a horse grazing in a field. Together with the evening bird sounds and sweet grass fragrance, they all combine to create such a tranquil and relaxed feeling that after my ride sleep comes quickly.
I’m up early the next morning for another spin – this time on the towpath which runs along the canal, to check out the first of 42 locks we’ll be navigating. I venture off the towpath toward a local village – but beat a hasty retreat when I run into a McDonald’s under construction.
I pick some mock orange blossoms and long grass for the breakfast table and return to the barge just in time to accompany Captain Rudy on the first of his daily forays to a local bakery to collect a variety of baguettes, croissants, brioche and sweet rolls.
Add cereals, fresh fruit, any kind of cooked breakfast – and several others decide to step ashore at the next lock to walk along the towpath, quickly getting far ahead of our barge which rarely reaches 4kph (2.5mph) and frequently stops at yet another lock to be lowered to the canal’s next level down. The canal even crosses a bridge over a river.
After a “light” lunch on board (chicken, ham terrine, a quinoa-like salad, broccoli, green salad, beetroot salad, cheeses, wines) we head off to visit the Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, with all its portraits including those of various historic notables’ mistresses. We wander through the rose garden, and follow the twisting path of a labyrinth created from shoulder-high bushes.
This evening I am impressed by the 1999 Louis Jadot Les Bertins Pommard Premier Cru Cote de Beaune Burgundy we are served – costing at least $100 a bottle in a store, perhaps $200 in a restaurant. Of course, here on L’Impressionniste you can have as many refills as you want.
I definitely need another bike ride after this dinner, feeling the warm and cool air spots as the late summer dusk approaches around 10pm.
Day Three and the locks come every few hundred metres/yards on this stretch of the canal. Almost all are manual, some operated by the people who live in the lock houses, others by attendants who control several locks, riding from one to the next on a bike or scooter.
This afternoon we visit Beaune, with its famous Hotel-Dieu – founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin who had been a bad boy and wanted to redeem himself by providing a hostel-hospital for the indigent. (Impressively it stayed open until 1971.)
Then back we go to the world of wine, for which the Burgundy area is so famous, with a visit to the Bouchard Pere et Fils cellars. Some 2.5 million bottles are stored here at a constant 13 degrees, including 2,000 bottles from the 19th century – the oldest: six whites bottled in 1846.
“We use these very old wines for research purposes,” says Laura Muller, our guide.
That evening we are serenaded by very vocal frogs apparently having a marvellous mating session – sounding out both high and low notes. I go ashore for a walk, record the “music” on my iPhone and spot a green frog sitting on a leaf at the water’s edge.
The days pass with more visits to local landmarks, more peaceful times on deck, more walks and bike rides, more food and wine.
“You know you have been drinking a lot of fancy wine when you start swirling your glass of water,” says fellow barger Joe, adding: “You also know you are on a luxury trip when you wash off fruit with a bottle of Evian water!”
Indeed, there are the special touches: A Lindt chocolate on your pillow after turndown service before bed, a designer Kleenex box, l’Occitane amenities in your bathroom. And caring guest support: “Let me wheel the bike off the barge for you – the gangplank is a bit slippery,” says deckhand Mark.
We start our final day with a visit to the food market in Dijon, where Captain Rudy and tour guide Brendan buy the groceries for the upcoming week.
“Let’s all meet at 11am – we have a special surprise,” says Rudy. It turns out to be…more food and wine, this time sitting outside a local café-bar: oysters, smoked salmon, prawns, sea snails, bread, cheese, cherry tomatoes, ham-veg in aspic, Aligote wine. Back on the barge and we – our stomachs – are relieved to hear lunch has been delayed until 2pm. Which means the Captain’s Farewell Dinner (five courses including three cheeses) has also been put back, and runs until midnight.
We drive to Paris the following morning, already missing the unique experiences and feelings of a hotel barge canal cruise in the French countryside but grateful for the good weather (generally only one week in five has sunshine every day).
On this last day, our group exchanges email addresses and for months to come will share with each other our memories of everything we enjoyed on this luxury escape.
it's worth paying a little extra for either the bow or stern junior suite - just that much extra room so you don't feel cramped.