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Burgundy afloat: World of serenity cruising France's canals


It’s no surprise that cruising is an increasingly popular vacation option. It’s a great way of getting around from destination to destination without having to keep packing and unpacking. In effect, your hotel simply moves with you.

The downside for many is the ever-present fear of becoming sea sick – and in my case that nightmare always seems to strike on the evening of the captain’s cocktail dinner and party.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to sidestep such potential trauma. It’s simple: instead of going to sea, follow thousands of others and take to the delightful rivers and canals of Europe.

You could opt for renting a self-drive hire boat for a week on the water. They are easy to drive and negotiating the locks is part of the fun. Or you could choose to let someone else take care of even those simple matters by joining the passenger manifest on a hotel boat

If you like having lots of company, there are mega boats cruising the Rhine, Elbe, Danube, Rhône, Dnieper and other major rivers with as many as 250 passengers on-board but for something more intimate and exclusive – more luxurious too – I reached for the burgeoning European Waterways brochure (01753 598 555, gobarging.com).

I could have sailed home waters on the tranquil upper reaches of our own River Thames or ventured to Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy or Ireland.

Instead I trawled through the 20 enticing offerings in France, my eyes alighting on the Burgundy itinerary offered aboard the gracious La Belle Epoque – essentially a floating five-star all-inclusive luxury hotel but with the friendly ambience of a manor house and delivering an itinerary taking in some of France’s prettiest, most quintessential countryside – a place where languid days start with the cock crow and end with a final night-cap out on deck, beneath a canopy of stars,

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I took a cheap early morning flight to Paris then caught a TGV high-speed train south, eventually arriving at European Waterways’ Venarey les Laumes base comfortably in time for dinner.

As we approached the tow-path next morning, the brightly painted and flower adorned La Belle Epoque stood magnificently reflected in the mirror calm waters of the Canal du Bourgogne, the 18th Century engineering masterpiece that was to be my home for the next five days.

Built in 1930 as a barge to carry logs from Burgundy to Paris and Amsterdam, La Belle Epoque was transformed in 1995 into an exquisitely appointed floating hotel, its most recent re-fit having been completed just before the 2011 season.

It can accommodate up to 12 passengers in its spacious suites though, beside myself, on the cruise I took in one of the quiet months there were just two couples – one pair a retired Australian entrepreneur and his wife, the other couple American newlyweds on their honeymoon.

Our amiable French captain may have borne an uncanny visual resemblance to Simon Cowell but was all good grace and bonhomie, with a real passion for his job, his boat and his region. He led a delightful crew of five who were attentive to our every needs.

Besides an air-conditioned wood-panelled salon and dining area, there’s a sun deck, a sunken spa pool, 12 bikes and an always open inclusive bar featuring top class wines and spirits 24/7.

The chef is English but his fayre is a truly Burgundian melange of traditional dishes and inventive modern cuisine, using the freshest of local ingredients, carefully selected and purchased at colourful markets along the route.

The food is perfectly matched to expertly selected fine wines, many from vineyards along the way and served ad-lib along with appropriate explications and fascinating debate. And each meal included a sampling of local cheeses – Aisy Cendré, Bouton de Culotte, Epoisses and Ami de Chambertin included.

Also on board are books to read, CDs to listen to – Edith Piaff’s greatest hits seemed wonderfully apposite – and board games to play.

You aren’t trapped on board. It’s easy to go ashore at one of the locks and walk or cycle further along the canal or out into the surrounding countryside.

Each day there are optional excellently guided side trips in a comfortable mini-bus.

We took in the historic Abbaye de Fontenay UNESCO World Heritage Site, the weekly produce market in the picturesque mediaeval village of Noyers-sur-Serein, a Chablis wine tasting at the Bersan cellars in Saint Bris de Vineaux, an al fresco lunch in Chablis itself and a walk around delightful Flavigny sur Ozerain, which was the location for the hit movie ‘Chocolat’. There was also the option of a hot air balloon ride, soaring high above the lush Burgundian countryside.

A fare of around £2,500 per person for just five days might sound a lot but it was all-inclusive, the foods and wines were of the finest – with nothing skimped on – and we were truly pampered, waited on hand and foot, assuring what truly was a holiday of a lifetime.

Why should I boat in Burgundy?

Cruising the canals you enter a different world of serenity and gently passing seasons far removed from the daily grind. The only downside is that it ends all too soon.

Travel facts

  • An alternative to driving down is to fly or take the Eurostar train to Paris then catch the high-speed TGV train to Montbard, just 15 minutes drive from the Venarey base.
  • European Waterways also operates 19 other high-end luxury hotel barges on other canals and rivers across Europe.

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