Picture yourself floating gently along Europe’s winding waterways, dining every night on fresh local foods and spending your days exploring hidden nooks of France, Germany, and Belgium.
That’s the experience of canal barging—a very specific type of European cruise that has gained a very loyal following of sophisticated travelers, but which is still unknown to many.
That might be because the word “barge” isn’t very enticing—it doesn’t exactly conjure up the charm and luxury that these trips really offer. A better name for the experience would be “canal yachting,” says Ellen Sack, our Trusted Travel Expert for this kind of vacation, who’s been working in this unique part of the travel industry for 30 years.
But whatever you call it, this kind of vacation is something special—a way to see beautiful European countryside from the water without the drawbacks of a cruise. Even if you’ve been to Europe many times, or taken a river cruise, canal barging is a new experience.
What exactly is canal barging?
Canal barging is a type of cruise that takes place on very small boats that wind through Europe’s manmade canals, some of which were built as far back as the 16th century, when cargo barges used them to ship freight around the region. Now that trucks, trains, and planes have taken over that job, the canals are used as sightseeing routes for small boats that are still called barges, even though they’re more like intimate floating hotels. As opposed to their predecessors, these come with all the high-end amenities: private chefs, private tour guides, and a captain who is often the owner of the vessel and an expert on the region. Days are filled with activities that enable you to delve into the rural areas’ artisan culture and laid-back lifestyle. On one day you might find yourself bicycling through fields, shopping at local markets, wine tasting at vineyards, or getting a behind-the-scenes tour of a chateau.
Canal barge vacations are similar to other cruises in that they have start and end dates and follow set itineraries. But since groups are very small—Ellen Sack’s company, Barge Lady Cruises, offers boats that carry 12 people or less, and none carry more than 24—guests have access to a lot of privately guided experiences. And if you don’t feel like sharing the boat, you don’t have to: A multigenerational family can book an entire barge to themselves, whereas if you’re a couple who’s feeling social, you can join a mixed boat.
Either way, the groups are always very small—not like a bus tour or cruise ship excursion. “It’s intimate, very authentic, very slow,” she explains. “You see the rural countryside from the water and get into a world that a traveler wouldn’t get into ordinarily. It’s really a lot more interesting than the name of the industry would imply.”
Where can you do it?
France is the main destination, and Sack has most of her boats there. But she also offers cruises in Holland and Belgium, Italy, Ireland, England, Scotland and Germany.
How does it differ from river cruises?
“The small size differs from every other cruise on the planet,” Sack explains. “It’s often confused with river cruising because both are on waterways of Europe, but our boats are much smaller, they go on canals and really small waterways.” And, she adds, barging is much much slower. “We go about 50 miles per week. You could walk faster. Whereas river cruises are larger—100 to 200 people—and they travel several hundred miles per week.”
The upshot is that barging will take you deep into a country’s rural areas, which are not accessible to river cruises (or big-ship ocean cruises either).
However, if you’re looking for a lot of nightlife, shopping, a more formal atmosphere, and city excitement, then canal barging is not for you. “It really is deep countryside and it is laid back.”
The other important thing to understand about barging is that it is not a customized trip. Itineraries are set, and have been crafted by Sack and her team based on more than three decades of experience and contacts in the area. “On all of our boats, whether it’s a family trip or anything else, we have strong programming,” Sack explains. “It’s not for people who prefer to wander around by themselves. Barging is for people who want everything taken care of, who want to eat gourmet food, who want to see sights with a private guide. If someone tells me that they want to spend ten hours wandering around village X, then barging is not for them.”
How to decide if canal barging is right for you:
Barging is for a certain kind of traveler.
•You like slow travel. Barging isn’t for travelers who want to hit a lot of countries and destinations in one trip. It’s for travelers who want to immerse themselves in an area and see parts of Europe they haven’t had access to before.
•You like good food. Barges have their own private chefs and usually include the chance to shop with the chef at a market.
•You like private, special-access experiences. Barge cruises stick to set itineraries, but the quality of the itinerary very much depends on the experience of the company you book with — which is why we recommend Sack’s company. She has great connections in Europe and is able to arrange for special experiences, like mustard tasting with artisans in Burgundy.
•You don’t care about dressing up. As Sack tells it, most of her travelers are comfortable in the informal setting of a barge. They aren’t looking to get dolled up and hit the town, and they don’t mind that they’re going to kick back for a week.
•You’re not looking for a custom-tailored trip. Barge cruises are turn-key—that is the point. They provide a luxury experience that is all laid out for you, so that you know exactly what you’re getting and don’t have to think about anything. And the best part: It’s all pre-paid. Every single meal, drink, activity, and guide (except for gratuities) is covered in your initial cost. “We call it a house party,” Sack says. “We want to treat you like you’ve joined a house party and everything is prepaid. You will never put your hand in your pocket.”
When to do it:
Since barge cruises travel where most tourists don’t—and offer private tours and experiences—anytime is a good time to go, even during the usual height of Europe’s tourist season.
In general, the barge season runs from April 15 to November 1 and is most popular in June and September. Mid-April through the first two weeks of May are what’s known as value season, where some boats offer 10 to 25 percent off their main season rates. But every boat differs; some might have their value season in August, and some don’t have a value season at all.
But Sack stresses that it’s the boat that makes the trip—not the date. “The weather doesn’t differ drastically, so there’s not a better or worse time to go. It’s more about finding the right boat for you.”
And finding the right boat for you is what Sack does best. Contact her through WendyPerrin.com to be identified as a Wendy Perrin VIP traveler (which means that Wendy will be in the wings offering advice and making sure your entire travel-planning experience is a positive one), and then talk to her about what you want in your vacation. Sack knows her boats, their routes, and their owner-operators extremely well and can tell you whatever you need to know. You can also peruse her Barge Lady Cruises website, which is packed with a ton of info. You’ll find pictures and blueprints of every boat, sample menus and photos of meals, a full itinerary, photos of the crew and past guests in action, and reviews from previous travelers on each specific vessel.