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Barging Through Europe with Barge Lady Cruises

by Olivia Balsinger

The canals of Europe are the continent’s veins – snaking through remote, countryside areas where the river and surrounding nature reign. My first experience truly understanding this heavily unexplored part of a continent I call home was on a Barge Lady Cruise, aboard the dually luxurious and intimate Barge Rosa.

Like many travelers, I did my due diligence in researching the company before booking my trip. I learned that “The Barge Ladies” founded a special niche in barge cruising about 34 years ago. What I had initially presumed to be a small company actually has created memories for passengers on some 50 barges throughout 30 canals within eight different countries. The company’s owner, Ellen Sack, known as “The Barge Lady,” has employed both her daughters and a knowledgeable staff to introduce the world to barge cruising.

Stephanie, the company’s marketing maven and Ellen’s daughter, explained how her family became involved in such niche cruising. “In 1984, my mother, Ellen Sack, was a retail travel agent in Chicago. In her personal travels, she met a man who told her that he had taken a former cargo barge out of dry dock, was sailing it along the all-but-abandoned manmade canal system in France, and was basically serving wine to his friends while doing so,” said Sack. “He asked her if she thought she could help him introduce and sell the experience to the North American market, and, drawing on her personal Francophilia and professional connections, she said yes. She sold out his season for 1985 and one boat became two and two boats became 20 and as of 2019 Barge Lady Cruises represents 50 vessels and 75 itineraries!”

“Ellen is the Grande Dame of the barging industry; my sister currently runs the business on a day-to-day basis and I conceptualize, implement, and manage all things pertaining to marketing, promotions, and media. Ultimately, Ellen had a vision of prestige for the barging industry, [my sister] elevated the business into the well-oiled machine it is today, and I evangelize about why barge cruising is the best way to see Europe no one has heard of.”

What is a barge cruise?

While the prospect of seeing this Europe no one has heard of sounds enticing, I know know what you are thinking: What is a barge cruise exactly?

It is important to first understand that throughout Europe, there are an intricate series of antique waterways – canals and rivers – which were once utilized for transporting cargo. The barges, once pivotal in the transportation endeavors, have been refurbished into floating boutique hotels, offering top service, interesting sightseeing, and gourmet cuisine.

“Known as ‘barges’, this type of vessel carries only between two to 20 passengers,” explained Sack. “A dedicated, English-speaking crew accommodates guests both onboard and ashore; a private Chef crafts regional and seasonal cuisine; a Tour Guide coordinates onshore excursions; a Hostess performs daily tasks; and a Captain expertly pilots the barge from mooring to mooring. Leisurely in pace and intimate in ambiance, almost all barges gently cruise approximately 50 miles over the course of a week at the canal speed limit of four miles per hour. The scenery is glorious, varying between pastoral vineyards, rustic farmlands, and verdant foliage. These factors differentiate barge cruising from any other type of boating or sailing as the experience is more intimate and personalized in terms of cultural access, culinary excellence, and authentic connections.”

What Makes Barge Cruising Unique?

An entirely different experience than a gigantic cruising vessel or even a traditional river cruising ship, a barge cruise often holds between two and twenty passengers. This intimacy allows guests to not only bond with one another throughout meals and activities, but also necessitates impeccably attentive service.

Many novice cruisers confuse barge cruises with river cruises for obvious reasons – both advertise themselves as small boats that can snake through Europe’s rivers. So what is the difference? For one, barge cruising is often shorter – 6 days of sailing as opposed to the 7 to 21 nights of river cruises. While barge cruises sail down manmade canals and some rivers, river cruises exclusively stick to the latter. While barges only sail about 50 miles per day, river boats sail several hundreds of miles, often through multiple countries.

What is a typical day like onboard?

Before my voyage, I reached out to veteran barge cruise passengers for any pre-trip advice they could provide. One piece resonated above all else: “You will have the most delicious food at your fingertips the entire week. Eat lightly the week prior to boarding.” Both me and my stomach were thankful for such poignant advice because the sheer amount of cuisine offered to guests was unlike any prior trip I’d been on.

Most all Barge Lady Cruises have a culinary and wine focus, beginning in the morning when guests wake up to the smell of fresh pastries from local bakers wafting into their cabins. A spread of yogurts, cheeses, fruits and cereals is also available for breakfast, as the barge slowly cruises down the canals, at a speed of about four miles per hour. By cruising at a slower speed than most guests walk, the barge becomes less a ship and more a moving hotel. Unlike a typical cruise, passengers have the freedom to roam off of the boat, exploring the stunning nature of the area by foot or on bike. The complimentary bicycle program was my favorite aspect of the barging experience, as I could leave the group for few hours and feel as though I was solo adventuring in villages that were reminiscent of the fairytale books I read as a child.

I would hope to build an appetite biking or walking, as lunch would also be a decadent spread of salads, quiches, local cheeses and main meat centered dishes, with a red or white expertly paired. Once satiated, there would be time to relax and enjoy the passing scenery before an afternoon tour. The tours would showcase a mélange of the cuisine and culture in the region. For example, one day I toured the medieval town of Nerac and its imposing chateau, where our group treaded in the footsteps of King of France Henry IV and Queen Margo. We then stopped at the Lapeyrade Estate for a tasting of their small batch Armagnac, further tying the area to its food and drink.

Dinner with the barge is always a colorful, gourmet occasion, with local ingredients being the forefront of the four-course menu. There is local cheese aplenty and wine is poured generously by the staff, precisely paired with each course. As Stephanie explained, “Dietary accommodations are handled with French flair; vegetarian, gluten-free, Paleo – having a private Chef who shops at local produce markets and purchases baked goods from tiny boulangeries and spends all day prepping and cooking means an extraordinary gourmet experience no matter what the dietary restriction.”

The day ends as the stars begin to waltz across the sky, over the floating hotel. Stomachs full and feet tired, in mere hours the small of pastries will be wafting into passenger’s rooms, as a new day meandering the canals with Barge Lady Cruises begins.