Most visitors to France make it to Paris and Versailles but little else. C'est très dommage... While the glamour and glitz of Paris is intoxicating, the "real" France can only be discovered outside of the cliché cities.
In the small, rural towns of France you'll find the world's best wines and cheeses and some of the richest cultural heritages in the world. You'll find cathedrals that rival Notre Dame in size... but instead of going elbow-to-elbow with a sea of tourists, you're likely to be one of the only visitors.
There's magic to be found in small-town France. And some insanely beautiful, Instagrammable moments to be had unlike ANY OTHER.
And the very best way to immerse yourself into the culinary culture of the French countryside?
A Barge Cruise!
Now, I hear you... "what the h*** is a barge cruise?".
"Am I cargo?"
Ha! You aren't alone. I had the same questions when I first heard about barge cruising. So let this blog post stand as proof: not only is barge cruising one of the most unique and immersive ways to "be a tourist", it's also one of the most value-driven vacations you could ever take, when you consider the cost in comparison to the uniqueness of the experiences.
So what really is a barge cruise?
Think of this as a luxury boutique hotel on water. Barges accomodate anywhere from 6 - 12 people depending on size, and travel down man-made canals at a whopping top-speed of 4 mph. And while that may not sound exciting, it was actually a brilliant way to travel. Because the barge moves so slowly, you NEVER experience sea sickness.
Such an improvement over my nauseating experiences on massive cruise ships...
But it's the gourmand moments that really make this a special experience. With a private chef on-board, you'll have the most incredible multi-coursed meals served right on ship. All sourced with local ingredients that (in most cases) aren't ever exported outside of France.
I honestly didn't know what to expect from my first barge cruise. But with the rising popularity of "slow travel" movements and river cruising, I was curious to try it, if only because it's such a different travel experience.
What I didn't expect was how much I would LOVE it.
I've said it before (see the interview video at the bottom of this post) and I'll say it again... these cruises start an addiction. They're a beautiful, far more authentic way to travel through the small-towns of Europe. The food is insanely delicious, the service unparalleled, and the excursions unforgettable.
But the best part is the glow... the glow your soul feels from having such a beautiful, real experience. There's nothing else I've done like it. And if you consider only one vacation this year... make it a barge cruise!
A Culinary Barge Cruise Through Burgundy France
When Sapna and I first were booking our trip through Barge Lady Cruises (I cannot recommend them enough!), they asked us dozens of questions about the type of trip we wanted to have. Luckily Sapna and I were on the same page: we wanted to see some amazing sites but we really wanted the focus of our trip to be on FOOD.
After assessing our answers, Barge Ladies came back recommending L'Art de Vivre. She travels down one of the most picturesque canals in the world through Burgundy, one of the most incredible culinary regions of France.
We were SOLD.
From the moment we stepped on our beautiful barge, we were smitten. L'Art de Vivre translates to "the art of living" and our barge couldn't have lived up more to that name.
L'Art de Vivre is one of the oldest in the European Waterways fleet but has been rehabbed with plenty of modern amenities like wifi, A/C, and massive modern bathrooms. We found the ship to be charming and comfortable. And incredibly photogenic (like all of the barges we saw on our canal).
The Rooms & Star System
When we were searching through barge cruises, I kept seeing "star ratings" for the barges.
And when Barge Ladies initially put us on L'Art de Vivre which is technically a THREE-STAR ship (barges are rated up to six stars), I had some questions.
But the star system doesn't have anything to do with the quality or cleanliness of your barge -- the star system only indicates the SIZE of the sleeping cabins.
So three-star barges has the smallest sleeping cabins and the six-star barges have the largest. Make sense?
But let me say, a three-star barge is a completely luxurious experience in itself. And I LOVED my cabin. It was small, to be sure. But the crew were incredible in helping us store and move our luggage if our rooms got a little cramped. And my en-suite bathroom almost doubled the size of my cabin... a perk I wasn't expecting but thoroughly enjoyed.
The Service & The Crew
One of the most incredible aspects of a barge cruise is the level of service on-board. The entire crew leapt up and ran around like crazy making sure we were comfortable and happy at all times. And they rarely let me walk around without a glass of wine or a cocktail in-hand (the mark of a truly exceptional staff).
From day one they learned each passenger's preferences. For example, if I'm drinking a lot (which I was... we were there to sample French wines, after all!), I love to have a large hot water with lemon before bed. I find it helps me sleep. So by the second night, our housekeeper was already leaving a mug of hot water and lemon next to my bed. How thoughtful was that?
But that's how these cruises are. Such impeccable attention to detail and care in the service. And such personalization. All delivered by some of the most incredible souls you'll meet. We truly became friends with each and every crew member on our barge and I hope to be reunited with them someday soon!
The Amenities & Extras
All excursions are included in the price of a barge cruise but generally the excursions are only half-day trips, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy the amenities on-board too.
From our whirlpool tub (which I was SO thankful for in the extreme heat) to the bicycles available for passengers, you can have a perfect mix of movement and leisure on a barge cruise.
Feel like getting a good workout in or exploring the French countryside solo? Take a bike ride along the canal tow path.
Feel like relaxing with some tea and a good book -- there are dozens of books to choose from in the barge library.
One of the nights our crew even arranged a beautiful on-deck concert with a three-piece band and cocktails.
One of the other benefits (though this isn't true of all barge cruises) was that we were chauffeured to-and-from Paris by the crew. It made the logistics of getting to Burgundy a breeze!
There's also always an open-bar on-board so you can help yourself to a cocktail whenever you wish. Or an Orangina if you love them like I do...
First and foremost, L'art de Vivre is a culinary cruise. You're traveling slowly through one of the richest culinary regions in the world -- it's an experience that MUST be savored.
Sapna and I specifically chose L'Art de Vivre because we wanted a trip centered around good food. What we weren't expecting was our barge chef Robert. Robert had spent many years cooking on massive cruise ships but wanted a simpler way of life which lead him to cooking on barges.
Not only did Robert produce some of the best dishes I've ever had in my life (and long-time blog readers KNOW how many dishes I've tried over the years), he actually morphed his menus and prepared favorite dishes for each of us.
It's not easy to find a chef that produces incredible dishes himself but who can also cook just about any nostalgic dish you ask for to perfection. He even whipped up an insanely delicious chana masala for Sapna after overhearing her say she'd been craving Indian food.
Again -- this is a level of service that is unparalleled. Each dish prepared with so much thought and love...
One of the best parts of a barge cruise is the excursions.
Think about it. You're traveling through small-town France. Many of the cities and towns you barge through aren't easily accessible by highway. They require a lot of confusing directions and subpar accommodations to visit. UNLESS you're on a barge.
We were able to have entire streets to ourselves as we walked through Auxerre. We saw pilgrims at Vézelay preparing for months-long journeys to Spain. We were able to walk through miles of vineyard in Chablis without seeing another human.
Yes these are "excursions" but they're also so much more than that. They're once-in-a-lifetime experiences. You just need to be open and ready for them!
Here are a few of my favorites:
A UNESCO world heritage town containing the famous Basilica of St Magdalene, one of the famous starting points for the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. The Basilica itself dominates this small town and is only just a few feet shorter in size than Notre Dame.
As usual, we had most of the basilica to ourselves and after we wandered through the town. While it's shockingly tourist-y given the number of pilgrims who come, there's also some great unique shopping here too.
And the town itself is just enchanting, being built on a large hill overlooking the burgundy countryside.
The celebrated wine village of Chablis may have been one of my favorite stops, loving this crisp white wine like I do.
We visited the prestigious Gand Cru vineyard of Domaine Laroche -- one of the oldest wineries in the region. It was incredible to learn about the grapes, the acidity and minerality of the soil (which gives Chablis it's distinctive character), and the many ways wine has been produced over the centuries. This region has been producing wine since the 11th century after all!
What a gem of a city! Auxerre is one of Burgundy's largest cities and hosts a lot of hidden secrets.
The town itself is incredibly picturesque -- the central clocktower is one of the most beautiful clocktowers I've ever seen, all gilded in gold.
And the Auxerre Cathedral took our breath away. Not only is this cathedral an incredible example of the power of stained glass windows to express emotion, but it happened to be one of the last places Joan of Arc prayed before her capture. So there are touching tributes to her all around.
Being a lover of quality over quantity, I always want the most out of my travel experiences. The MOST amazing culinary dishes. The MOST detailed care and service. The MOST amazing excursions and destinations -- extra points if they're to places I've never heard of!
They say travel is the only thing you can spend your money on that will make you richer. And I want the richest experiences possible when I travel.
But what I want above all else is SOUL. There are literally millions of ways to travel the world. And millions of companies to travel with. But few can compare to a barge cruise, especially one booked through Barge Ladies.
I had never heard of barge cruising before July and now it's the only way I want to travel. If you want to immerse yourself in "real" France, there's no better way.
(And here's a little interview I did with Barge Lady Cruises for CBS last month!)