La Renaissance Activities and Excursions
From: A Barge Cruise in France
You won't find casinos, art auctions, shuffleboard tournaments, and other traditional cruise activities on a canal barge. The emphasis is on relaxation and do-it-yourself pleasures, such as soaking in the hot tub, hopping on or off the barge at locks, and bicycling or walking along the towpath. You needn't worry about keeping up with the barge, which is likely to move more slowly than you do--especially when you factor in the time required to go through locks.
When you're feeling adventurous, you can try your hand at the wheel, with the pilot standing by to save you from embarrassment or disaster. (Steering the barge is less intimidating than you might think, as long as you aren't trying to parallel park. It takes a while for the rudder to respond to a turn of the wheel, and you'll be setting up for the next curve before you've gone through the one just ahead.)
If you're interested in cooking--or if you'd simply like to watch a professional at work--you can visit the chef in the well-equipped kitchen. Both of us were impressed by Sylvain's ability to multitask while answering questions about his culinary domain. (He went from trimming a genoise to slicing vegetables to preparing filet mignon de porc with an athlete's economy of movement.)
We were lucky with weather on our cruise, but when it's rainy or chilly, you can retreat to the saloon for a card game, board game, or book. Or you can borrow a DVD from the movie library and watch it on the flat-screen TV in your suite. (Satellite TV should be another option by the time you read this; the system wasn't quite ready for prime time during our cruise.)
Tours and shore excursions
Shore excursions are part of the barging experience. In some cases, you can just walk ashore and wander through a village with the captain or on your own; on other occasions, you'll be shuttled to a town or tourist attraction in the nine-passenger minibus that meets the barge at various locks and mooring sites.
On our cruise, touring highlights included the town of Montargis ("the Venice of the Gatinais"), the family-owned Château de la Bussière (which we toured with the contessa's young English-speaking grandchildren), the fortified hilltop village of Château-Landon (where we rode in a horse carriage and had lunch in a local restaurant), the royal palace of Fontainebleau (where Napoleon abdicated and went into exile), and Moret-sur-Loing (a busy, prosperous walled town on the Seine where we spent our final night on board).
The captain also drove us to the town of Briare, where a 662-meter aqueduct--designed by Gustave Eiffel--carries boats and canal barges high above the River Loire.
Hot-air balloon rides
Passengers can book optional hot-air balloon rides, which offer a bird's-eye view of the Burgundian and Loire landscape. (Nobody on our cruise went ballooning; everyone seemed satisfied with barging and the occasional morning or afternoon shore excursion.)
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