When I told my friends I was taking a France barge cruise this summer, they were confused because they never heard of such a thing. It isn’t surprising. Despite being around for 40 years, hotel barge cruising is still an under-the-radar category. I’d only heard about it during a podcast interview, where the guest quickly sold me on “good food” and “relaxation.”
I’m always happy to try a new style of adventurous or luxurious travel, especially when it involves great food and wine (remember my sailing on the Maine Windjammer?), so I was happy to extend my European summer vacation to include a Burgundy canal cruise aboard the Hotel Barge Elisabeth.
On my first day onboard, I sunk into the comfy couch cushions on deck and felt my shoulders relax as we glided by fields of sunflowers and I thought to myself, “I get it now.” A France barge cruise is all about slowing down and appreciating the little moments, while not having to worry about a thing.
You have a fantastic chef to whip up incredible meals, a hostess to ply you with drinks and clean up after you, a private tour guide to help you discover the charming towns and historical sites nearby, and an experienced captain and deckhand to navigate the locks, manage your journey, and talk to you about life on the canal.
I thought I’d spend my time on board reading or catching up on work, but my book sat abandoned on the coffee table and my computer barely made its way out of my cabin. Because on board the Elisabeth, the experience is about the journey and the luxury is the relaxation that comes with slow travel along the canal.
What is a France Barge Cruise?
For centuries, Europe’s extensive canal network was used to transport goods via barges. In the late 20th century, rail and road transportation replaced barges and some innovative entrepreneurs started using these classic barges to transport tourists instead and the hotel barge travel industry was born. While the Canal du Midi, in Southern France, is most well-known as a France barge cruise destination, barge cruising is popular across many French canals, including Southern Burgundy, and in many other countries throughout Europe including England, Scotland, Ireland, The Netherlands, and Italy.
Some hotel barges are corporate-owned, such as the luxurious barges operated by hotelier Belmond. Others are owned and operated by barge cruise companies such as European Waterways and French Country Waterways. There are barges available for individual rental along the canals of France and then there are the independently-owned and operated hotel barges such as the Hotel Barge Elisabeth, which operates a Burgundy barge cruise.
Hotel barges are not like larger river cruises and they operate on canals versus rivers. They typically have three to ten cabins, accommodating two to twenty people through either private charters or individual cabin bookings. Hotel barges also offer a very high crew-to-passenger ratio, with a Captain/Pilot, onboard chef, tour guide, host/hostess(es), and a deckhand.
The amenities onboard hotel barges can vary, with some offering a hot tub or swimming pool on the sun deck, and the size of the cabins can range from approximately 100 square feet to 250 square feet. These differences are what can set barges apart from your classic cruise to your luxury barge cruise, with a price point to match.
An inclusive barge cruise includes gourmet cuisine, wine and open bar, and pre-planned private excursions, along with your accommodations on board. Barge vacations are typically five-day, six-night trips, with embarkation on Sunday afternoon and disembarkation on Saturday morning.
When trying to describe the hotel barge experience, the best comparison I can make is to imagine that you have rented a private villa that comes with a private chef and housekeeper, along with a guide and driver that will pick you up and take you places each day. Now picture that experience but on water, and you spend part of each day sailing from village to village and relaxing and watching the scenery go by.
Hotel Barge Elisabeth Overview
Note: My trip was organized by Barge Lady Cruises as part of a press trip and hosted by the Hotel Barge Elisabeth. I thank them for this unique experience and all opinions are my own.
The Hotel Barge Elisabeth is independently owned and operated by Captain David and Chef Matthew, along with their friendly dog Lily. Their warmth and hospitality, attention to detail, and exceptional level of service sets the Elisabeth apart from corporate-run barges. I left feeling like I made two new friends that I’d be happy to host in my own home and a desire to return again to the Elisabeth with my foodie friends. It wouldn’t even matter to me if we did the same itinerary, as long as I got to share Matthew’s exceptional meals and introduce others to this special style of travel.
The Hotel Barge Elisabeth offers three guest rooms with en-suite bathrooms and it is available for private charters only, not for individual cabin bookings. As tough as it may be to find others to travel with you, a private charter is really the best way to go. A barge is a bit small to run the risk of getting matched up with strangers if you don’t connect well with your fellow guests. You can charter the Elisabeth for two (think special anniversary or honeymoon trip) or up to six passengers, making it perfect for couples traveling together, a friend group, or a family (although I don’t think it would be good for younger kids.)
Our cruise aboard the Elisabeth was also attended by a hostess, who served meals and cleaned, a deckhand who assisted the Captain, and a private tour guide, who met us at each mooring to take us on daily excursions. The crew members all made us feel very welcomed, comfortable, and catered to.
The Hotel Barge Elisabeth offers a canal barge cruise on the canals of Burgundy, either the Canal du Nivernais or the Canal de Bourgogne.
Guest Rooms on the Hotel Barge Elisabeth
There are three individual cabins on board the Hotel Barge Elisabeth, each offering a compact en-suite bathroom. The rooms can be arranged as a queen bed, with a nightstand and space to walk along both sides of the bed, or as two twin beds. While the rooms are cozy, they are downright spacious compared to my cabin on the Maine Windjammer or even my room on the Barge Anjodi, from European Waterways.
I had more than enough space in the closet to unpack for the week, with a set of shelves and a small area for hanging clothes. The crew can then store your suitcase until you need to repack (although it helps to pack light!) The cabin offers all the amenities that you would hope for in a hotel room including bath robes, towels, a laptop-sized in-room safe, individually-controlled air conditioning units, hairdryers, and luxurious full-sized amenities (including facial wipes!).
The cabins also lock from the inside for privacy and they are surprisingly quiet at night. While the bathroom is tight, I’ve seen smaller in certain hotel rooms and I appreciated the shelves to store my toiletries after unpacking.
Public Spaces on the Hotel Barge Elisabeth
I really appreciated the comfort and variety of public spaces on the Hotel Barge Elisabeth. On deck, there was a comfortable outdoor seating area with couches and a coffee table. This area could be covered by an awning when not sailing for shade. When sailing in mid-July, the weather was so pleasant that I enjoyed sitting outside and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine.
In the pilothouse, behind the Captain’s wheel, there was also a comfy cushioned bench where you could hang out in the shade (except when the awning was lowered when going under low bridges) and chat with the crew (and Lily!)
Downstairs, the air-conditioned salon offered a dining table that seats up to seven, along with comfortable couches and an honor bar stocked with soft drinks, water, beer, and alcohol. Although with multiple wines served with meals and a signature cocktail served at happy hour, I had little need for anything further. The hostess was also always quick to offer coffee, tea, or to refill my water bottle.
In the lounge, there is also a television offering a movie library and access to streaming services, but I barely remember seeing it because you certainly don’t come on a hotel barge to watch TV. The hallway to the guest rooms also had an extensive book library for borrowing (I contributed the one book I managed to finally finish on my trip!) The Elisabeth also offers WiFi throughout, but just remember that it is subject to the availability of a good signal, and some moorings are better than others. So you may just have to go a few hours with poor WiFi. Have a glass of wine and get over it.
Things to do Off the Barge
One of the beauties of barge cruising is the slow pace and casual nature of it. Yes, you have organized excursions each day. However, during the time spent sailing, I found it extremely easy to hop off the Elisabeth at one of the locks and take a nice walk along the canal. Since the boat moves pretty slowly and only travels short distances each day, you can usually walk faster and meet back up at a lock down the line or the mooring for the day.
If you prefer to bike, you will need to let the staff know in advance so that they can get out the foldable bicycles stored on board and get them set up for you. It is sometimes easier to bike along the towpath from mooring to mooring, or take the bikes out in the evening once you are settled for the night.
Each night, the Hotel Barge Elisabeth will moor close to local villages or small towns and you can either take walks through town or along the towpath. Just keep in mind that many of these villages are very small, so it isn’t the kind of town where you will go shopping or out to eat (plus, you will NOT want to miss any of the fabulous meals on board.)
Food and Drink on the Hotel Barge Elisabeth
I am fairly sure I could dedicate an entire blog post just to the gourmet food on board the Hotel Barge Elisabeth. But instead of ruining the surprise, let me just suggest that you bring very comfortable clothes with elastic waistbands and forget about any diets because the quality and presentation of the dishes you will eat on board the Elisabeth is superb.
Chef Matthew has a previous career as a successful musician and his perfectionism and attention to detail come through with every single dish that comes out of his kitchen. I have never eaten so well in a week before on any trip. But just erase every cliche you have heard about the quantity of food you get on a big ship cruise out of your mind. What you will find on board the Elisabeth is fine dining using the freshest, local ingredients. But there is still plenty of it!
Breakfast is a buffet of fresh French pastries purchased locally, along with a typical continental breakfast of fresh fruit, cereals, yogurt, meats, and cheeses. Whether you are an early riser or like to sleep in, breakfast is available from 8:00 am to 10:00 am (unless an excursion leaves earlier) and coffee and tea are available earlier. Not that I would know. I appreciate getting to sleep in and have breakfast at my leisure while on vacation.
Lunch was typically served around 1:00 pm and was often light and fresh. After two weeks in Scotland and Wales, I was thrilled to be served fresh fruits and vegetables daily in the form of salads, cold soups, or veggie-forward dishes. Since my fellow passengers had recently been to Morocco, one lunch that really stood out was the roasted vegetables with Moroccan spice over a white bean puree and topped with crumbled cheese and toasted spiced nuts. It was exceptional!
Of course, each dish was paired with local, hand-selected fine wines, and each meal was finished with cheese and/or dessert course.
Around 6:30 pm, after docking for the night, the crew would break out the signature cocktail, or the drink of your choosing from the open bar, along with some light snacks as a pre-dinner happy hour. Dinner was then served at 8:00 pm and it was a multi-course affair, with each course accompanied by the perfect pairing of French wines, primarily from Burgundy.
Dinner is an exquisite experience, starting with an entree (appetizer), followed by a main course, then a cheese board of two or three French cheeses, and finishing with dessert, each with its own wine pairing. Some of our dinners on board included duck, beef bourguignon, salmon, trout, and escargot which had been marinated for hours. Each dish was creative and beautifully presented. Dinners on board the Elisabeth really spoiled me for my river cruise to follow.
The final dinner onboard was the extra-special Captain’s Dinner, which kicked off with a champagne toast with the crew. For each course, a different crew member joined the guests for dinner and we got to chat with them about their background and experiences on board.
Burgundy Canal Cruise Itinerary
The Hotel Barge Elisabeth offers cruises on two different canals: the Canal du Nivernais and the Canal de Bourgogne. I was on the Canal du Nivernais itinerary. I’ll walk you through our day-by-day Burgundy canal cruise itinerary, just keep in mind that your cruise route may change depending on water levels and weather conditions. We had a wonderful week of mild weather and only a few spots of rain, but you could tell that even in mid-July the water levels were getting a little low.
While we had an excursion planned for each day of our barge trip, there was still plenty of time to relax and enjoy the French countryside in the heart of the Burgundy wine region while sailing and time to explore on our own.
Day One – Arrival at the Hotel Barge Elisabeth
When barge cruising, a private transfer is typically provided for you and your fellow passengers from a nearby train station or airport. For the Hotel Barge Elisabeth, our meeting point was at Orly Airport in Paris. I had just finished a Wales road trip and spent a few days in London, so I took the Eurostar to Paris and then an RER-B train from Gare du Nord to Orly Airport.
Our tour guide Yolanda then picked up all the passengers (there were only four of us on this sailing) in the barge’s van and drove us about two hours to where the barge was moored in Mailly-la-Ville on Canal du Nivernais. The crew greeted us with a champagne toast and some lovely canapes as we settled into our new home for the week before enjoying the first of six amazing dinners.
Day Two – Vezelay
After sailing in the morning, we enjoyed an afternoon in nearby Vezelay, home to a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located on a hilltop, this medieval town is a pilgrimage site. The 12th-century basilica is where St. Bernard delivered his rousing speech before the 2nd Crusade in 1147, and where Richard the Lionheart joined forces with King Philip II of France in 1190 before the 3rd Crusade. In the crypt below the church, there are said to be relics of the Virgin Mary.
After a private walking tour of the Basilica and scenic viewpoints around town, we had free time to enjoy the shops and explore the town. Our excursion finished with a private wine tasting in a 12th-century wine cellar.
Day Three – Grottes D’Arcy
On the morning of our second day, we had an excursion to the nearby Grottes D’Arcy sur Cure. These caves are where pre-historic man lived and painted some 38,000 years ago! The paintings in the caves are still original and have remained untouched. While the paintings are the highlight, the caves themselves are also very impressive. No photos are allowed of the paintings, so you will just have to see it for yourself! I really enjoyed getting to experience this with a private tour and not the giant tour group we saw go in before us.
In the afternoon, we sailed past the hilltop vines of Irancy to our next mooring.
Day Four – Chablis
On our third day, we set out on a full-day excursion to Chablis, starting with a visit to the wine cellars of Servin, followed by a wine tasting. Our tour guide then took us to a beautiful scenic viewpoint above the Grand Cru vineyards.
Each barge vacation typically involves one meal in a local town and we had lunch at a local restaurant in Chablis, where we could order from the daily menu. The meal was followed by free time to explore and shop in the charming town of Chablis. Before returning to the barge, we stopped for a cool underground sparkling wine tasting in the caves of Bailly Lapierre, the birthplace of the AOC Crémant de Bourgogne.
Day Five – Auxerre
After a morning sail, we moored just outside of the lovely town of Auxerre. One thing I really appreciated about my barge cruise on the Elisabeth is that we alternated between morning and afternoons on the canal, giving a nice mix of relaxing mornings and quiet afternoons.
Auxerre is my favorite town that we visited on this trip and the cutest French town I’ve ever visited. Formerly the capital of Lower Burgundy and strategically situated on the banks of the Yonne, Auxerre has a storybooklike appearance with half-timbered houses built in the 11th or 12th century and a clock tower and gate that looks like it is pulled straight from a fairytale.
We started with a guided tour of the Abbey and Cathedral, through the many charming streets in town. Ending in the main square, we then had time to explore and make our way back to the barge in our own time.
Day Six – Joigny
Our final day aboard the Elisabeth started with a wildlife-filled cruise to our final mooring in Gurgy. Along the way, I spied Blue Herons, swans, ducks, turtles, and even deer. We took an afternoon outing to the town of Joigny.
We took a private walking tour of the colorful streets and their medieval buildings, including two churches built in varying styles. Our wonderful week on board the Hotel Barge Elisabeth came to a conclusion with the festive Captain’s Dinner.
Day Seven – Departure
After breakfast, it was time to bid a sad farewell to the crew of the Elisabeth, who we had come to think of as friends. We were then transported back to our original pick-up point at Orly Airport, where I made my way back into central Paris to spend a night before moving on to Bordeaux.
How to Choose a French Barge Cruise?
Barge Lady Cruises is an independent travel agency specializing in barge vacations. They represent a vast inventory in multiple countries across a wide range of beautiful corporate or independently-owned beautiful barges. Whether you are looking for a luxury hotel barge or something more economical, their experienced sales team will talk to you about your preferences and help you choose the best barge and itinerary. If you are considering a barge vacation, reach out to Barge Lady Cruises to start planning!
Is a Barge Cruise Right for You?
A barge cruise is not an inexpensive vacation, with costs typically starting around $5,000 per person. For a private charter, such as those on the Hotel Barge Elisabeth, your cost will be higher. Keep in mind that this is an all-inclusive vacation including accommodations, gourmet dining, copious amounts of wine, personalized service, and private excursions. When you add up those costs, it doesn’t seem as high.
While barge cruises can accommodate for some mobility issues by offering walking sticks, you must be able to comfortably navigate narrow staircases and walk along cobblestone streets. The bathroom is also tight and the cabin ceilings aren’t super high, so a very tall or large person might feel a bit cramped.
Luckily, because the canals are so peaceful and the barge is moored each night, seasickness really doesn’t come into play. Even when cruising, you hardly tell you are moving if you are below decks, at least until you bump against a lock or narrow bridge.
Ideally, a barge cruise is best for someone that is looking for slow-paced travel with a nice balance of activities and downtime. It is perfect for foodies and wine lovers, and with advance notice, the chefs can also accommodate food allergies or dietary restrictions. If you love history, food, and off-the-beaten-path travel in a luxurious, high-service setting, I’d encourage you to consider a barge trip.