I experienced my first barge cruise in France this past May. You may have already read my reasons you should take a barge cruise in France, but today, I thought I’d give you a better idea of exactly what it’s like to take one.
I’ve received many questions from clients, readers and social media followers, so I’m hoping most of your questions might be answered here.
Here’s a little play-by-play.
Many barges are owned by a company and that company hires the captain and crew. This is not the case with the Athos. The Athos is independently owned and operated by a husband and wife team – Captain Julian and his wife Dannielle, who is in charge of everything behind the scenes.
I communicated directly with Dannielle before the cruise. I filled out a little questionnaire which included basics like emergency contact info, flight arrival and plans before and after the trip. But she also inquired about things like food allergies, special meal preferences, likes and dislikes, favorite beverages etc. I got the impression they really want to make my time on board the best it could be.
Dannielle also made suggestions for how to arrive by train, how to book and even which train from Paris would arrive on time at the pick-up location – the Béziers train station. Some travelers arrive in the region early or stay later, which I highly recommend, as there is so much to see and do in the Languedoc-Roussillon.
Danielle sent along my itinerary which detailed exactly where I would be going and what to expect. The barge cruise starts on a Sunday, is six days and runs in both directions from April through October. The mooring points will be the same, but the starting and ending points alternate, every other week. They know in advance which way you’ll be running, so just ask.
The cost of the cruise, which is paid in advance, includes everything from soup to nuts. Your transportation to and from the barge, lodging, tours and excursions, all meals, drinks, wine, any snacks. The only things not covered are any food or souvenirs purchased during an excursion, or when walking around on your own.
Also, a 5-10% tip for the crew is strongly encouraged, so factor that in and be prepared to give the gratuity directly to the captain at the end of the trip.
The Athos is a beautiful luxury barge, crafted of teak wood, with lots of windows making it sunny and bright. It’s decorated very simply, and with fresh flowers throughout. The barge has five staterooms, crew quarters, a small kitchen, a salon and upper deck – both with lots of comfortable seating.
Bikes are on board for every passenger to ride. There is no television, but they have a nice selection of books to choose from and a dongle for wi-fi, which was expectedly, a bit sporadic. The newest addition, a mechanical awning, was controlled by the captain when passing under bridges or near low hanging branches.
Most barges are configured for between eight and 20 passengers. Athos holds a total of ten, which meant there were five staterooms. So if the barge is fully booked, you’ll be traveling with a maximum of 10 guests. As it turned out, my cruise ran with five. But a barge agent joined us for a few days, but not for the entire week.
I was a bit nervous about the cabins being too small or claustrophobic, but found them to be very comfortable with just enough space. The rooms are done in wood and white tile, with small sliding windows that open for fresh air and stream in tons of natural light. The beds were comfortable, high and cleverly designed to store suitcases in drawers beneath the mattress after you unpack. Wooden ledges run the length of each wall to store personal items like an alarm clock, phone dock, tissues, eyeglasses etc. I had plenty of outlets in my room to accommodate my phone and camera battery chargers.
Bathrooms are tiny, and equipped with stand-up showers. There isn’t room for two inside – but the water was hot, strong and outiftted with every L’Occitane bath product you needed, which were replenished daily.
There is a small closet for your clothes. I traveled alone, and had plenty of space – but if you travel as a couple, you might find the closet a bit tight – so pack light!
What to expect day to day
Daily, we would rise and have breakfast in the salon. You could get up early, help yourself to a hot beverage from the espresso machine and sit up on deck to enjoy the peace and quiet. You could even get in an early morning walk or bike ride on the tow paths. Typically we would need to finish breakfast and be ready to depart at 9am – give or take – in our air-conditioned mini vans.
You can skip the day’s excursion if it didn’t interest you – but it’s included in your package, so I would advise going.
On the way to our destination, we enjoyed the scenery and beautiful views of the countryside, which in May was blooming poppy fields and vineyards dotted with the occasional ruin or crumbling stone house. We would spend time touring with our guide for a few hours and return to the barge to have lunch – on deck if the weather allowed.
During this time, the boat stayed moored right where we left it. After lunch, we would set sail. A few hours of cruising at a snail’s pace and those of us on board would chat, nap, read a book or just take in the landscapes or enjoy watching the crew navigate the complex process of passing through the locks. More active passengers would get off the boat to walk or take a bike ride and meet the barge at our next mooring point. This needed to be arranged in advance – but the captain and crew were more than happy to oblige.
It was quiet and relaxing, but from time to time, other barges or boats pass by and everyone waved – it was quite friendly. From time to time you’d come across a lock, pass under a bridge or through a lively village along the canal, which seemed to break up the longer stretches of silence.
We moored at our new destination, usually in the early evening between 5pm and 6pm. Dinner in the salon or on deck (depending on the weather and bugs) followed at about 7pm. We dressed up a bit for dinner – but no ball gowns or suits were expected. Think a sundress, or capri pants and a nice blouse. Khakis and short sleeve shirt for men.
After dinner, our tour guide appeared to announce the schedule and meeting time for the next day’s excursion. Then we were left on our own to take a walk, read, listen to music, talk and then retire to bed. Our last evening some wild and crazy moving and grooving to 80’s dance music followed dinner, but thankfully no one got on top of a table or took video.
What happens on Athos, stays on Athos!
The barge doesn’t cruise at night – it remains moored, so you’ll wake the next day in the same spot you arrived the day before.
Again, each barge offers a slightly different itinerary with different mooring points, village visits and excursions. This was my itinerary:
Day 1 – Pick up at the Béziers train station and transfer to Marseillan, where the boat was moored. We made our way to the barge in mini vans and were greeted by the crew with champagne and appetizers.
Day 2 – Tour and tasting at Noilly Prat vermouth distillery, which is located right in Marseillan. Seafood lunch on the barge and then we set sail. Moored in Portiranges.
Day 3 – Tour of the charming town of Pézanas. Cruise through the famous Neuf Ecluses staircase locks and moor near Béziers with a lovely view of the cathedral at night. Our guide Matthieu walked with us up to the Oppidum, which was well worth it – the views were incredible!
Day 4 – Tour of the city of Narbonne. We had our only lunch off the barge at Chez Bebelle in the Narbonne market (included in the price). Moored in Capestang in front of the Collegiale Saint-Etienne, which is beautiful and floodlit at night. We had time for a quick game of Pétanque (yes I learned to play!) in the village. We followed the local custom of sipping Pastis while we played.
Day 5 – Tour of a local olive oil mill, which included a tasting of oils and Lucques olives, followed by a guided visit to the hilltop village of Minerve. The boat was moored all day in Capestang.
Day 6 – Tour of the famous historic walled city of Carcassonne. We cruised to Argeliers, where we moored for the night and the captain joined us for our final dinner and the crew joined in a farewell toast.
Day 7 – Final breakfast on board and minivans depart around 10am to return you to the Beziers train station (unless, like myself, you’ve made arrangements to stay on longer in the area).
In a word, the food was incredible. Three meals a day, all on board, with the exception of the lunch out at the Narbonne Market (which was included in the price). The food is gourmet, fresh and local. Breakfast is a continental style sit-down affair with lots of bread and pastries from the local boulangerie, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, meat and juice.
Lunch is a buffet style and is taken on deck, weather permitting. Each meal is relaxed, but courses are plated and presented beautifully, each described by the chef. Cheeses and wines are presented by the hostesses and described in great detail, and the selections were rotated at every meal. We tasted a wonderful array of cheese from the area during our week.
At the end the cruise we were presented with a booklet that contained the itinerary, and a full description of each meal, along with the wines and cheeses, to refer to back home. This was not only helpful for me to write about it, but also for those who want to recreate a dish or seek out the wine we enjoyed on board. It was a nice touch.
Our crew was a total of five; The captain, a chef, a tour guide and two lovely hostesses. And on occassion, Jill, the sweet terrier mix who is quite content with sitting on the roof near the captain and accepting extra from the guests. Everyone was friendly, upbeat, professional and bent over backwards to ensure we enjoyed the trip. They all worked as a well-oiled cohesive team, especially when it came time to go through locks – it was literally all hands on deck.
I was especially impressed with the knowledge of our hard-working hostesses. Not only did they serve our meals, tidy up our rooms, make us cocktails and and morning coffee, but every lunch and dinner they described the wines and cheeses, in-depth.
There is no doubt the draw of a barge cruise is the canal du midi and the wonderful places we explore, but the crew made the experience fun, extra enjoyable and totally unforgettable.
So, You Think You Want To Take A French Barge Vacation?
If you’re interested in a Canal du Midi Barge Cruise, I highly recommend spending some additional time in the area exploring other villages, historic sites and even a few wineries.
I’ve partnered with my trusted colleague Beth Hanson at Canal Barge Cruises to offer you something extra special. Beth KNOWS barging. She represents over 40 barges and both she and her husband actually owned and operated a barge in France for 15 years. Since each person’s idea of the perfect barge experience may differ (Do you want more food and wine? Perhaps history or even an adventure cruise?), Beth is able to help navigate (see, what I did there? ) and choose the BEST barge for your vacation.
If you get in touch with Beth, and book a barge cruise, mention me (Robin from Melange Travel) when you book and you’ll get an hour of complimentary pre or post cruise travel planning from yours truly. Together, we’ll put together an amazing vacation in the “other” South of France, for you.
And, if your questions about barge cruising weren’t answered here, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll try to answer them personally!
Disclosure : I was a guest on the Athos Barge. All photos and opinions are my own.