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Hotel Barging with European Waterways

by Mark Tre' - "The Cruise Examiner"

In this issue of The Cruise Examiner we look at something a little different. Hotel barging is a niche product that European Waterways boss Derek Banks has been marketing for about thirty-four years now. Last week in Windsor, European Waterways staff and management pulled out all the stops and used their Thames-based Magna Carta, just one of their fleet of twenty luxury hotel barges, to show off their product to travel trade and potential customers. New this year is the 20-passenger La Bella Vita, which makes her maiden voyage from Venice to Mantua in April. In all, this fleet of little boats can now accommodate a total of 182 guests.La Dolce Vita

European Waterways

The twenty luxury hotel barges operated by European Waterways now cruise through the inland navigation canals of nine countries in Europe. Starting with its first barge, the Anjodi, in 1977, the company added two twelve-passenger units, La Belle Epoque and L'Impressioniste, in 1994 and 1995 and grew steadily from there until it now manages and operates a fleet of twenty vessels.

The company started barging in the Canal du Nivernais in central Brudrgundy and has spread from there into other areas of France as well as Belgium, Holland, Germany, Luxembourg, England, Scotland, Ireland and this year Italy. Their hotel barges accommodate from four passengers to thirteen but this is not the upper limit as they can also operate in tandem to accommodate groups of up to twenty-six guests. Something the right size can this be found for any group or family.

All cruises are six nights long, giving the hard-working crew a one-day break between departures to keep them from burning out. Each cruise usually starts at one end of a two-way itinerary and works back in the opposite direction on alternate weeks. The waterways covered now include the Canal du Nivernais, the River Yonne, the Burgundy Canal, the River Rhone, the Rhone-Sete Canal, the Canal du Midi, the River Cher (for the Loire Valley), the Venetian Lagoon, the River Brenta, the Amstel River, the Caledonian Canal, the River Shannon and the Thames between Henley-on-Thames and Hampton Court.

From their UK office near the Thames, European Waterways source their passengers primarily from the English-speaking world, from the US, the UK, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, France, Canada and Hong Kong.

An All-Inclusive Product

At a typical fare of between roughly £2,000 and £4,000 per person for six nights on board, European Waterways product is not cheap. But on the other hand you will not have to take any money with you as it's very all-inclusive. Fares work out to something less of course if one charters the full barge for a family or group.

In addition to a very comfortable stateroom with en suite facilities (of which there are only typically four or six per barge), most vessels come with about a two-to-one passenger to crew ratio, a top line chef, wines and drinks included, bicycles for passenger use and a mini-bus (or sometimes two) for each barge with which to conduct excursions,

This is essentially an outdoor product and where possible passengers dine al fresco when the weather is good. The season generally begins in April and depending on the locale can last through to early November.La Belle Epoque

New In 2011: Venice to Mantua via the Bianco Canal

European Waterways is this year introducing its largest vessel, La Bella Vita, a ten-stateroom vessel that can accommodate up to twenty passengers. Newly-converted last year, she offers two suites on the upper deck and eight staterooms below, plus the usual array of public spaces.

Starting at a mooring in Venice near the Arsenale and Naval Museum, La Bella Vita heads out across the lagoon and stops for the night at San Pietro. From there it is on to the Po Delta and the Bianco Canal to Mantua, with visits en route at Chioggia, Taglia di Po, Rovigo, Ferrara and Trevenzuolo, with a private dinner at the 17th Century stately home of Villa Ca'Zen in Taglia di Po and a private wine tasting at the Villa Widmann Borletti in Rovigo. This is all included in the fare, as are transfers back to Venice at the end of the cruise.

Tour highlights include a tour of Venice, including the hidden gardens, Naval Museum and Pavilion of Gondolas, a tour of Chioggia with its Roman, Etruscan and Byzantine history, and a chance to view works by Carpaccio, Tintoretto, Tiepelo and Bassano, a tour of the 14th Century Estense Castle in Ferrara and a visit to the Ducal palace and gardens in Mantua.

On board, the wine cellar includes Barolo, Chianti, Castel del Monte, Soave, Valpolicella and Prosecco while the cheeseboard includes Gorgonzola, Mozzarella de Bufala, Pecorino, Taleggio and Provolone. Regional cuisine includes Fegato alla Veneziana, Baccala Mantecato, La Polenta, Sarde in Saor, Risotto al Prezzemolo and Lagoon Seafood.

Cruising Through The Vineyards of France

Burgundy is the most popular hotel barging area in Europe, and almost half of the European Waterways fleet, or nine boats, can be found here, cruising areas such as Paris-Burgundy, the Upper Loire, the Canal du Nivernais, the Canal du Centre and Upper and Lower Burgundy, where it is possible in some places to cruise right through the vineyards.

Renowned for its vineyards, Gothic churches, Renaissance châteaux and picturesque villages, gastronomy and the art of living have reigned supreme here since Roman times. Excursions include popular places such as the quaint town of Clamecy, the famous palace in Dijon, the castle in Châteauneuf or to Vezelay, with its hilltop basilica St Mary Magdalene. La Bella Vita

Wine plays an important part in any cruise with European Waterways and there are also special wine cruises. A cruise in the L'Impressioniste in Burgundy includes a visit to the medieval chateau of Clos de Vougeot, headquarters of the esteemed Chevaliers du Tastevin as well as private visits to renowned vineyards. A cruise aboard La Belle Epoque includes a visit to Nuits St Georges and in the Canal du Midi, a cruise on board the Anjodi will include wine tastings at the 17th Century Chateau La Voulte Gasparets and the 500-year-old vineyard Domaine de Guéry. These particular cruises involve an extra fee for a wine expert and guide but wine and food play an important part on any departure.

To take two examples of regional cuisine, we look at a typical Burgundy departure on La Belle Epoque and a Canal du Midi cruise in the Anjodi. La Belle Epoque in Burgundy showcases: Filet d'Agneau au Basilic, Magret de Canard, Poulet ?L'Estragon. Her wine list includes Chablis, Vosne Romanée, Domaine Laroche, Nuits St Georges and Epineuil, and her cheeseboard Aisy Cendré, Bouton de Culotte, Epoisses and Ami du Chambertin. And the Anjodi in the Canal du Midi features Noisette d'Agneau en Croûte de Sel avec Sauce Romarin, Ragout de Calamars "Provençàle." Wines include Domain de Guéry, Château de Nouvelles, La Clape, Château la Condamine Bertrand and her cheese board Le Saint-Remois, Fromage de Chèvre au Poivre at au Thyme, Tomme de Valdeblore.

Rick Stein's French Odyssey

One of the claims to fame of European Waterways is that two of its hotel barges, the Anjodi and the Rosa, took British celebrity chef Rick Stein from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean via the Canal des Deux Mers and the Canal du Midi.

The result was a series of ten programmes that was aired by the BBC in the late summer of 2005 under the title of "Rick Stein's French Odyssey." Both the book and the complete DVD set can be purchased through Amazon.

The Scottish Highlander

One difference to the Continental hotel barges of course is the Scottish Highlander, where drinks concentrate more on single malt whiskeys than wines, although of course a good selection of French and New World wines is still available. And regional cuisine in that case tends more to salmon and pheasant.Shannon Princess

This barge spends most of the year cruising the Caledonian Canal between Inverness and Fort William and visits are made to Cawdor Castle, home of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Loch Ness as well as castles and distilleries.

Similarly, the Shannon Princess II promotes Irish single malt whiskeys and lobster in her fare in line with the company's emphasis on regional cuisine.

The Fleet

The various vessels that make up the European Waterways fleet include six barges owned by Derek Banks himself with the balance made up of vessels that are individually owned and operated under contract with European Waterways.

The craft were almost all built to carry cargo, many of them having been built in the Netherlands as well as elsewhere, and mainly fall in the category of 100 to 130 feet, although some are smaller. All are renovated frequently, with new heating, cooking, air conditioning and furnishings installed on a rolling basis.

The barge with the highest crew to passenger ratio (one each) starts the list below:

Alouette (converted 1986), built 1908, 98 feet (4 guests, 4 crew)
Amaryllis (converted 2001), built 1962, 131 feet (8 guests, 6 crew)
Anjodi (converted 1970), built1930, 100 feet (8 guests, 4 crew)

Athos (converted 1982), built 1964, 103 feet (10 guests, 4 crew)
Enchanté (converted 2008), built 1958, 100 feet (8 guests, 4 crew)
Hirondelle (converted 1992), built 1928, 128 feet (8 guests, 4 crew)

La Bella Vita (converted 2010), 140 feet (20 guests, 7 crew)
La Belle Epoque (converted 1995), built 1930, 128 feet (12 guests, 5 crew)
La Dolce Vita (converted 1990), built 1897, 65 feet (6 guests, 3 crew)

La Nouvelle Etoile (converted 2002), built 1964, 129 feet (8 guests, 5 crew)
La Renaissance (converted 1997), built 1960, 128 feet (8 guests, 5 crew)
La Reine Pédauque (converted 1985), built 1922, 127 feet (8 guests, 5 crew)

L'Art de Vivre (converted 1970), built 1917,100 feet (8 guests, 4 crew)
L'Impressioniste (converted 1996), built 1960, 128 feet (12 guests, 5 crew)
Magna Carta (converted 2001), built 1931, 117 feet (8 guests, 4 crew)

Napoléon (converted 1990), built 1963, 128 feet (12 guests, 6 crew)
Nymphea (converted 1985), built 1921, 80 feet (6 guests, 3 crew)
Rosa (converted 1990), built 1907, 98 feet (8 guests, 4 crew)

Savoir Faire (converted 1979), built 1932, 132 feet (12 guests, 6 crew)
Scottish Highlander (converted 1992), built 1931, 117 feet (8 guests, 4 crew)
Shannon Princess II (built 2003), 107 feet (10 guests, 5 crew)

Decoration of these hotel barges on board is very yachtlike, something that came from Banks' original career in yachting. The result is very eye-appealing and all accommodations on each barge are en suite, with many offering a choice between double and twin-bed arrangements.

More information can be found at Gobarging.com

(Mark Tré attended courtesy of the Leading Cruise Agents of the UK)

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