As a travel journalist who has explored the world by water on over fifty ships, I’m acutely aware that “cruising” is a broad term. There are adventure cruises and themed cruises that resemble a moving city due to their grandeur and cruises that cater to the luxury crowd.
And then there are barge cruises. A barge cruise is a different breed of travel. Their smaller size makes them uniquely personable and agile—often meandering into the small canals of interior Europe that larger boats couldn’t fathom entering. Recently I had the opportunity to explore the Rhône River on Belmond’s Napoleon with Barge Lady Cruises.
Like many travelers, I did my due diligence in researching the company before booking my trip. I learned that “The Barge Ladies” founded a unique niche in barge cruising about 36 years ago. What I had initially presumed to be a small company has created memories for passengers on some 50 barges throughout 30 canals within eight different countries.
The company’s owner, Ellen Sack, known as “The Barge Lady,” has employed both her daughters and knowledgeable staff to introduce the world to barge cruising. Stephanie, the company’s marketing maven and Ellen’s daughter, explained how her family became involved in niche cruising.
“In 1984, my mother, Ellen Sack, was a retail travel agent in Chicago. In her travels, she met a man who told her that he had taken a former cargo barge out of the dry dock, was sailing it along with the all-but-abandoned manufactured canal system in France, and was serving wine to his friends while doing so,” said Sack. “He asked her if she thought she could help him introduce and sell the experience to the North American market, and, drawing on her Francophilia and professional connections. She sold out his season for 1985, and one boat became two, and two boats became 20, and now here we are!”
A Look Inside Belmond’s Napoleon
The largest of the Belmond fleet, Napoleon epitomizes elegance and grandeur, especially for a barge that only carries twelve passengers and six crew members. The barge cruise is ideal for those aspiring to immerse themselves in the gastronomy, wine, and fascinating history of the stunning south of France. Though barge cruising does come at a steeper price point than many holiday choices, the caliber of service, food, wine, and amenities are indeed worth it for discerning travelers.
The warmth of southern France is reflected in the barge’s interior, with ornate provincial colors—rich reds, golds, and greens— a welcoming invite inside. Napoleon consists of three separate floors, giving ample space for guests both to lounge and maintain privacy. I had no issues continuing my remote work, with plenty of free space and a robust wireless connection.
The Warmth of Southern France
The extraordinarily spacious salon and dining room are optimal to hang out with other guests and sip wine—(did I mention unlimited alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages?)—while slowly floating down the river every evening. Of course, a large observation deck is the optimal “chill zones”—with lounge chairs and even a hot tub. The hot tub is the perfect retreat to sit back, a glass of wine in hand, and watch the scenery pass by (and yes, I utilized this hot tub at least once a day on our voyage!)
And each of the spacious cabins makes you momentarily forget you’re on a barge at all—each is artfully decorated with large en-suite bathrooms and all above the water line—perfect for those prone to seasickness (like me!). Each stateroom comes equipped with both a television and a DVD player, though with so much to see beyond the room, it’s unlikely they will get very much use!
Gastronomy Onboard Napoleon
Napoleon’s expansive menu showcases the freshest ingredients from local suppliers that line the Rhône river. All meals on board are freshly prepared by an expert chef with fresh ingredients using local suppliers. They are served either in the dining room or up on deck, accompanied by carefully matched wines from the region.
Served family-style in the dining room, they allow all barge passenger guests to unwind following a busy itinerary and truly indulge. Of course, waking up every morning with French pastries and fresh fruit is also tasty to begin the day. The chef takes pride in explaining his meal creations for guests, consistently making an appearance at meals to not only share what we were eating but how he created and sourced it. (And a secret: most all ingredients are local, considering his ample market trips!)
Post Trip to Paris at La Maison Favart
Once our tour finished, most passengers decided to take the two-hour train journey back to Paris. My husband and I have spent much time in The City of Lights, but we’re looking forward to relaxing at one of the more esteemed hotels long steeped in Parisian history: La Maison Favart.
The boutique hotel’s name pays homage to the founders of the Comic Opera in Paris, and the interior bears a similarity to the lavish Paris of the 18th century. Our room looked out under the bustling square, especially lively in the evening before the Opera’s door opened. We were centrally located, able to see some of Paris’ most monumental structures on foot. And returning to an hour at the hotel’s spa—with a sauna and swimming pool with jets—followed by a night’s sleep in a bedroom fit for royalty was just, well, the whipped creme on the crepe of our barge cruising holiday.