BARGE CRUISES AND CHAMPAGNE TOP THE CHARTS
Do the words “barge” and “cruise” really belong in the same sentence? I wonder. Which is probably the very reason that French Country Waterways, the barge cruise company, picked another name. But they needn’t have worried. When the destination is a canal in France, and the cruise is all about shameless pampering, the two make a perfect pair. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
Click on the company’s website, at www.fcwl.com, and take a look. French Country Waterways takes its guests into dreamland on a half-dozen different canals in the exquisite French countryside. But the one that caught my eye was the cruise through the Champagne region, origin of the world’s most heavenly bubbly -- and my favorite libation. Since France is all about wine AND cheese, and both make my top-ten-taste list, what could be could be better?
Imagine, then, my delight when my family pools its pennies and buys me a one-week Champagne cruise for my birthday, the surprise of a lifetime. I’m more than ready for a break in my too-busy life. And my companion on this adventure, my daughter Katie, is a college student soon to be leaving home. Grown up and feeling independent, she makes the perfect cabin mate.
Picture it: I’ve finished my birthday cake and we’re poring over French Country Waterways’ brochures together, picturing the journey. Our onshore adventures include a visit to the Cathedral in Reims, walk-abouts in regional villages, tours through the cellars of world-class Champagne houses, strolls along the towpath and walking the ancient Roman road called the Chemin des Dames.
Day one of our trip begins after the flight to Paris and a night’s sleep at the four-star Hotel Raphael, where the shuttle bus collects us for the 90-minute drive east to Chateau Thierry. The 128-foot Adrienne, docked in the Marne River, is our new floating home. Wearing a new coat of paint, she awaits our arrival, her crew on board to welcome us. Katie runs ahead, exploring the deck, the dining room and our comfy cabin. She returns clutching a classic Coke and smiling like a Cheshire cat. She has already found her bubbly.
After a welcome champagne toast, our Captain greets us with an orientation. Over the next week, we’ll cruise at the speed of an escargot up the Marne River and into the centuries-old canal near the river. Passing an occasional small barge, we learn that barging is as popular with French families on holiday as it is with Americans. And yes, the Adrienne is that kind of barge. Long, low and family friendly. She was once a workhouse, her decks piled with boxes and bales. Now retired, she’s a renovated beauty. Katie loves the water line view from our porthole and I can’t get over our cleverly organized and spacious cabin. There’s nothing missing except a reliable internet connection. But who’s complaining? Fresh-from-the-oven croissants delivered before dawn and steaming hot coffee await us at the breakfast table. The chef serves multi-course meals paired with premier or grand cru red and white wines. Chilled champagne, dew forming on its extra-thick glass bottle, beckons us at the cocktail hour. Emailing the outside world, I realize, would be a buzz kill.
Our schedule varies with twice-daily excursions led by onboard guide and historian Glen Moynan, whose expertise is invaluable when we visit the Aisne-Marne Cemetery and the American Memorial, a massive colonnade built to commemorate the long-standing friendship between France and the United States. As we stand on the hill above Chateau Thierry, the Marne Valley below, we see why, during World War I, this area was so hotly contested.
As the week wears on, we walk along canal’s towpath, waiting for the Adrienne to catch up with us. We get off to shop in small villages, sit on deck to watch the passing vineyards and listen to the water lap against the bow. Candlelit dinners grow more relaxed as each day passes, and by the week’s end we are playing charades. Dinners last until the last wine glass is emptied and the cheese devoured. Time drifts by. Life is good.
My favorite outings are the tours of the Champagne “houses,” where the grapes become bubbly. Touring the Moet & Chandon cellars, our guide leads us into the 17-mile maze of tunnels under the town of Epernay. And she explains why today’s champagne bottles sit for years without exploding. “It is a special secret, discovered here in France,” she says. “The glass used to be thin; now it’s very thick.” Nor is there a true “champagne” grape. The bubbly combines three varietals: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meuniere and Chardonnay grapes. We linger to taste several vintages and even Katie takes a sip.
On our last day we dock at the village of Chalons-en-Champagne, a town contested in both World Wars. Sorry to be leaving, we spend the day strolling through the narrow streets, admiring the timber-frame houses and shopping for mementoes. A sudden, light drizzle hurries our return to the Adrienne’s cozy cabin.
Is a barge cruise a real cruise? Yes, if you’re looking for a slow boat to France, a chance to put on the brakes and take a deep breath. For me it was a glimpse of what life was like in the days when the horse was the fastest ride available. Sitting on deck, I found myself savoring every last moment, from the haystacks and gnarled trunks of trees to the last special cheese and friendly crew. And a farewell glass of champagne for a toast all around.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP: Fly to Paris and overnight at the Hotel Raphael. French Country Waterways shuttles passengers to the dock at Maizy or Chateau Thierry. The cruise ends at Chalons-en-Champagne. Per person rates for two in a cabin start at $3,395 in shoulder season. Cruise travel agents may offer better rates. All meals, wines, tours and transfers to and from the dock are included. Tips are not included. French Country Waterways is at (800)222-1236, or visit www.fcwl.com.