There’s a reason why people who have taken canal cruises are often repeat customers. Pastoral landscapes serenely pass by at 4 mph, allowing you to take in all that your senses intended. Add to this gourmet food, personalised service and daily excursions and you have the perfect relaxing vacation.
My wife and I booked a trip with European Waterways through Alsace-Lorraine, a region of France created by the German Empire in 1871 and encompassing parts of the Rhine, Moselle Valley and Vosges Mountains.
We decided to arrive a few days early to explore Paris and rid ourselves of jetlag. Prior to our cruise, we boarded a TGV (high speed train) to the Strasbourg train station, where we were met by Alan, our tour guide for the week, and transported to our barge, the Panache.
Actually, the term barge is something of a misnomer. These retrofitted boats serve as upscale floating hotels on the water complete with comfy rooms, beds and showers as well as a lounge area, bar, dining room and all the amenities you can imagine. Our vessel accommodated 12 passengers and our cabin was spacious and comfortable and even had a double sink bathroom with full shower.
The crew staff, who may outnumber the passengers, are well trained to provide a high level of service. Aboard European Waterways, the price includes fine regional wines, an open bar and daily room service as well as a tour guide who manages interesting side excursions during the trip. Essentially, you are treated like a VIP on your own private yacht and it is not uncommon for locals to queue up along the banks to watch these large vessels navigate the sometimes narrow canals and locks.
Our first stop was the small town of Lutzelbourg, where we docked for the night and enjoyed a regional dinner prepared by our onboard chef, Christophe. This included a mixed salad with smoked duck, filet of pork with wholegrain mustard sauce, a selection of cheeses and dessert. Of course, wine pairing is all part of the fun and each selection is presented with a little bit of history, charm and humour.
Each day begins with a casual buffet breakfast followed either by an off-boat excursion or cruising down the canal through various locks to the next mooring destination. On our second day, we took a side trip to the town of Sarrebourg and the Chapelle des Cordeliers. You might not think twice about this non-descript little chapel except for the fact that it houses the largest stained glass window in the world by artist Marc Chagall. The Tree of Life is based on biblical themes but experts still guess as to some of its deeper, hidden symbols and meanings.
Our next stop, the Cristallerie Lehrer, is home to third-generation crystal makers, and here you can view master craftsmen creating beautiful glassware in the form of vases, stemware and cute little animals. You also have the option of purchasing some of these to take home with you – carefully packaged, of course.
Many of the postcard-perfect towns along the Canal de la Marne Au Rhin can be explored on foot or by bikes, the latter being carried on board. This is one of the best ways to see the small villages that line the canals. If you happen to get tired, no problem – just catch up to the boat at the next lock, in time for a sumptuous lunch.
Night-time is for relaxing and after dinner conversation with your fellow passengers. One evening, we were unexpectedly treated to a local entertainer who came aboard to sing, play the piano and encourage us to participate. It was quite a sight to see baby boomers trying to sing a karaoke rendition of Hotel California.
Our itinerary also included a visit to the Lalique crystal and jewellery museum in Saverne; tasting tarte flambée in Altenheim-sur-Zorn and seeing gorgeous Hansel and Gretel-style villages along the Alsatian wine trail.
For us, the highlight was the city of Strasbourg, selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With winding cobblestone streets, flower-laden bridges, half-timbered houses and plenty of shops and restaurants, Strasbourg is an amazing place to visit.
The pièce de résistance, however, would have to be the Cathedral Notre Dame De Strasbourg. Construction of this gothic work of art started in 1015 and the spire was finally placed in 1439. Today, this magnificent cathedral is undergoing renovation but you can still tour the inside and see the massive astronomical clock dating from 1843.
It seemed our cruise went all too fast, and back on board we said our farewells at the captain’s dinner. Listening to Captain Willy tell of his voyages throughout Holland we found ourselves all in and started planning our next trip. No doubt, you will feel the same.
Tips for travelling to France and saving money
1. I always try to travel with lightweight, wrinkle-resistant water-resistant clothes. These save space in my luggage and I can wash the items in the sink.
2. I am based in the US but use a bank that doesn’t charge all sorts of fees for obtaining money at an ATM.
3. There are many mileage credit cards that will work towards things like free airfares as well as car rental and hotel rewards. Check Frugal Travel Guy.
4. A barging trip can be expensive but there are special offers available that will save you a bundle.