Last year, Belmond, the well-known hotel, rail and river cruise company now owned by LVMH, the French luxury goods conglomerate, introduced a new way to visit the Champagne region. From March through October, the Belmond Pivoine (“pivoine” means “peony” in French), a 128-foot barge with an English-speaking staff of six and four impressively light and spacious cabins, a lounge, a dining room, a deck terrace and a heated outdoor plunge pool, plies the waters of the Marne river and the Canal Lateral à la Marne. Itineraries run between either Château-Thierry and Châlons-en-Champagne or Épernay and Couvrot during six-night cruises that begin with a two-hour road transfer from Paris.
This barge is available only for private charter, so we embarked with a group of friends. It proved to be one of the most pleasurable and memorable trips we’ve ever taken in France, not least because we had to unpack only once. We also appreciated that onshore sightseeing excursions were interspersed with plenty of downtime, during which we could enjoy a close-up view of the exquisite scenery, which looks much as it did when it was a favorite subject for Cézanne, Corot and Pissarro.
We’ve taken other barge trips in France, notably in Burgundy, but none has offered the level of comfort and personal service we found on the Pivoine. The cabins offer almost all the amenities of a five-star hotel, notably full-scale baths and dressing rooms, and feature chic décors by London-based interior-design firm Muza Lab. Every cabin has a picture window, a king-size bed made up with high-quality linens, a soothing color scheme and oak paneling. A particularly nice touch is that the floors are covered with tomettes, the rustic terra-cotta tiles found in the farmhouses of Champagne. Marble-accented baths come with walk-in limestone-lined showers, excellent water pressure, bathrobes and slippers, and L’Occitane products. Other amenities include a Bose iPod docking station, a hair dryer and a reliable Wi-Fi connection.