Exploring the backcountry of France counts among the great pleasures of life, and one of my favorite ways to do so is along the country’s extensive network of canals. Spending six nights aboard a converted 1920s-era cargo barge might sound like rather an ordeal, but in fact the best boats compare with any well-staffed luxury yacht.
Thomas Jefferson may have pioneered the French barge vacation when he cruised along the Languedoc’s Canal du Midi in early 1787. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “Of all the methods of traveling I have ever tried, this is the pleasantest. I walk the greater part of the way along the banks of the canal, level, and lined with a double row of trees which furnish shade. When fatigued, I take seat [on the barge] where, as much at ease as if in my study, I read, write, or observe.” In many respects, little about the experience has changed in the ensuing 230 years.
Jefferson would likely have recognized the rhythm of the cruise we took aboard the Hirondelle, a four-cabin barge operated by Afloat in France, a company now owned by Belmond. But I suspect our barge — painted smartly in white, burgundy and black — offered a far greater level of comfort than his. On the teak deck, a canopy shaded a table surrounded by eight faux-wicker armchairs. Stairs led down to a combined lounge-and-dining room with hardwood floors, brass sconces and numerous windows with wooden Venetian blinds, plus a paneled ceiling with a large skylight. Fresh flower arrangements and comfortable sofas upholstered in red linen added splashes of color. A built-in buffet counter provided a good selection of both French and international spirits, plus white wine, water and soft drinks in a small refrigerator.