10 May 2012
Along the Quiet Waterways
Glide into the heart of the French countryside aboard a péniche-hôtel barge.
The quintessential way to tune into la France profonde is to take a slow boat down the rivers and canals that have long served as its arteries. Passing through some of its most delightful countryside, including the best of Burgundy and Rhône wine country, these waterways offer a golden chance to enjoy a seriously relaxing holiday while also learning about how the French like to do things.
Fortunately, such voyages of gentle discovery are made all the easier thanks to the existence of the péniche - a barge that has been converted into a luxurious floating hotel. The choice of vessels and routes is considerable. Sail with a specialist operator such as Afloat in France and you could take a scenic cruise south from Lyon to Avignon, make a lazy progress along the Canal Latéral à la Loire, or potter about the Canal du Midi admiring the fairy-tale ramparts of Carcassonne.
Some péniches are exclusively for private charter and can accommodate a group of up to eight family or friends. Others also operate like a small, exclusive hotel where some 12 guests can book rooms on an individual basis.
All meals, drinks and excursions are included, and on a top-of-the-range vessel such as Amaryllis you can look forward to stately ensuite bedrooms, Louis XVI-style furniture, a heated pool and bicycles for freewheeling rides along the towpath.
Flexibility is a point of pride - if you've read about a little chapel with Byzantine frescoes you'd love to see, have a burning desire to buy a classic French wicker shopping basket, or just fancy playing boules with the locals under a row of venerable plane trees, it is all possible.
By Nigel Tisdall, an award-winning writer and editor, based in London
What were your favourite moments when travelling through France by barge?