Float Through Burgundy

Aprile Royal

Epicurean delights await Arlene Stacey during a leisurely journey aboard a water-borne hotel.

Choosing a cruise is like selecting a party: do you want the raucous joy and sheer fun of the ball dropping on Times Square on New Year’s Eve or the intimacy of an elegant dinner party? If you’re looking for personal connection rather than large crowds, book a luxury barge for a meander along the rivers and canals of Italy, Holland, Germany, the British Isles or, if you’re a wino — oops, I mean an oenophile! — like me, France.

For my friend Aprile and me, a week long cruise, at the end of a nasty Canadian winter, on the River Yonne, which connects the Seine with northern Burgundy, and the Nivernais Canal, considered one of the loveliest waterways in France, seems just the ticket. After two days of our own brand of raucous joy and sheer fun in the City of Light, we’re ready for a week of indulgent elegance.

A van picks us up in Paris for the hour-long ride to our mooring in Auxerre. It’s not until we’ve enjoyed a champagne-and-hors d’oeuvres welcome aboard La Belle Époque with Captain Nick and his crew of four that we see our suitcases, which have already been delivered to our cabin. The 125-square-foot wood-panelled Sancerre may be the smallest suite on the barge (there are six in all, the largest with a tub in the ensuite!), but it is certainly roomy enough for the two of us, who plan to spend most of our time in the sophisticated lounge or on deck. The brass portholes in our room open for fresh air when we’re docked, and we have our own control for heat and air conditioning. The marble ensuite is tiny and perfect, with all amenities and plush towels.

La Belle Époque, a 126-foot former freight carrier built in 1930, used to deliver logs from Burgundy to Paris until it was converted to this floating boutique hotel in 1995 and retrofitted in 2006. Now, it’s delivering previously frozen Canadian logs — otherwise known as Aprile and me — from Auxerre to Clamecy, a distance of 60 kilometres.

In the teak-panelled dining room, we join Greg and Nancy from Adelaide, Aust., Sally from Auckland, N.Z., and Judy from California, oohing and aahing over an appetizer of smoked duck with celeriac remoulade and a main course of guinea fowl with herbed potatoes and asparagus pancetta crisp with beurre blanc served at the mahogany dining room table.

Oh, the wines: a Rully from northern Côte Chalonnaise, a Chardonnay with a bite of citrus and a hint of cinnamon and liquorice, along with an Irancy, a Pinot Noir with just enough tannins from Cesar grapes for structure, the only Burgundy that’s blended. The cheeses! A French blue from Auvergne, nutty and savoury; a local creamy cow’s milk cheese with peppercorns; and a soft, runny Plaisir au Chablis with a mushroomy flavour. And that’s just the first night.

Okay, 60 kilometres in six days may not sound like much, but 60 kilometres through the back country of France, through century-old locks that hold the barge with only inches to spare, through private backyards where black Labs and sheepdogs charge to the water’s edge when you float by, where ducks peer through the portholes of your cabin — all while being treated to regional wines and local cheeses at every extravagant lunch and every gourmet dinner and pampered by five crew members is luxurious.

Aprile and I couldn’t be happier, especially when our first full day has us mooring at Vincelles for a private tasting at Domaine Laroche in Chablis, producers of Aprile’s very favourite wine of all time. We learn the differences among the four ranks of Chablis: Petit Chablis and Chablis, which, after aging in stainless steel vats, don’t benefit from bottle aging; the 80 vineyards of Premier Cru, which can bottle-age for 10 years; and, the crème de la crème, the seven vineyards that make up Grand Cru, which can bottle-age 15 years or more. With a population of only 2,500, the town of Chablis may be small, but it is a mighty presence in the wine world.

Most mornings, Greg sets off for a brisk walk along the towpath. Half an hour later, we’re at the breakfast counter before the rest of the group get up. When they have, Captain Nick Jones — a Brit who has been a soldier, a Ministry of Defence agent and an actor (in Eastenders and The Bill) and now lives with his wife and two children in Burgundy — lays out the day: we’re cruising in the morning and touring in the afternoon — or vice versa. We ride bikes into small towns and help out at the locks.

The days blend pleasantly together. We explore the medieval Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene in Vézelay; walk  cobblestoned streets in the walled town of Noyers; and tour Mailly-la-Ville with its population of 700 while the crew waits on board, preparing the next meal.

Six days, 35 locks, 27 wines, 26 cheeses and 17 meals later, Aprile and I roll off La Belle Époque, rediscover our land legs and return to Paris, where everything seems a little too noisy, a little too raucous after our week on the elegant epicurean “backwaters” of France.

THE LUXURY HOTEL BARGING EXPERIENCE

For more barging destinations, contact European Waterways, 1-877-574-3404, www.gobarging.com.