For a different kind of “cruise” and an offbeat French experience, consider cruising around France with your family in one of Crown Blue Line's barges.
“You could have picked a boat a little less broad,” muttered the gentleman who helped us tie up our 39-foot cabin cruiser in the charming French village of Verdun-Sur-Le-Doubs on the SaÃ´ne River. I thought I had picked a fine Crown Blue Line barge.
I may be extra sensitive, but I thought I’d done a masterful job of swerving our seven-ton boat back and forth until I could aim it bow first into the rather tight parking place along the dock.
My two children, 13-year-old Madeleine and 11-year-old Walker, and my cousin Robin and I were spending a few days traveling through the Burgundy region of France on a U-drive “barge.”
In My Captain’s Cap
Since my previous on-the-water experience was limited to rental rowboats and a few spins in a paddle boat, I requested the short how-to-drive-a-boat lesson at the Crown Blue Line marina before we headed out onto the river. Phillipe Simon, my instructor, seemed to have much more faith in my driving ability than I did as he cheerfully waved goodbye and watched us attempt to untie the boat and unsteadily motor off.
Driving along the slow-moving river was the easy part — the boat didn’t go faster than 10 miles per hour — but navigating the locks and parking was a bit more taxing. As time went by, my confidence increased and my docking skills definitely improved.
Our Routine – C’est Charmante
Most days we motored leisurely along the river past groups of white swans, blue herons, swimming children, sunbathing families, manor houses, and quaint French villages where we occasionally stopped for a pain au chocolat or a few groceries.
Each night we’d dock in a new town and walk from the pier to dinner past centuries-old stone houses and shops fronted by windowboxes crammed with cascading red and pink geraniums.
Our cabin cruiser was plushly outfitted with three tiny bedrooms, each with their own bathroom, a complete kitchen, and a pleasant sitting area, plus a rooftop deck with table, chairs, umbrella, and a steering station where the skipper — me — could pilot the boat in the sun.
Life in the Slow Lane
We’d planned the barge trip to fall right in the middle of a fast-paced, three-week tour of European cities, and it provided the perfect restful break and the chance to see small-town French life.
The kids took it easy and watched the world go by or lazed in the sun with books on the deck, but they could have fished or ridden their bikes (which can be rented with the boat) along the river paths or around the village streets.
The river was never crowded, but every now and then we’d see boats similar to ours carrying other families and children. Occasionally a larger “barge” with passengers, crew, and cook would float by, but for family travel, the drive-your-own option allows you the flexibility to stop and explore any time the mood strikes.
We had such a good time that we’d like to try it again. My daughter wants to cruise the Shannon River in Ireland because she’s learning to play the Celtic harp, and my son wants to search for the Loch Ness Monster along the Scottish highlands route.
I’d like to try Holland (no locks!) but with other choices such as England, Germany, Italy, and many other regions of France, it will be a hard-fought decision to make.
Crown Blue Line has boats of all types and sizes depending on your budget and family size. Note that since our voyage with Crown Blue Line, they have joined forces with two other European barge companies to become Le Boat, a division of the multi-national tour operator TUI.
Le Boat (800/734-5491) has US offices based at 93 N. Park Place Blvd. Clearwater, FL 33759-3917, and their staff will answer questions and handle arrangements for the Crown Blue Line barges. For more information, contact your travel agent or the Le Boat staff directly. Rates for a barge sleeping four in France depend on dates — whether you’re sailing in May or June or after late August (low seasons) — and if you don’t want to take a full week’s tour, families can book a “short break’ of three to five nights at discounted prices.
If you don’t think you can handle the stress, consider a fully crewed barge tour of France. One of the top operators is French Country Waterways (800/222-1236, 781/934-2454), whose stylish barges are refurbished each year to insure an extra level of comfort. Not specifically geared for families, some barges are small enough to accommodate private family reunion groups, and each has a few suites, sundeck, lounge and dining room, library of books and games, and bicycles. The company’s rates include meals, an open bar, bicycle use, guides, airport transfers and daily sightseeing to historic cities, medieval villages and churches, stately chÃ¢teaux and famous vineyards. Their tineraries typically run for six nights, beginning on Sunday, and they operate between April and November.
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