River Cruise Editor Michelle Baran is sailing through France's Alsace-Lorraine region aboard European Waterways' new hotel barge, Le Panache. Her first dispatch follows.
When Captain Willy of the 12-passenger hotel barge Le Panache told us he wouldn’t like to work on the bigger ships, I assumed he meant ocean liners.
But no, in the barging world, the 150- to 200-passenger river cruise vessels being built en masse across Europe are thought of as big ships. The captain explained that when working on European Waterways’ hotel barges, he really gets to know the passengers and interact with them. And after a few days sailing on one such barge, I understand why.
There are only six of us sailing for six days through the Alsace-Lorraine region of France on the Le Panache, a 128-foot vessel with a kitchen, dining room, salon and sundeck. The barge has the feel of a very well-appointed, uniquely decorated houseboat that is conveniently fully staffed (there are as many crew as passengers on this sailing).
Everything about this experience is the epitome of intimacy. Meal times, with the six of us gathering around the marble dining table three times a day, are intimate.
The Canal de la Marne au Rhin, a narrow waterway that in parts only allows two barges to pass each other side by side, is intimate. Excursions, for which we are transported in a six-passenger van and then walk casually through the area’s towns with our guide Florian, are intimate. The other evening, Willy took us to a local Alsatian restaurant where an old friend of his makes, in his opinion, some of the best tarte flambee in the region, another intimate experience.
There is indeed an unhurried, unpopulated calm to barge cruising. With so few people onboard, the vibe on the ship is often mellow and quiet as we float past Alsace-Lorraine’s rolling countryside and forested mountains, most of the passengers on the sundeck reading, taking photographs or simply watching the passing landscape in warmer weather or gathered in the salon doing the same in cooler temps.
Pairs break off into conversation here or there, and at meal times we might all engage in a discussion about past travel experiences or the local delicacies the chef prepares for us each day (with such a small group, this could go several different ways depending on how well the passengers and their opinions mesh or clash, but assuming everyone gets along, the meals unravel pleasantly).
On a small vessel such as this, there is little in the way of entertainment, though last night a young woman from Saverne, where we’re currently docked, came onboard to sing and play piano for us.
But clearly, it’s the scenery, the region’s interesting mix of French and German culture, the cuisine and wine of Alsace-Lorraine, and a tranquil escape from life and the “big ships” that are the main draw.