With its 16 hotel barges, European Waterways has developed an intimate luxury canal cruising experience vastly different from the popular, larger river cruises in Europe.
With between six and 20 passengers onboard — compared with the 150 to 200 passengers of the larger European river ships — the result is a much more personalized and serene experience. They sail along much narrower canals, and the itineraries thus include the much quainter towns and lesser-known sites along the way.
During a European Waterways canal barge cruise last month on the 12-passenger Le Panache through France's Alsace and Lorraine regions, I had the opportunity to experience the difference.
On Le Panache, the six 150-square-foot cabins are cozy but not confined, with porthole windows and fairly large en suite bathrooms with double sinks. The decor in the common living and dining rooms is distinctive, like what you would expect of a deluxe bed-and-breakfast. On the sun deck there is a more casual outdoor dining table and a hot tub.
The barge, which sails at a maximum speed of 14 mph, sets a very relaxed pace for the weeklong trip. Passengers take in the passing scenery and enjoy well-executed, locally sourced meals, wines and cheeses.
With few passengers and a small, dedicated staff serving them, everyone spends a lot of time together, so guests should be prepared for that level of engagement.
During sailings, passengers can check email with pretty consistent wireless Internet, observe the entertaining process of passing through the myriad locks on the canals or simply read and relax.
Excursion highlights of the Alsace and Lorraine cruise included the Musee Lalique, a museum in the town of Wingen-sur-Moder devoted to the art nouveau and art deco glassware of Rene Lalique; a 13th century chapel with Marc Chagall-designed stained-glass windows in Sarrebourg; and the ever-charming city of Strasbourg.
Excursions were conducted in a small van with a well-informed tour guide who journeyed with the group throughout the cruise.
Bikes are available onboard for riding along the canals or in the towns. The canals wind through beautiful, changing landscapes that are conducive to scenic walks or jogs.
European Waterways barges sail along canals in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland, England and Italy. For 2013, one-week cruises range from $3,690 to $7,290 per person, based on double occupancy.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.