Barge Trip: Friendly People, Gourmet Food

Travel Weekly associate cruise editor Laura Dennis and her aunt sailed on a seven-day cruise aboard the barge Etoile de Champagne. The Springtime in Holland itinerary departed from Weesp and ended in Ouderkerk. Her report follows:

ABOARD THE ETOILE DE CHAMPAGNE -- I was slightly intimidated by the idea of barge cruising.

I expected to be surrounded by well-heeled, highbrow types who would want to discuss the latest PBS special and the decline of Western civilization. They would scoff at my mass-market cruise experiences and be mortified by my "Seinfeld" references. My aunt Maureen, a sophisticated traveler, would act as my buffer, and, in the worst-case scenario, she would be the one person on board who was obligated to talk to me.

Capt. Jan Meijer, owner and operator of the Etoile, greeted us as we boarded the ship. My aunt and I were the last to arrive, and after our luggage was stored in our cabins, we went to the main parlor to meet our fellow passengers.

There were five of us on board the 14-passenger vessel.

Joan lives in Palm Beach, Fla., and was traveling by herself. She was spending about four weeks in Europe with stops in London, Belgium and Paris. Friends who had cruised aboard the Etoile had recommended it to her.

Annette and Herb from Winston-Salem, N.C., had barged once before in France. A travel agent with First Travel Corp., Annette was hoping to book a group on the Etoile for 1999 and was familiarizing herself with the barge.

As we got acquainted during our champagne reception with Jan and the five-person crew, I discovered my initial trepidation wasn't called for. The group developed an instant rapport, which helped set the tone for the rest of the trip. The dynamics of the group, I learned, plays a large role in the barge experience. A barge is nothing like a ship, and there aren't many places to go if you want to avoid your fellow passengers.

The main lounge, the dining room and the sun deck are in the front of the vessel. The cocktail lounge and the staircase leading to the observation deck are aft. A table and plenty of chairs awaited passengers on the top deck along with three-speed bicycles.

Accommodations for the passengers, crew and captain are all below decks. The six cabins are small and furnished simply. All of the cabins have the same basic layout, including two bathrooms, with a toilet and sink in one and a shower and additional sink in the other.

Each cabin is furnished with twin beds that can be converted into a queen-size bed. Extra pillows and blankets, a hair dryer and a large bottle of water are among the amenities, and we found ample storage space in the closet and small dresser. However, thicker towels and new bedding would be an improvement on the Etoile. The cabins are not equipped with individual temperature controls, but the captain said he is planning to add this feature.

The seventh stateroom on board is the suite located on the main deck. The suite provides great views, better lighting and both a double and single bed. In the end, the cabins contained all the creature comforts needed for dressing and sleeping.

It was cold and overcast during the first days of our May sailing, and we sat out on the sun deck only for short periods. Many days, we stayed in the main sitting area, which offered comfortable sofas, a nice collection of books, and large windows to watch the passing countryside. We were disappointed by the bad weather (blamed on El Nino, of course) but made the best of it by reading, chatting and observing the scenery.

Sailing along the narrow canals, we passed many Dutch backyards. Glorious flower gardens, sparkling windows and white lace curtains could be found everywhere, from quaint homes to grand houses. nd the countryside was filled with vibrant people of all ages cycling along the canals.

We also could view the landscape from the wood-paneled dining room, where we feasted on gourmet meals. Each day the table was set with fresh flowers and fine china and silver. For breakfast, there was a selection of fresh fruits, yogurts, cereals, breads and jams. At lunch, dishes were served family style and included salads and entrees such as curried chicken, smoked duck wontons and gnocchi with a tomato and pesto sauce. Entrees such as salmon, quail and lamb were presented with flair each night by the chef and our server. A nice selection of French wines and a variety of cheeses also accompanied our lunches and dinners.

During the first few days, the pace on the barge seemed very slow and relaxed. It picked up later when we visited Haarlem, Delft, Gouda and Amsterdam. Trips to a local cheesemaker's farm, the museum of Dutch painter Frans Hals, the Delft Pottery center and Keukenof Gardens were other highlights.

The weather finally improved during the last days of our itinerary. With sweaters and jackets stashed away in our cabins, we focused on enjoying the sunny skies and warm temperatures.

One of our first acts was to go for a bike ride. With a van nearby in case we needed a lift, we rode off keeping an eye on one another. After a few miles of wending along the canal, we stopped and waited for the Etoile to catch up to us. Our group, following many days of togetherness and many a political discussion, was still getting along famously.

Cruising into Amsterdam on the final night, we sat on the observation deck, gazing out at the bustling city, and posed for one last group picture. Capt. Jan assured us this togetherness was typical on the Etoile and said passengers rarely went out of their way to escape one another. As for families who sometimes charter the barge -- well, that's a whole other story.

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