I’ve always wanted to take a barge cruise in Europe and finally had the opportunity to do so with kids in tow after finding the perfect resource, Barge Lady Cruises. I’ve researched family barge vacations for years now and always came away frustrated, as most operators don’t offer kid-friendly catered options, meaning a barge that functions like a hotel with onboard amenities and services. With the right setup, there’s no reason not to turn a barge vacation into a very special family vacation … we did just that and discovered that traveling on a hotel barge in Europe is an absolute blast and deserves a position on the coveted family vacation bucket list.
We spent six nights on the historic Canal du Midi in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southwestern France, on the Athos du Midi. Our group of 10, including three kids ages 6, 13 and 15, were all barge newbies and every single one of us loved the experience. Here’s why:
What is a Barge Cruise in Europe?
When I mentioned we were taking a barge cruise in Europe this summer most people gave me a blank “what is that?” stare. Although barge cruising isn’t new, it’s not well understood. Barges carry 4 to 22 passengers and travel down the canals in Europe. Canals exist throughout the continent, including France, Holland, Belgium, Ireland, England, Scotland and Germany. Most were built for the transportation of goods and now many of them are used for cruising vacations.
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Canals are manmade; they aren’t rivers. The UNESCO-protected Canal du Midi was built in the 1600s and is considered a feat of engineering genius, given the complex locks and tunnels required to create a single network linking the Mediterranean with the Atlantic Ocean. There are no real waves and to that end barging is a compelling boat vacation option for people who get seasick.
Although the canals aren’t natural, they are picturesque and designed to blend with their surroundings. In the case of the Canal du Midi, plane trees were planted along the banks to provide shade along the waterway; unfortunately, many of these trees now are diseased and in the process of being cut down and replaced. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of them left and they are truly beautiful.
Unlike a river or ocean cruise, you don’t move at night, but dock in a village or along the banks of the canal. Our setup on the Athos was ideal; we cruised just 3 to 4 hours a day — enough to make headway and experience different scenery, but with plenty of time to sightsee and visit attractions.
One thing we learned is that you don’t go fast … there’s no water skiing from the back of the barge. In France, the average barge speed is 4km per hour. It feels like gliding and is extremely relaxing. Likewise, one of the things that makes it so appealing is that the canals are narrow and relatively logistics-free compared to river or ocean cruising when it comes to stopping and getting off the boat. It’s like a houseboat: flexible.
Canal cruising in Europe is very popular and there are an array of options out there. Self-driving is popular, like an RV on a canal, and although the Athos du Midi was quite luxurious, there are boats of every size, shape, and condition cruising by. The people-watching is phenomenal and part of the fun.
Our barge had a pilot, chef, guide and staff to clean and essentially cater to our every need. This style of barging is fantastic as you can just show up and enjoy the full experience and destination. Like camping, the do-it-yourself version takes work and, frankly, knowledge. If you don’t know how to navigate the locks, for example, you may waste precious vacation time figuring out the details.
One of the things I loved most about our barge cruise is that these canals don’t necessarily go through tourist areas, making the journey a wonderful way to observe local life right from the deck of the boat. People are fishing, biking and working — you go through countryside venues, cities and villages. You have to drive to the tourist areas (another service that a catered barge provides), but the Athos has an itinerary planned with plenty to do and access. Our itinerary went primarily through peaceful agricultural areas yet we still went through a true variety of landscapes — notable given that we really didn’t travel far. Barging is more about the overall experience than the distance traveled.
Although we were on a very large barge that sleeps 10 guests, no matter what, it’s close quarters. The Athos configuration is ideal with indoor and outdoor gathering spots. The setup is incredible for extended family and good friends who want a very special way travel together. You dine and sightsee as a group … yet everyone has their own space and no one needs to coordinate at all for meals (unlike a hotel, where the decision-making around where and when to gather is constant). It’s like staying in a private, fully staffed villa that moves!
What Barging Isn’t
A barge is not a cruise ship with a long list of places to relax indoors. We were on one of the largest vessels on the Canal due Midi at 30 meters long with a brilliant layout for staff and guests to relax and be comfortable (indoors and out) and it still felt cozy. It would be easy to feel cramped with too many people on a smaller boat.
There are no formal stopping points or ports where everyone has to get off. To that end, the logistics are easy … however, the canals weren’t constructed for tourism and many of the interesting bigger-name attractions are a drive away. This wasn’t an issue for us, as our fully staffed barge came with two minivans that were available at each stop, but if you were to self-drive this would be a significant limitation. The canal is an attraction in itself and there is quite a bit to see along its shores, but to experience as many sights as possible, you need a car.
It’s worth noting that you can’t experience barging without being on a canal. Just stopping to see what a canal looks like would be like staring at Disneyland from outside the gates. Not rewarding. Now that we’ve experienced barging (and love it) — we’ll do it again on other canals in Europe or even another part of the Canal du Midi. The joy of #BargeLife — our official trip hashtag — only happens on a barge. For more information on barge trips throughout Europe, visit the experts at BargeLadyCruises.com.
Up Next: Detailed review of the Athos and Canal du Midi
Editor’s Note: Ciao Bambino received a media package to review the Athos du Midi and Barge Lady Cruises for families. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy.