A big part of the joy of a barge cruise in Europe is the time spent onboard the boat itself, not just the excursions. To that end, choosing the right ship and setup is important. Barge Lady Cruises is a service dedicated to barge vacations and works with a vetted list of options throughout Europe. After understanding that we were looking for a kid-friendly experience, Barge Lady Cruises booked us on the Athos du Midi, a well-established barge specializing in small group and family holidays on the Canal du Midi in southern France, with decades of experience running barge vacations.
Our group of 10 included three children ages 6, 13 and 15, and we all appreciated the time we spent both on the Athos and exploring the area. Their family itinerary is optimally constructed to pair a mix of sightseeing and cultural excursions with downtime in and around the ship. Every person on our trip walked away feeling like they’d learned about the traditions and history of the region while having fun and doing something truly unique. The Athos offers a travel experience with logistics-free benefits, yielding a level of relaxation not usually associated with a sightseeing-focused holiday.
Intrigued about taking a kid-friendly barge vacation? Here’s our review of the Athos du Midi for families.
The Canal du Midi is home to boats of all shapes and sizes. Although barging is the verb for taking a trip down the canal, only a handful of vessels on the canal are true barges. The Athos du Midi is one of them, as it used to be a commercial grain and wine barge.Julian Farrant, the owner and the captain of our trip, bought the Athos years ago and meticulously renovated it into an amazingly appointed and comfortable space for guests and the Athos staff.
The Athos is constructed with beautiful wood finishes and is immaculately maintained. Five guest cabins in the front of the barge can be configured with queen or twin size beds. Every guest room has an ensuite bathroom with a sink and shower, a closet for hanging clothes, and cleverly configured large drawers that open under the beds. Although the guest rooms are compact, they are surprisingly comfortable, with air-conditioning and showers (stocked with L’Occitane skincare products) that function better than they do at many of the hotel rooms we’ve slept in over the years. The cabins are quiet and well-insulated from both interior and exterior noise — important in close quarters.
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The primary indoor public space is a spacious lounge with sofa seating, a bar and a large dining table. The space is light and bright with windows lining each side of the room. It feels like a homey living room and is stocked with an array of regional guides to peruse. It’s the perfect intimate space for 10 people to gather.
However, we loved congregating on the deck when the weather behaved. A covered table is the perfect venue for lunches while cruising and dinner on warm evenings, and this also was the place we’d gather with books in hand for our afternoon siesta.
Our sailing came with an on-the-deck hot tub (available on request), bikes and an inflatable kayak. The staff has their own quarters that enable them to sleep on board.
Speaking of the staff, the incredible staff on the Athos enhanced our barge cruise experience in every way. Each sailing includes a captain, a private guide who organizes the daily excursions, a cook and two additional crew members who serve meals and keep the cabins and public areas tidy. The service is very personalized, as the staff is exclusive to the Athos. Someone is there to greet you practically every waking moment, and they genuinely care about anticipating guests’ needs. They are not following a script, just truly fantastic people.
Captain: Julian has been barging since 1982. We all enjoyed watching him work his magic behind the wheel — navigating a ship the size of the Athos though the narrow canal and locks is no easy feat and we always felt we were in good hands. Julian is English, full of stories of his journeys down the canals of Europe. The Captain’s Dinner on the last night is one for the memory books — he had us in stitches as we were crying with laughter.
Private Guide: Our guide, Mathieu, was absolute gem. Although each day has a predefined list of activity options, there are always choices to make around what the group wants to do and see. Mathieu didn’t just drive us around and drop us off, he was a truly knowledgable guide who led us on detailed tours filled with historical information. And because he travels with you, the information presented is done in a way that tells a sequential story, and not repeated throughout the week at each destination (an issue with new guides at each stop within a single destination).
Chef: We had some of the best food we’ve eaten anywhere on the planet on the Athos, thanks to the wondrously talented chef, Andy. He uses incredible local ingredients to craft meals that tasted so good that even the 6-year-old was licking her plate clean every single meal — it didn’t matter what was put in front of her. Like any cruise vacation, you don’t go hungry, and despite always having an insane array of phenomenal food, part of Andy’s magic is portion control. Although we always indulged in a bit of everything, we never felt overly stuffed or bloated. There was no need to go out to eat yet no missing the French dining experience; we had one of the best restaurants you can imagine right on our boat. A trip highlight!
More Guest-Focused Crew: Two additional women, ZsuZsa and Marianna, were on our boat to serve drinks and meals, and to clean our cabins every day. More than that, they were always smiling and available to help with needs of any kind. They were friendly, lovely people and we all enjoyed getting to know them throughout the week.
It just so happens that the Athos owners have young children of their own and truly understand how to maximize barging for children and their parents. This is key! Again, barging takes place in tight quarters and there are plenty of scenarios where it wouldn’t be fun for kids or the adults around them if everyone was going stir crazy.
Our family-focused itinerary balanced different cultural and historic excursions every day. From olive oil tasting to strolling through one of the Languedoc’s most picturesque villages, no two activities are alike, and they all add up to providing a great introduction to the region. Because the guide is private and every excursion throughout the week is customized for the group at hand, the experience is decadent and for families who are used to logistics when traveling, the effortless activities are a true joy. There are decisions to make, as the sheer number of possibilities exceed the time in the day, but there is no work in figuring out the rest.
The Canal du Midi has a path on both sides and because we had bikes on board, we were able to bike, stroll or run every afternoon for exercise. The boat has set departure and arrival spots each day and there is a schedule to follow, but within that schedule there is flexibility for the group to do more or less of one thing or another. I’ll write more about our specific adventures in my next article.
As I mentioned above, the meals are an Athos du Midi highlight. We had a hunch the food would be good — after all, it’s France! — but I don’t think any of us understood just how good it could be. The Athos meals exceeded expectations in every way. The cuisine is healthy and diverse, sophisticated but not fussy. The chef can work around any dietary constraints and we had some, including a vegetarian and someone lactose intolerant onboard, yet we never felt like we were missing out because of the modifications.
Although Andy is English, we felt like we were having a true regional experience, as almost everything we ate was fresh from the region: pastries/bread service for breakfast, fresh fish, meat, oysters, veggies from the market and of course, cheese. Every meal included wine pairings with a presentation of a unique local varietal and producer, as well as a cheese course.
The presentation is lovely. Breakfast, the most casual meal, is a buffet left out with fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, juice and bread picked up that very morning. Lunch is served family style, and dinner is a plated meal where everyone gets a bit more gussied up. The chef always comes and explains the meal in detail, and we even had the opportunity to shop at the market in Narbonne with him. Another trip highlight!
In short, on the Athos, families unpack once and settle in for the week yet are treated to an outstanding array of activities, culinary treats and settings. It was all we expected and much, much more.
Editor’s Note: Amie received a media package to review the Athos du Midi and Barge Lady Cruises. As always, our opinions on Ciao Bambino are our own. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy.
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