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There are many ways to tour Europe, but very few take you off road and into the countryside. A wonderful alternative to tour buses, ocean liners and trains -- and the crowds and chaos that go with these modes of travel -- canal barges are about as intimate a way to see Europe as you'll find.

Typically carrying between six and 24 passengers, as opposed to the larger river boats that can accommodate 100 to 200 passengers on cruises along Europe's many rivers, these tiny barges meander through narrow canals built hundreds of years ago to connect rivers and oceans for purposes of commerce and transportation. Today, this crisscrossing network of waterborn roadways provides a lovely means to explore France and Holland, where most canal itineraries are based, but also England, Scotland and Ireland.

Relax on deck under the shade of a canopy as picture-perfect pastoral scenes, rolling hills, and medieval castles, fortresses and cathedrals -- even Roman ruins -- pass by like the frames of a film. Slow and easy, most weeklong itineraries rarely cover more than 40 or 50 miles, and often call on several ports per day, affording passengers an in-depth look at a region.

A low-key way to travel, the up-close views and the camaraderie of fellow passengers are the main pastime, along with dining, which is often a high point as well. Typically, great effort is put into the presentation and preparation of fine food and wine.

Though very laid back and relaxed, there are opportunities to keep active too. Most barges carry bicycles aboard for use in port. Pedal around historic towns to see the sights or bike, or stroll, along the tow paths that parallel the canals -- you may even beat the barge to the next port!

Whether you get out and explore or just sit on deck, you'll be in for a cultural and historical feast on a barge cruise. Itineraries in France, for instance, often include the 300-year-old Canal du Midi, which cuts through landscape dominated by ancient villages and Roman forts as well as the famed wine region of Bordeaux. Sightseeing includes the medieval city of Carcassonne, ancient Roman city of Narbonne, 12th-century Minerve fortress and the Beziers cathedral. Visits to vineyards are also a part of many itineraries. In the Loire Valley, for instance, a barge trip may include cycling to Nerves to see the cathedral there and the 4th-century ramparts or a visit to Pouilly-sur-Loire, famous for the Pouilly Fume wines, for a tour and tasting. Motor coaches are typically dispatched to follow the barges' itineraries so that guests can easily sightsee in port. Hot air balloon rides are also an option on many trips.

On board, cabins tend to be cozy, though comfortable, and are typically equipped with portholes, plus amenities like hair dryers and private bathrooms.

The barge cruising season in Europe runs from mid March through early November, with temperatures similar to those here in the Northeast. Bilingual crew speaks both French and English

French Country Waterways (tel. 800/222-1236; www.fcwl.com) has six ultra-luxury barges accommodating eight to 18 guests on a series of six-night itineraries in France. The elegant barges include the newest, the all-suite Adrienne (to be introduced in Sept 2005), as well as the all-suite Horizon II, Nenuphar, and Princess, and the Espirit and Liberte. These barges feature wood paneling, provincial furnishings and Oriental carpets, to create an old-world atmosphere. Jaunts through the Upper Loire Valley, Burgundy, Champagne, and Alsace Lorraine regions afford guests a sea of stunning landscapes, from vineyards to mountain peaks, forests, farms and quaint villages.

When it comes to dining, four-course meals on beautifully-set candlelit tables feature delectable French dishes from the likes of baby artichokes stuffed with burgundy snails and smoked bacon with a chartreuse sauce to a fillet of beef stuffed with fresh burgundy truffles and chervil. Of course French wines, many from the Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards, are equally divine, and are included in the rates along with all spirits. The use of bicycles carried on board and shore excursions are also covered in the fare, including a meal ashore once per cruise at an elegant two- or three-star Michelin restaurants. Fares range from $3,495 to $4,995 per person, and cruises depart Sunday afternoons. Special promotions include "value season" discounts of $400 per person on cruises from March 27 to April 30, July 17 to August 13, and October 16 to November 5. Plus, reap additional savings of $600 per couple on all April departures. There are additional discounts for those celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, though not combinable with other promotions.

Grand Circle Corporation (tel. 800/959-0405; www.gct.com) has been in business for nearly 50 years specializing in travel for the 50+ set. Last year, the company acquired France-based Continental Waterways and its fleet of seven 20- to 24-passenger luxury barges, and now offers barge trips under its Overseas Adventure Travel brand (tel. 800/493-6824; www.oattravel.com) as well as its VBT Deluxe Bicycle Vacations brand (tel. 800/245-3868; www.vbt.com). Both brands package very affordable seven-night canal itineraries in France and Holland that can be combined with hotel stays before and after the cruise, offering truly well rounded European experiences. While all the barges carry bicycles aboard for use in port, if you're a real cyclist, than the new combo barge and biking tours offered by VBT are ideal. The VBT itineraries include 2- to 4-hour guided bicycle tours in port, complete with support vans, to acquaint cyclists with the beautiful countryside of these regions. For example, on the Burgundy Bike and Barge trip, you can cycle the famed Grand Crus loop that wends through the vineyards of the Cote du Nuits region.

All cabins have portholes and private bathrooms, while the dining rooms feature the cuisine of a classically trained French chef. In each port there is also a local trip leader to guide walking tours and excursions. In the spirit of getting the most authentic local experience possible, each cruise features a visit with local Dutch or French families in their homes.

Rates starting as low as $1,795 per person include a 7-night barge cruise, breakfast, wine with dinner, sightseeing, plus three nights hotel accommodation before/after the cruise as well as international airfare from gateways including New York, Miami, Boston and Baltimore.

Abercrombie & Kent (tel. 800/554-7094; www.abercrombieandkent.com) has been a purveyor of luxury adventure travel since the early 1960s. Its fleet of 22 barges carries between six and 22 passengers on six-night itineraries in France, Holland, Ireland, Scotland and England. All wines, spirits, and sightseeing are included in the rates, and most barges carry bicycles aboard. Cuisine and wine are a high point of an Abercrombie & Kent cruise, and fresh local breads as well as local cheeses, mustards and regional specialties are featured in the elaborate meals offered. For real foodies, La Bonne Amie even has an open kitchen design and the chef is always happy to conduct cooking classes and demos when there is interest. For the truly indulgent, the six-passenger Fleur de Lys has a swimming pool, and a few of the barges sport hot tubs.

While most people book passage as an individual with other travelers, barges can also be chartered for families and small groups. For example, the Bonne Amie does six-night cruises through the canals of Alsace Lorraine, where the region's unique French and German heritage thrives. Six-night itineraries start at $5,500 per person, or charters for up to eight guests begin at $39,900. In England, the Magna Carta traverses the River Thames from London to Henley-on-Thames, with highlights including a visit to Windsor Castle. Six-night cruises start at $3,690 per person, while charters for up to 8 guests begin at $28,000. Rates, which vary according to itinerary, season and size of barge, start as low as $1,690 for the largest vessels.

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