Sailing the seven seas may be one way to travel, but for a more intimate, slower pace nothing beats a canal cruise. Europe is home to a multitude of canal and lock systems that allow barges to cruise along -- often at no faster than a walking pace. In particular the canals in France, Belgium, Holland and the U.K. open up to barge traffic in the spring and provide a unique vacation on water. Prices may appear to be a bit steep for these cruises, but considering that it is almost like having a private gourmet boat tour with almost everything included, a slight indulgence may be in order.
When first searching for companies that offer barge and canal cruises, you may notice that there are several websites and company names selling places on the same boats. Nearly all barge cruises last for seven days, although there are some shorter one to three day options available especially in Holland during Tulip season. Prices will usually stay consistent and in this respect is not different to let's say a travel agent or website selling an ocean cruise. Because the boast are invariably smaller though -- some with only a handful of cabins -- their tours tend to sell out early, especially in the peak summer season and the spring tulip season in the Netherlands. There is also the option to charter the entire boat for your group; although this does not appear to be any less expensive, in fact often it is actually more expensive than booking individually.
Euro River Cruises (www.eurorivercruises.com) has a six-night cruise about the 12 passenger La Belle Époque that cruises along the Nivernais canal in the Burgundy region of France. La Belle Époque offers a sun-deck spa pool, chartroom, wood paneled saloon and dining room, together with other luxury facilities (it's also fully air-conditioned). The spacious cabins offer a choice of twin or double beds and marble en-suite bath facilities. The captain leads a crew of six, comprising Master Chef, tour guide, housekeeper and two stewardesses. The cruises include gourmet cuisine for all meals, an all-inclusive, open bar, free wines and entrance fees. Visit Auxerre, St. Bris with its underground passages, the medieval hilltop village of Vézelay, go wine tasting in a 12th Century cellar and Foie Gras tasting. Rates start at $2,590 per person for travel on April 3, 10 and 17 and November 6 and 13, 2007 and prices go up to $3,690 during regular and high season.
Actief Luxury Barge (www.bargecruising.com) offers trips cruising the stunning upper reaches of the royal River Thames in England. The Actief, a hundred year old Dutch clipper, is a luxurious and charming vessel that combines superb private tours with gourmet cuisine and impeccable service. Actief's itineraries visit delightful islands, winding backwaters, quaint villages, locks and weir streams. Their six-day cruises depart from London and include six nights' accommodations in double staterooms, breakfast, three-course lunches and four-course candlelight diners daily, bar drinks and wines, private transfers to and from the Actief, excursions, entrance fees and use of bicycles and other on shore equipment. The boat accommodates a total of 11 guests and this Thames River trip is priced from $2,790 per person for departures on April 15 and 22, July 29, August 5, 12, 19 and 26, September 30 and October 1, 8, 15 and 29, 2007. There is one single cabin available for $2,990. Touring highlights include Ewelme village, Oxford, Mapledurham Estate, Henley-On-Thames, Hurley, Cliveden, Windsor Castle, Eton College and Windsor
Go Barging (tel. 800/394 8630; www.gobarging.com) offers a wide selection of six-night barge cruising options throughout Europe. La Dolce Vita is a small vessel that sleeps six passengers and covers a unique route visiting Venice's outer islands of Torcello, Burano and Murano and the beautiful canals of Brenta River. La Dolce Vita has a crew of three, three comfortable cabins (one twin, one twin/double and one double) -- all with en-suites, air-conditioning and there is a good sized sundeck for outside dining. Prices start at $2,550 per person in April and go up to $3,100 for certain departure dates during the summer season. This rate includes accommodation, all meals, wine, tours and transfers. Between the end of September of each year and early June, La Dolce Vita also operates as an Opera cruise, providing tickets to an opera at La Fenice as well as a guided tour to the theatre and, upon request, a gondola tour with an opera singer performing some of the most famous arias of Italian operas. A supplement of approximately $150 to $200 applies.
In Scotland, the eight passenger Scottish Highlander spends six night cruising the Caledonian Canal between Fort William and Inverness, through the Great Glen and the legendary Loch Ness, encountering some of Scotland's finest scenery along the way. Indulge in traditional Scottish fare (salmon, venison, pheasant) prepared by an on-board chef. An experienced crew of four ensures attention to guests' every need during the week-long cruise. A good selection of French and New World wines, complimented by assorted single malt Malts and 80 Shilling Ales are all served aboard. Highlights include entry fees to excursions, Cawdor Castle (home of Shakespeare's Macbeth), Culloden Moor, tea at Glengarry Castle Hotel, an overnight mooring alongside the 13th century Urquhart Castle and a visit to Glencoe, home of the Campbell and MacDonald clans. Prices start at $2, 490 per person and go up to $3,450 in peak summer months.
On a larger 90 cabin boat, Gate One Travel (tel. 800/682-3333; www.gate1travel.com) features a nine-day Holland and Belgium river cruise that visits Amsterdam, Volendam, Edam, Enkhuizen, Nijmegen, Antwerp, Ghent, Dordrecht, Schoonhoven and Utrecht aboard the four-star MS Bolero. The trip departs on April 6, 13 and 20 and is priced from $2,479 per person in "D" category. It includes round-trip airfare from New York or Boston to Amsterdam, airline fuel surcharges, seven nights' accommodations aboard the ship, all transfers, all meals, wine and beer, shore excursions per itinerary, services of a cruise director and entrance fees. Highlights include a gala welcome dinner, the Captain's cocktail reception, the Rijksmuseum, a visit to the famed Keukenhof Gardens, Rubens' House, the beautiful Belgian canal city of Bruges, the 13 dams of Delta Works, a walking tour of the city of Zierikzee and the 19 windmills of Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Add as little as $8 from Atlanta, $53 for departures from Chicago and $148 from Los Angeles.
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