Barging in France

In France, and in fact in many other parts of Europe, canals were used for shipping goods throughout the country, but over the years these narrow waterways were made obsolete by trucking and trains. From a surplus of barges and an increase in tourism came the idea of converting the boats into floating hotels.

Today this network of canals and barges offers a unique opportunity to experience a side of the country away from mobs of tourists and big city sights. The narrow canals meander past country homes, vineyards, and villages offering a glimpse into gardens and backyards. There are usually bikes available for the passengers to ride and get lost in the countryside before meeting up with the barge later in the day.

Three meals a day are provided, and the chefs often make use of the trip as a tour of the region’s cuisine visiting the markets at each stop for whatever is freshest and in season. There is usually an open bar as well as a selection of regional wines. Also depending on the barge, there is often a minibus available to meet the barge and provide day excursions, and wine tastings.

The typical barge can accommodate 4-15 people with the price being more affordable with the larger barges. Most of the hotel barges do tend more towards the luxury end of the tourism trade, and as such are quite expensive. A one week charter with a chef, butler, driver, and tour guide runs about $3,000 – 5,000 per person with all meals, bikes, and tours provided. I may have to wait until my affluent retirement for that one.

There is a more adventurous option available for the budget minded (me). Many boats are available to rent for a week. You get a furnished boat with full tanks, a quick lesson in driving, a map of the canals, and are sent on your merry way to navigate the canals on your own. While not as glamorous as an all-inclusive boat ride with your every need catered to, the freedom and adventure has a certain appeal. Also if you split the cost between four people and go in the off season (September through April), the boat rental comes to about $250 per person. Even adding in the cost of food, bike rentals, and gas, it is extremely affordable. Where can you find even a hotel room in France for $250 a week?

The boat I want to rent. Two bedrooms, five people, 900 EUR.

So I am putting a trip together. It is really just a dream right now, but it might actually come together. I have one couple from work ready to go, I am hoping to get my friend in France to come along with his wife and kid, and anyone else who wants to go. There are boats that can accommodate up to 12 people so come along!

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Plitvice Lakes

Rick Steves gets me in trouble every time. When I get back from some excruciatingly long trip trying to keep everybody fed, happy, and rested as we hop from airplane to airplane, I swear that I am done with it for a while. As I suffer from jet lag and credit card debt, the only thing that excites me is the first night Bear sleeps all the way through the night again. We catch up on mail and bills, water the plants and the garden, and start to settle back into our home routine.

It then starts so innocently. I re-read the Rick Steves guidebook on wherever we just went; just to reminisce a bit. Then I start reading his Postcards From Europe, enjoying the stories of his own travels. Then I start watching his shows on PBS and Hulu, and it is all over from there. 80 shows of some of the greatest places in Europe and the near East, and I always see something I have to go visit, and I start planning our next trip somehow forgetting about the long hours on an airplane.

It was a slow afternoon at work the other day, and we were watching the PBS pledge drive as we waited for passengers to check in for our last flight. We put up with the half-hour sales pitch because they were having a Rick Steve’s marathon. As we chatted, waited for passengers, and watched enchanting scenes from the Dalmatian coast, I was only half paying attention. Until I saw people walking on board walks through watery grottoes over azure lagoons. And there was a river boat that looked like it was from some Amazon exploration from the 1920s. I was looking at Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park.

From the official website they describe it as harboring “a grand collection of waterfalls, gallery of lakes, forest and diversity of animal life. The lakes are renowned for their distinctive colors, ranging from azure to green, gray or blue. The colors change constantly depending on the quantity of minerals or organisms in the water and the angle of sunlight. The sixteen lakes which are formed by natural dams of travertine are separated into upper and lower lakes. About eight km of pathways and wooden walking trails around lakes are accessible to visitors.”

It looks like a place that exists only in stories about dragons, wizards, and distressed damsels. Somewhere that you would be as likely to find a water sprite playing tricks on a faerie as you would a gaggle of Japanese tourists, eyes glued to their view finders.

Speaking of tourists, there seems to be a distinct lack of them in Croatia. I have only been to Europe in the off season, and mainly to places with few American tourists at any time of year, but from pictures and stories, I dread the overheated and overcrowded masses of August in Europe. But the Baltics have yet to be overwhelmed with British bachelor parties, plump German sunbathers, or American couples constantly telling everyone how much better things are done at home.

I hope to visit soon, at least before Rick Steves gets me hooked on some other place.

To see the Rick Steve’s episode, go to: http://www.hulu.com/watch/99628/rick-steves-europe-slovenia-and-croatia


Note: If you have any must-see places, have been to Plitvice Lakes, or have flown in first class, please let me know! I’d love to hear your stories.