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Consider a luxurious cruise, of a different sort, through France's wine country

By Guest
Posts: 1

Posted on: October 11, 2008 at 5:21PM

When my husband and I started planning this trip, to celebrate a significant anniversary with six of our closest friends, most of the people we mentioned it to didn't seem to know what we were talking about. "A barge trip in France?," they asked skeptically. Perhaps they were thinking of a do-it-yourself barge (where you maneuver yourself through canal locks and cook your own meals) or one of the big industrial-style barges that ply the European rivers. No, we had something quite different in mind: a luxury cruise on a small, elegant vessel floating on a scenic French canal in Burgundy, eating gourmet meals and sipping fine French wines and champagnes. We found what we were looking for. The Prosperite, described in its brochure as an Ultra-Deluxe barge, was conceived by experienced hoteliers who own award-winning boutique properties in the U.S. Offering trips through southern Burgundy, it has a staff of five for its eight passengers. Captain Spencer Hayes is English; most of the crew is French. The barge has four generous-size cabins with all the amenities (including individually controlled air conditioning and electronically adjustable King beds), well-equipped bathrooms (with heated towel racks and both a shower and a tub), an elegant living room (with sink-in leather sofas) and a formal dining room as well as a demonstration kitchen. This barge also has another feature that sealed the deal for us: a hot tub on deck. The brochures promised superb French food and unlimited French wines. Wine tastings, a hot air balloon trip, and visits to private chateaus (using the Properite's chauffeured Mercedes mini-van) suggested even more appeal. With deposits made, we started dreaming about our summer trip to France. We decided to spend one night in Paris before the barge trip, then two more nights there after the trip. We arranged our flights, checked our passports, made dinner reservations for the restaurants requiring them months in advance, and bought new cameras in anticipation of a great vacation. A member of our group suggested the Hotel de Lutece, a modest hotel on the charming I'le Saint Louis for our nights in Paris. Thus, when we arrived in the City of Lights early one Saturday morning, after an overnight flight, our driver (arranged through deposited us in the tiny lobby of our hotel, snuggled into the narrow streets of the bustling isle. Rushing out to explore, we saw that we were surrounded by patisseries, sidewalk cafes, upscale shops and art galleries with perfectly-shaped topiaries guarding peeling doors. Crossing the Seine to the I'le de la Cite, as we approached Notre Dame, we were swept into a large crowd of visitors to the magnificent cathedral. As we were to learn, an ordination ceremony for new priests was about to begin. We lingered over cafe au lait in a nearby outdoor cafe, watching the procession of white robes and banners, and listening to the thundering organ from within the cathedral. From there we hurried to the smaller gem of a church, Sainte Chappelle, which has some of the most gloriously colored stained glass windows in the world. Walking back to the hotel via the Left Bank, we saw the decidedly Parisian sights of amorous young lovers, sidewalk artists and an assortment of musicians, including a grizzled accordionist playing "I Love Paris." We made our way to the Eiffel Tower, through a rally of thousands of rugby fans cheering boisterously for their team, and took the private elevator to the second level restaurant, Jules Verne. This, the guidebooks had told us, is one of the hardest reservations to get in the city, but lunch offers better possibilities for breathtaking views, wonderful food and gracious service. After a brief "toes up" at the hotel, we ventured out again for a requisite sunset ride on a petit bateaux, snapping pictures of the beautiful city along the way. Finally, at the end of a long day, we drank wine at one of a cluster of sidewalk cafes near our hotel, and then savored some of the best ice cream in all of Paris at the little shop across the street. Sunday morning, after exploring the nearby Marais district and buying chocolates and foie gras with truffles, we met a representative of the Prosperite at the Gare de Lyon, where we would board the high-speed TGV train to Dijon. The representative escorted us into the First Class section of the train, and saw to it that our luggage was loaded. After a comfortable couple of hours, we were in Dijon where we were met by Rejane, the lovely young wife of our barge captain, Captain Spencer Hayes. We would be spending more time with Rejane in the days ahead, as she would serve as our competent driver and knowledgeable guide to museums and wine tastings. The entire crew was waiting for us when we pulled up to the barge, anchored on the canal in Dijon. The Prosperite's exterior is deceptively simple, albeit very ample. But once we boarded, we were delighted with what we found. There were fresh flowers everywhere, Oriental rugs, "casual chic" furnishings and an open bar stocked with the very best liquors, not to mention the open refrigerator where we were invited to help ourselves to wine, champagne and soft drinks. After a welcoming champagne toast, we readied ourselves for dinner -- the dress code is up to the passengers -- which was a sign of good things to come. All meals, except one "onshore" dinner, were served onboard -- outside on the deck for beautiful buffet lunches and in the well-appointed dining room for dinner -- and each meal included wonderful food, three French cheeses and both a white and a red French wine, many of them Premier Cru wines from the region. Here's a sample menu: Foie Gras de Canard; Noix de St. Jacques et salade d'endive a la citronnelle; Filet de Veau au Porto: Roquefort -- Epoisses -- Comte; Creme Brulee. Heaven! On Monday the barge moved slowly from Dijon to Fleury-sur-Ouche, only a few miles away, as would be the case each day. We went through the first of the 47 locks through which we would pass during the week. Often, as we sat on deck -- perhaps at the lunch table or in the hot tub -- we watched the crew hop off and on the barge to tie up and help the Captain negotiate the locks. The lock masters came out of their little cottages, most of which were surrounded with colorful summer flowers, to lend a hand. Sometimes we had to wait until they were finished with their lunches; the pace was relaxed. To keep active, some members of our group took bikes off to ride the flat bike path, running parallel along the canal, to the next lock. That afternoon, we were driven through the Cote d'Or (the premier wine region of Burgundy) on the Route des Grand Crus which overlooks the most famous vineyards of Burgundy. We visited the Chateau du Clos de Vougeot, built by Cisterian monks in the 12th century, and, now, the annual meeting place of the Chevaliers du Tastevin. The next morning we drove to Dijon for a local street market near the Medieval town center. After a short walking tour, during which a slightly intoxicated but friendly local roared "Viva America!" when he heard Rejane speaking to us in English, we scattered to shop for (not surprisingly) mustards and other delicacies. (A certain food theme begins to emerge.) In the afternoon we cruised further into the scenic Valley of the Ouche with its limestone cliffs and wooded hills. That evening we dressed up for a dinner at the Chateau de Gilly, an old priory converted into a lovely resort with handsome formal gardens...and the most amazing, all-you-can-eat cheese tray any of us had ever encountered! Most of our excursions began no sooner than 9:30 a.m., but Wednesday morning started with a 6:00 a.m. wake-up knock for those who had opted for the hot air balloon trip. Unnecessarily pulling on sweaters to guard against an early morning chill, we were escorted by Captain Spencer to a nearby field. There, waiting for us, was an enormous, brightly colored balloon ready to take off. What a magical ride! We floated quietly at 5,000 feet above the canal, over a scenic village in which an elderly gardener paused just long enough to wave up to us and church bells rang on the hour, over deer scampering into the woods at our passing and a border collie herding cows across a bridge for their morning feeding. The pilot joined us for champagne and freshly-baked croissants at the end of our extraordinary flight. Just when we thought the day couldn't get any better, we headed off to the village of Nuits-Saint-George to meet an 87 year-old countess, the grande dame of one of Burgundy's most prestigious wine families. We toured her cellars, then gathered in her parlor to drink kirs, a Burgundian invention, and to listen to her stories. Portraits of her ancestors, going back to the court of Louis XVII, hung on the walls; cats draped themselves over the countess and velvet-covered chaises, and she regaled us with her personal history, including a sadly romantic tale of her first love with a Portuguese duke who was killed in World War II the week after he gave her the lovely engagement ring she still wears today. All of us agreed that our afernoon with the Countess was one of the trip's real highlights. Our Thursday outing was to what some call the most beautiful village in France, Beaune. Known as the wine capital of the region, it was the perfect place to purchase wines to take home. We visited the Hospice de Beaune, a 14th century hospital unlike anything we had seen before; its fanciful architecture, especially the tiled roof, represents Burgundy at its finest. Rejane, who studied art history and grew up nearby, is a marvelous guide through the history and sights of the region. By Friday, our last full day, we threatened the crew that they would have to bodily drag us off the barge the next day. We toured the local village and chateau of Chateauneuf before we encountered our first drop of rain on the trip. No problem. We took naps or settled into comfortable reading chairs with books and wine, totally relaxed. At day's end, we dressed up for the festive Captain's Dinner and said our good-byes to the crew. It was a love fest of compliments and a recollection of soon-to-be memories. Back in Paris, the women in our group met a young American expatriate who has made shopping her area of expertise. She arranges custom shopping tours, and we had signed up for the Made in France tour which sent us running from shop to shop in the 7th arrondissement, picking up jewelry, perfumes and linens. All of us purchased a Fredric Malle scent at his stylish perfumerie on rue de Grenelle, and we wearily agreed that we had experienced way more in the way of Paris shopping than we could have accomplished on our own. That night we had dinner at a venerable bistro, Benoit, enjoying escargot and cassoulet among other classic French dishes. On our last day in France, we took a day trip to Chartres Cathedral, again hiring a van and English-speaking driver through French Adventures. The Sunday mass and majestic music was an appropriate ending to a wonderful trip, as was our later dinner at one of Guy Savoy's contemporary French restaurants, Atelier Maitre Albert. France is ready and waiting to welcome American tourists. We'll go back as soon as we can and, if fortune is smiling on us again, we'll be back on the Prosperite. report a problem

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