Battle of the Barges
Cruising the waterways of Ireland vs. France
By Steve Leland
The prospects of an off-the-wall travel experience while sampling the trappings of the good life, such as gourmet dining with liberal libations, were all too much to overlook. Who am I to say no? So I decided to book a barge cruise. Better yet, I booked two.
A cruise on the River Shannon in Ireland and another through the countryside canals of Champagne, France, ticked all the travel boxes. Can these vessels — regally named Shannon Princess and French Country Waterways’ Princess — live up to their royal monikers? While Shannon Princess navigates a nautical inroad to Irish sights, spotlighting folklore and Irish tradition, Princess emphasizes culinary creativity of Michelin-style gastronomy enhanced by the beauty of France’s Champagne region.
We’re going to jump ship, so to speak, and slip into this under-the-radar subculture of cruising that is quietly coming of age. Check your thoughts about ocean cruising at the gangway and welcome aboard to … the battle of the barges!
Cruising the Emerald Isle
Shannon Princess, described as a luxury barge hotel, is owned and operated by husband/wife team Ruairi and Olivia Gibbons. Assisted by a well-trained staff of two, they combine warm personalities and every conceivable talent to bestow an unforgettable journey on 10 fortunate guests through the heart of the Emerald Isle.
Like a Noah’s Ark passenger list, the sailing’s diverse group came in pairs, and soon discovered that we all came seeking the same thing: refuge from our everyday real world lives.
Boarding the vessel immediately introduces a welcoming, unpretentious salon and dining area. Plush chairs and sofas beckon to weary travel legs and the family-style table sets the scene for engaging dining camaraderie. Following a brief champagne toast from our hosts ensuring a comforting “our home is your home” ambience, we walked 10 steps down a graciously appointed hallway to our awaiting suite.
Expectations had been tempered to anticipate basic accommodations, but surprisingly the king-size bed and overall room design left Irish eyes smiling. A massive double window skimming the surface of the water would serve as the 3-D movie screen to the transitional….
The Canals of Champagne, France
French Country Waterways’ Princess, originally custom built for shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig as a private barge, is rightfully designated as a luxury boutique hotel barge. Guests are met in the heart of Paris and transferred by way of a one-hour drive to the awaiting vessel in Château-Thierry. An attentive crew of five collaborates to ensure exceptional service for a maximum of eight guests for a cruise through the inspiring Champagne region of France. Four exquisite, unusually large and well-appointed suites serve as accommodations for a six-night escape from everyday life.
This is authentic France; no hordes of tourists, no queues, no souvenir shops. Immediate impressions establish a feeling of entitlement, negating any hint of a mass-market product. Conversely, this is a carefully scripted, personalized travel experience complemented by an intoxicating mix of exceptional cuisine and classic French wine and champagne. (More on the intoxicating reference later.)
The atmosphere aboard the vessel exudes a luxury home vibe while simultaneously carving through the Marne River and narrow canals of the French countryside. Mornings begin with locally sourced breakfast displays of fruits, à la cart selections, and freshly baked pastries to die for. As a general rule, the privately escorted excursions begin shortly after breakfast via the boat’s private Mercedes van and personally escorted by the captain.
Each night before dinner, the following day’s itinerary is vividly explained by the hosting captain, who, besides navigational duties, assumes a cruise director role as well. The welcoming dining room plays host to resplendent dinner menus and presentations of carefully selected wine pairings. Evening dinners commence with locally sourced champagnes and hors d’oeuvres, followed by dissertations on the wines and eventually the main event plates of passion. The show is far from over as three different cheeses are introduced each night and, for an encore, ambitiously created desserts take center stage.
Midway through the cruise, guests are treated to….
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Photo: Shannon Princess