For foodies, their cohorts, oenophiles, walkers, and joggers, few things compare to spending a week traversing French canals. Imagine not a smooth gliding hotel, but instead, think of a barge cruise with French Country Waterways as akin to enjoying the utterly delightful navigable home of cherished relatives.
France has 4,800 miles of navigable rivers and canals, and French Country Waterways has a fleet of four, shallow draft canal barges providing guests a unique perspective of the French countryside, coupled with food and wines of one’s dreams, along with a hospitable, knowledgeable crew. With four distinct itineraries – Burgundy, Alsace-Lorraine, Upper Loire, and Champagne – a choice must be made. Or at least the order in which one partakes.
I opted for the Champagne itinerary in honor of two long idolized men. It’s my firm belief that Dom Perignon was one of the greatest men that ever lived as this Benedictine monk and cellar master played a crucial role in champagne production. Then there’s the undeniable genius of Louis Pasteur. In addition to Pasteur’s lofty contributions to medicine and public health – think critical vaccines and pasteurization – he has long been considered the father of wine science as the knowledge Pasteur conveyed to winemakers provided the industry, among other things, the ability to bottle the blissfully bubbly elixir without the explosions that once caused champagne to be called “wine of the devils.”
A Navigable Country Home
For the Champagne itinerary, we were collected at a central Paris hotel in a Spanish Iveco 14-seat luxury vehicle with USB ports at every seat. Similar to a Mercedes Sprinter, only more comfortable, we were driven two hours to the French hamlet of Courcy. There Nenuphar, our charming 128-foot barge home for the week awaited, and the friendly bi-lingual crew of six welcomed us, naturally with champagne and delicious small bites.
The Nenuphar has six nearly identical king cabins for a maximum of 12 passengers on two decks. The week I traveled, I was joined by two couples and two solo travelers, all American. Decorated in French provincial style, Nenuphar has a comfortable salon with books, binoculars, and daily international newspapers, and a bar with top-shelf liquors. Also, a pleasant, shaded deck with tables and chairs, where lunches were served, and further along the deck, bicycles were housed for guest use along the picturesque canal. The dining room always had fresh flowers where breakfasts and candlelight dinners were enjoyed and where the seriously talented, Burgundy-trained Chef Corinne Bostin shone to culinary perfection at every single meal.
My stateroom had a beautiful carved wood headboard framing an extremely comfortable king-sized bed, frosted glass sconces, and antique brass bedside lamps on large nightstands with roomy drawers. Antique-style ecru-striped wallpaper graced the walls, and a good-sized armoire provided a hanging area and more drawers. A writing desk completed the space, along with plenty of both US and EU outlets, and included an additional four-port charger. Complimentary wi-fi on the top deck was strong and always available.
The spacious bathroom had a granite-topped, carved wood vanity and gleaming hardwood floors. Marble walls complemented the antique brass fixtures and sconces. The large shower had excellent pressure and top-notch Lalique amenities. Thick, buttery soft towels and robes defined comfort.
Cuisine for Health-Conscious Royalty and Wines for the Gods
Meals can best be described as if one continuously scored a table at a great, innovative French restaurant with excellent cuisine and service. Absent were dishes doused in heavy creams and laden with butters of yore. Instead, Chef Corinne – and her colleagues on other ships in the fleet – are focused on healthy, delectable French cuisine.
Imagine perfectly proportioned, outstanding four-course lunches and dinners that inspire guilt, but in fact have none. What results is the culinary regime of one’s dreams, paired of course with the finest French wines, over half bearing Grand Cru and Premier Cru labels. Did I neglect to mention great champagnes?
During the course of the week, we had 27 different types of cow, goat, and sheep cheeses and 21 wines, and not a single cheese or wine was repeated. Equally impressive, in addition to well-known vineyards like Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Mersault-Charmes, we had several marvelous wines from smaller vineyards rarely available stateside, all selected to perfectly pair with Chef Corinne’s creations.
At each lunch and dinner we were Chef Corinne’s blissfully happy subjects. Lunches served al fresco included delights such as watermelon and avocado salad, baked hen, and quiche Lorraine with mini chocolate tarts. Another lunch started with fresh oysters – no doubt in the water hours earlier – tender grilled lamb chops, savory eggplant pie, and cauliflower salad.
Dinners were in a word, magnificent, and during the week featured fresh prawns, goat cheese salad, sole in saffron with razor thin chorizo appetizers. Show stealing main dishes such as perfectly prepared almond crusted salmon in champagne sauce, veal filet mignon, duck breast in coffee-based marinade, bass fillet in a sweet-sour sauce and beef fillet bathed in red wine. These were accompanied by the freshest braised vegetables, warm breads from village bakeries, and cheeses so marvelous that even Napoleon would’ve joyfully wept. Indeed, one of the 27 cheeses we sampled that week was Epoisses Berthaut, a soft Burgundian cow cheese known to be his personal favorite.
Desserts were likewise delightful. Perfectly proportioned, they included chocolate mousse with Baileys ice cream, apple tart, white chocolate cake with raspberries, and without doubt, the best mille-feuilles ever prepared.
As a corollary to these great meals and wines, another fantastic aspect of barge cruising is the ability to exercise as much or as little as desired. While the barge was moored, I ran every morning before breakfast, either along the canal or within neighboring villages. Once the barge commenced, guests could walk alongside the barge or take out one of the bikes and meet up with the barge at a lock further down the canal.
Daily Excursions for the Curious Traveler
Daily guests could join a curated excursion with our guide, Renaissance man Stan Fleury, who possessed more knowledge of art, history, architecture, and wine in his little finger than many PhD candidates do following their dissertations’ defense.
The first day brought us to the Chateau-Thierry War Memorial overlooking the Marne River Valley and World War I battlefields of Belleau Wood. Designed by Franco-American architect Paul Cret, the monument was dedicated in 1937 and commemorates French soldiers and the 1,800 Americans that died in this region, including a mind-boggling 1,000 Americans who perished in one day, along with Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite son, Quentin.
Nearby, the 42-acre American Cemetery is hauntingly beautiful. Lined with 328 towering emerald Platanus trees and 4,000 rose bushes, white marble crosses and Stars of David mark the headstones of 2,289 souls, plus another 1,060 tablets representing the missing.
Another day brought us to Reims and its stunning 117-foot Cathedral where many kings were coronated and which contains not only marvelous stained-glass panes by Jewish artist Marc Chagall, but also a trifecta of panes depicting champagne production as the donor was a regional producer. A bronze statue of the formidable Joan of Arc also stands in the shadow of the cathedral she helped liberate. It was also here that Victor Hugo was inspired by a woman nearby who became the character Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
In Epernay, Champagne’s international capital, we were treated to a private VIP tour of Moët & Chandon and its labyrinth of underground chalk tunnels followed by a tasting in the gardens of two vintages. Later we stopped in Hautvillers, dating to 658, and its abbey where Dom Perignon made his magic and where he’s entombed.
At Ployez-Jacquemart, this family-owned champagne house now run by its third generation, commenced in 1930 by an architect and a winemaker on breathtaking grounds that now includes a B&B. This small producer makes 100,000 bottles a year and sampling several vintages and especially the 2015 Blanc de Noirs was a heavenly treat.
Finally, at Châlons-en-Champagne, this town of 45,000 contains the 12th century Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque Saint-Etienne Cathedral with stained-glass spanning several centuries, the UNESCO listed Notre-Dame-en-Vaux church and the magnificent 18thcentury Hotel de Ville, where in 1921 the US Army’s unknown soldier was designated.
The Lessons Learned
In all, Nenuphar traversed about 60 miles and went through 25 locks. By the end of the trip, I too had completed exactly 60 miles – jogging 24 morning miles and walking another 36 along the canal and through picturesque villages. While I’m not sure I would schedule an appointment to have my cholesterol checked the day after disembarking Nenuphar owing to all the wonderful cheeses, I was deeply moved by the glorious cuisine of Chef Corinne and all the magnificently paired wines and champagnes. I’m thrilled to report that, on returning to Paris, my scale however moved not one ounce. Resulting perhaps in the best French culinary and wine barge experience in the history of the modern world.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her work has appeared in several major publications, including The LA Times, The SF Examiner, The Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, among many others. She can be reached at [email protected].