Cruising the Canals of Burgundy

Simon Narracott enjoys the food, wine and culture aboard MS Jeanine in this beautiful region of France

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If you want a truly luxurious and personalized boating experience, without the crowds, you cannot do better than a canal barge tour. While many people have been on cruises the huge capacity of the cruise ships can feel impersonal and large shore trip groups only add to a mass-market feeling. River cruises are smaller, normally around 350 people on board but still don’t offer that personal touch.

Canal barges typically have 12 cabins and therefore a maximum of 24 people on board, with around 7 staff to look after you. It is a very close environment and you will make friends with everyone on board. And, being so intimate, the staff will know your favorite drink or how you take your coffee by the end of the first day.

To sample the experience of a canal barge holiday, I went on a 7-day Canal Barge Cruise of Burgundy on the MS Jeanine with Great Rail Journeys, specialists in this type of travel.

The Great Rail Journeys Barge Tour of Burgundy starts at Kings Cross St Pancras, at their office centrally located on the upper concourse. It is here you meet your tour guide, who will stay with you all the way to Burgundy and your waiting river barge. The guide is there to ensure the whole transfer process is stress-free and is a real benefit to those that have not used the Euro Shuttle before.

The Eurostar to Paris takes about two and a half hours at which point you take the TGV, for a one hour sprint south to Dijon in the heart of Burgundy. The TGV is usually a double-decker train, and the “upstairs” seats give you a great uninterrupted view of the scenic countryside flashing past you.

A private coach met us when we arrive at Dijon station at about 6 pm, and took us with our luggage, to the canal barge moored five minutes away. We were warmly greeted by the five crew members, all dressed in smart uniforms, who personally showed each couple to their cabins.

Cocktails were laid out in the bar area and our first briefing took place at 7 pm, covering the usual safety notices and an explanation of what was planned for our seven days onboard. Regular briefings occur at 7 pm every day, along with cocktails and although optional, it is best way to check what is planned for the day ahead. Some activities depend on the weather and season, so no two barge cruises are ever the same.

This was the first time all the 24 guests had met together in one place and it had the feeling of a cocktail party, with people exchanging small talk and trying their best to remember everyone’s names. By the end of the week many felt like old friends. Apart from me, everyone was over 60 and retired, from a range of different backgrounds. All had a common interest in wine and cultural travel and most had tried cruising on larger boats before.

The MS Jeanine is modern barge, having recently been completely renovated, with 12 double cabins and room for up to seven staff. The specialist build of tourist barges allows for the fitting of really hi-grade bathrooms and showers, which deliver the hottest water, along with air-conditioning, flat screen televisions and a surprisingly good Wi-Fi. There are no waves on the canals so there is no rolling movement that you get on ocean cruises, and with the curtains drawn for the night you could easily believe you were in a regular hotel room.

The cabins are below deck, with large windows looking out over the surface of the water. The main deck has the dining area, the bar, a comfy indoor lounge area and then an open rear deck laid out with tables and chairs, so you can sit outside and enjoy the world passing by. The very top deck is only open when moored as it only just fits under the small canal bridges but is laid out with deckchairs and is an ideal place to spend an evening enjoying the sun before dinner.

The food onboard is very good with different meal every day for lunch and dinner. Our first night’s dinner consisted of:

  • An amuse bouche of tuna on mushroom
  • Starter of Boiled Eggs in Russian Dressing and vegetable salad on a bed of local salad leaves
  • Beef Bourguignon “Grandmother’s Way” on a bed of tagliatelle
  • Dessert of Strawberry Tiramisu dusted with chocolate

This set the standard for what we could expect throughout the cruise, and it was amazing to see what quality the Chef could serve up from a small galley on board. Meals throughout the trip were always four courses and were eaten, unhurried, in the dining area. Most ingredients used were bought fresh on the day and those of us who got up early enough often spotted the Chef collecting provisions from the villages along the way.

Breakfast throughout the trip was a continental buffet, with morning-fresh croissants and French bread. If you wanted eggs, the Chef was on hand to make you anything you wanted, from fried through to an amazing cheese and ham omelette.

Given this was a Burgundy Barge Cruise, each day provided an opportunity to sample a unique French wine from the region or beyond. All drinks are inclusive with the tour, making it easy to enjoy wine at mealtimes as well as mid afternoon or evening on deck watching the world pass slowly by.

Each day at lunchtime we were served two specific French cheeses, many regional, with detailed explanation of each. Even for a seasoned traveler like myself, there were some cheeses I had not sampled before.

Fellow passengers were all impressed by the food with some remarking that the tour should have been sold as a gastronomy tour as it was so much better than they had expected or experienced on other cruises. The personal table service, with great regional food and matched wines made for an experience far beyond the description in the brochure.

Seating wasn’t rigid either, with couples continuing conversations by sitting with the people they had been talking with on deck. Everyone was included in discussions and the movement of people at tables made for interesting conversation and a pleasant dining experience.

Each day had an excursion tour to a place of interest close to where the barge was moored. A luxury coach took us to and from the barge to locations a bit further afield, although tours of Dijon, Gray and Port sur Saône simply meant stepping off the barge into the heart of the town. If walking was too much you could stay onboard, which some did, sitting on deck enjoying the sunshine and the views.

Each excursion had a unique tour guide, and with such a small group going around, it really had that exclusive feel about it. Questions could be asked and answered, with plenty of time to walk slowly and to take pictures.

No Burgundy Barge cruise would be complete without a visit to the heart of the winemaking area and the slopes of the Grand Crus Wine Circuit, which runs from Dijon to Santenay. The coach passed through picturesque and seemingly rustic villages, such as Nuits St George and other prestige wineries which you normally associate with the world of fine dining.

Our tour of the historic winery at Château Clos de Vougeot was unhurried and informative, giving us all an insight into the history of the region, its winemaking, and a modern update on where its future lies. Add to this a personalized and exclusive wine tasting event in a cellar and you have all the makings of a perfect experience.

As the barge moved along the canal at the slow pace of 4km per hour, most sat out on the front deck enjoying the sunshine and waving at the occasional fisherman on the bank. Some read, some painted or sketched the landscape and some just relaxed with a glass of wine in hand.

Once moored up in the evening you can go for a stroll or take the on-board bikes out for a ride. With open towpaths and country roads wherever you stop this is a fun way to explore the location. Many of us took walks along the canal after dinner to chat and relax, before returning to sit on deck with a brandy or more wine.

Sadly, the week of barge cruising luxury came to an end far too soon and it was time to head home.

The process is simply the repeat in reverse of the coming out journey, and again the Great Rail Journeys representative is there at the boat to guide you all the way back to the UK. After a few hours on the train you are back at Kings Cross St Pancras, where many of us hung around to chat and exchange contact details before heading off home after a thoroughly relaxing holiday.

Booking Information:

Great Rail Journeys Burgundy River Barge Holiday
Great Rail Journeys ( / 01904 527180) offer a 7-day The Waterways of Burgundy cruise departing from London St Pancras the holiday includes 6 nights aboard the Jeanine, 17 meals, all-inclusive selection of drinks, and excursions.
Prices start from £2,095 pp twin share cabin for 6 Sep 2018, 30 May, 13 Jun, 8 Aug & 3 Oct 2019.