PHOTO: A standout feature on board Finesse is the dining experience.
European river cruising remains the fastest-growing sector of the cruise industry, and hotel barges are a lesser-known and smaller – in every sense – division of this booming market. Usually converted from old working vessels, hotel barges are a perfect example of why appearances can be deceptive, and first-time clients won’t realize what lies behind the old-style blue-and-white hulls.
Carrying just eight passengers and five crewmembers, Finesse is the latest addition to European Waterways’ fleet, and boasts a raft of luxury features that wouldn’t be out of place in a chic boutique hotel. Found languishing in a sad state in a Belgian shipyard, the 1950s freight barge was stripped back to the steel and given a complete transformation that has resulted in one of the most luxurious vessels to sail through the waterways of France’s famous Burgundy wine region.
Resisting the temptation to deck it out in traditional dark wood and brass – a style favored on some barges – the line has created a bright and contemporary interior, with a light airy saloon with panoramic windows and skylights, custom furniture, some of the line’s largest cabins and a new-to-river show galley where passengers can watch meals being prepared – and even join in if they want.
Accommodations: The four cabins are almost identical and measure 265 square feet each with a ceiling height of 6.5 ft. The tasteful silver-gray décor includes deep-pile carpets in the bedroom/living area and upscale Percale linen on beds that are 5 ft., 10 in. wide and 6.5 ft. long and can be configured as twins. Cabin amenities include a desk/dressing table, small closet with additional external hanging space and bedside tables. Bathrooms are exceptionally roomy at 58 square feet, and feature a solid teak floor, double sinks, walk-in shower, robes, towels, hairdryer, soap, shower gel and shampoo. The onboard voltage is 220v and 240v, and adapters are needed for the two-pin European-style sockets.
What’s included: Fares cover all meals and selected wines with lunch and dinner, an open bar, Wi-Fi, excursions, entrance fees and local transfers. Gratuities are not included. The suggested guideline is 7 percent of the fare per person.
What’s for dinner? A standout feature on Finesse is the dining experience. English chef Mike Crowson prepares meals in the open galley at the back of the saloon, and tantalizing aromas whet the appetite for what’s to come. Menus are never set from week to week, and he will often decide what to cook that very day, depending on passengers’ preferences and seasonal ingredients available in local shops and markets. Regional dishes such as beef bourguignon are mixed with imaginative menus that might include a fig-and-goat cheese appetizer, crab risotto and lemon tart with basil and lime sorbet. The four-course dinner always includes selected wines and three local cheeses. Mike is happy to share tips and will host cooking demonstrations if requested. Onboard meals are served in the saloon or al fresco dining area. Each cruise also includes lunch with wine at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Best entertainment: The fact that there is no organized entertainment program is actually a huge part of the appeal of barge cruises. The focus is on the destination itself, and passengers sit back and watch the passing scenery of vineyards, rural landscapes dotted with fields of sunflowers and the region’s distinctive white Charolais cattle, old lock keepers’ homes and tiny villages. As Finesse moves at a walking pace it’s easy to get off and stroll between the locks, or hop on one of the onboard bikes and cycle along the tranquil canal path.
Best place for a cocktail: The hot tub on the sun deck is perfect for sipping the cocktail of the day, which is always waiting on return from an afternoon’s sightseeing tour.
Favorite excursion: In addition to visiting such well-known sites as the mustard-making town of Dijon and Beaune, the capital of the Burgundy wine region with its landmark 15thcentury Hospices de Beaune famous for its colorful tiled roof, the itinerary includes tours in smaller, out-of-the-way places that wouldn’t be featured on big-group itineraries. These include the 14th-century Château de Germolles at Mellecey. It might not be as beautiful as some French chateaux, but the exclusive guided tour by one of the present-day owners, Matthieu Pinette, is a highlight.
Who goes on this ship? Mature, discerning and well-traveled North Americans, British and Australians; plus families and groups of friends.
Insider booking tip: The Polaris and Bolearis staterooms, situated at the bow and stern respectively, are brighter as they have an additional porthole in the bathroom.
Key selling points: Hotel barging is ideal for clients who don’t want a cookie-cutter cruise and are seeking something unique and different. The high crew-to-passenger ratio works toward ensuring a very personal experience akin to a floating country house party. All meals and unlimited tea, coffee, soft and alcoholic beverages are included. Finesse can be exclusively chartered by families and groups, and itineraries are customizable, with additional options including wine appreciation and hot-air ballooning.
JUST THE FACTS
Cruise Line: European Waterways
Size: 8 passengers, 128 ft. long, 16.5 ft. wide
Entered Service: 2016
Itinerary: The six-night Southern Burgundy itinerary between St-Jean-de-Losne and St-Julien-sur-Dheune the Saône River and Canal du Centre, calling at Fragnes Dijon), Remigny and St-Leger-sur-Dheune.
Rates: From $6,750 per person
Contact: 877-879-8808, www.gobarging.com