ABOVE: Barge Nilaya cruises on a French canal at warp speed (4 mph or 6 km/h).
Barge cruising is a delightful way to explore the countryside and small towns of France--assuming that you aren't in a hurry. The barge carries you slowly along the canals and rivers of France's historic inland waterway network, and you can hop on or off whenever the barge goes through a canal lock. (Between locks, you can easily keep up with the barge as you hike or bike along the towpath.)
The atmosphere is informal, the mood is relaxed, and you'll quickly find yourself bonding with your few fellow passengers over drinks on deck and meals that are cooked fresh from local ingredients.
Stil, not all hotel barges are the same: Some barges carry a dozen or more passengers, while a few--such as Barge Nilaya, shown above--carry no more than four guests.
Many barges are operated by long-established companies like European Waterways Ltd. or French Country Waterways. Others--including Barge Nilaya--are owned, maintained, and marketed by individuals such as Kevin Hartwell, a man who gave up 9-to-5 employment for a new life as a barge captain more than a decade ago.
On his Web site, Bargenilaya.com, Kevin describes his moment of epiphany in 2001, when he was searching the Internet for a home and career on the water:
"Purely by chance, I stumbled upon the picture of a stunning 'luxemotor Dutch barge'. Beautifully photographed, in bright sunlight, with blue skies behind it. Happy healthy looking people populating the decks, each with a glass of wine in hand and gazing out across an undeniably French landscape. It was at this point that I began to imagine barging on the canals of France. Bigger barges, a vast network of European waterways to discover and along with it, a Europe I had sadly neglected in favour of more distant long haul destinations. The rest as they say, is history."
Today, Kevin is living the dream with Isabelle, his Belgian partner, and up to four passengers at a time. Barge Nilaya has two guest cabins, each with ensuite WC and shower, plus a saloon with dining table, a galley, and space on deck for eating, drinking, or enjoying the passing views.
Unlike cruises on higher-priced luxury hotel barges (see our Renaissance cruise review), a trip on Nilaya is like being a guest on a friend's boat: You make your own bed, help wash the dishes, and (in Kevin's words) "treat my barge as your own home away from home."
Barge Nilaya is available for whole-boat charters (obviously more practical with a small barge than a large one) or individual bookings. Rates from April through October, 2012 start at £1000 per person for a charter and £1250 per person for a twin or double cabin. The fare includes breakfast and a light lunch on each cruising day, one home-cooked dinner, an evening drink, and other meals by special arrangement.
For more information on navigating France's inland waterways with Kevin and Isabelle for a week (including more photos and videos), visit www.bargenilaya.com.
BELOW: Isabelle and Kevin on deck, guests enjoying drinks with Kevin, and Barge Nilaya's salon.