Slower and smaller than their river counterparts, these small craft are like floating house parties, as Jeannine Williamson discovers
“Just remember to tick the box so we know you’re ashore,” says Captain Roger Pagnin, pointing to a piece of paper containing a list of just 20 names. We head down La Bella Vita’s short gangway and step straight onto the Venetian waterfront where we’re moored next to a gleaming superyacht. After a 15-minute stroll we’re in St Mark’s Square.
With no port formalities, lengthy queues to disembark or even the need to carry key cards – the majority of La Bella Vita’s passengers don’t even lock their cabin doors – our experience on the hotel barge was a world away from the passengers who arrived on ocean ships and docked in the terminal on the outskirts of Venice. It was also totally different from a mainstream river cruise.
A week earlier we’d joined the ship in Mantua to travel along the Bianco Canal running beside the River Po. A former working barge, La Bella Vita typifies the increasing number of vessels sailing European waterways; mostly in France, but also Italy, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Ireland and the UK.
Now totally transformed from its previous guise, aside from the original name Mery which remains on the hull for good luck, the hotel barge operated by European Waterways has eight compact but well-equipped cabins, two suites and a crew of 11.
It didn’t take long to get to know our shipmates, a crowd of well-travelled Brits, Americans and Kiwis. Some had sailed on large ocean ships and found them too overwhelming, while others wouldn’t touch them with the proverbial bargepole.
There are misconceptions about barging, which often conjures up images of narrow boats in the UK. It’s important for agents to explain the differences to clients who may be imagining something fairly uncomfortable and basic. Similarly, hotel barging and river cruise are also dissimilar. For example, hotel barges typically carry six to 20 passengers, compared with up to 200 on river ships. They have a very high crew to passenger ratio and can be exclusively chartered for families and groups of friends.
Our cruise quickly took on the feel of a floating house party as we meandered from town to town through scenic areas such as the Unesco-listed Po Delta, which is home to thousands of flamingos. An open bar is included in the fare and, before lunch and dinner, we’d gather in the cosy bar for an Aperol Spritz or favourite personal tipple. Sitting at two large dining tables it was also like having a private chef as Andrea Chin conjured up amazing meals accompanied by fine wines, which were lyrically introduced by the hostess. Focusing on local specialities and regional cuisine, Andrea stocked up along the way and each morning there were fresh-out-of-the-oven pastries from village bakeries.
The main barging player in the UK is European Waterways, which operates a fleet of 18 vessels including the Anjodi. Star of the BBC series Rick Stein’s French Odyssey, it transported him along the Canal du Midi on a voyage of culinary discovery.
European Waterways’ marketing manager, Chris Gant, explained: “Despite the growing popularity of cruising, particularly on river boats, hotel barge cruising is still a little-known niche concept within the vast cruise industry. Surprisingly, we have been offering our exclusive floating hotels for nearly 40 years.
“Most hotel barges started life as cargo vessels but have been converted to offer luxury boutique accommodation for small groups of up to 20 passengers. This is cruising, but in a very different style to ships plying the big rivers or oceans.”
CroisiEurope has six hotel barges in its native France and passengers can expect a really immersive French experience with locally inspired cuisine and maybe even a game of boules on the towpath with crew members after dinner.
It’s worth noting canals are much less prone to flooding or drought as water levels can be controlled. So, armed with the right information, and the potential for switch-selling to travellers who enjoy European escorted land tours or might have tried other types of cruising, why not suggest your clients hop on a “slow boat” through Europe?
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