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Kyles ruins in Scotland

Scotland Cruise

by Robin McKelvie.

Scottish travel writer and the author of National Geographic’s guide to Scotland, Robin McKelvie has been cruising his country’s waters ever since he was a wee laddie sailing with his dad.

While Scotland’s famous Hebrides are the islands that traditionally get all the attention on the wildly beautiful west coast, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Firth of Clyde. These comparatively sheltered waters offer up a rich bounty of wildlife, superb seafood and spectacular scenery, infused with a romance that dates from the “doon tha watter” (down the water) years when Glaswegians flocked here for their holidays.

Today the legacy lives on as a family-run small cruise operator plies these waters.

Agyll Cruisings' Splendor

Looking over the bow of the 8-passenger Splendor. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Rebirth of an Old Dame

Argyll Cruising harks back to the glory days of Clyde cruising before the advent of cheap jet travel ended the popularity of the estuary from the 1960s onwards, when holiday seekers started heading for the sun in places like Spain.

Owner and skipper of the 8-passenger Splendour, Iain Duncan, has resurrected a 60-year-old 20m-long (66 foot) former North Sea fishing trawler to fulfil a long cherished dream, a dream of sailing his own wee cruise ship in his beloved Firth of Clyde.

Captain Iain Duncan on a Scottish cruise

Captain Iain Duncan at the helm. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Iain grew up in these parts on the shores of Loch Fyne, Scotland’s longest sea loch and a wild, sinewy loch famous for its oysters and big skies. Joining him on the bridge as we cruise out of their mountain fringed base at Holy Loch (once home to a British and US submarine base), I quickly realise no one knows the Clyde better than Iain.

“I learned to row in these waters just as soon as I could walk,” he smiles as the late afternoon sun reflects off his cobalt eyes and his waft of white hair breaks like a wave over his welcoming smile.

8-passenger Splendour in Scotland

The 8-passenger Splendour. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Sailing Through the Mountains

As the classic Gardner diesel engine chugs us out of Holy Loch the slender finger of the sea loch that splits the rugged mountains lends it more the air of the Norwegian fjords rather than an estuary just a stone’s throw from Scotland’s largest city of Glasgow. The mightiest of the mountains we encounter on our adventure soars over 1,000m (some 330 feet) skywards. That is all the more impressive when you get to see the mountains emerge all the way from sea level, through a thick cloak of emerald forest and swirling mists, up towards often snow-capped peaks.

scotland cruise landscape

The stunning scenery on “Kyles & the Isles” itinerary will take your breath away. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

You won’t forget the Argyll Alps and the Arran Hills. This is the epic land, after all, that gave Scottish-born John Muir a love of mountains that saw him go on to becoming instrumental in founding the US national park network. Muir actually left Scotland in 1849 as a boy by ship for good from Helensburgh, which we cruise near as we spill out into the Firth of Clyde proper.

Scotland cruise map

The “Kyles and the Isles” itinerary. * Map: Argyll Cruising

 Kyles ruins in Scotland

The breathtaking Kyles. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

The Unique Firth of Clyde

Iain’s own enthusiasm for the spectacular Scottish estuary is instantly infectious.

“You just cannae (can’t) beat the Firth of Clyde,” he expands. “The Clyde is sheltered, with little swell and alive with wildlife from dolphins to orcas, castles and a country house (Mount Stuart) built by the world’s richest man [Marquess of Bute]. Then there are the old resort towns, beaches and superb walks.”

Firth of Clyde scenery on a Scotland cruise

The scenic Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It is indeed a varied corner of Scotland. I’m on one of their short three-night cruises, but we cover a massive amount. All at a suitably leisurely pace, though, with plenty of time for lazing around on the ample outside space, including the sturdy solid wood table Iain had built fore during a refit for the 2019 season.

That same refit saw upgraded cabins so the Splendour now sleeps eight in en suite comfort.

Splendour on a Scotland cruise

One of the Splendour’s 4 cozy cabins. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

The Firth of Clyde islands

We spend the first night at a tranquil mooring in the famed Kyles of Bute. It is easy to see why legendary film director Lord Richard Attenborough bought a house here — it is instantly cinematic.

Kyles of Bute in Scotland

A stunning sunset at the Kyles of Bute. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The mainland and the Isle of Bute ease towards sinewy narrows (kyle means narrows in Scottish Gaelic) as we sneak through safe in Iain’s experienced hands.

I used to sail these waterways with my late father in his yacht and I remember all the isles that to me engendered such a sense of romance — Arran, Bute, the two Cumbraes and the quasi-mystical rock stac of Ailsa Craig.

As we sail between Arran and Ailsa Craig, Iain sums it up neatly as I enjoy a wee dram of Arran single malt: “For me there is no finer place in Scotland to sail. There is such diversity of scenery and wildlife. You won’t find an island more dramatic than Ailsa Craig nor more beautiful than Arran.”

Ailsa Craig on a Scotland cruise

Close up of Ailsa Craig. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

We make landfall on Ailsa Craig, the towering uninhabited granite isle that lies halfway between Glasgow and Belfast, earning it the moniker of “Paddy’s Milestone” (as in St. Patrick). I manage to scramble up the rough ground to the 338m (1,110 foot) peak. From here all the Clyde isles unfurl below and the hills of Antrim beckon beyond the unmistakable peninsula of Kintyre. Remember the romance of Paul McCartney’s mystical “Mull of Kintyre?”

This is the Splendour’s glorious playground.

ruins in Scotland

The ruins of ancient Scotland are everywhere. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

whisky in Arran in Scotland

Robin enjoys a wee dram or two of whisky in Arran.

Epic Wildlife and Delicious Food

The Firth of Clyde may once have launched many of the world’s ships, but today it is more a haven for wildlife. The waters brim with life, from porpoises and dolphins, through to hulking basking sharks and even various whale species. On the (at least) daily trips ashore you can seek out red deer and red squirrels, while seabirds from puffins and gannets fill the skies. Iain stresses you’re always welcome on the characterful old-style bridge — it’s ideal for wildlife spotting.

puffins in Scotland

Adorable puffins. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

dolphins on a Scotland cruise

Watch dancing dolphins right from the boat. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

standing on deck of Splendour in Scotland

Standing on deck spotting for marine life. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

“We recently had a pod of orcas in the Clyde and I’ve had minke whales cutting right under us and humpbacks breaching just ahead,” beams Iain with pride.

Our third night is spent in the wee resort of Millport (our second had been at anchor off Arran), one of the holiday hubs during the “doon tha watter” heyday along with Dunoon and Rothesay.

After a wee trip ashore to a traditional pub to enjoy an ale from a brewery on Loch Fyne, it’s back aboard for another superb dinner.

The meals onboard are memorable, served in the cosy interior or out at that chunky outside table.

dining aboard the Splendour in Scotland

The Splendour’s dining room. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Our chef (who also doubles as the bosun) bustles away, working wonders with delicious fresh local produce such as scallops landed in Oban, lobster from Tarbert on Loch Fyne and smoked fish from Argyll Smokery in Dunoon, washed down with coffee roasted in the Kyles of Bute.

Local Scottish crab and prawns

Local crab and prawns. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Waving a Fond Farewell

Easing out on the deck I share a final dram, this time from Campbelltown, where the Firth of Clyde enjoys a dramatic dalliance with the Irish Sea, in the company of a colony of seals.

As the sun burns down over the brooding Arran Hills there is nothing to break the waters, the calm silence broken only by the call of an oystercatcher, which just adds to the sense of peace.

As my “doon tha watter” Scotland cruise draws to an end I raise a glass in toast with another traditional Scottish phrase — “Haste ye back!”

The Arran hills of Scotland

Looking across to Arran. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The Practical Stuff

Itineraries/Fares

A three-night “Kyles and the Isles” cruise on the Splendour round-trip from the Holy Loch Marina in Donoon starts from around US$1,200 per person with all meals, wine with dinner and excursions inclusive. The vessel is also available for private hire — contact Iain’s son Jamie for details, at the email below. Argyll Cruising offers 9 itinearies from 3 to 13 nights.

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London (and some Dublin). You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow, with the latter an hour’s drive closer to the marina in Argyll.  Or you can train it from Glasgow Central to Gourock and pick up a ferry to Dunoon, where you’d need a taxi to get to the marina.

Tips

If you’ve been to the Firth of Clyde already, or are just keener to check out the Hebrides, Argyll Cruising now also offer trips out beyond Kintyre. (The Hebrides are defined as the islands that lie beyond Kintyre.)

Argyll Cruising

When the weather cooperates, the Scottish scenery is stunning. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier, prices are a little cheaper and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

For More Info

Contact Argyll Cruising www.argyllcruising.com; +44 (0) 7917 858 545; info@argyllcruising.com.

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie knows his subject!

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First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise

By Ted Scull.

Heading into my senior year in college, I had one empty slot to round out my final academic schedule. Sitting with a good friend one day, we both decided to study Russian, the language. We were bound for Europe in the months after graduation, and the professor, though known to be a tough taskmaster, also had a great reputation.

At the end of the first day of class when we had been introduced to the Russian alphabet and how the letters were pronounced, Dr. B. gave us our assignment. Be prepared for a quiz, and if you passed to his satisfaction, you could continue, otherwise you will have to find another course to complete your credits.

We attacked the task with relish and stayed up half the night testing each other, and the next day we returned to class and passed muster. A few fell by the wayside.

The language study included quite a lot of Russian history and politics, and I became so intrigued by the world’s other superpower, I decided to plan a trip there. After graduation from college, I had six weeks between a summer job and starting an academic year abroad in Paris. My friend Bob planned a motorcycle trip deep into Eastern Europe, and we would rendezvous in Paris in October.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR, named after a river in eastern Siberia.

Heading off to Europe

After graduation, I sailed over on the German liner Hanseatic and connected to the boat train for Paris where I stashed my belongings, those not needed for traveling east. At Gare de L’Est I boarded an overnight train for Prague, the start of a month and a half of travel. The next day, while I was beginning lunch in the restaurant car, we made a stop at Pilsen. Cartons of Pilsner beer came aboard, my favorite foreign beer at home.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Prague (Praha) Central Station. * Photo: Ted Scull

Arriving at Prague Central Station late in the day, I had failed to look up where my hotel was located. So, I showed the taxi driver the name, Esplanade, and we took a strange meandering route arriving at my destination about 15 minutes later. When I entered my hotel room, I looked out the window and what did I see – the railway station just two blocks away.

I stayed two full days, seeing the city on foot, and while a beautiful and intriguing place, it had nowhere near the bustle and excitement of Paris. The train to Vienna took just four hours and there I teamed up with another college friend and his new wife for a Danube River cruise all the way to the Black Sea and onward by overnight ship to Yalta.

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Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Vienna & Boarding the Riverboat

All travel from now was through Intourist, the Russian government travel agency. One either picked the tourist or first-class level and the hotel charge included three meals a day. It was only permitted to stay in cities on the Intourist list, and the major ones had a limit of five days. Yalta, an inexpensive resort town, permitted up to four weeks. For travel between most cities, you could choose to fly or take the train.

First Small-Sip Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR at a landing along the Danube, * Photo: Ted Scull

Two nights in Vienna revealed a stunning city of art, music and architecture, and its lively atmosphere would be hard to match in the Czechoslovakian, Yugoslavian, Romanian and Bulgarian cities in route to the Black Sea.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Vienna where private palaces and grounds are opened to the public. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Soviet-owned riverboat Amur (named after a river is eastern Siberia) we boarded had been built on the Danube as one of a pair, qualifying as war reparations for the damage done to Russia in WWII. Its purpose was to bring foreign currency to an economically struggling Russia. The riverboat was white with a red stripe along the main deck and hammer and sickle on the funnel.

Passengers occupied three decks, one full deck of windowed outside twin-bedded cabins with private facilities, and a second higher deck with more cabins, an observation lounge, large windowed dining saloon, and a bar. A wraparound promenade allowed complete circumnavigations. Open space included a large portion of the top (navigating) deck and a small area at the bow one level below.

Danube River

The Danube River & the Black Sea.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Settling In

My first riverboat, fairly new and seemingly well-maintained, was a pleasant surprise, but then I had no idea really know what to expect. Upon casting off, we had some 60 passengers, about half capacity but then it was near the season’s end.

Dinner, however, got off to a shaky start. We were amongst the last to board, and there was no place for us to sit together at the long, shared table. As we knew no one and heard no English spoken among the others, we stood there looking helpless. Eventually one of the stewardesses came to our rescue, and I launched into my first attempt with Russian. She smiled patiently and moved around some chairs and set up a table for three off to one side. After that we would be assigned seats together at the main table. We did meet a few of the European passengers, but overall, not much English was spoken.

The food was decent and forgettable: soup, some sort of meat (occasionally fish), potatoes, and a vegetable for lunch and dinner. Breakfast offered a dollop of large lump red caviar, bread and a boiled egg. Drink choices were soda, beer and wine.

Our ports were Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, Iron Gate (passage), Giurgiu, and Ismail.

The Iron Gate

The Iron Gate today has been tamed by a dam and locks.* Photo: Ted Scull

The real excitement began the next morning when we were underway. I had never sailed along a major river before, not even in a small boat, and this river was just amazing, taking us from Central Europe through the Balkans to the Black Sea, from democracies to Communist dictatorships. The era was the height of the so-called Cold War — for some, us against them, but it was more complicated than that. One could not simply say that Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania could be lumped together willy-nilly or that all four felt the same toward Moscow, capital of Russia and the Soviet Union.

Communist propaganda

Communist propaganda showing a heroic worker shoveling land mines marked US. * Photo: Ted Scull

RELATED: Mother Russia River Cruising.  by Ted Scull

Tricky Navigation

Back to the Danube. We were going with the flow and moving rather fast. From time to time we came up behind slower traffic such as powered barges and others that needed a tug to push or pull the load. They needed to be overtaken, and at the same time make sure there was enough room to pass, and taking into account the bends in the river, plus if anything was coming upstream.

First Small-Ship Cruise

A twin funnel sidewheel towboat down bound on the Danube. * Photo: Ted Scull

Barges and tows moved very slowly, and for the most part we were faster, bigger and more maneuverable. Cargoes consisted of coal, iron ore, rock, gravel, petroleum products, lumber and grain.

Following a few meets and overtakings, I began to realize that people actually made their homes on the barges. Clothes lines had laundry drying, some carried bicycles, and others an open deck for relaxing, attractively surrounded by plants.

Our vessel had an illustrated booklet of national flags so we could understand where the traffic came from or was going to. The Rhine-Main Canal was not open yet so southern Germany was as far inland as one could go.

During the day we passed the upbound sistership Donau with an exchange of whistles. Curiously, there were no cheers or waves between the sisterships, just people lining the railings. And we never saw another riverboat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

AMUR’s sistership DONAU (Danube) heading upriver. * Photo: Ted Scull

Bratislava

Our first port was Bratislava, a major city in Czechoslovakia, and before that a longtime German city with the name Pressburg. The Ottoman Empire attacked many cities along the Danube using it as the conquering route inland, but Pressburg never fell.

Because we were the only native English-speaking passengers on the boat, we were pretty much on our own, so we made our own way from the landing to the attractive city center and main square, churches that dated to the 14th and 15th century. Making a loop, we passed through small squares and along narrow lanes that led to wide boulevards. A fortified citadel towered over the city, but then there was not the buzz there is today.

Budapest (Two Cities)

Budapest was altogether different. Originally two cities, Buda and Pest were separated by the Danube, with the former overlooking the more important side with an imposing gothic-style Parliament modeled after the British counterpart fronting on the river.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Gothic-style Parliament building, modeled after the Btitish Parliament fronting on the Danube at Budapest. * Photo: Ted Scull taken aboard riverboat AMUR

Impressed by this architecturally rich city, we set out from the Pest side where riverboats dock today. Once a wealthy city, Budapest built the first subway in Continental Europe, had the first public telephone system and first telephone exchange, and stimulated by an order from the Parliament builders, the first mass production of light bulbs.

We zigzagged amongst the monumental buildings, many in Art Nouveau style, crossing to Buda on one suspension bridge to then climb up to the medieval battlements to a viewpoint overlooking the Danube. Winding back down, we took in the famous Gellert Hotel and its spa to then to cross back over a handsome suspension bridge decorated with tongue-less lion statues. The architect was said to have committed suicide when he saw the empty mouths at the opening ceremony.

Belgrade

For the stop at Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s capital, Marshal Tito, the dictator, did his best to keep the Soviet Union at bay. We tied up in a small cove off the main channel and had a bit of a climb to reach the city center. The city has foundations of many previous incarnations.

Belgrade experienced 115 major battles, and since Roman rule, has been completely destroyed 44 times, had 40 different names and served as a capital of five different states. It was a bit much to even try to take but a superficial overview in the time allotted.

First Small-Ship Cruise

It’s a bit of a climb from the Danube to the center of Belgrade. * Photo: Ted Scull

Drama at the Iron Gate

Continuing on down the Danube, we next came to the Iron Gate, a dramatic series of gorges created by the Transylvanian Alps crossing the river. The Danube changes its character to a rapidly flowing torrent with waters roughed up by its narrowing and dropping fast enough to create dangerous rapids. Our pace quickened, and I could sense tension in my body. To the left we passed a pair of steam locomotives standing by to haul the upriver traffic. Now, for safety reasons, that traffic had stopped to permit the downriver traffic to pass.

Today, the rapids have now been tamed by dams and locks providing safe navigation and hydroelectricity. The passage is scenic and safer but no longer genuinely dramatic.

Welcome to Romania (Not)

Cruising overnight, the Amur eased up to a landing marked Giurgiu, a river port with road access to Bucharest, the Romanian capital. Across the river was the port of Ruse in Bulgaria. Our crew had the lines ready to hand over to the Romanian receivers but they just stood there looking at us. With our boat now alongside the floating landing stage, the captain ordered the crew to jump ashore and tie up the boat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Landing station at Giurgiu, Romania before troops arrived to prevent going ashore. * Photo: Ted Scull

The men hesitated, and then without any warning, a contingent of Romanian soldiers marched around both sides of the terminal and stood at attention. A Romanian officer yelled something across to our captain, now standing outside the pilothouse, first in Romanian (a Romance and not a Slavic language). There was silence, and the Romanian officer gave an order, and his troops lowered their weapons then took several thumping steps forward.

That was it, we were not welcome. Our captain rang the telegraph, and we moved off the landing and made a wide arc to dock at Ruse, across the river in Bulgaria.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ruse, Bulgaria’s most prominent government, a billboard to post portraits of heroic leaders. The red letters are a salute to the 9th of September. * Photo: Ted Scull

Not Wanted

The Romanian demonstration provided an official snub against Russia, something that increasingly became a pattern prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union many years later. As the Bulgarian stop was scheduled for the upriver transit, nothing was planned, so we simply spent a few hours ashore wandering through a sleepy, medium-size Bulgarian river city.

With a full moon rising above the river, we proceeded in the growing darkness, and during the night, the Danube would turn north and then east through Romanian territory. In the morning we eased over to a landing at Ismail, a Romanian port about 50 miles in from the Black Sea.

RELATED:  Cruising the Danube River on the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan.

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube River with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Changing from a Boat to a Ship (Small)

The Amur pulled up astern of the small Soviet passenger vessel Kolchida. Those who were leaving here, including our trio, disembarked and walked forward a few hundred feet to the Black Sea ship and boarded for our one-night voyage.

We sailed about an hour later through the marshy, flat Danube Delta. There were lots of birds about and still enough evening light when the ship sailed out into the Black Sea for the overnight sail to Yalta.

The Kolchida on the Danube

The Kolchida.* Photo: Ted Scull

Chess, and the Winner Is …

Some Russians my age approached me asking, in Russian, if I played chess, and when I indicated yes, they set up a table at the stern. About a dozen others, college students returning home, surrounded the two players. Everything happened so fast, with my Russian opponent moving his pieces very quickly. I did not play that way. I concentrated as hard as I could and tried not to take too long, and after about 20 minutes, I had him in checkmate. I was not sure how it all happened. Did he let me win? Anyway, I was rewarded with a beer with the ship now rolling to the Black Sea swells.

Dinner was just passable as I assume all the ingredients had come from Russia, while the riverboat took on stores in Vienna its turnaround port. It would be an introduction to the Russian menus that would little from day to day and eventually became a non-topic. You just ate what was put in front of you. Then I took to my bunk, and in the morning, when I awoke, we were approaching a steep coastal landscape with Yalta sprawled at its base.

Yalta and Beyond

My friends stayed several days, and I remained in a seafront hotel for two weeks, as it was cheap and I could practice my Russian on anyone who would talk to me. My tourist level included a guide and car every five days, so I managed to see the site of the Yalta Conference and the Valley of Balaclava, the location for the charge of the Light Brigade, a battle between the British and Russians.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted atop a large hill overlooking Yalta and the Black Sea. * Photo: Tony Milbank

Leaving Yalta, I then another five weeks, traveling independently by train, and in between, a 21-day tour starting out in Moscow and then to Stalingrad (now Volgograd), followed by a two-day paddle steamer voyage to Rostov, Sochi, Kiev, and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

First Small-Ship Cruise

Soviet sidewheel riverboat at a landing on the Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

Again, on my own, by train to Riga, Latvia’s capital, Moscow, Warsaw and Paris where, in the latter, I resided for eight months. But that story is for another day.

RELATED:  Danube River Cruise with Aboard the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan. 

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Looking Back

My basic Russian came in handy when traveling on trains, trams, buses, seeking directions, ordering meals and having a minimal chat. Visiting the Soviet Union was time well spent, if not unsettling at times.

During the group tour, one member, a young English fellow who spoke fluent Russian, vanished about 10 days into the itinerary, and there was no explanation forthcoming from our guide.

Ted in Red Square

The author in Red Square, Moscow.

On the riverboat between Stalingrad and Rostov, some of us apparently fraternized a bit too much with the Russian passengers. We were relegated to one lounge and sat at separate tables at one end of the dining saloon.

When in Moscow, I meet some students in Red Square, and they invited me to their homes. Later, when I returned to the city by train, I was discreetly handed a message as I walked along the platform warning me that my friends would be arrested if I met up with them again.

Ted in Paris

The author on the Pont Alexandre III, Paris, named after a Russian czar,

Soon after settling in Paris, my friend from college, who shared the Russian language class, came to visit for several days. We exchanged stories and there were plenty. He then sold his motorcycle and headed home. We still connect all these years later.

My six weeks in the Soviet Union and eight months in Paris were life changing. I had grown up quite a bit by the time I stepped onto the pier in New York.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise Was Just the Beginning …

Beginning with the Danube just after graduating from college, I became smitten by rivers and river cruising. When I had the time and money, I began to collect them with subsequent travels: Rhine, Rhone, Moselle, Elbe, Soane, Volga, Don, Nile, Yangtze, Mekong, Amazon, and closer to home, St. Lawrence, Ohio, Mississippi, Columbia, Snake and less than an hour’s walk, the Hudson.

Every one is different and has stories galore to tell, and I find them all intriguing in their unique ways.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Pandaw’s colonial design fits well into the Mekong River setting. * Photo: Ted Scull

The growth of river cruising has been a phenomenon, adding a fabulous new way to see our world, and so much of it developed along rivers. They provided routes of discovery, development, conquest, retreat and travel before decent roads and steam railways.

Leisure cruising started first on the Nile in the late 19th century on a river that was the most important geographical factor in the development of early civilization.

Nile River cruise vessel

SS SUDAN recalls the early style of Nile River cruise vessels. 

Modern river cruising has developed so fast, especially in Europe, and the resulting competition has driven innovation and cruise ship-style luxuries. Travelers can still choose between the plain and fancy.

I happen to prefer the riverboats that don’t try to be the be all and end all of the latest luxury cruise package. I like to concentrate on the river, its scenic delights and commerce and to go ashore in ports to see what this river is responsible for.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Today’s much larger riverboats, seen here on Russia’s Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

My favorite riverboats have been the 1926-built Delta Queen, built for transportation, then a long life of cruising with a genuine link to the past, the outstanding replica stern-wheeler, American Queen, and Pandaw ‘s fleet of small-size boats with their fetching colonial atmosphere.

I would also be more than happy to sail again in the likes of the Amur, the riverboat that began my story. It gave me the initial entry into a new means of travel and the results are evident. I don’t know what happened to her, but her sister Donau has continued on for decades, most recently housing cyclists who sleep on board and cycle from a different port during the day.

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Viking Jupiter's terrace

Viking Jupiter

By Judi Cohen.

I am a small-ship “connoisseur” accustomed to ships under 300 passengers, which is how QuirkyCruise.com defines a small-ship cruise. However, when presented with the opportunity to cruise on Viking’s new 930-passenger Viking Jupiter in the Baltic Sea I immediately said “yes!”

Having never visited Russia, seeing St. Petersburg on the 8-night Baltic itinerary was a major draw. While it wasn’t exactly a “small-ship,” it featured the advantages of larger ships, while also offering some of the intimacy and highly personalized service of a true small-ship. I like to think of it as a “small big-ship.”

Viking Jupiter

The new Viking Jupiter. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The Viking Jupiter took us from Stockholm to Berlin, with stops at the ports of Helsinki, Tallinn and Gdansk. The historical and gilded riches of St. Petersburg, of course, were the big draw for most passengers.

My two-day visit to St. Petersburg provided just a taste of the city’s rich art, architecture and history. I hope to return to do a true small-ship river cruise, on the Volga River, and see more of Russia, including Moscow.

Russia cruise with Viking

Judi and Lawrence at the Church of the Spilled Blood. * Photo: Judi Cohen

In the spirit of Quirky Cruise’s small-ship ethos, Russia’s Volga River cruises are an ideal way to visit both Moscow and St. Petersburg in combination with a Baltic itinerary. Small-ship cruises to this region are offered by various cruise companies including a 13-day Viking cruise on one of their five 200-passenger boats.

Meanwhile, Ponant Cruises and Tauck both operate 12-day small-ship Russia/Baltic Sea cruises using Ponant’s 184-passenger Le Dumont D’Urville with two full days in St. Petersburg. Emerald Waterways does a 12-day river cruise on the 224-passenger MS Rosia with stops in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

6 “Small Ship” Moments on the Viking Jupiter

While the Viking Jupiter has features you would typically find on larger ships including a variety of dining choices, numerous bars with live entertainment, and a luxurious Nordic spa with gym and treatment rooms, the ship felt intimate and uncrowded giving it a small-ship feel.

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#1: Optional Small-group Shore Excursions

In St. Petersburg we chose to pay for two small-group tours in addition to taking the panoramic coach tour of St. Petersburg that was included at no extra cost (Viking offers one free tour option in every port). We did a full-day “Behind Closed Doors” tour of the 18th-century Hermitage Museums and a half-day walking tour of the 1950-era St. Petersburg metro system, museum-like itself.

With only 13 guests on each tour, they were similar to excursions and tours I have done on previous small-ship cruises.

 Winter Palace Hermitage Museum

The gorgeous Winter Palace Hermitage Museum. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Hermitage museum entrance

Entrance staircase in the Hermitage Museum. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Our Hermitage Museum guide was knowledgeable about architecture and art history, and contributed to our learning and enjoyment. Our guide during the metro tour, which was a highlight for me, led us into the system to see some of the oldest stations that were built as “palaces of the people” rich in Soviet history, with their fascinating art and sculpture.

St Petersburg Metro System

Kirovsky Zavod Station, part of the stunning metro system. * Photo; Judi Cohen

St Petersburg metro stations

Avtovo Station light fixtures. * Photo: Judi Cohen

These small-group excursions felt much like the tours I have enjoyed on other small-ship cruises along the Mekong and Irrawaddy with Pandaw and the Brahmaputra River with India-based Adventure River Cruises. As on these smaller ships, on board the Viking Jupiter, there were many opportunities to immerse myself in the artistic and historical presentations offered on board by local experts. There was even a magical performance one evening in the ship’s Star Theatre by the famous Russian Mariinsky Theatre.

Other passengers told me about the small-group premium excursions they took (ranging from about $75 to $300 per person), including a tour of the Stutthof concentration camp in Gdansk, Poland; reindeer feeding in Nuuksio National Park; and a bicycle tour in Helsinki, Finland. Several premium excursions at additional cost were offered in every port.

#2: Private Balcony in our Cabin

Our cabin had a private balcony that provided a quiet and private place to relax, read and reflect. It reminded me of smaller ships I’ve been on that also had private balconies, including the 195-passenger Viking Einar that I cruised on along the Rhine River in 2019.

RELATED: Cruising on the new Viking Einar … by Judi Cohen

balcony of Viking Jupiter

Judi’s husband Lawrence on their cabin balcony. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#3:  Intimate Dining Experiences

Mamsen’s is a small take-away café aboard the Jupiter named in honor of Viking founder Torstein Hagen’s mother. Located on Deck 7 in the Explorers Lounge, serving light traditional Scandinavian dishes, snacks and pastries, it was never crowded and became our go-to spot for early breakfast and light bites throughout the day.

With comfortable seating in sofas or at tables with chairs, Mamsen’s felt very warm, welcoming and cozy…and the open face shrimp sandwiches and signature waffles were delicious!

waffels aboard the Viking Jupiter

Mamsen’s signature Scandinavian waffle. * Photo: Judi Cohen

 #4: Afternoon Tea

Like many of the small European river boats, traditional high tea was served every afternoon in the Wintergarden Conservatory on Deck 7. Separated from the pool by floor-to-ceiling glass doors, I found the Wintergarden to be one of the most beautiful areas on the ship. The blonde wood ornamentation looked like trees climbing the pillars and covering the roof and created the feeling of being in a forest!

afternoon tea on the Viking Jupiter

Afternoon Tea in the Wintergarden on Deck 7. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#5: Explorers Lounge

The Jupiter had many comfortable and quiet sitting areas with books neatly organized on library shelves. However, we kept going back to the Explorers Lounge on Deck 7 and the upper level above it, called the Observation Lounge, to read, rest, have a snack or drink, or watch the waves through the expansive windows.

While seated in the sofas, complete with fur throws, we could also enjoy the warmth from the faux fireplaces. I never felt like I was on a large ship in these lounges.

Explorer's Lounge on Jupiter

The lovely ocean-view Explorers Lounge. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#6: Musicians in the Atrium

The multi-level atrium typical of big ships, felt cozy each evening when a pianist or a trio of musicians played sweet music there for hours. The Viking Bar and the surrounding Living Room lounge, that actually felt like our own living room at home, drew us back nightly for pre-dinner cocktails  and again following dinner.

After only one night aboard, the musicians welcomed us back warmly and it felt like they were playing just for us! Very few other passengers were there in the evenings, which made it feel even more intimate.

musicians on Viking Jupiter

Musicians performing nightly on Deck 1. * Photo: Judi Cohen

For anyone who wants to get the best of a larger cruise ship with many of the benefits of a small ship, I would recommend the Viking Jupiter.

The Jupiter’s attentive personal service, small-group shore excursions options, cozy and comfortable lounge areas with music, and casual dining all combined to create a wonderful “small-ship” feeling.

The added bonus was having some “big-ship” features such as a spa, gym and multiple pools, plus 24-hour room service so we could enjoy refreshments on our private balcony. Having been teased with the history and riches of St. Petersburg for only two days, I am ready to go back to experience Russia in depth!

Viking Jupiter's terrace

On the Aquavit Terrace leaving Stockholm. * Photo: Judi Cohen

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Sue in port on AmaKristina Rhine River cruise

AmaKristina on Rhine River.

REVIEWER

Sue Piergallini from the USA.

CRUISE LINE

Ama Waterways.

SHIP

AmaKristina.

DESTINATION

Rhine River to Switzerland, France, Germany & Netherlands.

# OF NIGHTS

7.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

December 2019/January 2020, from Basel, Switzerland.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 5

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 4

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 4 small ship cruises.

REVIEW

AmaWaterways was first class all the way. We did the Romantic Rhine Cruise from Basel to Amsterdam. Everyday was a new stop with fantastic excursions and experiences. We went from large world-class cities to small French villages! Enjoyed wine tasting, beer tasting, and going to the top of the Swiss Alps! The river cruise boat was beautiful with outstanding wine (new ones every day) and amazing dinners with local cuisine. And, with going in late December there were no crowds and we were able to enjoy all the attractions to their fullest! A must do experience!

QuirkyCruise Review

 

RELATED: Gene Sloan’s article about the new double-wide AmaMagna.

RELATED: Getting Fit on an AMA Waterways river cruise in Europe.

RELATED: Anne Kalosh’s Mekong River Adventure with AmaWaterways.

 

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quirky-cruise-barge-lady-cruises-couple-drinking-wine-on-ship-deck

Barge Lady Cruises

Barge Lady Cruises, the inland waterways operator of roughly 50 luxury small-ship hotel barges, has been around for more than three decades expanding its reach throughout western Europe, the UK and Ireland, almost wherever their shallow craft can navigate. Europe is blessed with natural waterways and a rich heritage of canal building that goes back several hundred years to when shallow-draft boats called barges were vital in transporting goods between the major ports of Europe.

Today, commercial traffic still exists on some rivers and canals, though private yachting, barge travel, and on the larger canals and rivers, riverboats, dominate.

When we’re talking barge cruising, most are owner operated by passionate folks who enjoy offering a boutique hotel experience on these sturdy, charming and wonderfully quirky conveyances. Moving at just about four miles an hour, the point is to soak up the lovely scenery along the way while enjoying great food and wine.

Barge Lady Cruises

AMARYLLIS -6- star barge cruises in France. * Photo; Barge Lady Cruises

Barge cruising may be the slowest form of cruising (a walking pace), hence sightseers are rewarded with an up-close and highly personal take on the region chosen.

RELATED: Barge cruise newbie? These first timer tips will help!

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

The fleet numbers 50 moored all over Western Europe — some conversions from cargo barges and others newly-built specifically for the pleasures of canal cruising. Berth capacities range from 2 to 22.

The smaller capacity barges are perfect for private charters by families, good friends and affinity groups.

Against the backdrop of their longtime relationships within what is a small industry, Barge Lady Cruises will curate itineraries based on specific requests such as vineyard visits, historic destinations, birding, cycling, golfing, hiking, walking and so on. Otherwise the vessels operate as hotel barges where you book your cabin or cabins and share the experience with (hopefully) like-minded others. Though do keep in mind, if you don’t take a fancy to the other passengers on an intimate 6- or 8-passenger canal barge, you’re stuck. Definitely consider booking the whole boat with friends or relatives.

In 2018, the firm opened a Canadian office for barge cruising along the scenic waterways of Ontario.

Wine on deck anyone? * Photo; Barge Lady Cruises

Passenger Decks

Two or three decks; cabins, indoor public spaces and possibly a third open deck. Naturally, no elevators.

Passenger Profile

Anyone who wants to leisurely see a specific region, comfortably and close up without the hassle of having to cope with driving, trains, and dealing with an unfamiliar foreign tongue. Language on board is English, though the crew will speak the local language too.

Price

$$ to $$$entirely dependent on the star classifications. See explanation under cabins.

Itineraries
  • All cruises last six nights/seven days and cover about 50 miles.
  • Barge Lady vessels cruise virtually every region of France where canal and rivers exist;
  • Holland (especially in the bulb season) and some venture into Belgium’s dense network of waterways;
  • Germany along the Mosel to Luxemburg City and Trier (canal locks);
  • Italy following the Po River and Bianco Canal from Venice to Mantua;
  • England along the busy Thames lined with attractive villages and historic riverside pubs, all just west of London;
  • Scotland’s cross-country Caledonian Canal that links four lochs (including Ness);
  • Ireland’s eternally-green landscapes bordering the Shannon River.
  • Barge Lady Cruises

    Germany – cruising the Mosel River * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

Included Features

A dedicated crew including a chef and a tour guide; pre-arranged pickups and drop offs include nearby railways stations, hotels or rental car offices; open bar and paired wines with lunch and dinner; daily escorted sightseeing and entrance fees; daily maid service; and use of onboard amenities such as bicycles, hot tubs, and WiFi. Suggested tipping is 5-10% of the fare.

Why Go?

Barging is leisurely cruising par excellence. Travel on waterways at the pace of a fast walk, a bit faster by following the towpath on a bicycle, and dead stop in the evenings. You are amidst beautiful landscapes when under way, and when tied up, close to lovely villages for after-dinner strolls.

Daily excursions with no more than 20 people, often less, take you to beautiful spots, vineyards, chateaux, artisan workshops, and local produce and craft markets.

Barge Lady Cruises

Barge trips begin in Venice to travel inland along the Po River. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

When to Go?

While the barge cruising season runs from April to October, there are seasonal plusses and minuses. Early and late in the season will see fewer tourists at the most popular sights and fewer private craft on the waterways. However, it may be too cool to remain on deck when underway and in the evenings when tied up.

The beauty of barging is that you’re mainly cruising in the countryside, which substantially lessens being beset by teeming crowds.

Cabins

The cabin sizes generally dictate the star rating, with 3-stars at roughly 100 sq. ft.; 4-stars at 125-200 sq. ft.; 5-stars at 200 sq. ft. with hot tub; and 6-stars at 250 sq. ft. with hot tub. Because barge cabins are located at the waterline, they have portholes or small windows, not big picture windows as with riverboats.

Barge Lady Cruises

A cabin on the Amaryllis. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises                                                                     

Public Rooms

Barges have a lounge, possibly a second semi-partitioned seating area; dining area; forward outdoor seating on the same deck; and perhaps additional open and/or covered seating above the public spaces. Small book collections will reflect the cruising regions, often along with reading left behind by past passengers.

Barge Lady Cruises

Cruising the Canal du Midi in southern France. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

RELATED: Cruising the canals of France aboard the Esperance.  by Elysa Leonard

Dining

Food is most definitely a major attraction and will reflect the country and region. Breakfast and lunch will be buffet and dinner served with paired wines. Cooking and presentation will be of a high standard, and catering is for a few not hundreds or thousands as on ocean-going cruise ships. Often the chef will introduce the evening meal. A cocktail hour with canapés precedes dinner.

Barge Lady Cruises

Wine and cheese from France aboard Barge Lady cruises

Activities & Entertainment

The cruising day may start with an excursion, then return for lunch, cruise in the afternoon, and tie up at night or cruise in the morning with lunch aboard and an afternoon excursion. There may be evening musical entertainment and often a chance to visit the town on foot from the landing. Leisure time is spent viewing the scenery at four mph from the comfort of the deck, joining the captain in his wheelhouse, watching chef in his open kitchen, relaxing in a hot tub, tasting wine and spirits from the onboard cellar, socializing on deck, and of course good old fashioned reading and scenery gazing.

Special Note

If barging is of interest and you are a neophyte, compare how barge cruising is different or similar to riverboat cruising to determine if it fits your travel style.

Along the Same Lines

There are many barge companies and others will be added. Abercrombie & Kent gets a brief mention on QuirkyCruise as they charter some of Barge Lady’s vessels.

Contact

Barge Lady Cruises, 101 West Grand Avenue #200, Chicago IL 60654; 800-880-0071; bargeladycruises.com.

Barges often tie up alongside a village landing, where you want to be. Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

Barges often tie up to a village landing, just where you want to be. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

quirkycruise bird

 

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Pilates on the Sun Deck of the Emerald Destiny

Active European River Cruises on the Rhine & Moselle

By John Roberts.

When it comes to the great rivers of Europe, those often enjoyed on a delightful river cruise, the Moselle is too often overlooked.

This stunningly gorgeous river is a tributary of the Rhine, and it’s notable for its terraced vineyards that grow some of Germany’s best Riesling.

The Moselle is also where I started my “Legends of the Moselle, Rhine and Main” river cruise with Emerald Waterways, embarking in the scenic upriver town of Bernkastel-Kues.

Our ship for the week, Emerald Destiny, would take us on a journey to the towns of Cochem and Koblenz before reaching the Rhine River. Then along this great waterway we would visit Miltenberg and Wertheim in the Lower Franconia region of Bavaria and continuing to Wurzburg and Bamberg as we traversed the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

European River cruises with Emerald Waterways

Sporty John alongside the Emerald Destiny. * Photo: John Roberts

The entire voyage was similar in many regards to the more than a dozen European river cruises I have enjoyed on the Rhine and Danube rivers, with walking tours of the towns and villages alongside hearty meals onboard the ship. We also had a full menu of castles, ruins, churches, terraced hillside vineyards and charming towns that provided wonderful eye candy as we sailed lazily along the winding rivers.

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The cruise on Emerald Destiny, however, differed in many important ways to me. I was particularly drawn to try this cruise because of Emerald Waterways’ new EmeraldACTIVE program.

Offered on all of Emerald’s European river cruises, the program offers a wide range of cruise entertainment and activities led by activity managers. Traditionally, river cruises have entertainment offerings that typically include a piano player in the main lounge each afternoon and at night after dinner, as well as a selection of guest performers who come onboard in certain ports to highlight song and dance styles from their region of Europe.

You might also have cooking demonstrations or an activity like a painting class.

However, the EmeraldACTIVE program delivers a more energetic vibe, ideal for families with kids as well as any travelers who are simply young at heart.

Each day, passengers were offered a broad array of cool things to do, from exercises to interactive entertainment, led by our engaging Activity Manager Harry Jordan, who hails from the U.K.

The ship does not have a piano player, by the way. I dove right in to participate in as much as possible, and in fact, I had one of the most fun cruises I have ever had — on the rivers,  or anywhere else, to be honest.

Great beer on a European River cruise

Cheers! * Photo: John Roberts

A Week on the Move

Bernkastel-Kues, our embarkation port, is a small town of just more than 7,000 residents that sits in the Middle Moselle region, the heart of wine-growing Germany. Highlights include the colorful half-timber buildings and the Medieval Market Square.

We kicked off our EmeraldACTIVE week with a 12-mile bike ride around the town and countryside. Emerald Destiny carries a fleet of bikes onboard, and passengers can sign them out for personal use in each port or on guided bike excursions led by local guides.

bicycling on a river cruise in Europe

Emerald Destiny carries a fleet of bikes onboard for personal use or guided rides. * Photo: John Roberts

We docked for an overnight on the bank opposite the bustling town and with the iconic Burgruine-Landshut Castle ruins looming overhead. The castle has been a ruin since a fire in the late 17th century, and Harry led a large group of passengers on a post-lunch afternoon hike to take in the views from high above the river and town. The hike was the second active endeavor of that first full day.

I was really liking the active nature of the cruise so far. I mixed in a morning run, as well, to round out my day.

jogging along the Rhine River

John works in a quick jog whenever he can! * Photo: John Roberts

The full scope of the EmeraldACTIVE program became clear during that evening when Harry, who is a trained singer and dancer, gave his “Not Quite Diamond” cabaret performance in the ship’s main lounge. Harry ran down a nearly complete list of all the Neil Diamond classics, teasing us until the very end when he feigned signing off for the night with one notable omission from his song list. Alas, the night was complete when we all joined in to a rousing rendition of “Sweet Caroline” before finishing off our cocktails and heading back to our cabins.

Harry the cruise manager of Emerald Destiny

The multi-talented and multi-tasking activity manager Harry Jordan. * Photo: John Roberts

The EmeraldACTIVE program also features a lineup of fitness-focused sessions. Pilates took place outside on the Sun Deck; morning stretching classes were in the lounge; and yoga and aqua aerobics were conducted in the indoors pool area. (Emerald Destiny’s large indoor pool with a sun roof can be opened in good weather conditions.)

You also can enjoy petanque, a game similar to boules,  as well as golf putting competitions on the Sun Deck.

Pilates on the Sun Deck of the Emerald Destiny

Pilates on the Sun Deck. * Photo: John Roberts

Activities for all Fitness Levels

AmaWaterways was the first river cruise line to offer a wellness program and onboard wellness hosts, and that line’s programming is decidedly more challenging and aimed at exercise fanatics.

Related:  John’s QuirkyCruise article about his AmaWaterways fitness cruise.

But the Emerald Waterways program has more activities and a broader appeal — designed mostly to keep people entertained and interacting with one another.

The activity manager is essentially a co-cruise manager. The position adds a lot of value for passengers, says Ray Muehlbauer, corporate cruise director for Emerald Waterways.

“What our Activity Managers do is probably five main categories,” he says. “One is the EmeraldACTIVE program, supporting it together with the professional guides. That helped us massively because now we have the guides and someone from the ship who can help the guests and answer any questions.

Ray Muehlbauer

Ray Muehlbauer. * Photo: John Roberts

“Plus, all the wellness activities. We’ve had requests from people to be able to do morning stretch, yoga, Pilates and maybe some mild walking on the deck. On top of that, we do onshore activities (like the hike in Bernkastel-Kues) to show the guest a little more of the towns and cities. Maybe take them to a beer garden or something like that, or for bike rides, hikes, walks — whatever the city has to offer.

“When we’re cruising, we we provide nightly entertainment and game shows, trivia, karaoke, passenger talent shows and dance classes, you name it.”

I had fun doing  yoga, daily runs, bike rides, walks and hikes during the days in port. But it was indeed the daily afternoon and night-time activities that made this cruise a standout.

Most activities were well-attended, with more than a dozen passengers participating in the putting contests and Pilates sessions. The trivia sessions were packed and lively in the main lounge. A handful joined me as Harry led yoga and water aerobics classes.

Aqua Aerobics on a river cruise in Europe

Water aerobics is one of the many ways to keep fit and active on the Emerald Destiny. * Photo: John Roberts

That said, most passengers I mingled with didn’t book this cruise because of the focus on activities, though it was a bonus for many who enjoy being active and maintaining some daily fitness regimen.

The crescendo of the whole voyage, however, was the ship’s end-of-week disco dance party. Harry spun tunes as DJ, and the dance floor was packed with 70-plus people at a time. It was raining men, indeed — and women and crew members — as we were heaving and whirling all around the floor with arms pumping late into the evening.

entertainment on a European river cruise

Harry’s singing was a big hit! * Photo: John Roberts

The Week’s Itinerary

After leaving Bernkastel-Kues, it was on to Cochem, home of the imperial Cochem Castle and its majestic views over the Moselle Valley.

Cochem Castle on a river cruise

The beautiful Cochem Castle. * Photo: John Roberts

I began my day with run along the river before joining the walking tour of the town and shuttle ride up to the castle, which I think has the most picturesque and iconic river views of any destination along the Moselle or Rhine Rivers. We were blessed with an especially sunny day, which made the image even more stunning.

European river cruise castles

Check out the view from the castle! * Photo: John Roberts

Europe river cruise excursions

Stunning Cochem views! * Photo: John Roberts

Emerald Destiny set sail at 1 p.m., and we enjoyed lunch and activities onboard as we journeyed toward Koblenz, which sits at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine. A few of us went out for an evening walk and a couple beers in Koblenz.

The next day, passengers rode the cable car up to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress during a drizzly morning. I ran across a bridge crossing the Rhine and then up to the fortress before taking the cable car back.

At noon, we set sail for Miltenberg. This period of afternoon cruising took us through the Middle Rhine Gorge, always a highlight of a Rhine River Cruise, as you get to pass the famed Lorelei rock and dozens of historic villages, castles and ruins.

Sailing continued overnight and into the next morning before we arrived at Miltenberg for a city tour and short hike up to Miltenberg Castle. The ship then sailed and we would meet it later as in Wertheim. We were free to carry on with our adventures in these two splendid German towns.

Miltenberg views

Views from the Miltenberg Castle. * Photo: John Roberts

I was able to break off for a quick run after our tour in Miltenberg, and when we arrived in Wertheim, I found a secluded hiking route up to the castle there. The weather was hot, and by the end of the day, after exploring the two cities, I was more than ready for a hearty dinner and cold beers back onboard Emerald Destiny.

dinner on board a European river boat

Dinner on board with a view. * Photo: John Roberts

Harry delivered his second cabaret act after dinner, sending us off the bed with the songs of the Rat Pack still on repeat in our heads.

Our ship arrived in Wurzburg harbor the next morning, and after a morning stretch session with Harry, passengers were off to tour the Wurzburg Residence — a UNESCO World Heritage site and a beautiful baroque palace — and a visit one of the country’s oldest and largest winery for a tasting session.

exercising on board a European river cruise

Harry’s morning stretch class was a great way to start the day. * Photo: John Roberts

We had free time to explore the historic old town area of Wurzburg, and many from our ship settled in for a glass of wine and snacks or a sausage at a café or wine bar near the Old Main Bridge (Alte Mainbrucke), while some ventured to the Market Square to pick up souvenirs and sweets.

We then sailed from late afternoon until the next morning until we reached Bamberg. During the evening, we enjoyed a festive time on Emerald Destiny with the farewell gala dinner featuring choices of Chateaubriand (roasted beef filet) or salmon and chorizo, followed by Baked Alaska for dessert.

Afterwards, dozens of people hit the dance floor as Harry played DJ for Disco Night. I have never seen such enthusiastic passenger participation on the dance floor. We worked up a sweat and sang along to familiar hits from the 70s and 80s.

In Bamberg, another city tour was on tap. The ship arrived after lunch, and we shuttled to town to explore the cathedral, a garden and other sights.

Bamberg visit on a Europe river cruise

Pretty Bamberg. * Photo: John Roberts

Bamberg's lovely gardens

Bamberg’s lovely gardens. * Photo: John Roberts

But the highlight on this day would a sampling of the city’s famed “smoke beer.” The stout dark brew owes its smoky flavor to the process that uses malted barley dried over an open flame. We all washed down a couple salty pretzels with the cold and flavorful beers.

beer and pretzels in Europe

Beer & pretzels in Bamberg * Photo: John Roberts

This unique taste of Germany was a pleasant way to toast the end of a great voyage with new friends — half of our week’s 170 passengers were from the U.S., with a quarter each from the U.K. and Australia.

The next morning, the journey would end in Nuremberg, and we would all go our separate ways, but with fond memories of a special trip.

Related: John’s QuirkyCruise article about his sporty Ponant & Backroads cruise to New Zealand.

Onboard Emerald Destiny

The ship carries up to 182 passengers in 92 staterooms (two solo cabins), and it basically owns the standard design you’ll find among almost every other European river ship. There are four decks, a Sun Deck up top, small gym, main dining room and a bar/lounge area that also has a small library and coffee area.

Emerald Destiny does Europe River cruises

The 182-passenger Emerald Destiny, on the left * Photo: John Roberts

But Emerald Destiny and all other Emerald Waterways ships are unique with a large indoor pool at the back of the ship. This space was my favorite aside from being out on the Sun Deck.

The pool area has loungers with soft cushions, foot stools and a bar. There is a swim-against jet in the large pool (4.5 feet deep), and the activity manager offers aqua aerobics classes in the water and yoga sessions on the pool deck. The roof opens above the pool when the weather is nice. The pool area also serves as a movie theater at night, as the water is drained and pool floor raised to provide more seating. A screen drops down, and a surround-sound system offers the perfect environment as you can watch select recent releases each night.

small pool on a European river boat

Emerald Destiny’s pool area is impressive. * Photo: John Roberts

The lounge also offers plenty of comfy seating, and an area near the front of the lounge offers bar-style seating or tables so you can enjoy the views over cocktails or during lunch or breakfast. A small buffet is set up daily in the lounge for a lighter breakfast and lunch option.

pretzels on a river cruise in Europe

Snacks … pretzels of course! * Photo: John Roberts

An outside deck at the bow in front of the lounge is also available with a few lounge chairs, and this is a relaxing spot to enjoy the scenery as you sail or navigate locks.

Cabins are spacious and comfortable enough, with plenty of storage. Minibar drinks and snacks come with an added fee, but water bottles are replenished in your room as needed. You don’t have a full walkout balcony but a flexible indoor/outdoor space that converts with the touch of a button that drops down the glass to railing level so you can enjoy the fresh air and views.

cabin view on European river cruises

The view from John’s cabin balcony. * Photo: John Roberts

Check out John’s video tour of the Emerald Destiny’s public areas and cabins!

Meal Time

The main restaurant features a breakfast and lunch buffet with select featured menu items daily. The highlight of the voyage for many was the traditional Bavarian lunch feast put out as we sailed from Miltenberg to Wertheim. This featured sausages, pork loin, sauerkraut, spaetzle and pretzels — with servers circulating around the room handing out mugs of German lager at a furious pace.

beer mugs on a Europe river cruise

Mugs of beer were plentiful. * Photo: John Roberts

Dinner includes appetizers, soups, main courses (meat, fish and vegetarian choices) and desserts. Wine, beer and soft drinks are included in your fare for lunch and dinner.

Some of the delicacies we enjoyed: onion soup, mushroom risotto, forest mushroom cappuccino, trilogy of lamb, breaded hoki fish filet, pork tenderloins, poke bowl (tofu) and sliced duck breast and leg.

dinner on board a European river boat

Dinner is served! * Photo: John Roberts

Desserts included panna cotta, pumpkin seed parfait and Black Forest cake.

I found the service to be excellent, and the crew always on the lookout for how they can help and ready with a friendly greeting and smile. This was a nice change from lukewarm hospitality I have seen on other river cruises in recent years.

I should note that the itinerary, sailing from the Moselle and on through to the Rhine-Main-Danube on the way to Nuremberg takes you through numerous locks and under low bridges such that the Sun Deck is off limits to passengers for most of the latter stages of the cruise. This could be a disappointment if you aren’t aware of this detail on these itineraries. However, Emerald Destiny handles this nicely by offering the pool area as an alternative, with wonderful panoramic views and an open roof to the skies above.

Next time you’re on an Emerald Waterways European river cruise, head out back to the pool, and you just might find me there again.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

In a nutshell, John says …

writer John Roberts

John Roberts

Why Go?
  • Emerald Waterways has carved out a space offering affordable and higher-energy fun river cruises.
  • The new EmeraldACTIVE program ensures passengers will always find an activity to keep them entertained and engaged.
  • The indoor pool (it transforms into a cinema at night) is a highlight of an attractive and comfortable ship, and service stands out.
Caveats:

At 182 passengers, the space-per-passenger ratio is a bit smaller than on the spacious boats of the luxury river cruise lines.

Video Overview:

 

 

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in port in Oxford

Narrowboat Cruise

By Robin Andersen.

Guy uses the long wooden pole to push the narrowboat away from the grassy bank where we moored overnight. I am at the tiller and I push the throttle forward into gear, pointing the boat toward the center of the canal, as our big diesel engine kicks in. We head south on the glassy water toward the next stop we see on the map.

narrowboat cruise in england

Photo: Robin Andersen

We boarded our 47-foot boat “Windsor” in Heyford, where we signed up for a 4-day excursion down to Oxford. There we will turn the boat around, and head back up. How we are to accomplish this feat remains a mystery to me.

narrowboat cruising

Photo: Robin Andersen

We are on the Oxfordshire canal, said to be the most scenic of them all. Though this is our first narrowboat adventure, I’m inclined to agree.

narrowboat cruise on the Oxfordshire canal

Photo: Robin Andersen

Maps of the canal system form an intricate, interlacing set of threads that seem to tie the country together.

route mapNevertheless, the canal system is a well-kept secret even to Britons, and few travelers have ever navigated these waterways.

narrowboat cruise route to Oxford

Photo: Robin Andersen

The most import points on the map, of course, are the pub icons with names like The Rock of Gibraltar, The Plough, and The Boat Inn. They are the constellations we use to find the best places to tie up and spend the night.

After leaving Heyford, our first stop is The Rock, and an evening filled with fish ‘n chips and beer, listening to canal buffs spinning the lore, and explaining the complex rules of etiquette for boating down the canal.

Narrowboating in England

Photo: Robin Andersen

Slow & Steady

We are gliding effortlessly at four knots—about the same speed that it takes to walk the towpaths that run alongside of the canal.

narrowboating

Photo: Robin Andersen

Built in the 18th and 19th centuries, the canals were used as the most efficient way to transport just about everything from coal to beer, as Britain moved into the industrial age. In those days horses on the towpaths pulled the heavily laden boats up and down the canals.

narrowboating canal

Photo: Robin Andersen

Passing under the old stone bridges transports you to the bygone days of a slower time.

Narrowboat Canal cruise

Photo: Guy Robinson

Four knots creates no wake, and the still, calm water, together with the sound of bird chatter and the near total absence of industrial noise creates an ambiance known only to the canal.

narrowboating canal cruise

Photo: Robin Andersen

It puts a smile on Guy’s face.

slow narrowboating cruise

Photo: Robin Andersen

Lots of Locks

But you inevitably must come to a lock. Did I mention this is an 18th-century mode of transport—with 18th-century technology—a time when we were all probably a little more hardy. But going through a lock is the only way to get down the canal.

narrowboat gears

Photo: Robin Andersen

First you pull your boat over to the mooring post, but only after you’ve jumped off a moving vessel, not quite close enough yet to the bank. And here’s a tip; don’t forget to take the line with you before you jump!

Narrowboat canal cruise

Photo: Robin Andersen

You need to approach the lock with determination, windlass in hand. Don’t drop it into the lock!

working a narrowboat

Photo: Robin Andersen

Use your windlass to crank up the “paddle-gear.”

As you crank up the “paddles,” the heavy steel plates on the gate, watch the water rush into the lock. Only after the lock reaches the same level as the canal do you open the gate and pull your boat into the slender passageway. Release the paddles back down slowly, don’t let them drop. Then close the gate.

narrowboat crank

Photo: Robin Andersen

It helps to use gloves.

working a narrowboat canal cruise

Photo: Guy Robinson

Here, you propel your body with all your might, sometimes backwards, to open the lock gate.

hands on narrowboat canal cruise

Photo: Robin Andersen

After closing the gate behind, raise the paddles on the front gate and watch your boat drop hastily to the lower level of the water. Then open the front gate, and you are ready to motor out to the lower level of the canal as it descends in elevation with the land. Here’s a different technique to open the front gate.

narrowboat canal cruise

Photo: Guy Robinson

I love the moss-lined stone walls and the view from inside the lowered lock just as we are about to make our escape through the slim stone arch and get back onto the calm waters of the canal.

narrowboat canal cruising

Photo: Robin Andersen

Close the gate behind you and marvel at the stone steps and grassy slopes of Pigeon Lock, which are exceptionally beautiful.

narrowboat cruising in England

Photo: Robin Andersen

It’s a real sense of accomplishment to succeed, and get on the other side of the lock. But don’t worry, you will repeat this process many times on your journey up and down the canal.

narrowboating in England

Photo: Robin Andersen

Lifting Bridges

Old wooden lifting bridges are easier to tilt up and go under.

narrowboating in Oxford

Photo: Guy Robinson

But they can offer other challenges. Getting through this tight stone passage is tricky.

narrowboating through lifting bridges

Photo: Robin Andersen

They offer another satisfying feeling of success!

narrowboat cruise navigation

Photo: Robin Andersen

Sleeping on a narrowboat in the Oxfordshire countryside is about as restful as it gets. Here we are moored for the night. It’s quiet and comfortable, and you wake up to birdsongs, though they do like to start the day at an early hour. Our boat comes fully equipped with bathroom, shower and running water, but the tank holds only so many gallons.

docked at Thrupp

Photo: Robin Andersen

We fill the water tank using the boat maintenance stations along the way. This one is in the classic little English village of Thrupp.

pubbing in Thrupp

Photo: Guy Robinson

Detective Inspector Morse

We moor at Thrupp to visit the Boat Inn, a favorite hangout of Colin Dexter, the novelist who created the fictional character, Detective Inspector Morse. Dexter roamed up and down the towpaths and frequented the pubs along the canal route. They say, write about what you know, and Dexter seems to have done just that.

Morse likes his pint of beer at any time of day, and in the BBC TV series Morse based on the novels, the detective is frequently seen sitting at one of the pubs along the canal enjoying a pint.

Oxford narrowboating

Photo: Robin Andersen

Narrowboats can be seen floating by on the water in episodes of Morse, and the spin-off series Lewis. An entire episode of Morse was devoted to a cold case from the 1800s when a woman was killed traveling on a narrowboat for hire. One Lewis episode had a suspect living on a moored narrowboat. And more than once, a body has been pulled out of the Oxfordshire canal.

As one of my fan-friends joked after we got back from our cruise, canals seem to be “dangerous places where people often end up murdered. You were lucky to have survived your jaunt.”

narrowboating and pub crawls

Photo: Robin Andersen

We left Thrupp in an early morning mist, just after the boat pictured here.

other boats on the canal

Photo: Robin Andersen

Traffic Jams

The canals are not wide, and at times they can narrow even further. If moored boats crowd both sides of the canal, it can test your nerves, and navigational skills. Just keep the tiller on a steady course and never go over four knots while passing moored boats.

slow and steady goes it while narrowboating

Photo: Robin Andersen

Signs remind those at the helm, or in canal lingo, “elum,” or the “steerer,” to slow down when passing moored boats.

navigating a narrowboat

Photo: Guy Robinson

On our way down the canal we admire boats much longer than ours. This one is at least 72 feet, and is the permanent residence of an entire family. It is well looked after, and its glossy new coat of paint shows it’s also well-loved.

narrowboating in england

Photo: Robin Andersen

Sights Along the Way

Permanent mooring often results in canal-side gardens, this one complete with a chiminea for enjoying a cool spring evening beside your boat, on dry land.

flowers along the canal

Photo: Robin Anderson

This Tea Room is open for business and features a fancifully decorated narrowboat. It can be reached by boat, or on the other side, by car.

colorful narrowboats

Photo: Robin Andersen

Muddy Waters is a children’s book series that tells the stories of fearless narrowboats as they embark on big adventures down the canals and waterways of Britain. You might call them the equivalent of Thomas the Tank Engine for narrowboats. This boat was once owned by the author herself, Sarah Clatcher.

fanciful narrowboat paint jobs

Photo: Robin Andersen

Visitors

Guy’s sister Kate jumped on board when we tied up just before Oxford. She lives in England, and has always wanted to ride down the canal on a narrowboat but never got around to it.

narrowboating is fun!

Photo: Robin Andersen

Kate and her husband Pete parked in the lot at The Plough and walked across the wide expanse of grass, and then a field to get to our mooring site.

narrowboating near Oxford

Photo: Robin Andersen

In this shot we are actually moored, just having a little fun horsing around on the boat at the tiller.

horsing around on deck

Photo: Guy Robinson

As we cruise further south, getting closer to Oxford, the canal begins to pass behind houses, where some owners keep boats alongside the banks for easy escapes on to the waterway.

narrowboat canal cruise

Photo: Robin Andersen

With the rural landscapes of Oxfordshire behind us, the setting gives way to the manicured gardens of the Oxford suburbs that back onto the canal. Fun statuary with an English twist are placed to hail boaters as they glide past.

views along the way

Photo: Robin Andersen

Oxford!

And here we have finally arrived in Oxford, where we must turn the boat around. Guy and Kate try to back the boat in, making a complete hash of it to the amusement of many onlookers. Shouting from the bank of the canal, I yell repeatedly they are doing it wrong, but they are well into sibling shenanigans.

They head in bow-first only after two failed attempts backwards. They tell me later their only regret was being caught without earplugs, so they might better have ignored my shouting.

in port in Oxford

Photo: Robin Andersen

On our way back up the canal after finally, successfully reversing course in Oxford, we pass by once again, the beautiful countryside of the upper portion of the Oxforshire canal.

lovely narrowboating scenery

Photo: Robin Andersen

Where just over the next boat.. is a peaceful herd of cows!

cows along the way

Photo: Robin Andersen

Toward the end of our trip, just as we are feeling terribly accomplished about negotiating all the locks, navigating, and crewing the boat with just the two of us, this hardy fellow passes by all on his own. He single-crews his beloved narrowboat up and down the canal systems of Britain.

other narrowboats

Photo: Robin Andersen

When we get back on the train at Heyford, we are in Oxford in 20 minutes. The same journey there and back just took us four days to complete. But here’s to our narrowboat canal cruise that seemed to us like a dance.

toasting narrowboating

Photo: Guy Robinson

We dance to keep dancing, for the pleasure of it, not necessarily to get to the other side of the dance floor.

Guy's reflection

Photo: Robin Andersen

In the end we are most grateful to the Canal and River Trust for doing such a wonderful job keeping the British canals open and in great working order for recreational boating.

the end of the trip

Photo: Robin Andersen

The words on this boat reflect the best sentiments of those who travel, not necessarily to arrive at a final destination.

narrowboat design

Photo: Robin Andersen

Quick Facts

Deck plan

Finding & booking a narrowboat:

We booked through Oxfordshire Narrowboats online. I also called them to ask questions and they were very helpful.

Price range:

We paid 490 pound sterling for a 47-foot boat for four days and four nights on the narrowboat. Prices vary by excursion, length of the boat and season.

the narrowboat interior

The interior. * Photo: Oxford Narrowboats

Boat capacity:

Our boat had one double-bed berth, and two big fold-out chairs, so it could sleep four.

The longest narrow boat can sleep up to 12 people comfortably.

Operating the boat, tiller, the locks etc:

Oxford Narrowboats provide a handy little well-organized booklet with terms and instructions. In addition, a staff member rides with you for about 15 minutes to the first lock, and shows you how to go through it. After you make your booking, they send you an information booklet and ask that you to read it before you arrive to take your boat out.

Narrowboating season:

We loved our March booking because it was not that cold, and we seemed to have the canal “all to ourselves.” The most popular time are the summer months, but you may have to wait behind several boats to get through the locks at the height of summer on a weekend.

There are permanently moored boats over the winter, and many people boat all year round.

Mealtime:

There is a little fridge and a well-functioning stove on board. We ate at the pubs at night, but the first night we heated up some Indian take-out we brought with us. Al dishes and flatware are provided.

The sleeping arrangements

The sleeping arrangements. * Photo: Oxford Narrowboats

Sleeping compartments:

It was perfectly comfortable. We are both tall, and the berth was long enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Robin Andersen & Guy Robinson are an adventurous couple, who, when they’re not professing at Fordham University, are walking through woods, riding trains or seeking out farmer’s markets for edibles and artisanal treats of all descriptions. They live just a little north of New York City, where Robin writes her books and Guy is close to his field biology research sites.

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Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruise in Ukraine

By Gene Sloan

I am sitting at the very front of the Viking Sineus, in the glass-lined Panorama Bar, looking out over what may be the most tranquil stretch of water in all of Europe. For the past few hours, we have been steaming northward on the Dnieper River from Dnipro, a Ukrainian city of nearly one million people, toward the bustling Ukrainian capital of Kiev (pop. 2.9 million), and I have yet to see another ship of any size.

No barges, no tankers, no day boats carrying tourists. We have passed a few small fishing boats, but nothing like the numbers you see on other European rivers. It seems even the locals have forgotten about this 1,400-mile-long waterway.

Viking River Cruises on serene Dnieper

Ukraine’s serene Dnieper River. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Rising in the Valdai Hills of Russia and flowing southward through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea, the Dnieper is one of the longest rivers in Europe — longer than the Rhine and Seine combined. But it’s little visited by Western tourists, or anybody else for that matter, and barely used for commerce.

That always has been the case to some extent. But it’s even more so now that Ukraine is embroiled in a Civil War-like conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the country’s far-eastern corner. That has scared some tourists away, not that it should.

As of this year, the Dnieper is home to just one overnight cruise vessel of any note — the one that I am aboard. As recently as two years ago, when there were more worries about the intentions of the Russia-backed separatists, even this ship wasn’t sailing.

A TRULY QUIRKY CRUISE

Even in the best of times, the Dnieper isn’t considered an A-list river destination. Meandering through the relatively non-descript central part of Ukraine, past low-lying farmland, forests and Soviet-built industrial towns, the waterway lacks the romantic scenery of the Danube, with its vineyard lined Wachau Valley, or the medieval charm of the Rhine. Nor is it a gateway to Europe’s greatest cultural attractions. If that’s what you’re after, this probably isn’t the trip for you.

But a Viking River Cruise in Ukraine on the Dnieper has its allures. Most notably, it offers a window onto Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, who have managed to maintain an identity despite centuries of invasion and domination by outside powers.

If you’re curious at all about this long-suffering, only-recently-independent country of 45 million, if only because you’ve been hearing so much about it lately in the news, a trip on Viking Sineus can be eye-opening.

In addition to historical sites dating as far back as the 11th century, when Kiev was at the center of the mighty, Viking-founded Kievan Rus federation, the “attractions” you will see include faded Soviet monuments, Stalinist Empire-style apartment complexes and other remnants of the Soviet era (until 1991, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union), plus artifacts from the recent conflict in the east.

One moment in you’ll be looking at an 18th-century cathedral, the next moment walking through a display of bombed-out vehicles from the eastern Donbass region.

The trip also will give you a chance (unofficially, without the assistance of Viking River Cruises) to visit one of the world’s most unusual (and poignant) sites: The still-radiation-contaminated nuclear disaster zone that is Chernobyl. It’s just a two-hour drive from where the ship docks in Kiev. (More details at the end of the article.)

In short, this is a bit of an outlier when it comes to European river cruises. As quirky cruises go, it may be one of the quirkiest of them all.

Viking River cruise Ukraine sign

Hey mom … we’re not far from Baltimore! * Photo: Gene Sloan

AN ANOMALY IN THE VIKING FLEET

Viking Sineus is operated by Viking Cruises, but it isn’t a typical Viking ship. Nearly all the line’s 60-plus river vessels in Europe are of the same modern “longship” design that began rolling out in 2012. But Viking Sineus is one of a handful of Viking ships that dates back far earlier — all the way back to 1979! It also has an unusual history that, for a history lover at least, is part of its allure.

Viking River Cruises

The 196-passenger Viking Sineus was built in 1979. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Built in East Germany during the height of the Cold War and originally named Mikhael Lomonosov, the vessel initially served as a getaway for high-level Soviet apparatchiks (or so the story goes). It wasn’t until the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that it entered the Viking fleet.

The good news is Viking Sineus doesn’t feel like it dates to the 1970s. In fact, while its exterior is a bit Old School, its interior looks almost new. That’s because Viking recently revamped Viking Sineus in a major way, gutting and rebuilding cabins and public spaces with the same modern Scandinavian design found on the longships.

The massive overhaul of Viking Sineus took place in 2014. But due to the recent conflict in Ukraine, the vessel only resumed sailing in 2018. Given its schedule is seasonal, that means there only have been about 20 voyages since the ship emerged from its makeover.

Viking Sineus docked. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Cabins & Public Rooms

If you’ve cruised on a Viking ship before, you’ll feel right at home on Viking Sineus. Its 98 cabins are similar in style to those found on the longships, with light walls, streamlined furniture, big televisions and modern bathrooms. Two-thirds have balconies.

The author’s balcony cabin. * Photo: Gene Sloan

For the most part, the public areas are stylish and comfortable. If they have a flaw, it’s that the main lounge, the Sky Bar, is too small to accommodate the number of passengers who arrive at cocktail hour for drinks and nightly port talks. While the crew brings in extra chairs for the occasion (jammed edge-to-edge in rows facing the stage), it’s not a particularly pleasant place to kick back before dinner.

Viking Sineus also has a far smaller top-deck lounge space than the longships. Not that this is a problem. We saw few people heading up top during our voyage.

As is typical for Viking ships, there is no fitness center, spa or hair salon on board. Nor is there a laundry room, though laundry service is available through your room attendant for a somewhat hefty extra charge (185 Ukrainian hryvnia, or about $7, for a blouse; 225 hryvnia, or about $9, for trousers).

Viking Sineus does have a small library with books and games tucked between the rows of cabins on Deck 2. There’s also a small shop selling nesting dolls and other Ukrainian crafts.

a library Viking River Cruises

The library/game room on board. * Photo: Gene Sloan

JUST ONE EATERY

When it comes to mealtimes, there essentially is just one option on Viking Sineus, the 196-seat Kiev Restaurant. Located at the back of the ship on Deck 3, the room offers open seating for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a well-distributed mix of tables for two, four, six and eight. If you’re a couple looking for privacy, you’ll have no problem finding a table for two. But there are plenty of bigger tables, too, if you’re a larger group or eager to share a meal with new friends.

Breakfast and lunch in the Kiev Restaurant are buffet style with additional a la carte items available from servers (made-to-order breakfast options include Eggs Benedict, buttermilk pancakes and French toast; lunch brings cheeseburgers, hot dogs and a changing lineup of specials such as a pulled-pork sandwich and beef ragout). In the one exception to the one-eatery situation, early and late risers will also find coffee, tea and pastries in a corner of the Panorama Bar.

Ukrainian Favorites

Dinner in the Kiev Restaurant is a table-served affair with changing three-course menus. The highlight of the menu every night is the “regional specialties tasting” — a starter, entrée and dessert that offers a taste of local Ukrainian cuisine. A typical night might bring classic Ukrainian red borscht as a starter, followed by local butter fish with a celeriac purée and a Ukrainian plum cake.

Viking River Cruises

A classic Ukrainian red borscht was served, of course. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The dinner menu also offers a rotation of two non-Ukrainian entrees each night, plus two starters and a dessert. These dishes are mostly Continental, ranging from braised beef with an onion sauce and mashed potatoes to seared pike perch with creamy vegetables and glazed beets.

In addition, as is typical on Viking ships, an “always available” section of the menu at dinner offers a classic Caesar salad as a starter and three traditional entrees: beef tenderloin, poached Norwegian salmon and roast chicken. Always-available desserts include Crème Brulée, a cheese plate, a fruit plate and ice cream.

In general, the food on Viking Sineus is quite good, and the Ukrainian dishes stand out. My favorite dish of the trip was the Glavnaya Goose Leg with apricots and prunes that appeared on the regional-specialties menu early in the voyage. Slow-cooked and beautifully glazed, the meat just fell off the bone and boasted a wonderful, stew-like favor.

Viking River Cruises dinner

The Glavnaya Goose Leg with apricots and prunes. * Photo: Gene Sloan

As is always the case on Viking ships, beer, wine and sodas are available during lunch and dinner at no extra charge. Just be warned that the included wines, locally made in Ukraine, are relatively basic. For those who crave something swankier, a selection of extra-charge wines is available, too.

Of note, the entire dining room and bar staff, as well as nearly all other crew on board, is made up of local Ukrainians, most of whom live in the cities the ship visits. Only the captain, program director, hotel director and maître d’hotel are from outside the country (including Italy and Germany).

This lends a wonderful authenticity to the on-board experience, as if we are staying in a local hotel. The (all-female) dining and bar staff — nearly all young, energetic and outgoing — have a good command of English and are happy to talk about life in their native country. Ditto for the excellent front desk staff.

ONE-WAY FROM ODESSA TO KIEV

For 2019, Viking Sineus is operating one-way voyages between the Ukrainian cities of Odessa and Kiev. The northbound version of the Viking River Cruise in Ukraine, starting in Odessa, includes a short passage across the Black Sea before the vessel reaches the mouth of the Dnieper and heads upstream to Kherson, Zaporozhye, Dnipro, Kremenchug and Kiev. The southbound version of the trip does the same in reverse.

Viking River Cruise Ukraine itinerary

The itinerary.

For 2020, Viking is tweaking the itinerary by adding a visit to nearby Romania to the beginning or end of every trip. Instead of Odessa, the northbound version of the newly named “Kiev, Black Sea & Bucharest” tour will begin in Bucharest, Romania, with a two-night hotel stay. Tourgoers then will transfer via a long bus ride to Tulcea, Romania, where Viking Sineus will be waiting to take them across the Black Sea to Odessa and the Dnieper cities of Kherson, Zaporozhye and Kiev. The southbound version of this Viking River Cruise in Ukraine will offer the same in reverse.

Note that, for 2020, stops in Dnipro and Kremenchug are being dropped.

Here, a day-by-day look at the northbound version of the itinerary as it is offered in 2019:

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 1-4: ODESSA

If you’ve heard anything about Odessa, you’ve probably heard that it’s home to the Potemkin Steps. The soaring granite stairway made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin is the city’s iconic attraction. It’s also the best way to reach Viking Sineus if, like me, you arrive for your cruise a day early and spend the night in Odessa’s historic center. The ship docks right at its base.

Walking to Viking Sineus from a nearby hotel, I find myself offering an homage to Battleship Potemkin’s legendary massacre scene as I bump my 40-pound suitcase down the stairway’s 192 steps (you can avoid the steps by riding the adjacent incline railway for less than $1). I am pushed on not by Cossacks with fixed bayonets but by a crowd of tourists.

Viking River cruise in the Urraine

The granite stairway made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Over the coming days, I discover Odessa is more than the Potemkin Steps. Founded by Russia’s Catherine the Great in 1794, the once-wealthy Black Sea port city entices with a faded grandness. Rows of tree-lined boulevards are lined with elegant but often crumbling Art Nouveau, Baroque Revival and neoclassical buildings, including the spectacular Odessa National Theater of Opera and Ballet.

VIking River Cruises stop in Odessa

Odessa National Theater of Opera and Ballet.* Photo: Gene Sloan

As we are told during an initial tour, Odessa was one of the most important cities of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, smaller in size only to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. As a major and wealthy trading port for centuries, Odessa, not unlike Alexandria in Egypt, was very international.

Pearl of the Black Sea

Called the “Pearl of the Black Sea,” it was a key warm-water port for Russia well into the 20th century, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

Viking Sineus remains docked in Odessa for the first three nights of my Viking River Cruise in Ukraine, allowing plenty of time for exploring. As is typical with Viking river sailings, every day brings at least one included excursion, starting with a walking tour that hits the highlights of Odessa’s historic district.

Viking River Cruises

Odessa’s historic district. * Photo: Gene Sloan

In addition to visiting the Potemkin Steps, we ramble down lovely, pedestrian only Primorsky Boulevard, located at the top of the stairway. We stroll pedestrian only Deribasivska Street, the main shopping corridor, and stop at City Garden, where I mimic the locals by snapping a selfie with the smiling sculpture of Leonid Utyosov. I have no idea who he is, but it seems like the thing to do. (Well ok, let’s find out!  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonid_Utyosov)

Viking River cruise stop in Odessa

Selfie time with the smiling sculpture of Leonid Utyosov. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Still, perhaps my favorite Odessa site is the opulent statue of Catherine the Great (known as the Monument to the Founders of Odessa) – if only for the story that goes with it. Erected in 1900, the statue was ripped down in 1920 by the anti-Tsarist Bolsheviks, only to be put back just 12 years ago by the Ukrainians. Take that, Soviets!

World War II Sites

In another included tour, we descend into the Odessa Catacombs, a renowned network of subterranean tunnels under the city and its outskirts where Soviet partisans hid during the war. Our guide, Nadya, shows us where the partisans slept, ate and fought to the death with German-allied Romanian soldiers who were sent into the labyrinth-like lair to flush them out.

Odessa Catacombs on a Viking River Cruise

Odessa Catacombs. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Originally excavated in the 19th century as part of limestone mining operations, the tunnels supposedly stretch for more than 1,500 miles, only a small portion of which is open to the public.

A half dozen other excursions offered by Viking during our stay include a visit to Odessa’s sprawling Privoz Market with the ship’s chef, a brandy tasting at the local Shustov Cognac Museum and a night out to the opera. All come with an extra charge.

Being a bit of a cheapskate, I round out my visit with an included tour to the Odessa Fine Arts Museum. Apart from Wassily Kandinsky, you probably haven’t heard of any of the Ukrainian and Russian artists whose work is on display. But the building itself, a former neoclassical palace, is impressive, and the art is a window onto the Ukraine of old.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 5: KHERSON

Today is the day we finally begin working our way up the Dnieper. During the night, Viking Sineus has traveled eastward along the coast of the Black Sea from Odessa to the mouth of the waterway — nearly 100 miles. The ship already is well inland by the time most passengers awake.

At first blush, our only stop for the day, the small port city of Kherson (pop. 300,000), doesn’t look like much — a mishmash of decaying, graffiti-splashed buildings that might best be described as forlorn. But for a history nerd like me, it’s beguiling.

As our guide for the day, Lena, points out, Kherson was founded in 1778 by Russian prince Grigory Potemkin, the famed lover and lieutenant of Catherine the Great, and it hides intriguing pieces of his story.

Potemkin Again

We start a two-and-a-half-hour tour with a stop at the central park Potemkin ordered built, fittingly home to a soaring statue of him. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks tried but failed to topple the statue with two tractors — a metaphor, perhaps, for the movement’s struggle against capitalist ideals. Another stop brings a visit to St. Catherine’s Cathedral, also built under Potemkin’s watch and now his final resting place.

Viking river cruises in Kherson, Ukraine

The Potemkin statue. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Catherine the Great, who dispatched Potemkin this way to develop the region, famously traveled down the Dnieper to see how he was faring (supposedly past hastily constructed “Potemkin villages” designed to show progress). You can see the chair in St. Catherine’s Cathedral where she sat during her visit.

Viking River cruises to Ukraine

Catherine the Great’s chair. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Our touring also brings us to the aging building that once housed the school for the legendary “night witches” of World War II — the all-female band of Soviet aviators who terrorized Hitler’s invading army with daring tactics. They were known for cutting their engines during bombing runs and gliding to their targets so they wouldn’t be heard coming.

Viking River cruise in the Ukraine

The aging building that once housed the school for the legendary “night witches” of World War II. * Photo: Gene Sloan

A final stop delivers us to the Monument of Glory, a World War II memorial that is classically Soviet in style — that is, taller and more triumphant than all reason. But I have spotted something even more alluring at the end of the adjacent park: A World War II-era, Soviet T-34 tank. It takes a little hustle, but I make it there and back in our allotted 12 minutes of free time.

Viking River cruise to see Soviet-era tanks

A World War II-era, Soviet T-34 tank. * Photo: Gene Sloan

By lunchtime, Viking Sineus is churning northeast on the Dnieper on its way to its next stop, Zaporozhye.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 6: ZAPOROZHYE

If you’re a lover of engineering marvels, you’re in for a treat this day. Just be sure to be up early. As it approaches Zaporozhyre, Viking Sineus must traverse one of the deepest river locks in all of Europe. Located at one of the biggest hydroelectric dams on the Continent, the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, the lock raises the ship 108 feet — nearly 11 stories.

Viking River cruises Ukraine cruise

The lock at Zaporozhyre rises up almost 11 stories. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The dock for Zoporohyze is just north of the lock, and within minutes of passing through it, we are touring the city.

An industrial center of 700,000 people known for steel, aluminum and aircraft engine production, Zoporohyze isn’t a place you go to see grand monuments, historic sites or charming neighborhoods. What it offers is a glimpse of everyday life in a typical Soviet-era Ukraine city.

Heading into town by coach, we parade down eight-mile-long, six-lane-wide Sobornyi Avenue, which our guide bills as the longest central boulevard in all of Europe. As dreary as it is meant to be grand, with a succession of blocky, Stalin-era buildings, it is lined in places with loudspeakers that once spouted out Soviet propaganda.

Notably, a road sign declares we’re just 234 kilometers (about 145 miles) from Donetsk, a key city at the edge of the Donbass region where pro-Russia separatist forces have been battling against the Ukrainian military since 2014. Barely mentioned on Western newscasts in recent years, it is a simmering struggle that has left around 13,000 people dead. Our stop in Zaporozhye is about the closest we will get to the conflict zone. In theory, we could drive to it in a few hours, and that’s a bit surreal to contemplate. But the reality is that, in terms of this cruise, it’s a world away.

During a stop at Zaporozhye’s central park, I ask a young barista at a coffee stand about the situation. She tells me she and her friends initially were worried the Russia-backed soldiers might continue westward right into Zaporohyze. But things have settled down, and the worry has dissipated, she says. The bigger issue now, she says, is that it’s become hard to get an apartment, since so many Ukrainians from the East have fled this way and filled them up.

Viking River cruises

Coffee carts in Zaporozhye’s central park. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Talking to locals such as the barista offers a snapshot of the struggle that is life in Ukraine. She tells me she makes the equivalent of about $17 a day, and that’s quite good, she says. The typical person she knows makes about $250 a month. Ukraine, you will learn on a visit here, is incredibly poor by Western standards, in addition to having suffered terribly from war and famine over the past century.

After our short tour of the city center, we head to Zaporozhye’s main tourist attraction, a reconstructed Cossack fort on Khortytsia, an island in the middle of the Dnieper. Intertwined with Ukrainian and Russian history, the Cossacks were centered here from the 16th to 18th centuries. Later in the day, we return to the island for a display of Cossack horsemanship.

Viking River Cruises

The reconstructed Cossack fort. * Photo: Gene Sloan

From the Cossack fort, there is a great view of the entirety of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, which itself is a site with a significant history. Hailed as one of the great achievements of Soviet industrialization, it was the third largest power plant in the world when it opened in 1932, just behind the Hoover Dam and Wilson Dam in the United States. During World War II, retreating Red Army soldiers dynamited the dam to keep it out of German hands, resulting in a tidal surge that killed as many 100,000 people.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 7-8: DNIPRO & KREMENCHUG

As noted above, Viking will be dropping stops in Dnipro and Kremenchug in 2020. As a result, I won’t go into great detail about our visits to the two destinations, other than to say that Dnipro, in particular, was intriguing. Once home to the Soviet Union’s rocket program, it was for many years a secretive “closed city” that was off limits to foreigners. It only opened to outsiders in the 1990s.

In Dnipro, I sign up for a wonderful (and quirky!) extra-charge tour to the Aerospace Museum, where we ogle once-classified artifacts of the Dnipro rocket program while a retired engineer talks us through the city’s role in building an intercontinental missile that could hit the United States.

Viking River cruise visit to Dnipro

Dnipro was once home to the Soviet Union’s rocket program. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The stop is paired with a visit to what is roughly translated as the “Technical Museum Time Machines,” an oddball temple to retro-cool, Cold War-era cars, toys, video games and other memorabilia.

Our visit to Dnipro also brings an included tour to the city center, where we survey the small but display-packed National Historical Museum. It harbors everything from 2,500-year-old stone idols found in the region to Cossack clothing and weapons.

Just outside, a more timely, open-air exhibit labeled the “Museum of Russian Aggression in the East of Ukraine” is filled with bombed-out vehicles, bullet-ridden road signs and other poignant reminders of the conflict just down the road.

Viking River cruises museum visit

The open-air “Museum of Russian Aggression in the East of Ukraine.” * Photo: Gene Sloan

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 9-10: KIEV

Viking is saving the best for last by devoting the final two days of this Viking River Cruise in Ukraine to Kiev. The Ukrainian capital is by far the most vibrant, stylish and historically interesting city in the country. Built on hills overlooking a bend in the Dnieper, it offers iconic attractions such as St. Sophia’s Cathedral — a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with 1,000-year-old frescoes and mosaics — and lovely squares and parks for strolling. There’s also plenty of restaurants, bars and other nightspots.

Visiting Kiev on a Viking River cruise

And another angle on stunning St. Sophia’s Cathedral. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Kiev also is the place where the story of Ukraine’s recent struggle finally comes into focus. One of the sites we visit during an initial tour of the city is Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the square that was at the center of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution of 2014. Peaceful now, it was for several days in 2014 the site of dramatic clashes between protestors and government forces that ended with the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (now in exile in Russia). Makeshift memorials with pictures of the 100-plus people killed during the conflict line the area.

Approaching Kiev aboard the Viking Sireus

Approaching Kiev. * Photo: Gene Sloan

We approach Kiev on a perfectly sunny afternoon, and our program director, Oliver, ushers us to the top deck of Viking Sineus for a celebration. Leaning on the railings, we marvel at the golden spires of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a walled monastery complex once home to 2,000 monks.

Viking River cruise in Ukraine in Kiev

Kiev’s walled Pechersk Lavra monastery complex. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Later, we will descend by candlelight into its subterranean caves, dug by the priests that lived there as hermits. The labyrinth-like complex still holds their mummified remains, laid out in glass coffins.

Kiev has quite a bit to offer, enough for Viking to operate an overlapping mix of seven different tours during our two-day stay. Many are built around themes such as Jewish Kiev or Ukraine During World War II. But I make a last-minute decision to skip nearly all these outings to spend a full day visiting what may be the region’s most intriguing (and disturbing) destination: The site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

I Chose Chernobyl

Just 62 miles north of Kiev, the radiation-contaminated area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, has been open to visitors with permission on a limited basis since 2011 — as long as they don’t stay long.

While mainstream tour operators such as Viking don’t offer excursions there, several local companies in Kiev will take small groups into the area for several hours at a time, handling the required paperwork and smoothing things over at checkpoints.

Along with two other Viking Sineus passengers, for $99 USD a piece, I sign up for a visit with a company called Solo East, which picks us up in a van right at the ship for the two-hour drive to the exclusion zone.

Chernobyl visit on a Viking River cruise

All aboard for the Chernobyl Express. * Photo: Gene Sloan

At the first checkpoint, we are issued radiation detectors that will monitor our exposure, although the official word is that it will not be significant (if we follow the rules). At the same time, we are told not to touch anything or sit down, lest we contaminate ourselves. There still is plenty of radiation around.

Viking River cruise in Ukraine

Radiation detectors are a must. * Photo: Gene Sloan

A bit to my surprise, we can motor right up to the melted-down reactor, which recently was covered in a new (and supposedly safe) containment structure. But the most gripping part of the experience is wandering through nearby Pripyat, the small city built to house the power plant’s workers.

Ukriaine Viking River cruise stops in Kiev

If I was standing here 33 years ago, I’d be dead. The dome behind me is the new containment structure over the melted-down Reactor #4. The amount of radiation released during the accident was 400 times the level of the bomb over Hiroshima. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Once home to nearly 50,000 people, it was evacuated in two days after the disaster and is now a ghost town on an epic scale. We shuffle down its eerily quiet main streets, empty of people — past government buildings, a hotel, a movie theater, a stadium and the small amusement park with a yellow carousel that is shown in so many Chernobyl documentaries. It’s all slowly crumbling and being retaken by the forest.

Chernobyl visit on a Viking river cruise

Pripyat was abandoned. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Viking Ukraine cruise

Pripyat was evacuated in just a few days, including this amusement park. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Given the terrible impact that the disaster had on the people of the area and beyond (recently recounted in the five-part HBO series Chernobyl), it’s a heavy experience. But it’s also enlightening. And that may be the best way to describe this river cruise in its entirety.

From stories of man-made famine in the Soviet era that left millions dead to World War II devastation to more recent struggles, we hear a lot that is sobering on this trip. But we also leave with a better understanding of a place that, despite it all, seems to be moving forward.

IF YOU GO …

For 2020, Viking plans 10 departures of its new “Kiev, Black Sea & Bucharest” tour starting on May 28. The final sailing ends in early October. Including the added Bucharest stay, the trips will be 11 nights in length — one night longer than this year’s itinerary.

Fares for the trips start at $3,799 per person, based on double occupancy, with the rates including lodging, most meals, tours during every stop, and beer and wine with dinner.

The northbound version of the itinerary can be extended with a three-night pre-cruise stay in Vienna and/or a three-night post-cruise stay in Istanbul that are priced at $649 and $1,199 per person, respectively. Passengers on the southbound version of the trip have the same two options in reverse. There also are pre- and post-cruise Romania tours available for $799 per person.

Visit Viking  for more info on a Viking River Cruise in Ukraine.

Gene SloanGene Sloan has written about cruising for more than 25 years and for many years oversaw USA TODAY’s award-winning cruise site, USA TODAY Cruises. He’s sailed on nearly 150 ships.

Check out Gene’s other insightful articles for QuirkyCruise.com: Danube River cruise on AMAWaterway’s new AMA Magna.

 

 

 

 

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Edward & Cindy Anderson operate the French Canal Barge Grand Victoria

French Canal Barge Q&A

Barge cruises are an excellent way to indulge in fine French wines, cheeses and cuisine while moving at a snail’s pace through historic and beautiful regions of France. Like floating boutique hotels, French barge cruises offer an intimate and personal connection to the culinary and cultural riches of France.

To find out more about this small-ship niche, QuirkyCruise.com’s Heidi Sarna had an e-chat with Edward Anderson, owner-operator of the luxury canal barge, the Grand Victoria “The Queen of Burgundy.” 

Edward & Cindy Anderson operate the French Canal Barge Grand Victoria

Edward & Cindy are the owner-operators of the Grand Victoria (and their cute Lhasa Apso “Angus” is the adorable mascot!). * Photo: Edward Anderson

Q: What makes the Grand Victoria special?

Edward: While it offers the same luxurious amenities and features of other 5-star canal barges in France, the Grand Victoria isn’t technically a barge. It is a purpose-built one-of-a-kind private river yacht commissioned in 1986 by the famous Belgian liqueur family “De Kuyper.”

Madam De Kuyper had the yacht built for her and her family to cruise the rivers and waterways of Europe. It was later repurposed as a cruising hotel, very similar to the canal cruise barge boats seen in France and other parts of Europe.

French Canal Barge Grand Victoria

The lovely 6-passenger Grand Victoria. * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

Q: Why should a traveler consider a French barge cruise?

Edward:  It is a magical way to experience a carefree vacation with friends and family

Everything is taken care of so you can just sit back and relax, while learning about the food, wine and culture of a region in France.

Further, a barge cruise allows you to unpack once and spend a week visiting different regions of Burgundy. It sure beats packing and unpacking as you go from one hotel to another.

Q: Why did you choose to be based in Burgundy?

Edward:  Having travelled extensively in France before, Cindy and I knew that the wines and food of Burgundy would be very attractive to visitors. The region is well known for its famous Burgundy wines, delicious food and rich culture and history, from the gorgeous château and medieval towns, to verdant vineyards and vibrant village markets.

special offer on cruises with cheese plates

The ubiquitous cheese platter aboard the Grand Victoria! * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

Q: What is your most popular Burgundy itinerary?

Edward:  Our cruises on the Burgundy canal used to be our most sought after cruise, but over the past few years, we have seen an increase in interest to cruise the Saône and Petit Saône rivers. I think the growing interest is because they offer a combination of small canals and twisty river sections as well as the ability to cover some distance and see more of Burgundy than one would normally see on a canal only cruise.

A lock house on a French Canal Barge

Going through locks, and passing quaint lock houses, is part of the fun of a canal cruise. * Photo: Grand Victoria cruises

Q: Where do your French canal barge cruises start and end?

Edward:  Our most popular itinerary between Pontailler-sur-Saône and Tournus covers approximately 130 kilometers.

This allows guests to cruise the magical and scenic Petit Saône with its narrow waterways and locks (much like a canal) and then gradually enter the Saône River to visit places like Chalon-sur-Saône (the birthplace of photography) and Tournus with its impressive Abbey St. Philibert dating back 1,000 years.

French canal barge map

The popular Tournus to Pontailler-sur-Saone River intinerary. * Photo: Google Maps

Meanwhile, another route passenger enjoy is the 100-km journey between Chagny and Auxonne. [You can read more about this itinerary in a recent QuirkyCruise article by Christina Colon.]

Q: How do guests get to the Grand Victoria?

Edward:  We pick our guests up in Paris by chauffeured vehicle or from the Dijon train station, for those who prefer to cut down the journey time in the car and travel on the comfortable high-speed TGV train.

French barge cruise

Most guests spend a few days in Paris before or after a Grand Victoria cruise. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Q: Describe your typical guests.

Edward:  The Grand Victoria tends to attract a slightly younger barge customer than most barges. Perhaps it’s our chíc décor or our cruise itinerary, we’re unsure exactly why.

We’ve had customers from all walks of life, from Hollywood producers to farmers, New York attorneys, Californian thrill seekers, Louisiana oil industry and Montana ranchers.

Most of our guests come for the culture, the food and the wine, combined with a little bicycle riding and walking, visiting new and interesting locations and experiences. Of course our guests’ over-riding goal is to have a relaxing time with family and friends on a luxury French barge cruise.

special offer for a grand victoria barge cruise

The lovely sun deck of the 6-passenger Grand Victoria. * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

Q: What is a typical dinner on board like?

Edward:  To really whet your appetite, I’ll share two sample menus with you:

Sample Menu #1

Appetizer

Seared scallops with truffled potato purée and sweet ginger chili, served with a Chablis 2013 Blanc.

Main Course

Roasted duck breast with prosciutto, roasted vegetables, fennel purée, parsnip crisps, and veal demi-glace, accompanied with a glass or two of Santenay 1er Cru “La Comme” 2014.

Cheese

Neufchatel cœur fermier AOP, Morbier AOP lait cru and Fourme d’Ambert AOC.

Dessert

Lemon tart with Italian merengue.

French cheese on French barge cruises aboard the Grand Victoria

Chef Phil’s exquisite French fromage was out of this world! * Photo: Peter Barnes

Sample Menu #2

Appetizer

Spiced duck wontons in a lime and chili broth with cashews and cilantro, accompanied by a bottle of Rully 1er Cru “La Pucelle” 2015 Blanc.

Main Course

Fillet of charolais beef with wild mushroom ragout, baby carrots and parsnip gratin, served with Chambolle Mussigny 1er Cru “Le Charmes” 2010.

Cheese 

Saint Agur, Tom Tomme de Savoie fermière, and Mimolette extra vielle.

Dessert

Summer fruit Millefeuilles.

French barge cruise aboard Grand Victoria

Meals are a highlight of a Grand Victoria cruise. * Photo: Edward Anderson

Q: Are most of your cruises full charters?

Edward:  Yes, most of our cruises are full charter as we accommodate just 6 guests. However we do offer open cruises during the low season, in July and August, when we require a minimum of 4 passengers to set sail.

French Barge cruise is a great option for small groups of friends

A group of 3 couples enjoying a week on the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Edward Anderson

Q: What is your role during a cruise? Are you and Cindy present on every cruise?

Edward:  One of the nice things about the Grand Victoria is we are owner-operated. This means Cindy and I are on board with you as your hosts, and are always there for you when you need us.

I captain the vessel and serve as the tour guide and wine steward.

driving the Grand Victoria

Edward at the helm of the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Cindy does an amazing job of keeping the operational and logistical side of the operation running, from managing the interior, to provisioning the vessel. She also manages the chefs and hostess’s daily duties, and handles bookings and guest inquiries.

As owners and operators, it allows us to tweak or customize an itinerary at a moment’s notice. We don’t have to ask permission or check in with corporate offices. We take care of our customers first-hand and are on site always to do so.

Q: Where are you from and how did get into the canal cruise business?

Edward: Cindy is originally from Rochester, New York, and I am originally from southern Africa. I was born in Livingstone, Zambia, famous for the “Victoria Falls.” I then lived in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) and South Africa, before immigrating to the US. Today we live in Tampa, Florida, where we spend our winters.

The catalyst for our starting on this adventure was when our son Alex was involved in a serious car accident whilst riding his bicycle, suffering a traumatic brain injury. We decided to change our careers, and create a new life that allowed us all to work together operating a beautiful boat in a beautiful part of the world.

And so, we operate the Grand Victoria as a family venture with our son Alex as the deck hand adding to the team. Alex has recovered, going from strength to strength, and Cindy and I have fallen in love with our life aboard the Grand Victoria in Burgundy.

Q: Do you have special offers to share with QuirkyCruise readers?

Edward:  In fact we do! We’re offering QuirkyCruise readers an exclusive 20% off full-boat French barge canal charters when booked before Jan 2, 2020. Mention code QC2020. Here are more details.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

Going through locks, and passing quaint lock houses, is part of the fun of a canal cruise

Vineyard visits and wine tasting are a big draw. Cheers! * Photo: Grand Victoria Cruises

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Special offer on barge cruises that include wine

Canal Cruising in France:
Drinking It All In Aboard the Grand Victoria.

Text by Christina Colon. Photos & wine picks by Peter Barnes.

After a few glorious days in Paris, my partner Peter and I were ready to embark upon our first barge cruise adventure. Leaving from the Gare de Lyon, second-class tickets on the national train line TGV (the French equivalent to Amtrak) entailed comfortable seats, a table, armrest and an outlet.

Traveling through the countryside at 168 mph was relaxing, and to see the rolling hills dotted with cows and rustic farms felt like speeding through a French impressionist painting.

Starting in Chagny

In Dijon we were greeted at the station by Lynn, tour guide extraordinaire, waiting for us in a shiny black Mercedes van. She is a fully-trained sommelier and knows everything there is to know about all things wine. Her California girl smile and friendly nature instantly put us at ease as she navigated expertly through 60km of wine country to the tiny port of Chagny.

Here our Burgundy canal cruise aboard the Grand Victoria would commence and cover nearly 100km (about 60 miles) over 6 days along the Canal du Centre and the Saône River; it would end in Auxonne.

QuirkyCruise readers can avail of 20% off full-boat charters booked by Jan 1, 2020, with code QC2020.

Grand Victoria Canal cruising in France

The elegant 6-passenger Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Immediately on arrival we were greeted by Edward, Cindy and Angus (a frisky Lhasa Apso), owners (and mascot) of the Grand Victoria.

Edward (also the captain) is a font of information about everything from the history of French winemaking to competitive skydiving. Their son Alex looks right at home swabbing the decks and pulling ropes, a job he takes quite seriously.

Grand Victoria crew

Grand Victoria’s passengers and crew say “cheese!” * Photo: Peter Barnes

Once across the miniature gang plank, we were introduced to the rest of the crew. Leticia, the French-speaking hostess who speaks impeccable English, greeted us with her signature broad smile, warm demeanor and glass of Moët & Chandon.

Moët & Chandon while Canal Cruising in France

Christina enjoying a glass of Moët & Chandon aboard the pretty Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

The chef, Phil wasted no time showing his culinary aplomb with some amuse-bouche (tasty treats) before we slowly started down the narrow verdant waterway. Canal cruising in France was definitely pleasing our palates already.

Canal Cruising in France: The Boat

The Grand Victoria feels more like a river yacht than a barge, though it has the typical dimensions and interior of other 5-star canal barges. Built in the 1980s, to the specifications of the heiress to the DeKuyper liquor fortune, it was designed for her private travel around Europe. The current owners redecorated after a gut renovation in 2015.

With amenities in abundance, it boasts a well-stocked bar, deck furniture, chic lounge, and elegant dining area. The eight original staterooms situated near the front of the vessel down a short but narrow half staircase were reduced in number to three. All of them were enhanced in size, allowing for a king-size bed (or two XL twins), double sinks, a full shower and ample storage room. Voila! Three couples can definitely travel in style.

As our cruise began, we settled in and  lapped up our posh surroundings, reclining on the plush outdoor furniture while Edward stood at the helm in the wheelhouse.

driving the Grand Victoria

Edward at the helm of the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

We glided silently forward under a canopy of black locust trees festooned with fragrant white blossoms and the occasional mistletoe. Birds chirped on cue.

Extra thick insulation in the hull blocks out any external sounds, making for a quiet restful night’s sleep. Unlike regular cruises in open water, there is no rocking aboard this steady shallow-drafted canal boat since the vessel remains stationary at night, only cruising during the day.

No engine hum, no sudden jolts, and the only sound in the morning are those chirping birds. Ahhh, the joys of canal cruising in France.

Canal cruising in France on the Grand Victoria

The peaceful canal view from bow of the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon

Locks & More Locks

After traveling a short distance we stopped at the first of many locks which allowed us to drop a vertical distance of approximately 20 feet with as little fuss as riding an elevator. The mechanism is quite fascinating; two dams create a chamber just big enough for the boat to fit inside, which is filled or drained to meet the water level of the next stretch of canal.

VIDEO:  The ups and downs of the Burgundy locks.

These waterways, built to transport products, are something of a relic. Today they are used almost exclusively for recreational boating, including 50 similar floating hotels.

Canal Cruising in France: Delightful Dining

Dinner was a perfect balance of formal and casual with the dishes being served by Leticia, assisted at times by Cindy. For each course, Phil would appear and describe each course, all of which were amazing without being overly pretentious. Since we were cruising with two other couples, every dinner was a social event.

Grand Victoria dining on a Canal Cruising in France

Dinner on the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Peter Barnes

On the first night, we were joined by Edward and Cindy, but on subsequent meals, dinner was set for just the guests, although Edward always presented and poured the daily vintages. Our appetizer of scallops pan seared in a brown butter sauce paired well with the local white, while the main course of fresh lamb over a puree of cauliflower was served with the local red.

Another night was a delicious pan roasted duck with Asian slaw and honey soy reduction.

Roasted duck aboard the Grand Victoria

A delicious pan roasted duck. * Photo: Christina Colon

Each meal was based on what Phil procured at the local market and what was fresh and in season.

VIDEO:  See Phil in action putting the final touches to a delicious gourmet dish of pork tenderloin, pork belly and potato croquettes.

If watching Phil prepare the meals in the kitchen was like watching an artist at work, his fresh bread and selection of cheeses were like the mat and frame of his masterpiece.

French cheese on French barge cruises aboard the Grand Victoria

Chef Phil’s exquisite French fromage was out of this world! * Photo: Peter Barnes

French cheese on Grand Victoria

And more to-die-for French fromage! * Photo: Peter Barnes

Grand Victoria cheese board

Cheese is one of the many highlights of a Grand Victoria cruise, as you can see! * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: The Glorious Wine

Since wine makes up the most important export of the Burgundy region it comes as no surprise that they take their wine tasting, drinking and winemaking very seriously. Perhaps needless to say, wine (and cheese!) is a major reason to choose canal cruising in France.

wine tasting while Canal Cruising in France

Peter tasting one of many excellent wines during the 6-night Grand Victoria barge cruise, this one at the Chateau de Pommard. * Photo: Christina Colon

Edward explained that in this region there are only two varieties of wine produced. The red wines are pinot noir and the whites are chardonnay. There is no mixing of grapes or alchemy of these varietals. Nor is there any mechanization of the process that has been done by traditional means of hand harvesting for over 900 years.

Application of fertilizers, pesticides or any other enhancements is strictly prohibited by law, and even the number of grapes produced by each vine is limited to a maximum of seven bunches. While quantities are low, quality is king.

So even in years where frosts, draught other environmental factors can wipe out a significant portion of the harvest, these rules are strictly enforced. Surprise inspections are an everyday part of the process.

French vineyards

Burgundy’s legendary vineyards. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Stops Along the Way

Most days we left promptly after breakfast to do our tours and tastings, then either ate lunch in town or returned to the boat for a light meal. Afternoons were spent inching along the canal, getting to the next port. Thus activities involved lounging on the deck, watching the scenery go by or riding a bike to meet the boat at the next destination. The boat was always docked overnight.

Chagny to Auxonne map

The author’s itinerary, from Chagny via the Canal du Centre then along the Saône River to Auxonne. * Google Maps

The tiny town of Fragnes felt somewhat frozen in time, with sleepy lanes, quiet shops, tidy parks and colorful gardens in front of sturdy stone houses. The main industry appears to be local boat tourism as evidenced by several small rental or private boats occupied by family groups.

Almost as sleepy was the town of Chalon, the highlight of which was a visit to the weekly market with Phil to peruse the fresh produce (look no plastic!), cheeses and cured meats.

fresh produce in port in Chalon

The fresh produce of Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

the cheese of Chalon

Delectable cheeses in Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

This revealed a decidedly elderly populace, all wielding baskets or pulling their little bubby carts filled with Tupperware and re-useable tote bags.

The local grocery store had a stunning variety of excellent wines at rock-bottom prices.

Chalon wine market

If only we had more space in our luggage! * Photo: Christina Colon

The other quiet spots where we tied up for the night were Seurre, which offered abundant and multilingual signage describing the sleepy stories of the sleepy architecture. And Auxonne (where the cruise would end), the site of an ancient waterside fort today used as a playground by local youths. We saw numerous defaced plaques and coats of arms that date back to the French Revolution.

Fortress wall Auxonne on a French barge cruise

The fortress wall of Auxonne. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Vineyard Visits

Chateau de Pommard, a short drive from Chagny, is a postcard perfect vineyard that offers in-depth narrated tours of the vines, soil types, wine presses, wine cellars and of, course wines. After learning about the process of growing, harvesting and producing the wines, a tasting took place inside the recently renovated chateau.

Chateau de Pommard on a French barge cruise

The lovely Chateau de Pommard. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Chateau de Pommard wine barrel in France

A Chateau de Pommard wine barrel. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Afterwards, we were free to tour the walled fragrance garden and learn about some of the plants often associated with wines such as citrus, honeysuckle, hawthorn, lily and rose. Of course, none of these are in the wines, but are flavors and aromas commonly used to describe the various vintages.

Canal Cruising in France: Medieval Beaune

In Beaune, which was not far from Fragne where our boat tied up, the morning’s excursion had us going to the Hotel Dieu, built-in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy. Dubbed a “palace for the poor,” the hospital’s canopy beds are clad in starched white linens and draped in red velvet curtains. Patients were attended by nuns selected for their medical ability, compassion, and “character,” according to the founder’s charter.

Hotel dieu hospice

The hospital dubbed a “palace for the poor.” * Photo: Christina Colon

Private rooms helped offset the cost of caring for the poor even until the 1980s when a new hospital was built, and continues to be funded by the surrounding vineyards. In addition to an assortment of medical tools on display, an apothecary shows where cutting-edge medicines, many based on herbs and minerals, were prepared.

The large kitchens show the importance placed on good nutrition for patients, which was seen as equal to any other treatment. While water was considered dangerous, and fruits considered unhealthy, wine was freely available and thought to be curative.

After exiting through the gift shop, we emerged onto the square within the walled city, where tourist venues sell wine, postcards, wine, antiques, wine, and books (about wine). One antique vendor sold high-quality French furniture in a shop that itself was quite antique.

Perhaps because Peter knows an extraordinary amount about antique French furniture, we were permitted to explore the inner sanctum. Here, virtually priceless antiques were arranged in a room with carved wood panels and a low-beam ceiling that appears to not have changed for centuries.

15th-century Hotel Dieu in Burgundy

The 15th-century Hotel Dieu. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Lunch at a Michelin Star Restaurant

Also in the town of Beaune, is the Michelin star restaurant Le Jardin-de Remparts, where a lavish pre-fix lunch was pre-ordered as part of our cruise. We started with a kir royal (champagne and Chambord), then were served some baked amuse-bouche.

Canal Cruising in France includes lunches at Michelin star restaurants

Lunch at the Michelin star Le Jardin-de Remparts. * Photo: Christina Colon

My appetizer of burgundy snail croquet in a garlic butter sauce was followed by steamed cod with squid ink risotto. A palate cleanser of sheep yogurt and green tomato marmalade was a light prelude to a fluffy mango soufflé with passion fruit sorbet.

mango soufflé in France

Fluffy mango soufflé — oui oui! * Photo: Christina Colon

The wine pairings were “on point” of course (aka perfect) and the coffee and petit-fours were too good not to try.

Canal Cruising in France: Chateau de Rully

Next on our voyage was a visit to Chateau de Rully with a fascinating history. The kindly gentleman who greeted us at the entrance to his home looked nothing like the descendant of over 25 generations of French aristocracy. With his warm smile and unassuming demeanor, the Count of Rully (Raoul) was genuinely enthusiastic to share the story of his family and the inner secrets of his estate.

Chateau Rully on a Grand Victoria barge cruise

A visit to the Chateau Rully. * Photo: Christina Colon

What started as a fortified castle, designed solely for protection from marauding neighbors, has over the centuries grown into an elegant chateau.

The original tower was expanded to include walls and three other towers surrounded by a moat and a draw bridge. An ancestral grandfather had the moat filled and the drawbridge removed after his carriage nearly toppled into the brink.

A visit to Chateau de Rully on a French barge cruise

The fascinating and beautiful Chateau de Rully. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Later extensions in the 1800s created elegant living quarters designed for comfort rather than protection (thus now a chateau).

Upon entering, we ascended a circular staircase whose right spiral makes it more difficult for an invader to attack. The design necessitated he must wield his sword in his left hand, allowing the defender above to defend with a sword held in his dominant right hand.

The original walls of this castle where nearly two feet thick and lacked windows. Small slits in the top walls allowed a sentry to watch the horizon while larger gaps permitted a rain of stones down on any intruders. At night, a leather dummy was propped up to create the silhouette of a watchful guard.

The family chapel retains beautiful wall paintings and a carved wooden altar both done by ancestral grandfathers. Written in gold paint are the names of every member of the lineage who was baptized, christened, married or had their first communion in the chapel including the current Duke’s young sons.

Family portraits abound throughout the luxurious well-appointed rooms and much of the furniture can be attributed directly to some of the 18th century’s finest craftsmen. Whereas most other homes of the aristocracy were looted or burned, this family escaped such a fate.

The Duke beams as he tells the tale of his ancestral grandmother who freed her serfs prior to the French Revolution. She was briefly arrested but immediately released when her workers who tended the vines vouched that they were treated generously and with compassion.

While the wines still produced to this day are reputedly good, it is the tour itself that merits the majority of one’s time.

Canal Cruising in France: Chateau Clos de Vogueot

In the Cote d’Or lies the Chateau Clos de Vogueot, a massive vineyard that produces some of the best red wines in the world. Originally made for religious ceremonies by monks in the 12th century, wines from this ancient vineyard have different grades according to the slope, elevation, drainage and orientation of the plots.

The soil or terroire has complex structure and its mineral components also have a big impact, as does the age of the vine. Older vines are considered better. Wines from each plot are categorized into low, middle and high grades; the top being reserved for the king.

Chateau Clos de Vogueot on a French Barge cruise

A visit to Chateau Clos de Vogueot. * Photo: Christina Colon

A tour of this mecca of wine making included a walk past some massive and ancient grape presses, fermenting vats, barrels, and a deep well. Multiple owners now all belong to the cult-like “Brotherhood Knights of Wine Tasting,” who gather annually to don colorful regalia, taste wines, and make merry.

A wine tasting was not on order for us, but instead we made our way to the nearby Moillard Givrot (or negociant, a wine making company that buys grapes then makes bottles and sells wine) where we tasted seven (or was it eight?) excellent wines.

Canal Cruising in France is all about wine

The legendary wines of the ancient Château du Clos de Vougeot. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Peter’s Favorite Wine Picks for the Week
(all served onboard)
Red

Harmand-Geoffroy’s Gevrey-Chambertin, 2015. This great pinot offers up notes of red licorice, cherries and pomegranate in a complex, refreshing and irresistibly approachable package.

Fixin Premier cru Clos Napoleon, 2014. From the northern part of the Cote d’Or, this wine has gorgeous red currant and bing cherry aromas. It’s a very concentrated, refined pinot noir with fine tannins and great complexity.

Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes, 2011. Our final red of the week was a big, brooding and muscular premier cru. While discreet during the meal, it opened up to reveal almost Rhone-like aromas: first tar, cocoa, then blackcurrant and blueberry compote.

Fine wine while canal cruising in France

Peter fancied the fine Fixin Premier cru Clos Napoleon, 2014. * Photo: Peter Barnes

White

Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016. This amazing white burgundy bearing the Givry premier cru appellation shows off aromas of vanilla, lemon, orange, honey with light oakiness on the finish; balanced with a zippy acidity.

Pouilly-Fuisse Les Vines Blanches, 2017. Fruit forward and approachable, this white has aromas of tropical fruits, crème brulé and toasted almonds with a clean cool citrusy finish.

Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016 is one of the wines you may enjoy on a canal cruise in France

Peter was impressed by Francois Lumpp’s Petite Marole, 2016. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Canal Cruising in France: Slow & Meticulous

If we could change one thing on this trip, it would have been to spend more time exploring the historic city of Dijon.

Our limited time was split between a brisk walk through the famed covered market, designed by Gustav Eiffel and brimming with French delectables (cheeses, meats, pastries, and prepared food), lunch at a local eatery, and a whirlwind walking tour through the fairy tale streets, romantic squares and central church.

We recommend you stay a night in Dijon before the cruise if time permits.

A stop in Dijon on a French Canal Cruise

The historical riches of lovely Dijon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Otherwise, the pace of this journey was slow and intentional, reflecting the meticulous attitude of the people and the region. Tours were usually arranged before or after a leisurely lunch on board. Meals were not rushed, as quality food takes time to prepare and to enjoy.

While nearly impossible, restraint on over-eating and drinking at lunch is key to avoiding a post-lunch slump. Our daily tours combined with time to relax aboard the boat ultimately left us feeling enriched and well-steeped in the long complex history of the region.

Like the grapes budding on the short stout vines, we learned that the slow progress of the vessel allowed us time to absorb the character and flavor of the region and build an understanding of the complexity of this area’s history, geography and viticulture.

Breakfast of spectacular fresh local fruits, croissants, pain du chocolat, and an optional hot platter of eggs was served up around 8am.

A coffee pot and/or espresso machine, bowl of fruit and endless fresh macaroons were also available 24/7.

fresh macaroons on a canal cruise in France

Fresh macaroons always at your disposal aboard the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon

All this food provided inspiration for an organized tour or a refreshing morning bicycle ride along the tow path adjacent to the river or canal. The comfortable well-appointed bikes handled both smooth surfaces and rough terrain.

Combine bicycling with canal cruising in France

Out for a lovely pedal along the way. * Photo: Peter Barnes

While a lack of Wi-Fi signal can impair ones use of Google Maps to navigate, the general route is fairly straightforward and aligned with the cans. That said, on several occasions we had to cross the river via a bridge when access on the tow path was blocked.

Riding along the flat dirt or paved path lead us past endless fields of winter wheat, sweet corn, and rapeseed that grow tall and flower in June. The incessant sound of chipping birds and the occasional banjo twang of frogs make canal cruising in France simply delightful.

Most of the sleepy communities are populated by retirees who seem to love fishing, many of whom return to a family-owned plot after raising their children in more urban areas.

Grand Victoria Canal Cruising in France

The peaceful French countryside along the way. * Photo: Peter Barnes

When weather permitted, the crew set up lunch alfresco on the deck while moored at a scenic location along the river bank.

Blissfully ensconced, swirling a crisp white, sated by yet another fantastic meal and watching a mute swan glide silently past, pretty much sums up the essence of this trip.

swans along the way on French canals

A swan appeared straight out of Central Casting in Chalon. * Photo: Peter Barnes

Our week aboard the Grand Victoria was the absolute pinnacle of a relaxed, refined, riparian retreat.

So, if you get the chance to book a cabin or decide to charter the whole damn boat, know that the experience will profoundly change you.

You will develop character, you will become bolder, more complex, with hints of cherry and blackcurrant, and a crisp, oaky finish.

For booking details, here’s more info on the “Grand Victoria, The Queen of Burgundy.” 

Chrissy & Peter enjoy Canal Cruising in France

Christina & Peter on board the Grand Victoria. * Photo: Christina Colon

 

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French Barge Cruise - Esperance on the Canal du Midi

French Barge Cruising:
My French Love Affair (Part 1)

The Canal, The Boat, The Weather, The Locks, The Food & The Wine

By Elysa Leonard.

To be completely honest, I had mixed feelings about this quirky cruise as we planned it. It was not my norm. I am a scuba girl and love my trips to be sun-kissed and salty. On this French barge cruising adventure, the focus would be on wining and dining, not diving and regulating.

I would be bringing my daughter, Samantha, a budding chef who is halfway through her studies at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA). A French barge cruise would be a great experience for her to learn some cooking skills from a seasoned French chef and it would of course be a super memorable mother-daughter holiday as well.

But what would I really think about a slow crawl through southern France on a luxury barge?

The truth is, I fell in love with French barge cruising!

French Barge Cruise - Esperance on the Canal du Midi

Elysa and her daughter Sam aboard the 6-passenger Esperance! * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Canal du Midi … or

Le Canal Charmant Mais Etonnant (The lovely and Remarkable Canal)

The Canal du Midi is set in the lovely region of Languedoc in southern France. It’s a step back in time to motor through this idyllic pastoral countryside. You quickly realize why artists are drawn to this area after seeing firsthand the inspiration surrounding you. From small quaint villages with stone churches and narrow cobblestone streets to vineyards and small farms, this cruise was all about the journey.

A slow-moving barge is a perfect vessel — and speed — to make sure you don’t miss a thing.

French barge cruising aboard Experance

A barge cruise along the Canal du Midi is an excellent to soak up the French countryside. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

What’s not to love!

When you realize this canal was built centuries ago, in a very rural part of the country with no modern equipment, it truly is a remarkable accomplishment. The project began in 1667 and was managed by Pierre-Paul Riquet, taking 14 years to complete. It was built as a working canal to transport goods between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France. Sadly, Riquet would never see the completed project, he died one year before it was finished.

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, the Canal du Midi is considered one of the major civil engineering achievements of the modern age.

Esperance — Love at First Sight

The luxury hotel barge, Esperance, has a capacity for six passengers and three crew members. The word Esperance means hope or promise and this barge delivered on all of her promises.

French Barge Cruising on the Esperance

The 6-passenger Esperance. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Not only that but the barge fits perfectly in some very tight spaces.

As seen here:

The three bedrooms were spacious and charming; ours had a reading area with a sofa and a large closet. Each room has an ensuite bathroom.

Esperance cabin

A charming cabin aboard the Esperance. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

On the top open deck was a dining table, lounge chairs, and a hot tub. The salon was lined with windows and there was a lovely area for lounging, reading or just enjoying one of the freshly prepared snacks made by our on-board chef, with a glass of wine or a cup of tea.

Elegant lounge aboard French Barge Esperance

The elegant salon aboard the Esperance. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

The salon’s high-top table is where we would enjoy most of our meals. It was perfectly sized for six and was always impeccably adorned with a colorful themed tablescape and fresh flowers.

The kitchen was tiny and we were amazed by the dishes that Chef, Jean-Luc, prepared from such a small space.

Dining aboard a French Barge cruise.

The lovely “tablescape” at dinner on the Esperance. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

There was a lot to love about the Esperance. The rooms were big and it felt like a moving luxury hotel; we never felt cramped.

The One Thing Not to Love — The Weather

We were not blessed with perfect weather and much of the time, it was colder than I expected and a bit windy. In fact, there were several days/nights where they had to heat the cabin — we were cruising in early April, so the temperatures were fairly typical.

French Barge Cruise aboard Esperance

My recommendation would be to take this trip in late spring to guarantee that spring in France had indeed sprung. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Sadly, that meant that all of our meals except for one were inside in the salon. It also meant that we didn’t do as much walking and biking as I think we would have if the weather gods had cooperated. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying our time and thankfully, we didn’t get much rain to dampen our excursions.

It was easy to imagine what it would be like to have more meals and happy hours on the deck, and maybe a few more dips in the hot tub, but we will save that dream for future trips. The foliage and flowers were just about to pop and we could only imagine how lush and green things would be in just a few short weeks. It was just on the cusp of gorgeousness during our week and about to get even more so in a few short weeks.

My recommendation would be to take this trip in late spring to guarantee that spring in France had indeed sprung. But you can’t control the weather, so we chose to enjoy the journey and sat out on the deck with layers, including some blankets, so we wouldn’t miss the scenery and especially the passage through the locks.

Esperance barge cruises run from April through October.

The ideal time for a Canal du Midi barge cruise is the spring months of May and June; and for a touch of fall, September and October.

French Barge Cruising: Lovely Locks

When traveling on the Canal du Midi you can’t help but love the locks. They are a marvel of engineering and yet appear to seamlessly work to raise or lower boats.

French Barge cruising on Canal du Midi

Passing through the locks was a highlight. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Canal du Midi locks

Up close and personal with the locks of the Canal du Midi. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Canals are flat bodies of water, but sometimes where you want to build a canal is hilly, so what do you do? You construct a lock to raise or lower the boats to the next stretch of canal at the higher or lower elevation.

The barge enters the lock, the doors close, it fills with water (or the water lowers) and you have now risen (or sunk) to the next level to continue on your journey.

There are 63 working locks on the Canal du Midi. The locks are maintained by a permanent lock keeper. The lock keeper cottages in many cases have been transformed into art galleries, displaying sculptures and paintings. Some of the lock keepers were the artists themselves and they displayed their art for sale.

Canal du Midi lock - Ecluse de Jouarres

Elcuse de Jouarres on the Canal du Midi – Esperance crew would pick up fresh fruits, vegetables, and, wine at this lock. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Canal du Midi French barge cruising

The arty “lawn” of a lock keeper. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

My favorite was Ecluse de L’aiguille or the Aiguille Lock. The lock keeper is a sculptor who has created really interesting art from wood and metal. One group of sculptures are connected to a motion sensor so when you walk by they all move, from a naked biker to a man sticking out his tongue and another that looks like Humpty Dumpty. It was one of my favorite stops and we had time to take a close-up look while the barge went through the lock.

Ecluse de L'aiguille on the Canal du Midi

Strange yet captivating art at the Ecluse de L’aiguille. Photo: Elysa Leonard

I also witnessed a few replenishments of wine handed over from the lock keeper to our crew, so we would always have a glass (or two!) from the local vineyards.

French Cuisine: A Life-Long Crush

When you think of French food, it conjures thoughts of heavy dishes covered in creamy rich sauces. And although we enjoy dishes with luxurious sauces, our Chef, Jean Luc, who had been cooking for 50 years, kept things elegant while also surprisingly light.

A memorable lunch consisted of a bowl of black shelled mussels with bright apricot-colored flesh, plucked from the Mediterranean Sea that morning. The chef knew with shellfish as fresh as this, less was more. He steamed them in olive oil, white wine, and garlic and served them with a crusty French baguette and a salad tossed in a simple but divine dressing that we found out was made with his own black walnut oil.

When we asked about the dressing through a few translations (Chef Luc doesn’t speak English), we discovered the origin of the oil was a black walnut tree in his backyard. He had crushed the black walnuts and made this oil himself, giving new meaning to the phrase, “from scratch.”

Fresh Mussels - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Fresh Mussels in white wine and garlic broth, plucked that morning from the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Green Salad - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Simple Green Salad with a Black Walnut Vinaigrette. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Memorable dinner entrees included a delicious roast duck breast, steak au poivre, stuffed guinea fowl, tender beef roast with root vegetables, and pork tenderloin topped with an onion and mushroom compote.

Roast Duck Breast - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Roast Duck Breast with ratatouille, cauliflower and popovers. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Steak au poivre - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Steak au poivre with whipped potatoes, glazed sugar snap peas, and baby carrots. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Unforgettable appetizers included an asparagus soup served with a straw, a rainbow of caviar on toast, and my favorite, baked leeks wrapped in prosciutto that was sautéed in butter until crispy on the outside with a tender inside.

Rainbow Caviar Canape - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A rainbow of caviar canapes served with Champagne on our first night. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Baked leeks wrapped in prosciutto - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Baked leeks wrapped in crispy prosciutto. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Cheese courses were a part of all dinners, and I would try to save room to at least sample them. From creamy herbed goat cheese to ripe camembert, they were a perfect pairing with the white, rosé and red wines served with dinner. Yes we did of course drink a lot of good French wine on this trip!

French Cheese Plate with caraway seeds and apples - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese with caraway seeds and apples. Photo: Elysa Leonard

A selection of French cheese with honey and rosemary - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese with pears, local figs, honey, and rosemary. Photo: Elysa Leonard

French cheese plate from Narbonne - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese from the Narbonne Market. Photo: Elysa Leonard

I was inspired to create cheese plates on my own after this trip. I have been treating my neighbors to French cheese and wine all summer long, as I try to hold on to the pleasant memories of my barge cruise.

Desserts were elegant but simple.

They comprised fresh fruit served with a cinnamon cookie that melted in your mouth, gold-dusted strawberries with fresh mint, smooth and creamy vanilla bean ice cream, and a show stopper, puff pastry with a sweet mango filling.

Fruit salad with cinnamon cookie - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Fruit salad with a crispy cinnamon cookie that melted in your mouth. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Gold dusted Strawberries - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Gold dusted fresh strawberries with mint. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Puff pastry with mango filling - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Puff pastry with mango filling. Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Wine: My Romantic Rendezvous with Rosé

I love wine, that was true long before my visit to France. But, I am very particular in what kinds of wine I drink. I have always been a fan of California whites. I like a buttery Chardonnay from an oak barrel or a crisp Pinot Grigio with a hint of apple and pear, but don’t ever offer me something pink. Pink wines, or so I thought, are sweet and I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole. Sweet wine is not for me.

French rose - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

French rose, crisp, dry, and divine. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Pink French Rose - Canal du Midi luxury barge cruise

Another French rose that became one of my favorites. Photo: Elysa Leonard

So on the barge cruise, when our cruise manager Helen began offering us rosé in the afternoon, I would put my hand over my glass and tell her I would pass. After the first few days, she asked me why I wouldn’t try the rosé.

“Please don’t be offended, I just don’t like pink wines, they are much too sweet for me,” I confided in her.

Helen said, “But they are not all sweet, some are very dry, like this one, you may like it, give it a try.”

And then several of my new passenger friends including my daughter encouraged me to give it a try as well. Suddenly, I was in a real-life version of “Green Eggs and Ham.” And just like Sam, I thought well, one sip won’t hurt me and after that, they will leave me alone and then I can say I tried it and didn’t like it. However, like Sam, that first sip was not my last.

I took a taste and realized that this French rosé was positively pink perfection!

Drinking French Rose - Canal du Midi luxury barge cruise

Drinking French rosé in the South of France, perfection! Photo: Elysa Leonard

The temperature of this wine is important. Rosé is better when it is well chilled, and of course, Helen took great care to make sure that was always the case on Esperance. I have added rosé to my wine list. But of course, it must be French and it must be from Languedoc or Provence!

Please stay tuned for French Barging Cruising Part 2 — “The Love Affair Continues.” I will discuss the crew, my daughter’s French cooking lessons, the daily excursions and our extended trip to Paris after our barge cruise.

À bientôt! (See you soon!)

➢➢ Are you a barge newbie? Here are some BARGE CRUISE TIPS to get you up to speed!

➢➢ And here’s more info on Barge Lady Cruises, the barge brokers who introduced us to Esperance!

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The Majestic Line

The Majestic Line specializes in small-boat cruises in Argyll, Western Scotland and the Hebridean isles, using two converted fishing boats and two custom-designed steel hulled gentleman’s motor yachts. While there is an outlined itinerary for every departure, the exact coastal and island calls and their sequence are dependent on the fickle Scottish weather. As the boats carry 11 and 12 passengers only, a cruise is very much a shared experience in close quarters. Every cruise has two single cabins offered and the booking chart shows availability.

If you ever wanted to explore Scotland’s coast line and the highly varied Hebridean Islands without fussing over ferry schedules for your rented car or resorting to a confining bus tour with too many others, HERE’s your answer, a local firm with a trio, soon to be a quartet, of wee ships.

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Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

GLEN MASSAN (built 1975 & converted 2005 & 11 passengers); GLEN TARSAN (b. 1975 & converted 2007 & 11p); GLEN ETIVE (b. 2016 & 12p); and GLEN SHIEL (b. 2019 & 12p).

The Majestic Line

Majesty Line’s trio at the dock before the GLEN SHIEL was delivered in 2019. * Photo: Majesty Line

Passenger Decks

Three decks and no elevator.

Passenger Profile

Primarily from Great Britain, ages 50 and up. Children under 12 not accepted unless part of a charter.

Price

$$$ Very pricey

Itineraries

GLEN MASSAN and GLEN TARSAN offer short-break 3-night and longer 6-night cruises and GLEN ETIVE 6- and 10-night cruises from Western Scotland to lochs and town landings in Argyll and trips out to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. In all, 14 different itineraries are offered with departures from April to October.

Nearly all embark and disembark in Oban, a port with ScotRail connections to the rest of Britain. Exceptions are one-way trips between Oban and Inverness and the first cruise of the season leaving from Holy Loch, Dunoon, Majestic Line’s base of operations.

The vessels usually anchor by dinnertime in a secluded setting, and get underway after breakfast. If the next stop is a bit further on, then the boat may depart before breakfast. GLEN SHIEL added the mix of itineraries in 2019, and her slightly higher speed allows for more far-ranging destinations.

In 2020, Argyll and the Clyde will be featured at the beginning and end of the season on 6-night cruises. As most of the route is along the river and into sheltered lochs it should be smooth sailing. Highlights are picturesque town of Rothesay, Loch Fyne’s access to Inverarary, Mount Stuart Mansion House, Carrick Castle and the narrow channel to the Kyles of Bute.

puffins on lunga

Puffins on Lunga. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Included Features

Good selected wines at dinner. The tender may be used for exploring at no extra cost while traditional shore excursions do not exist. With maps and guidance from the crew, passengers go ashore independently to visit towns and take walks.

Why Go?

Scotland is beautiful when the weather cooperates and is noted for its dramatic seascape scenery in many different lighting conditions, deep lochs to explore (similar to Norway’s fjords), a multitude of varied islands, castles and proud Scottish clans.

Wildlife is seen in the air, on the sea and on land during walks. Circumnavigate the Isle of Skye, cross Scotland via the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness and cruise out into the Atlantic to see the world’s largest gannetry hosting 60,000 pairs living and breading on isolated island of St. Kilda.

Iona. * Photo: Majestic Line

Iona. * Photo: The Majestic Line

When to Go?

With Scotland’s reputation for unpredictable and constantly varying weather, there is no best time. Be prepared for chilly and windy conditions at any time of the year as well as long days of sunlight in May and into August.

Cabins

The vessels are small hence the cabins are compact with either twin or double-bed configurations. Two singles are available on every cruise with no supplement. The newer GLEN ETIVE and GLEN SHIEL (2019) have larger cabins. All cabins are outside and feature en suite showers, toilets and washbasins.

Cabin on Glen Etive. * Photo: Majestic Line

Cabin on GLEN ETIVE. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Public Rooms

A passenger lounge with bar service, dining room, and open deck space. At times, the wheelhouse is open to visitors, and the crew is happy to share knowledge of navigation and geography. You might even have a hand at the wheel.

Dining

Communal table seats all. Typical meal times are: breakfast 8-9am; lunch 1pm; afternoon tea at 4pm; and dinner 7:30pm. Wine is included with dinner. Main courses feature local fish and shellfish (crabs and sometime lobsters), beef, lamb and venison all sourced locally. With so few to cook for, meals are a craft and a treat. An outside table may also be available when the weather is conducive.

Dining on Glen Tarsan. * Photo: Majestic Line

Dining saloon on GLEN TARSAN. * Photo: Majestic Line

Activities & Entertainment

On board, activities are board games, puzzles, and videos or relaxing and reading from the library selections. The tender takes passengers ashore to land on a beach or to a dock with sightseeing aids for creating short walks or longer hikes of one to two hours. Occasionally a one-way hike starts with a drop-off at the start and a pickup in an altogether different spot. Passengers may also fish, mostly for mackerel, or help lower and raise the lobster pots, and most likely the catch will be crabs.

Special Notes

All four vessels are available for charter, and such an arrangement can be researched first by looking at the cabin availability on the annual cruise schedule. No bookings indicate a charter may be possible, and rates are discounted by 10%. GLEN ETIVE and GLEN SHIEL (2019) have stabilizers and is used for longer trips that might encounter some choppy seas such as to the Outer Hebrides and to remote St. Kilda truly out in the Atlantic.

The Majesty Line's Glen Shiel

The Glen Shiel joined the Majesty Line fleet in 2019! * Photo: The Majesty Line

Along the Same Lines

Hebridean Island Cruises‘ 49-passenger HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS also cruises in Scotland’s Western Isles; as does an equally small pair operating for Hebrides Cruises; and the single vessel, LORD OF THE GLEN, for the Magna Carta Steamship Company. Also check out Argyll Cruising and St Hilda Sea Adventures, a pair of wonderful companies with charming vessels cruising Scotland.

Contact

The Majestic Line, Unit 3, Holy Loch Marina, Sandbank, Dunoon PA23 8FE Argyll, Scotland; +44 (0) 1369 707 951 or www.themajesticline.co.uk.

— TWS

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