Belmond Afloat in France luxury barge cruising

Sarah Bolton on 14 July 2017
Have you ever considered meandering along the waterways of southern France on a luxury barge, converted from an original working boat? No? Nor had I until I was invited to travel with Belmond on one of their “Afloat in France” barges on the River Saone. This is one of those rare products that unless you know of it already you wouldn’t know to ask for it – something truly special and once experienced a) never forgotten and b) desperate to be repeated!

For all lovers of luxury, intimate travel, boutique high end accommodation or river cruising on a personal level, this is the ideal option.

Belmond, synonymous with luxury train journeys such as the Venice-Simplon Orient Express and Northern Belle, as well as stunning hotels worldwide, has a fleet of barges converted to hold 4-12 guests in true luxury on several rivers in France. The majority of sailings are sold as full vessel charters, for which the itinerary and excursions can be personalised. However on the larger boats there are specific sailings which allow you to book individual cabins within a cruise.

The boats are designed with a stylish and comfortable country house elegance, with a crew of 6 to attend to you in a relaxed and informal style. They comprise of a Captain, his 2nd in command, chef, 2 on-board hostesses and an onshore host/guide. The food is of an exceptional standard, all freshly prepared on board by the skilful chef, and paired with delicious regional wines chosen by the very knowledgeable wine hostess. All meals and drinks are included throughout, including champagne and quality wines. The cabins are larger than expected, with comfortable bedding, plenty of storage and good size shower rooms. On the roof of my particular boat, Napoleon, (all boats are individual and have slightly different facilities), there was a good size area with sun loungers, a hot tub and a dining area for al fresco lunches – perfect for making the most of the weather, viewing the beautiful scenery and watching the world go by.

Despite the high standard of the product there is no pretension, with a casual relaxed atmosphere – no dressing for dinner unless you choose to do so! The crew are exceptionally personable and will join in on conversations, entertainment etc – but remaining professional at the same time.

We joined the boat, under the command of mad Scot Captain John, at St Jean-de-Losne, having transferred from Paris by luxury people carrier. Guests may choose to travel by rail if they prefer, which I would recommend due to the journey length and comfort! We were welcomed with chilled champagne, which was very much appreciated and a sign of things to come. Once we’d settled in we set off for a little cruise up the river and back to start our luxury barge experience, watching the sunset with drinks and canapes. After dinner we were then treated to a sample of the type of entertainment that Belmond can arrange for its guests – a fantastic duo, supposedly cousins of the Gypsy Kings, whose guitar playing and singing were outstanding and had us up on our feet.

Our 3 night fam trip gave us a great taste of some of the excursions that may be experienced. Belmond operate this in a personal way by having their own luxury minibus which the tour hostess/guide drives between each docking point and then taking the guests off to local points of interest and for various activities. Our particular hostess’ knowledge and local contacts were second to none, and we were sad to learn that she was moving on to start a new life with her partner (although the Captain reckons she’ll be back!!)

We were treated to some excellent trips, the first of which was a walk through the medieval town of Beaune, with a visit to Hotel Dieu – a museum of the hospital for the poor, built on the orders of the then Chancellor of Burgundy (to win his place in heaven!) We were then taken on a tour of the cellars of the winemaker Joseph Drouhin, followed by a wine-tasting of some of their wines. I particularly liked the 1996 Clos des Mouches and the 2014 Chablis Premier Cru, and was very tempted to treat myself to a couple of bottles. Although I resisted at the time, I wish I hadn’t as prices were so much better value than when sold in the UK.

On our 2nd day we had a walking tour of Tournus, including the superb 10th century abbey of St Philibert where we were able to explore the crypt, nave and famous Roman mosaics. We also had a fabulous private tour of the vineyard at Chateau Fuisse, taken around by the Chatelaine herself, which therefore included a bit of fascinating family history as well as the wine story. Again this was followed by a wine tasting within the chateau, and this time my favourite was a delicious 2015 Pouilly-Fuisse “Marie Antoinette” – but this time I just couldn’t resist buying a bottle!

I was sad to end my short stay on the Napoleon – we were so well looked after and taken to the “real France”. Now I know of and have experienced “Afloat in France” I can’t wait to sell this fabulous “secret” product!