Canals of Champagne

ITN brought to our attention exactly the right barge trip for us. We were to be in France in April ’03 to attend a World War I history conference, and French Country Waterways (Box 2195, Duxbury, MA 02331-9977; phone 800/222-1236 or 781/934-2454 or visit was offering an itinerary through the Champagne region from April 20 (Easter Sunday) through the 26th.

Everything involved in this journey was of the highest quality: the administration in the U.S., the cabin aboard the Princess, the service, the food, the wine. . . Because this was the earliest tour, a discount applied, resulting in a total cost of $7,790 for two passengers. The reduction recognizes that at this season the weather may not yet be pleasant, but on our trip, although we had rain on the day of transfer from Paris to the vessel and again on the day of return, every day traveling through the canals was splendid.

The Princess has four cabins, but rather than eight passengers there were six on this cruise. The three couples were most congenial. Since we could imagine not everyone would be equally pleasant, we inquired of the one couple who had taken eight or nine such journeys and they assured us they had never had a problem. This is important because in every respect the pace is slow and, while the barge is spacious, people will find themselves in each other’s company.

The schedule calls for one activity each day, for example, visiting a hilltop medieval town, touring Reims Cathedral or paying respects to the Americans who fought at Belleau Wood and Château-Thierry in the First World War. On other days the focus was on champagne, and we had tastings at three cellars, ranging in size from family owned to vast. One couple had made a special request, and the original plan of having two such experiences was expanded to a third — a sign of the willingness on the part of the staff to make the trip a success.

In addition to champagne before dinner, three excellent wines accompanied lunch and dinner each day. And the food was spectacularly good. One dinner takes place at a Michelin-3-starred restaurant in Reims, which is obviously a highlight of the tour. But the meals prepared on board by Bethany were right up there! If one wished to cavil, one could complain that it was all almost too much, but as Mae West said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

The price covered all the food, wine and touring as well as transfers from and back to Paris. Gratuities were additional, and there was an optional hot-air balloon trip. Luxury came at a price, but it was luxury.

The scenery was pleasing; it was possible to walk or bicycle while the boat glided through the canals. Only the final day did we enter the Marne River — rather a change after the quiet and narrower waterways. Each night, the barge moored in a quiet location. This was the most restful vacation we have ever had.

Cambridge, MA