Cruising the Burgundy Canal

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 62 of the January 2010 issue.

by Lew Toulmin (First of two parts)

Tell your friends and relations that your next vacation is cruising a French canal on an upscale hotel barge and you are sure to get some envious glances, but does the reality match the myth?

“Horizon II” squeezes forward into a lock. Photos: Toulmin

That was the question my wife, Susan, and I had before cruising down the Burgundy Canal aboard the Horizon II, Aug. 2-8, 2009, as guests of French Country Waterways (Box 2195, Duxbury, MA 02331; 800/222-1236,

Our cruise was from Tanlay to Venarey-les-Laumes, northwest of Dijon, France, and it covered about 45 miles on the canal.

We were picked up at a hotel near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and taken in two hours to the Horizon II at the village of Tanlay, southeast of Paris. Boarding the vessel, we were struck by its large size, the attractive appointments and the friendly, competent staff.

The Horizon II was built in Strasbourg in 1950 as a commercial vessel and converted to a hotel barge in 1986. She is now owned by French Country Waterways, an American company.

In 2004 the number of her cabins was reduced to four, holding a total of eight passengers instead of the previous 12. She is refurbished each winter in dry dock.

The vessel is 5.08 meters wide and 38.98 meters long — just able to squeeze into the canal locks by a few centimeters! She displaces 220 tons and has a six-cylinder engine with only 165 horsepower (less than many cars) — very economical and “green.”

Her three-blade prop is a massive one meter in diameter. Her draft of 1.45 meters is often just a few inches less than the depth of water in the canal, and our Captain Gregoire Megret noted, “If it wasn’t for our large vessel going up and down the canal each week, it would rapidly silt in and would need to be dredged at a cost of millions.”

The main lounge, down a short flight of stairs, is the first area you encounter after leaving the deck. The lounge is combined with the dining area and bar and has sunny windows and lots of light, offering excellent views of the countryside and canal.

In the main lounge is a small lending library furnished with games (our group made some progress on a huge jigsaw puzzle), a large maroon Chesterfield sofa and some comfortable armchairs.

The main lounge bar is quite unusual, being totally open to passengers and adding no extra charge for any item. Hard liquors, aperitifs, wines, white port, soft drinks and bottled water all are on offer. Near the bar is a bowl of dark chocolates, available to passengers on an unlimited basis.

In fact, essentially everything — all meals and wine aboard and onshore, drinks from the bar, tours and transfers (but not airfare) — is included in the fare. The only extra charges are €220 per person for taking an optional early-morning balloon trip, and tips, usually 5% to 10% of the total fare.

This all-inclusive approach is a wonderful, restful change from the policies of many cruise lines which try to “nickel and dime” the passengers for numerous items on board.

Our cabin measured about 14 by 14 feet — quite large — with attractive tan, textured wallpaper, dark wood trim and two lozenge-shaped portholes about 18 by 12 inches. The cabin finish was very upscale, luxurious and elegant, with no scratches or blemishes anywhere.

Main lounge and dining area on the Horizon II.

In addition to a king-sized bed (or two singles) with a tufted leather headboard, there were two side tables, two individual reading lamps and a large, handsome armoire with a small desk, plus room to store suitcases under the bed. The air-conditioning was excellent, quiet and individually controlled in each cabin.

Despite the armoire and the area under the bed, storage space was not huge, as noted in the company’s literature, so passengers should try to pack relatively light. This is no inconvenience, since the dress code is generally casual except for the captain’s farewell dinner, at which a blazer and perhaps a tie are appropriate for men, with a cocktail dress the standard attire for ladies.

The large, luxurious bathroom — very unusual on a cruising vessel — was done in white tile, featuring a good-sized shower stall and a heated towel rack and supplying plenty of hot water. High-quality soap, shampoo, shower gel, terrycloth robes and bottled water all were provided.

There was no room safe, and, in the relaxed atmosphere, sometimes cabins were just left open. There were always staff on board and no one from outside was allowed on the vessel, but if you have anything truly valuable, you may wish to bring a lock and a lockable suitcase.

A typical day with French Country Waterways consisted of a tour of a beautiful local château, town or abbey followed by lunch on board or occasionally ashore and a half day of cruising the canal.

One of the tour highlights was a visit to the famous and lovingly restored Abbaye de Fontenay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest Cistercian abbeys in Europe, founded in 1118 by St. Bernard.

Cruising the countryside is the focus for about half of each day. The Burgundy countryside consists of rolling hills, shallow streams, wooded areas and large open fields filled with sunflowers, wheat, corn, vineyards and beautiful white Charolais cows munching on gorgeous green grass.

We were struck with how completely agricultural and attractive the region was, with no urban sprawl and the population concentrated in small, interesting villages and towns.

Horizon II moved along at about five kilometers per hour (three mph) but was slowed every two to three kilometers by going through a lock, so walkers from the vessel were easily able to keep up. There also were eight bicycles on board, allowing passengers to whiz up the towpath, if they liked.

On the stretch of canal that Horizon II cruises, there are no tunnels or ladders of locks, so progress is steady and relaxing.

Next month — a wine connoisseur’s heaven!