Cruising the Burgundy Canal

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 61 of the February 2010 issue.

(Second of two parts)

On the cruise that my wife, Susan, and I took down the Burgundy Canal in France on the upscale hotel barge Horizon II, Aug. 2-8, 2009, courtesy of French Country Waterways (Duxbury, MA; 800/222-1236), the crew were incredibly hardworking.

Horizon II on the Burgundy Canal. Photos: Toulmin

At every lock, we saw the pilot and boatman scrubbing the sides of the vessel and polishing every surface until it shone. At the end of the week we saw the crewmen repainting the small scuffs on the side of the bow where the vessel had touched one of the locks. Thus the vessel looked brand-new for the next group of passengers.

A mix of English and French nationals, the staff all spoke English. There are not many cruising vessels for which you can completely list the entire crew in one short sentence, but here they are for Horizon II: captain/manager/guide; pilot/driver; chef; hostess/wine-and-cheese expert, and boatman/bosun. Just five crew members, but since they look after only eight passengers in four cabins, the crew-to-passenger ratio is very high indeed.

The crew definitely make the voyage quite special. I found them to be very caring, funny and talented and extremely proud of their ship.

On board at night, there were no Broadway shows or dancing girls. In fact, there were no TVs in the lounge or cabins and we had only intermittent Internet access. So the focus of evening entertainment was a leisurely dinner followed by good conversation in the lounge or up on the large, open deck — very relaxing and civilized. Fellow passengers were almost all older Americans, with a sprinkling of British patrons.

Speaking of dinner, the food, wine and cheese were a major focus of the cruise. Our remarkable chef, Jean-Yann Attica, produced amazing creations from a tiny galley.

Breakfast included fruit, yogurt, cereal and breads and could include omelets, eggs Benedict, soft-boiled eggs or other custom orders. Lunch consisted of salads, a light meat, pastry and, always, three kinds of cheese and two light but distinctive wines.

One typical dinner we had included a wonderful asparagus soup with truffle oil followed by a main course of excellent poached codfish on a rice pilaf with broccoli. The accompanying prawn tempura with fennel was not quite as successful, in my opinion, but the next courses were excellent: a plate of three cheeses, a fresh salad and a trio of desserts.

The desserts included a moelleux au chocolat (chocolate cake with a “melting heart of chocolate”), tiramisu with cherries, and a made-on-board banana sorbet.

Wine expert Emma Dumel

During the cruise, Susan and I got to try 23 different high-quality wines we had never experienced before. The most impressive were at the Captain’s Dinner: three absolutely top-of-the-line Grand Cru wines, including one from Jean-Marc Brocard and two from Domaine Dubreuil-Fontaine.

One of our amateur wine buff fellow passengers remarked, “In my decades of wine tasting, I never before had a chance to drink a Grand Cru, and now to have three at one meal is unbelievable.”

Emma Dumel, the onboard wine expert, said, “Every year the owners and captains of French Country Waterways have a private wine tasting and lay down the best bottles they can find for future use on board.” Thus many of the wines on board are difficult or impossible to obtain now.

During the week, we had one included lunch ashore at a village inn and one included dinner at a three-Michelin-star restaurant, the famous Le Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu. But afterward we remarked that we were more impressed with the food, wine, cheese and staff on Horizon II than at the three-star restaurant.

Any criticisms about this cruise?

Well, on occasion the guides’ lectures in some of the cathedrals could have been a bit more detailed.

A two-hour sit-down meal can be a bit long every night for a week, but that is part of the French experience.

And perhaps it would be nice to present Bœuf Bourguignon one night. This is the famous dish that most Americans identify with the region of Burgundy and which has been highlighted by the current Julia Child revival.

But these are trivial points. I would rate this cruise as one of the best cruise experiences we have had in 30 years. All in all, we will certainly be envious if any of our friends and relations announce that they will be sailing down the Burgundy Canal aboard French Country Waterways’ Horizon II.

Not including airfare, seven-day/six-night cruises in 2010 similar to the one we took range in price from about $5,495 per person in “shoulder season” (April or October) to about $6,495 per person in high season (May-September). The entire vessel can be chartered at a small discount.