My wife Karyn & I are not what you would call world travelers but we have been very fortunate over the past 20 years to have traveled to many parts of the world & experienced many world class destinations & stayed at many of the top accommodation in the world. I have a very simple theory of life & that is everything is comparative & you only appreciate something if you are able to experience all the different standards that life throws at us.
When we embarked on planning our Canal Barge trip it was done with a simple basis & that was to compare the varying standards of barging that there is to offer.
We have holidayed on a Hotel barge through southern England, one of those very narrow long boats but had a wonderful experience & still remember the wonderful young couple who looked after us. We have also experienced the luxury of a beautiful new "Space Ship" with 120 passengers cruising the Rhine with unlimited quality food wonderful entertainment & met many interesting people some we still keep in touch with today. We have also experience a drive yourself experience through the south of France sharing it with close friends & the amazing holiday experience enjoying the local countryside food & wine was something we will never forget. By the way I'm also a sailor & have nearly circumnavigated Australia on varying boats so you would say I am a "boaty" at heart & simply love being on water.
After researching the options of various canal barges available in France & with the help of a local agent in Aust we decided to book the C'est La Vie even though there were a few questions I had in my head that I still pondered. Will the crew speak fluent English & understand our Australian lingo? Would we get on with the other passengers as we were not used to being on such a vessel with only 8 passengers & people we did not know. Would we be comfortable in such close quarters with everyone & would we have enough space do our own thing. Well it didn't take long to alleviate all my concerns.
Karyn & I trained into a little French village the name eludes me & walked a small distance to a little café overlooking a quaint little river. We had an hour to the rendezvous time & we sat drinking a glass of local wine pondering the adventure we were about to embark on. Well Captain Olivier picked us up at exactly the agreed time (not one minute late) he greeted us with a smile & after an hour driving through the French country side chatting about everything it took away any doubts that we may have had. By the time we reached the boat we were good friends. My initial reaction to seeing the boat in real life far exceeded my expectations I have seen a lot of old canal barges dressed up & brightly painted & even though the website pictures were very clear & accurate it is not until you step aboard & notice everything around you that you can truly see the finer detail. The boat was immaculate, polished & cleaned in every detail. The windows & frames gleaming & the floor so clean you felt embarrassed to walk on them. Well our heavy cases were wisped away to our cabin before we had time to blink & within minutes we were drinking champagne & meeting the crew. If initial wow facture is important this had everything & I think I took 20 shots of the boat before I had finished my 2nd glass. We were then given a tour of our cabin & yes it was everything & better than we had expected. Even being able to put our huge empty cases under the bed as we had been traveling for some weeks & we didn't think we would have cupboard space or draws to put everything in. Well we were wrong, we had more space than we do at home.
We then freshened up & prepared ourselves to meet the rest of the guests & the welcome dinner. I wondered what the food would be like.
The first dinner set the pace & I love food so much that I could write a whole novel on this alone but right from the start we could see & taste this was going to be one magnificent degostation of food & wine experience so I will leave another paragraph to cover this After meeting with the other guests the crew who were there but invisible until you needed them. We also had a quick look at the galley as Karyn loves cooking so there we were all prepared, primed & excited about our adventure.
The next morning Im an early riser when im on holidays so I left Karyn in the wonderfully comfortable king size bed & wondered up to a beautiful setting of breakfast delights. (this was only 10 steps from our bedroom) Deb was there to greet me & I mentioned that Karyn loves her cup of tea in bed with hot milk. Its only a small thing but every morning after that when I stepped upstairs there was a cup of hot tea ready with hot milk for me to take down to Karyn. Im sure Deb would have delivered it personally but us guys have to win some browny points. Breakfast included all those beautiful French Breads & pastries delivered ealier that morning from a local bakery (sorry I said I would try & limit only one paragraph to the food It wont be easy)
Im not a very good tourist, we have seen most of the famous tourist attractions & refer to many as ABCs ( you know what I mean) so when we found we had our own personal guide I was a bit apprehensive as to how it would all pan out. Well Glen was fabulous not only could he speak perfect English(because he was English) he had an amazing knowledge of the French country side, the French culture & of all the wonderful sites we visited. We drove around in a very comfortable mini bus but the best part we could do what we wanted & see what we wanted to see. Glen would simply ask what time we would like to depart (we had to have some basic plan) & the we would go of for a few hours tour of a local town with all there own unique characters. His knowledge of the local history certainly interested my cultural knowledge as France has so much history it make me feel like I've lived in a cave all my life. Like I said the crew were invisible until you need them but Glen was a great guy to join us for drinks & the odd meal & particularly some nights when everyone else had gone to bed his knowledge particularly of the first & second world wars kept me going for hours.
Funny I cant remember much about the canals & rivers as it was so peaceful & restful as they drifted into each other I don't even remember some of the towns we passed through. Im sure Captain Olivier knew where he was, so why should we worry. I did feel bad at the first few locks where my first instinct was to jump up & help but with the Captains son Nick manning the ropes & Deb assisting I soon found I wasn't need so I went back to doing what I loved (nothing) I did join the captain on the bridge regularly which he was very happy to accommodate & it was a great spot to get another perspective of the country side. Being an old boaty I offered to steer the barge one day but was quite disappointed with myself when I was heading for the bank & panicked as I lost control. I didn't try it again so I left it to someone who has spent a lifetime perfecting the art of steering a 128 foot monster that takes 10 secs to react to a change in direction. He spent hours up there guiding us through spots that had only centimeters to clear but at only 4 km an hour there was never any danger. We didn't ride bikes although they were available but it was certainly very pleasant walking between some of the locks & just watching the barge from a distance. We had to do some exercise!!!
Well Im generally a pretty active person so I don't normally like just sitting around but Karyn loves reading, I love my music & with my own selection on my ipod of 3500 songs & a wonderful sound system on board it was the first time in my life I actually savored the moment. I also played with my Ipad & the internet as the Wifi worked brilliantly & we were never without communication To be honest I was never bored I would make myself a bloody Mary or a scotch on the rocks just to wet the appetite & enjoy the moment The country side just cruised by & it was like being in heaven. I think the balance of exercise. touring eating socializing & resting was perfect as housekeeping was out of the question (Deb even did a load of washing for us)
I said I could write a book on our food experience & with personal gourmet chef Katherine Im not sure whether I could do justice to her repartee as I just love eating the food & don't know much about the preparation. However one think I do know is that she spent every hour of every day preparing our gastronomic delights & I can only describe the results as absolutely amazing. One thing that I do know about food is that when your on a boat for 7 days you cant simply keep outdoing the last meal but they did. We had a wonderfull balance of fine food that just kept blowing the taste buds. Im a big breakfast eater but on this trip I was happy just to savour the fresh fruit dainty pastries & the tradition ham & cheese. Lunch's also were not the big bulky heavy food that most Australians & Americans eat but we had beautiful gourmet salads with garnishes to die for. Dinners were spectacular. I can only show you pictures but the detail the flavours & the unique presentation is something I will never forget. We did attend a Michelin 3star restaurant which was as stunning as you would expect & more but frankly the food prepared on the boat was just as spectacular & amazing as we were treated to a rare experience every day. Karyn could put this experience in a more detailed manner but I think the proof is in the Eating & that is something you will have to experience for yourself.
I am not a wine conassure & I don't know much about cheese but I do know a lot more about them now after being given such a comprehensive experience at every lunch and dinner. We were presented with the wines chosen for each particular meal & taste sensation & anyone with an appreciation of fine wine would crave this experience. Deb also presented a selection of especially chosen cheeses prior to the last course & it totally amazed me not just of Debs knowledge but the professional way she understood how the cheese was made & how it attained its specific character & taste. We live in a wine region of South Australia & after tasting the distinct & delicate flavors of the French wine I can see why true enthusiasts crave this taste sensation.
After every amazing experience in life it does not take long for the memory to fade particularly when you return home to your place of business & the pressures of life. I think the true appreciation of anything worthwhile is the vivid memories that exist & most importantly the desire to return & do it again. I can't recall any other trip I have ever encountered & come back telling everyone you know that you have to experience this wonderful trip for yourself. The crew, we will regard as life long friends & the other passengers we continue to keep contact. Somethings in life are special & the experience we had on the Cest La Vie was very special. If you are contemplating doing something that you will never forget just do it.
By Robert Linde (of Smallship cruises)