One of my happiest travel memories is of a canal barge trip through the Champagne region of France a few years ago. One particular incident stands out.
It was a sunny day and we passengers were gathered on deck, sipping champagne and soaking up sun as the barge glided at a stately pace down the Marne River Canal. The superb weather, the bubbly wine, and the sights and scents of the lush countryside unrolling beside us combined to produce a feeling of euphoria. Suddenly, spontaneously, we all began to sing ''Amazing Grace." The champagne had something to do with it, I suppose, but it was still a magical moment -- and very much a barging experience.
Barge travel appeals to many veteran travelers who like the sociable atmosphere, the easy pace, and the opportunities to explore at leisure. A hotel barge may carry as few as six passengers or as many as 50, but typically takes about a dozen. With so small a group, a strong sense of camaraderie often results. It's nice to see different sights every day but sleep in the same room every night. Also, the all-inclusive price -- food, meals (often eaten family style ), sightseeing, and usually an open bar -- also simplifies budget planning.
There are hotel barges operating in the United States, Canada, Britain, Ireland, and many places in continental Europe, but France traditionally has been the most popular destination for Americans. An average weeklong European barge trip costs about $2,500 per person, but there are sometimes seasonal discounts and bargain packages available. Duxbury-based French Country Waterways (781-934-2454 or 800-222-1236; www.fcwl.com) recently introduced a discount program intended to attract passengers who are mature but somewhat younger than the average canal barge traveler. Passengers celebrating their 50th birthday this year are eligible for a 50 percent discount this spring through fall on sailings of the 18-passenger Esprit and the eight-passenger Liberte, both operating in Burgundy. Six-night cruises on the Esprit cost $3,295-$3,695 double occupancy, and on Liberte, $3,195-$3,595, double occupancy. Birthday celebrants traveling alone also get 50 percent off the $1,195 single supplement.
The company, which also operates barges in the Loire Valley and Champagne region, is also giving discounts of 5 to 60 percent to couples celebrating wedding anniversaries in sequences of five up to the 60th anniversary. Savings range from $164 to $2,877. The cruise taken does not have to coincide with the birthday or anniversary date, but to receive the discount, passengers must submit proof, such as a birth or wedding certificate, that it has occurred or will occur in 2004.
Canal barges usually travel only at three or four miles an hour and make frequent stops at locks and places of interest. So, passengers can get off and walk or bicycle (most barges have bikes available for passenger use) without fear of being left behind. Some barge companies now also offer itineraries tailored specifically to biking and walking.
Continental Waterways (800-676-6613; www.continentalwaterways.com), which operates the largest barge fleet in Europe, is offering a five-night ''Bike and Barge" program in the Upper Loire Valley beginning this month. The cruise includes meals and accommodation aboard the 24-passenger Escargot and daily cycling expeditions (bicycles provided). The Escargot travels the Canal Lateral la Loire through some of the most scenic part of France, chateau country.
Daily cycling tours average 30 miles and vary from flat and easy to challenging hills and slopes. On-board amenities include French cuisine (of course) accompanied by wines from the Loire Valley. The basic cruise price is $995 per person. A package that includes the cruise and a two-night Paris hotel stay is $1,599 There is a $470 single-occupancy supplement.
Hotel barges generally avoid the big rivers, which, as a rule, are trafficked heavily by large vessels. An exception is the Thames above London, particularly the section between Windsor and Oxford where there is little commercial traffic, the scenery is lovely (''Wind in the Willows" country), and there are many charming villages and small towns, plus Windsor Castle, along the banks.
The Wayfarers (800-249-4620; www.thewayfarers.com) is a company specializing in walking tours, mostly in Great Britain but also in continental Europe, New Zealand, and the United States. One of its British tours, ''The Royal River, River Thames" combines a barge trip between Windsor and Oxford with ''gentle walking" beside the river.
The barge is the Actief, a 100-foot-long vessel built in the Netherlands in 1907 and converted into a deluxe hotel barge in 1976. It can accommodate as many as 11 people in three suites, two twin staterooms and a single cabin. The six-night, Sunday to Saturday cruise starts at $2,790. The walks average four or five miles a day, mostly along flat riverbank or wooded valley trails. Highlights include a stroll to Windsor Castle, a stop at the 12th-century Ye Olde Bell (which claims to be the oldest pub in England), and a visit to Dragon Hill, where St. George reputedly slew the dragon.
William A. Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Going Strong, his column on senior travel, appears the first Sunday of the month.