Ahhh……..I love barge cruising!
I love the sense of peace I get from traveling slowly. I love seeing sights off the beaten tourist path. And I love having all my needs attended to with great care.
Having previously taken a European Waterways barge cruise on the Burgundy canal, I was even more excited to take a second cruise, this time in the Loire Valley on the company’s flagship barge, the Renaissance. I knew there would be unique sights to see and great food and wine, but what really blew me away was the pride in workmanship and attention to detail that each crew member displayed throughout the voyage – because it’s the little things that make a great experience memorable for a lifetime.
Let’s start with the itinerary. The description of the sights does not capture the thought and care that Captain Hadrian and the European Waterways staff put into providing specially curated experiences. For example, the tour of Château de La Bussière included a private cooking demonstration by our chef in the château’s orangery. The château is known for its beautiful vegetable and herb gardens and the cooking and tasting experience connected us to the gardens in a way that was not possible by just walking through it.
Every excursion had a unique aspect to it, but my favorite experience of the week was a visit to the chateau of artist Rosa Bonheur. I had not heard of Rosa Bonheur even though in the mid-19th century she was one of the most renowned artists of her time and her best-known painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Rosa specialized in realistic paintings of animals. To achieve the level of detail she desired in her paintings she studied animal anatomy in the slaughterhouses in Paris and did dissections at the National Veterinary Institute in Paris. In an age when women were supposed to marry and raise families, Rosa defied convention and chose to stay independent, single and earn her own way in the world. She was a strong-willed feminist before the word was invented.
Rosa’s home and studio has been lovingly preserved and restored as if she still worked there. A guided tour provided insight into the life of this complex personality and a perspective on her extensive body of work. The tour culminated with a special luncheon just for our group served in Rosa’s salon. Beautifully presented and perfectly befitting the location, the menu was as much a feast for the palette as it was art on a plate.
Though I must admit that the meals all week on board the Renaissance were equally delicious and beautifully turned out. Using locally sourced ingredients, chef Hannah outdid herself preparing dishes that looked as good as they tasted. I also really appreciated that she prepared menus that offered us flavors from the different regions in France. The wines served at lunch and dinner also represented the many growing climates in France and were well matched to compliment the food.
Because we also eat with our eyes, hostess Inma laid out an elegant table for every meal, each time with a differed creative centerpiece and a different creatively folded napkin design. I quickly started looking forward to each meal for both the food and to discover the next creation that Inma produced out of a square piece of fabric.
As our hostess, Inma also continuously attended to each of our needs. Coffee cups were always full, drinks were kept refreshed, and snacks were plentiful. She greeted us with a different specialty drink each time we came back on board from an excursion. She left chocolate on our pillows in the evening. She kept our rooms and all areas inside the barge spotless and neat all week. And she did all this with a ready smile and cheery disposition at all times.
Bryan, our guide on all excursions and the deckhand on board was equally attentive. He had clearly spent much time learning about each destination that we visited and provided commentary that was instructive and highly detailed. And if he did not know the answer to one of the million questions that I asked, he made sure to quickly find out the answer once we were back on board.
What impressed me the most though was the attention to the little things. Hadrian and Bryan were regularly brushing the sides of the barge as we cruised out of a lock to take off any algae that may have stuck to the side as we passed through. When the gangplank was set out, the knots attaching it to the deck were both pretty and functional. I was also intrigued watching Bryan coiling up the big rope on deck – each time he would make a different neat, unique design.
Many of these small tasks that the crew regularly performed were not necessary but added a beautiful artistic touch. I am both a creative soul and one that pays attention to detail, so it was the cumulative addition of all these little things that took this luxury barge cruise to an even higher level for me.
My week on the Renaissance barge was as wonderful as I expected and hoped it would be. But it was all the special touches by Hadrian, Hannah, Inma and Bryan that made this an experience that I will cherish forever. By the end of the week, I felt like I was leaving behind family – family that had gone out of their way to make a visit special for someone they cared for. Thank you!