- France is Europe's most popular destination for canal barge cruises
- Barges are converted luxury floating hotels, usually only accommodate eight to 12 guests
- Food and wine offered on board are all regional
Even the most jaded and cosmopolitan travel writers tend to rave when it comes to canal barging cruises in France.
It's no wonder, given the beautiful scenery, gourmet feasts and faultless service.
A completely different beast from a river cruise, which can cover several rivers and countries in one sailing with more than 100 passengers, the canal barge cruise is slower, smaller and more expensive ($350-$1,000 per day).
Approximately eight to 12 guests and six English-speaking crew are the usual number of passengers on a French canal barge, which navigates through centuries-old waterways through the French countryside.
Stops range from castles and cathedrals to villages and vineyards, where passengers can step off on guided tours.
Although canal barge cruises are possible in a number of European countries, these are the reasons why France is by far the most popular destination.
1. The wine
The average varieties of wines offered on board a week-long French barge cruise? More than two dozen -- all French and all selected after judicious testing and tastings by the staff.
A variety of canal routes wind through vineyards where passengers can step off and try Sancerre from the Loire Valley, Reislings from the Alsace-Lorraine in the north-east and Bordeaux wines, as well as those from the warm climates of Languedoc-Rousillon and Provence.
Some of Burgundy's best vintages can be sampled at the Grand Cru vineyard of Chambertin-Clos de Bèze in the northern part of the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy, Clos de Vougeot, the headquarters of the esteemed Chevaliers du Tastevin and the Château-Hotel André Ziltener.
2. Elaborate cuisine
Several barge cruises offer the option to dine ashore, to eat in the restored Abbaye de la Bussiere in La Bussière-sur-Ouche, for example. What was once a pilgrimage retreat in 1131 is now a Relais & Chateaux hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant.
Onboard the barge, thematic regional French fine dining is the standard. The chefs create their inspired from tiny galley quarters.
One divine sample menu dreamed up by Selbey, the chef on the European Waterways' L'Impressionniste barge: French onion soup, lamb with minted peas, and poached pear with mascarpone ice cream paired with a white Pernand Vergelles and red Meursault, Ecrevisse salad, Coq au Vin and fresh fruits paired with a white Ladoix and red Moulin -- a vent and escargot, tender scallops and mousse au chocolat paired with Rose Marsannay.
A stop at the gastronomic markets in the culinary towns of Dijon and Beaune is also a must.
Passengers can shadow barge chefs as they go scouring for rich foie gras, briney crevettes, baguettes with a crunch like no other and hundreds of fresh cheeses.
3. Quaint lock keepers
Many old locks on the waterways are tended by lock keepers, and passing through them on the barge cruise becomes a fun experience in itself.
When barges pull up, beefy men race out to turn the wheels, raising the rushing water level high enough to let the barge cruise through.
At midday there may be a bit of a wait, as the cruise captains won't even consider disturbing a lock keeper's lunch.
4. Interesting history
Dating back to the 16th century, barging had a different meaning from the luxury travel experience that it's become today. The French countryside's elaborate canal system was developed as a means to transport coal and other goods that were difficult to move on land.
History buffs will love the fact that their airy, luxurious barges were once working ships carrying cargo along the same winding waterways.
5. Leisurely day excursions
The canals in France are surrounded by historical towns and in addition to vineyard visits, day excursions include stopping by the old towns and meeting the locals.
Guided tours of old architecture are some of the top highlights of a barge trip. Recommended: a visit to the Hospice de Beaune in the town of Beaune, which was built in 1443 and is one of the finest examples of French 15th-century architecture.
But for those who prefer to just relax instead of embarking on busy historical excursions, it's wonderful to just sit on the deck and watch the scenery pass by, too.
European Waterways, +1 877 879 8808; rates start at $4,750 per person
French Country Waterways, +1 800 222 1236; rates start at $5,095 per person