Zipping through the French countryside by train, my college-bound daughter, Katie, and I travel to the Languedoc-Roussillon region to spend a week aboard a barge. We depart from the boat’s mooring on the Canal de la Robine outside Beziers—which merges with the Canal du Midi—for the next six days. Stepping up the gangplank I wonder, just for a moment, what we’ve signed up for. Yes, it is that kind of barge. Long, low, flat, and, well, useful. The majority of her life spent ferrying bulky goods on Dutch waterways, the newly christened Enchanté underwent the nautical version of a tummy tuck—cinched here, tucked there—to accommodate the Canal du Midi’s low bridges and modest locks. A gal reborn as a luxury hotel barge, her four new passenger suites and crew quarters can compete with any luxury inn.
While I relax on deck with a flute of chilled bubbly, guests make introductions. Along the bank, plane trees stand like soldiers guarding the roughly 20-meter-wide canal. Cricket-like cigales chirp a chorus from the leafy canopy while Katie explores our new digs. She gleefully announces her discovery of the on-deck hot tub, conveniently close to the long table where we’ll spend the next week lounging, reading, and savoring four-course meals prepared by Chef Peter. I look at it longingly. Who says you can’t put lipstick on a pig?
As the barge slips away from the bank, jet lag fades and I settle into my new floating home, far from Camarillo. The Enchanté sports a glistening blue hull, teak decking, and white top cabin. A rack of bicycles designed for the path that parallels the canal catches my eye. Even now, Katie is winding her way down the circular stairwell leading to our stateroom. She calls up for me to come take a peek of the small but welcoming space. I oblige, noting the handcrafted, grey and green flowered pillows, cleverly organized bathroom, and porthole just above the water line before returning upstairs for a refill.
Before dinner, Captain Roger explains that for 300 years France’s network of canals has crisscrossed the country. Laboriously dug by pick and shovel, it had a single purpose: to facilitate trade between France’s Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the canals paved the way for the flowering of the French economy during the Industrial Revolution. The system today continues to rely on a series of locks and gates, and “lockkeepers” who raise and lower the water levels as the terrain changes elevation. High science for someone whose sole mission is to sip local vintages and watch lush vineyards dotted with ancient stone farmhouses pass by.
Dining at eight o’clock, we feast on filet of pork garnished with caramelized apples and black pudding, paired with a Chateau La Grave syrah/grenache blend. Three cheeses finish the meal: Bleu de Basque, Cantelle Salers, and Ecu. I fall in bed, pleasantly tired, at midnight.
The next morning the engines hum to life and we’re under way again. Traveling at an escargot’s pace, the Enchanté covers just a few miles each day. We pass other barges with French families lounging in bathing suits on their decks, couples fishing on the banks, and bikers pedaling the bumpy towpaths where horses once pulled cargo-laden barges. On most days, a mid-morning adventure takes us offshore.
During our week of floating, eating, and drinking, we visit the bustling morning market in Narbonne, Les Halles, where our knowledgeable tour guide/crewmember Edward is tasked with picking out the oysters we’ll devour along with the chef’s cassoulet at lunch. The rest of us wander the abundant stalls where aromatic spices, odd-looking meats, fresh bread, and vegetables are laid out just so. Serious shopping in the small shops that line the cobblestone walkways follows. Katie, having learned that the lovely chirping along the canals is made by the males only when the ambient temperature reaches 72 degrees, is on the hunt for a tiny silver cigale to add to her charm bracelet. I fortify myself with an ice cream cone and the hunt begins.
Time together bonds a group of strangers quickly. Dinner is served at eight and is never over before eleven. Not surprisingly, wine is an integral part of our voyage, evidenced by no fewer than four glasses at each place setting. No complaints here. Captain Roger, eager to introduce us to the region’s finer wines, takes the winding road up to the cellars of Domaine de Barroubio near Saint Jean de Minervois for a private tasting. Famous for its chalky soil, these vineyards are home to carignan, syrah and grenache vines. Our hostess, whose family has tended these vineyards since the 15th century, escorts us to a tasting room at the back of a nondescript building. No fancy dog and pony show here, just the serious business of growing grapes and making wine.
Most afternoons a bike ride or stroll is in order. Let’s face it, tantalizing four-course, haute cuisine dinners served by candlelight are giving me a little attitude—and apparently my pants are shrinking.
Our remaining days continue at this languid pace: cell phones and watches abandoned, to-do lists a thing of the past. In short order we have become masters of the art of slowing down. The only question left is how soon can we return.