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by Joe Harkins - Mar 31, 99
"Barge" was once an unappealing word, sounding vaguely like the name of a bodily function. But that perception is rapidly changing as travelers return with tales of floating in luxury along tranquil canals at three to five miles per hour on a private barge charter or a barge hotel.
Before the invention of the steam engine made railroads practical, thousands of miles of canals criss-crossed Europe and North America. Gracefully arched aqueducts extended canals across valleys and even above rivers, just like a highway interchange. Farm produce and trade goods moved safely and inexpensively between sources and markets. Although pulling the vessels by horses from parallel towing paths was slow, it was the first innovation in mass freight transportation since the invention of the wheel.
Once trains and trucks arrived, most canals were abandoned. Many were plowed over and filled in. But portions remained viable. In recent years those canals have found exciting new life as the perfect way to see a countryside and encounter its culture.
The appeal is well explained at English canal-hobbyist Mike Stevens' web site. His emphasis is on the "narrowboat", a craft peculiar to England's older, smaller waterways. Like those boats, his idiosyncratic narrative runs at a casual but steady pace, changing direction to explore a backwater of an idea or stopping on a whim to enjoy the moment.
The entire British system of canals is facing a massive salvage operation, now that the government and various organizations such as Waterway Partners are recognizing its irreplaceable tourism value. The British Waterways site is scheduled to be updated this June but this older version provides a text rich overview. The "links to related sites" even reference US canals although we have very little barge tourism here in North America.
Happier news is presented with great personal charm by Inland Waterway Holiday Cruises. The beauty of the region, as seen in copious photos, is remarkable and the operators come through as warm hosts. In a recent exchange of email they promised, "Particularly for guests from overseas, we try and give a taste of 'the real England / Wales.' We will take guests to traditional country pubs, or stop at small villages, where they can meet local people, quite different from staying in big London hotels where every one else is from the U.S. too." They'll send you a list of (surprisingly low) prices and available dates if you ask via email through the site.
Highly sophisticated canal barging is the specialty of Chicago's Barge Lady. Now in her thirteen season, her "inventory" includes just about every major pleasure barge in service virtually anywhere in the world.
In a recent phone interview she advised, "This is busiest season the industry has ever had. Many boats and routes are solidly booked. But we still have availability through spring and summer if you are flexible on dates and locations." To speed things up she suggests calling toll-free (800-880-0071).
While Barge Lady's site is clearly that of a passionate expert focused on personal service, Premier Selections has a more sophisticated web presentation. The slow download imposed by the attractive photos is worth the wait. Premier also offers separate or integrated Great Train Tours, a subject we'll explore in a future column.
Barging In Europe is a similarly polished site but it runs much faster. However, that probably is because too many of the promised services (ship details, maps, newsletter, etc.) are not actually delivered. The only justification for a visit is the brief list of interesting books on the subject.
Additional online resources (and some enticing last minute bargain prices) can be found if you visit the excellent Le Boat guide and query them via email. Brokers, agents and owners can also be found at France by Barge, B&V Associates and Cruise For Fun. Small Ship Cruises may be overdue for a cosmetic makeover but is one of the more comprehensive resources.
If you visit all those sites, note that not one owner-operator has named a vessel after Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen who gave Marc Antony the barge ride of his life. Nor, do any honor Liz Taylor who did the same for Richard Burton.
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