Spending a relaxing week cruising France’s Burgundy Canal

By Mary Beltran
This article appears on page 6 of the February 2014 issue.
The beautiful grounds of L’Abbaye de Fontenay.

by Mary Beltran, Associate Editor

After a busy year that involved a move into a new house and a new job, my husband, Cesar, and I were really looking forward to a relaxing vacation. In April 2013 we got just that when we took a 7-day cruise along France’s Burgundy Canal with UK-based European Waterways (phone, in the US, 877/879-8808)

On the canal

The canal runs along the fertile Ouche river valley, and our cruise aboard the 12-passenger L’Impressionniste traveled from the town of Fleurey-sur-Ouche to La Bussière. The view from the boat was of green fields with sheep and white Charolais cows munching away. 

There were small towns, winding lanes, blooming orchards and, every few miles or so, a strategically perched château or a small village tucked safely up on a hillside. The canal banks were lined with poplar trees loaded with clusters of mistletoe. 

Since we were there in April, most of the trees were still bare or had just hints of the first green spring leaves, but the orchards were in bloom, and daffodils and crocuses were popping up all over. 

I loved the slow pace of L’Impres­sion­niste as it moved along the canal. The frequent pauses to pass through the locks (18 in all) meant I could stroll leisurely alongside the boat as it traveled from lock to lock. It was easy to hop on and off whenever the boat was at a lock. 

On a couple of occasions, Cesar took a bike (provided free of charge) and went out with some of the other passengers to ride around on the quiet roads and check out some of the villages we passed along the way. 

Off the water

Each day, we were offered morning or afternoon excursions, with wine tasting at vineyards or visits to towns and markets, historic locations and gardens. Two minivans would transport passengers away from the valley floor and up to where the famous vineyards of Burgundy flourish. 

The deck of L’Impressioniste framed by blossoming trees.

The schedule was very flexible, and if you wanted to sleep in or stay on board and relax, the crew was happy to have you aboard. 

If you had a specific location you wished to visit or a different type of activity that you were interested in, the staff would try to set it up for you.

The list of preplanned excursions (included in the cruise cost) appealed to us, so we followed along and had a great time. Among the activities I liked best was the trip to the Clos de Vougeot winery (Clos de Vougeot, Bourgogne; phone 03 80 62 86 09). 

It was a sunny afternoon, and the extensive vineyards stretched out over the hillsides. From the winery, I looked down over acres of grapevines, still bare of leaves, spreading out as far as I could see. We wandered into the cool, dark wine cellar for a tasting.

The morning walking tour we took in central Dijon on market day was fun and good exercise. Our guide from the boat gave us a quick tour and history lesson before turning us loose to roam around and shop at the street stalls and the permanent indoor market. I loved the spice stall, with bags and bags full of fragrant, colorful spices.

Memorable moments

One morning a few of us made a special side trip to Noyers-sur-Serein, a beautiful village that was not too touristy. There we had a terrific, long lunch at Le Restaurant les Millésimes (14, place de l’Hôtel de Ville)

I started with a selection of patés, followed by an entrée of chicken and finishing with a crème brûlèe, all for only 25 ($34). The quiet courtyard and spring air had us lingering over our wine and cheese. 

Mary Beltran and friends savoring lunch at Le Restaurant les Millésimes.

I loved the visit to L’Abbaye de Fontenay (Montbard; phone 33 [0] 3 80 92 15 00), a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a lovely old church, with fountains and gardens surrounding the well-preserved abbey buildings. 

I was tickled to find the small corner garden under a huge old oak where the final scene in the 1990 movie “Cyrano de Bergerac” was filmed. In my imagination, I could see the defiant white plume of his hat glowing in the shaded garden.

In Beaune we visited the wine caves of the Bouchard Père et Fils headquarters (15 rue de Château; phone +33 [0] 3 80 24 80 45)

Deep down in the cool darkness, below an old fortress, there were more than two million bottles of fine aged wine squirreled away in racks covered with mold and dust. The modern plant produces more than three million bottles a year, and the tasting room upstairs gave us ample room at the counter to test some of the less-ancient vintages. 

The boat

Life aboard Le Impressionniste was very comfortable. There are six cabins, and ours, located toward the bow, had a queen bed with drawers underneath, plus a bookcase, a closet and a bedside table. The lighting was good, with lamps over the headboard — a plus for those of us who like to read at night. 

The bathroom was fairly roomy, but the shower was tricky to get into. The wide glass door opened into the shower, and you had to wedge yourself into the corner to get the door closed again once you were inside. But there was plenty of hot water and big towels. 

Both the streetside markets and the massive indoor markets in Dijon were filled with produce.

Each cabin had its own heating/air-conditioning unit, so we could set our preferred temperature. The portholes opened up for some fresh air, but we had to remember to close them during the day when the boat sailed through the locks. 

The main public area had comfy chairs and a large sofa across from a fully stocked open bar at one end plus, at the other end of the room, a large dining table. Outlets were available to plug in our electronics, but don’t expect to use the WiFi. It was available only in a few places while docked at night, and even then the connections were very sporadic. I think my husband was able to send an email on only one evening.

The outside deck had a large table with comfortable chairs, where I enjoyed sitting during the daytime to take in the sights and write in my journal. The crew provided cold water and sodas and, on cooler mornings, hot drinks like cocoa, coffee or tea. 

Because it was early spring, the weather was mixed, with some cool mornings that warmed up to sunny afternoons, two chilly, overcast days with brisk winds and a couple of nights of rain.

Cruise cuisine

Among the outstanding aspects of this cruise were the food and the wine. The onboard chef prepared lunches and dinners that were incredible! A dark, intensely flavored onion soup followed by perfectly cooked lamb chops with creamy rosemary potatoes and steamed vegetables and a poached pear with mascarpone ice cream was just one of the dinners I savored. 

At each meal we shared bottles of two or three types of Burgundy wines. A cheese plate filled with local specialties concluded each dinner. 

The staff gave us detailed descriptions of the wine and cheese, explaining some of the subtleties of flavors that would be developed by the pairing of the wines and cheeses with the food for that meal. 

The Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune, a former hospital, now a museum, with its distinctive pattern of roof tiles common to Burgundy.

We were served a wide variety of meals throughout the week, with entrées of quail, veal, fish, chicken, beef, escargot, scallops, shrimp, ham and rabbit. The chef was able to accommodate the vegetarians on board with some marvelous dishes made just for them. 

The menus all featured local, fresh foods prepared in the kitchen just a door away from our table. 

This was the first cruise of the season for this boat and its crew, and there were a few glitches. About half of the staff was new to the vessel (and/or new to the route), which meant they were still learning the routines. One of the guides for our day trips was still reading his guidebooks and boning up on the facts for the locations we visited. 

There were also some minor schedule confusions that required extra phone calls and van trips to make sure we all ended up at the right places on time, but I’m pretty sure that later in the season the cruises went more smoothly. 

Because the boat was small and the schedule was pretty relaxed, the mealtimes flexed a bit, depending on when everyone got back on board after their excursions. For a few people who were used to eating early in the evening, this was a bit of a problem, but usually the crew could provide a light snack for them, and the dinners were always worth the wait. 

I posed a bit of a puzzle for the wait staff at first. I’m not able to drink alcohol (which was unimagin­able to the young waitress pouring), but after the first couple of meals I was given a pitcher of water and the wine glasses were removed from my setting. 

Our waitress even made me some “virgin” versions of the predinner drinks we had with our appetizers. Luckily, my husband was able to be the “designated drinker” and enjoy the various wines served. 

The details

Prices for the 2014 Burgundy canal cruise are $4,950 per person, double occupancy, for a standard stateroom (shoulder season) and $5,690 per person during peak season. 

Cesar and I took an extra day in Paris pre- and post-cruise. European Waterways uses Hotel Westminster (13 rue de la Paix) as a meeting place to pick up their guests. The price was about 195 ($268) per night, but it was conveniently located near the Opera House and was quiet and pleasant, so we booked our two nights there. 

Spending some time roaming around Paris was a great way to start and end our relaxing trip to France.

Mary Beltran and her husband were guests of European Waterways for the canal cruise portion of their trip.