The waterways of France are an institution in the world of travel and tourism and no one can deny the appeal of French canal holidays. But how, when and why did the idea of pleasure on a barge come about? |
The History of Barging for Pleasure in France
Richard Parsons is the definitive authority on the concept of canal holidays and it is believed that he was responsible for introducing the idea. As a boat owner himself in the 1960s, when he was also a reporter for Reuters, he was very interested in life on water. It wasn’t, however, until his brother lured him into buying an old coal barge and transferring it to Dunkirk with the sole purpose of turning it into a sailing hotel, that he saw the business potential.
Innovative it may have been, but the project took work. Other boats available for holiday rental were already on the market but the idea of a barge was completely new, and making an old canal barge look pretty was quite a task. The boat - named Palinurus, after the mythological Roman helmsman who was in charge of the ship of Aeneas - was fitted out with room for 20 guests.
At the time, luxury was not at the forefront of the concept and barge holidays were more about fun holiday time with families and friends enjoying walking, biking and a novel way of seeing the countryside.
Beginning their cruising life on the Canal de Bourgonge and the Yonne River, the brothers had a lucky break when they sent a brochure to the London Times. On the back of the brochure a story was published and the profile of French canal holidays was raised.
The Destination Appeal
Choosing France was clever as the combination of food, wine, and great countryside provided the ideal package. British tourists were dawn by the chance to see a different side to France and Parsons made sure that his guests made use of local activities, visited attractions and drank coffee in the village cafes. This, coupled with a great chef on board who took French culinary service very seriously, made the whole experience of French canal holidays unique.
At first commercial traffic vied for space on the canal, but today the scene is very different. Boats are marketed as luxury and the range of clients has become much broader. Thanks to Emily Kimbrough, an American writer who chartered the Palinurus with influential friends and wrote a book about her experience, the idea was presented to Americans, who still today make up the biggest portion of the French canal holidays market.
Americans, however, have high standards and barges increasingly became more luxurious. The popularity of these holidays soared and in order to keep up, together with Guy Bardet, Parsons launched Continental Waterways, which is still thriving (although it is now owned by American Grand Circle Line). Other companies now exist too, all providing characterful barges and wonderful European canal holidays.
Burgundy remains the most famous place for canal holidays, but these days you can barge in any number of canals and rivers in France and indeed Europe. France has more than 60 luxury floating hotels that accommodate various numbers of people. All offer relaxing, high-class holidays with professional staff, helpful crews and knowledgeable guides. There are so many options for anyone considering booking one of the many French canal holidays, and from where and when to what you want the holiday to focus on, you are spoilt for choice.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury French canal holidays and a range of other cruises in Europe. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.
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