The Hotel Barge (fr. Péniche Hôtel) came into being following the decline in commercial and freight carriage on the canals of Europe. Many working barges have been converted into floating hotels of varying degrees of luxury. This trend began in the 1960s and has now grown into a network of hotel barges operating on the canals and rivers of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK.
Pleasure cruising on European canals has a long history, and purpose-built boats offering accommodation have operated on these waterways since the 19th century, most notably the fleet on the Göta Canal in Sweden. The conversion of regular barges into passenger vessels offering simple cabin facilities dates back in England to 1923, when the Pauline, a Thames barge, was fitted out to ply on the Norfolk Broads. The Inland Waterways Association Festival of Boats and Arts in Market Harborough in 1950 featured Wanderer and Wayfarer, a pair of narrow boats which had been converted to provide accommodation, and in the following years several more such boats appeared on the English canals. The English canals were narrow, though, and only limited facilities could be provided.
Almost 200 years before canal vacations became popular, Thomas Jefferson, then ambassador to France before he became the third President of the United States, had written to a friend about the Canal du Midi in southern France. He said, "You should not think of returning to America without taking this tour I have taken." The idea of repeating in France what was proving successful in England by converting large barges (i.e. barges generally designed to fit into the locks of canals with minimal remaining volume) began in 1966 with the Barge Palinurus, converted from a carrying coal barge called the 'Ponctuel' and captained by Richard Parsons on the canals of the Burgundy region of France.This barge was equipped to take 22 passengers, with only one bath, two showers and two toilets, and cruised on the River Yonne and the Canal de Bourgogne (Burgundy Canal).
The popularity, particularly amongst American clients, of such cruises was improved by the American writer Emily Kimborough and her book Floating Island published in 1968, about her experiences aboard the Palinurus. The high standards of accommodation expected by American clients rapidly drove the levels of luxury hotel barges upwards. In 1969, Richard Parsons teamed up with Guy Bardet to launch Continental Waterways, a company that eventually ran 15 hotel barges in France.
Nearly five decades later, the Palinurus is still cruising, albeit with greater comfort and now called the Luciole. The market for luxury vacations on floating hotels has grown even further, with over 300 cabins and 70 hotel barges available on French canals alone. In recent years, the market has seen significantly increased custom from British, Australian, New Zealander and Russian clients, equalling those from the United States. This might be in part due to American sensitivities post-9/11, post-Iraq and for economic reasons.
Luxury hotel barges have been cruising in Europe for over 30 years and are felt by many of their clients to provide an enjoyable, relaxing and luxurious way of experiencing countryside scenery, towns and villages. The great majority of boats are to be found in France, but there are also hotel barges operating in Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. The French 'Classic' routes (Burgundy, the Loire Valley and the Canal du Midi) are the busiest, with the most hotel barges, as well as an appreciable number of hire boats and private pleasure craft. But hotel barges are to be found working almost all of France's waterways, including the quieter and lesser-known canals, such as the Canal du Nivernais. Most waterways (rivers and canals) remain unspoilt and key attractions of hotel barging are peace and quiet, comfort and relaxation in attractive surroundings.
Hotel barges normally travel for part of the day between town ports or more informal moorings. Most cruise on Europe's extensive canal network (8,500 km in France alone) but a few visit or operate on rivers, with varied itineraries. Many barges will also provide excursions to visit local sights, for example vineyards, restaurants, artisan workshops, markets or castles, most according to a pre-arranged schedule and others according to the wishes and interests of guests. Most barges provide bicycles for guests for more informal explorations.
Hotel barge types
Hotel barges vary widely in size, configuration, the scale and quality of their accommodation, and the standard and amount of catering. The largest barges take 24 guests, the smallest just four. All hotel barges have a high staff to guest ratio, but the smaller barges typically provide more personal attention and possibly comfort. A few hotel barges (six or eight guests) are 'static' and remain at their one place of mooring. A unique proposition is offered by one professional working barge, which offers comfortable modern accommodation for two - and the opportunity to see a 'real barge' in action.
Regulations and hotel barges
Hotel barges have to comply with a number of legal requirements, including those in France being scrutinised by the Commission de Surveillance inspectorate. The barge has to have a qualified pilot in control that has the following credentials:
- A 'GP' Grande Plaisance licence (this has replaced the former 'PP' Péniche Plaisance licence).
This tests the pilot's thorough knowledge of waterways regulations and practicalities, together with an examination of barge handling skills. The test can only be carried out at a recognised school.
- A 'Passager' licence (Certificat de Capacité commercial licence with a “Passager” endorsement).
This licence to carry paying guests is obtainable only after four years of practical barge operation experience.
- An 'ASP' Attestation Spéciale Passagers.
At least one person (skipper or crew) must have this certificate, which requires knowledge of proper equipment operation, safety procedures and first aid.
The vessel itself will be certified for certain category of waterway, ranging from the straightforward to major rivers such as the Seine or Rhone to tidal coastal waters. It will be required to have appropriate insurance cover and be surveyed at regular intervals.
Catering and facilities
Some hotel barges just offer bed and breakfast; others also provide lunch, full board, or more. At least one hotel barge offers self-catering. Five Star barges have a qualified and experienced chef on board who can provide cuisine of an internationally high standard, from daily fresh local ingredients - together with local wines and spirits. Many clients say that they choose a barge hotel for the catering. Some barges - particularly the smaller owner-operated ones - offer kosher, halal, vegetarian, vegan, zero starch or low carbohydrate diets.
Hotel barges provide luxurious guest rooms (cabins), with en-suite bathrooms. They will normally also include a saloon (lounge) and dining room, and an open sun deck. Some barges also feature jacuzzis, hot tubs and small plunge pools on deck (although these are not always well used by guests, being somewhat exposed to the public gaze). Many barges, especially those operating in southern France, are air-conditioned. Many hotel barges provide mobile internet access.
Booking a hotel barge
Individuals may choose the traditional route for selecting a hotel barge - obtaining services of a specialist broker. Often based in the USA, but with a number in Britain and France, barge representatives carry a selection of boats. The best representatives will know their portfolio of barges very well, having personally inspected them, understanding what they offer guests and consequently able to advise potential clients which would be best suited for their vacation and to manage the booking process.
Larger hotel barges are booked by the room, for the cruise itinerary and the cruising hotel is shared with other guests. Smaller boats are usually chartered as a whole, meaning friends or family can share the experience together as a private party.
In recent years, as is the case throughout the travel - and other - sectors, it has become increasingly easy to find information, make comparisons, make enquiries and make bookings via the internet. Potential clients can identify and make contact direct with potential hotel barges, or barge representatives, many of which will be owner-operated.
Direct contact with barge owners or operators can prove an excellent 'litmus test' of the operator's commitment to customer service, measured by speed of response, efficiency and interest in accurately understanding, and meeting, client needs and delivering the personal attention that is a significant ingredient in a successful hotel barge vacation.
However, the experience and knowledge of a barge representative can be invaluable when making comparisons between barges, or for discovering possible cruise options that may not have even been initially considered. In addition, individuals can receive the added benefit of reserving pre- and post-cruise shore excursions through a barge representative. Available as an optional add-on, guests can select from a wide range of unique and authentic independent tours and packages through Europe.
Some hotel barges
- La Belle Epoque
- La Dolce Vita
- La Renaissance
- L'Art de Vivre
- Magna Carta
- Saint Louis
- Scottish Highlander
(1) France Today Magazine Article "Once Upon a French Canal" 
- Hotel Barges in France Directory of hotel barges, fleet operators and brokers
- Barge-related regulations
- Go Barging Fleet operator's website
- France Cruises Broker's website
- The Barge Company Broker's website
- The Barge Connection Broker's website
- Barge Nilaya Barge Owner's website
- Barge Luciole Barge Owner's website