I spent the night in a room that was once full of sugar beets.
Drifting in through the small open window above my bed is the sound of ducks circling in search of breakfast. Soon, little white furry legs will scuttle past the window – Teddy, the barge dog, out for his constitutional – and the smell of fresh coffee will seep under the door from the galley. I know I can scramble up on deck with my camera and notebook, take some shots and a quick sketch of the mist on the river before the sun burns it off, but the bed is warm, and we were up late last night, lingering over a bottle of premier cu wine from nearby Chablis, lovely stinky local cheese and old stories from school days.
This is morning on the Nooit Volmaakt, a restored Dutch barge that once transported sugar beets along the waterways and is now owned by two Canadians from Victoria, Mary Koyl and Marc Pakenham, and their dog, Teddy. Over our first bottle of wine, we discovered that the skipper, my husband and I were undergrads at the same university at the same time long ago.
Together, we drifted along the canals and rivers southwest of Paris.
Touring on a barge is one of the most personal and intimate ways to explore Europe. The Nooit Voolmakt is only one of many barges that offer trips through the less populous areas of England, France, Germany, Italy and other countries. The small size allows passengers to indulge in their own personal interests while sailing through historic routes that are still navigable – canals that once served as the superhighways for commerce, opening trade routes that would become the foundation on which the Industrial Revolution would be built. Those canals and waterways still wind past villages, under stone bridges and straight through the bucolic farmlands of old Europe.
Barge cruises allow guests time to do what they love best. I am a food writer and an amateur artist, so the twin pleasures of time spent on deck with a mug of hot tea, continually replenished by Mary, and daily visits to markets, food shops and fine restaurants, were perfect for me.
In Moret, we moored just below the town bridge that French impressionist painter Alfred Sisley painted in the early 1890s, little changed today. I walked and cycled where Sisley and his friends did, ogled his house and sat in the main square in front of a pretty storefront that was signed, “Les Amis D'Alfred Sisley.” Perhaps he had no friends left as no one was ever there to open the shop. But no matter. This town, this itinerary, was ideally matched to my interests.
Other barge itineraries can inspire the photographer, the cyclist, the wine lover or the historian. Antiquarians can troll through a vide-grenier, French for empty attic, the Gallic version of a garage sale.
For the travelling gardener, this spring is perfect for a barge trip: to witness one of the more spectacular floral displays in the world. Holland will explode with tulips, hyacinths, irises, scillas, crocuses, muscari – it is visual fireworks that everyone must see at least once in a lifetime, and one of the best seats for this show is on a barge. The canals snake through fields that in spring are striated with bands of vivid colour created by thousands and thousands of flowers. The expanses of intense colour, in fields that unfold like well designed quilts, is a wonder unlike any other.
Many of the barge cruises include bike tours, as the terrain is flat and the scenery compact. If you bike along the paths through fields of flowers, expect to be ambushed by the perfumes of narcissus or hyacinth.
Some of the tulip barge tours stop at Aalsmeer for the flower auction and almost all of them, in April and May, include a visit to the Keukenhof, Holland's famous spring gardens in the town of Lisse, the centre of Holland's bollenstreek (bulb district). In this 32-hectare garden, bulb growers display their best and newest along pathways lined with acres of manicured gardens. There are more than seven million tulip bulbs planted here each year and the growers strive to outdo each other in the originality and impact of their displays. Blue muscari spill like rivers, daffodils grow in geometric designs, blue and white flowers mimic Delft pottery. I spent a happy afternoon drawing the antique tulips in one small historic garden, bulbs whose history stretched back to the early 1500s and whose story is the precursor to Europe's bourse (stock exchange) and North America's stock market.
While the Netherlands in spring is always a pleasure, this year is special: Floriade is on. It's the world's largest international floral show and gardening exposition, held once every 10 years. It's the Olympic Games of flowers for gardeners around the world and runs from April to October.
Ten years ago, I wandered Floriade for a whole day and didn't see it all. From landscaped display gardens to flower features to environmental innovations, there was something to beguile or inspire every few steps. You can even buy the latest hybrid bulbs for your garden. (I bought an amaryllis bulb the size of a large grapefruit, which produced eye-popping blooms that summer.)
For this sixth Floriade, held in Venlo, near the Belgian border, several barge cruises are scheduling shore excursions. Sure, visitors can do independent trips from several centres in Europe, but one of the best ways, leisurely and easily, is as a day trip from your barge.
For, instead of design details, the emphasis on a barge cruise is on the quality of the experiences, the interaction between guests and crew, and the food, which is often larded with local specialties. It is, essentially, a slow meander down a lovely waterway with many seductive reasons to stop along the way.
There are still mornings when I wake up and imagine I can hear Teddy and the ducks. I can almost see the reflections in the water, and I wonder where Mary is with my tea.
IF YOU GO
Dutch flower cruises
European Waterways runs barge tours in several countries. Spring flower tours in Holland aboard the 12-passenger Panache, above, will include trips to Floriade. Prices start at $4,690 a person and include all meals, wines, excursions and local transfers. 877-879-8808; gobarging.com
The Barge Company runs the Magna Carta, an eight-passenger barge that cruises the Thames, including Hampton Court and stops at the Chelsea Flower Show. From $3,000 a person for six nights. www.bargecompany.com
River cruise lines such as Avalon Waterways, Azamara Cruises, Scenic Tours and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises have added excursions to Floriade.
Bike and Barge
Bike & Barge Holland offers 13-night cruises with bike excursions, including tours to Keukenhof Garden and the tulip fields, for $3,195. bikebarge.com
Van Gogh tours include six days of barging and cycling from Amsterdam to Bruges, Belgium, from $1,14. vangoghtours.com
Timing is everything if you want to see the tulips at their best. A late winter or early spring can shift the blooming time. The most dependable time to see the flower display in full flush is mid to late April. Head to the Keukenhof Gardens from March 22 to May 20 for a concentrated floral hit. keukenhof.nl
Floriade runs from April 5 to Oct. 7. Full-day tickets are $33 (€25) and can be ordered online. floriade.com
For more information, visit Holland.com.
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