Cleopatra for a Week: River Barging on the Loire by Jacqueline Harmon Butler

Cleopatra floating on her royal barge along the Nile could not have felt more pampered or majestic than I floating along the canals of the Loire Valley aboard Le Bon Vivant. There I was, happily soaking in the hot tub on the fore deck, sipping a tall cool glass of excellent Champagne, and watching the very blond and handsome Captain Gaetan vacuuming the deck. Ah yes, I thought, this is the life.
Le Bon Vivant began her life as a river barge, carrying grain from one point to another. At a ripe old age she went into retirement and almost extinction. Fortunately she was rescued by New Zealander, Steve Pope and his French partner, Martine Gibelin, who had something else in mind for her. She was stripped to her bare beams inside and out, then lovingly restored, decorated and totally transformed into a floating 5 star hotel, joining her French Waterways sister barges La Bonne Humeur and La Bonne Amie, complete with luxurious bed linens and heated towel racks. Every detail was carefully planned and executed by Steve and Martine. Even the table linens were coordinated with the various sets of fine china, crystal and silverware.

Steve picked me up from my hotel in Paris in the French Waterways minivan. We made a stop at Orly Airport to pick up Martine, along with Kerry and Nita Grinkmeyer, who were going to share my weeklong cruise. The two other couples who were scheduled to join us had to cancel at the last minute because of business problems.
We arrived at Le Bon Vivant, moored just outside Chatillon sur Loire, by mid afternoon and were greeted by the crew of four: Captain Gaetan (French), Chef Mark (English), Deck-hand-maid, server, tour guide Marie-Aurélie (French) and cheese and wine expert, tour guide, maid, server Rachel (English). Chef Mark had prepared a extravagant assortment of small tidbits and served cooled Champagne to welcome us on board.

Steve took us on a tour of the boat, explaining where everything was located: bikes on the fore deck, mineral water in the small refrigerator in the dining room, pausing to show us how to operate the Bose sound system. He pointed out that the bar was stocked with the drinks we had requested on the French Waterways questionnaire. Accommodating a maximum of eight passengers, there were four air-conditioned staterooms below deck, each with private bath, . My room was decorated in a charming blue and yellow Provençal pattern. The queen-sized bed was beautifully made with extravagant sheets and soft down pillows and duvet. The closet was big enough to accommodate my cruise wardrobe, with space for hanging garments and shelves for my other clothing. The well-lit bathroom had an enclosed shower, plenty of counter space for my personal items, a hairdryer and offered an assortment of fluffy yellow towels. The Grinkmeyer’s room had a similar floor plan and was decorated in soft blues and violets.
After showing us around, Steve informed us that Le Bon Vivant was our home for the week and all we had to do was ask for whatever we wanted. Then he and Martine departed, leaving Kerry, Nita and me a little breathless.

Captain Gaetan told us Le Bon Vivant would remain tied up overnight, so we were free until dinnertime to walk into the village and investigate the incredible water bridge. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, and constructed between 1890 and 1894, the Briare Canal Bridge crosses over the Loire River and joins the Seine to the Saône rivers. Looking like something from an old amusement park ride, the middle of the bridge was a continuation of the canal, just wide enough and with water just deep enough to accommodate barges the size of Le Bon Vivant. There were walkways on either side to facilitate strollers, bikers, baby carriages and a multitude of other conveyances.

Chef Mark prepared a sumptuous feast that evening, including a beautifully executed salmon terrine, roast duck accented with a wild currant sauce, followed by a selection of local cheese and finished with compote of fresh berries. Rachel carefully chose a variety of wines to compliment each dish.
Early the next morning, Captain Gaetan gave the order to cast off, and, as we sat eating our breakfast of heavenly fresh croissants and assorted baked goods, slowly navigated the Canal Bridge. Moving at the leisurely slow pace of three knots gave us ample time to enjoy the scenery. The canal wanders through a constantly changing landscape of farmlands, vineyards, forests of huge plane and poplar trees, dotted here and there with an assortment of châteaux and country estates.

Approaching the first écluse, or lock, the crew sprang into action. The lockkeeper slowly cranked open the giant gates to allow water to rise level with the canal on which we were waiting. He closed them again after Gaetan carefully eased the boat into the narrow opening, rather like threading a needle. Then, the gates at the opposite end were opened allowing the water to lower until it was level with the canal on that side. There are numerous locks along the way, some of them automatic but most of them old, even ancient, and had to be hand cranked. At some of the locks, Kerry, Nita and I got off our barge and either walked or rode the bikes along the path that followed alongside the waterway. Everyday around noon we would tie up for the day and enjoy a delicious multi course lunch.

Later, Rachel or Marie-Auriéle would drive us in the mini-van to a local museum, château, vineyard or other places of interest. We visited the famous Musée de la Faïencerie de Gien and fell in love with the delightful assortment of tea sets for children, displayed on tiny painted wood china cabinets. We went to Briare’s renowned enamel and mosaic museum with its extensive button collection and marveled over a black and white mosaic of the Mona Lisa. We trekked through a lovely vineyard in Sancerre, stopping for welcome tastes of deliciously cool wine then packaging a few of the precious bottles for consumption later. Kerry opted to take an early morning hot air balloon ride while Marie-Auriéle and I followed in the mini-van, pausing now and then for me to take photos. Nita chose to sleep in that morning. We made a special trip to le crottin de Chavignol, a famous goat farm where they make the most extraordinary cheese. Late in the day we would return to Le Bon Vivant for a refreshing soak in the hot tub, while sipping champagne and nibbling on small tidbits of caviar covered toasts, fresh vegetables, foie gras and smoked salmon.
The days slowly passed by. The weather was glorious and we spent most of our time and ate almost every meal out on the large deck. We covered a remarkable 65 miles during the 6-day cruise. Most people travel that far in an hour. But the slow pace worked its magic on me and I could feel all the tension and stress of my normal daily life slipping away. Our every need was thought out and met by the crew. The water temperature in the hot tub was lowered. Mark discussed the menus and asked our preference on dishes he suggested. Rachel consulted us on wine choices. My bike was handed over the rail and ready for me when I was. Fresh towels were provided constantly. Gaetan gave me a lesson in navigation. Marie-Auriéle showed me how to assist with the lines at the locks. Wine or water was poured as we drank. A daily list of possible places to visit was presented for our afternoon excursions. Extra water was taken on our mini-van jaunts. Gaetan and Mark even taught me how to play Boules.
On our last night, moored in Montargis, we sat under the stars enjoying another of Marc’s gastronomic extravaganzas. We savored each mouthful of lobster bisque, herb roasted chicken with crisp fingerling potatoes and buttered green beans, followed by an extraordinary selection of cheese and finished with homemade strawberry ice cream And, as usual, a selection of perfectly chosen wines were offered with each course.

We were reluctant to say goodnight, knowing that the next day we would be propelled back into our busy, stressful lifestyles. I wanted to hang on to the moment of total relaxation for a while longer. I found I had gotten quite used to having my every need taken care of and being pampered and feeling like royalty.