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Monday,  May 20, 2024 8:09 AM 

On Location: What’s it like on board a "péniche?" PAX cozies up with CroisiEurope & 5Continents in France

On Location: What’s it like on board a "péniche?" PAX cozies up with CroisiEurope & 5Continents in France
A péniche is a barge that navigates canal locks. (CroisiEurope)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

If you had asked me six months ago what a “péniche” was, I would have guessed it to be some kind of decadent French dessert. 

Oui, my French needs work. I later learned that the word, in fact, represents a delightfully exclusive way to see France – from the comfort of a pint-sized vessel, no less.

A péniche (pronounced pey-neesh) is essentially a motorized barge that navigates canal locks, and for travellers who prefer the slow lane, it’s a relaxing and convenient way to experience local life in France – in a style that, perhaps, mass market river cruising can’t replicate.      

PAX wound up on a péniche last December, by chance, while on assignment in Strasbourg in northeastern France during the holidays.

We were in town to participate in a four-night Christmas Market cruise on the Rhine River with CroisiEurope, one of France’s oldest river cruise lines. The family-owned cruise line, which has been operating since 1976, runs a hub in Strasbourg and the plan was to arrive one day early so we could spend time exploring the historic town. 

READ MORE: On Location: What’s it like sailing with CroisiEurope? PAX joins agents & 5Continents on the Rhine

Strasbourg is nuts during the holiday season. The city is home to France’s oldest Christmas market – dating back to 1570 – and at peak times in December, it can attract up to two million people. Tourists, from all over, who’ll fill the old town’s cobblestone streets to sip mulled wine under twinkling lights strung around trees and marvel at half-timbered houses lined with teddy bears and nutcrackers.

Strasbourg is France's Christmas capital. (Pax Global Media)

Seeing France’s “Capital of Christmas,” as it’s known, was a splendid idea…until it came time to booking a hotel. Unless you’re willing to pay an exorbitant amount, or spend the night in nearby Germany, finding decent accommodations in Strasbourg, during the ho-ho holidays, can be tricky. Rooms fill up quickly. 

With few options available, CroisiEurope – with the help of 5Continents, which sells the brand in Canada – offered up a brilliant Plan B: instead of a hotel, why not spend a night on one of our péniches?

Canal cruising

Enter the péniche. CroisiEurope has six of them. Each vessel has just 11 cabins and holds a maximum of 22 passengers.

Think of it as a floating boutique hotel, staffed with a personal crew and chef, that glides along France’s scenic waterways through calm canal systems flanked by towpaths, into dreamy locales that big ships can’t access.

CroisiEurope's MS Danièle. (CroisiEurope)

CroisiEurope operates canal cruises in France’s Burgundy, Alsace, Provence, Champagne and Oise Valley regions, where fresh bread and pastries, fine cheeses and divine wines await. The excursions, like the food and drink on board, are included. So are bikes.

For the traveller who’s been there, done that, and enjoys flexibility, it’s something new to consider.

Barges, the self-driving kind (which CroisiEurope doesn’t sell), are popular on the Canal du Midi in Southern France. A little too popular, maybe, which is why CroisiEurope avoids this route altogether, focusing more on regions that still showcase the best of France, minus the boat traffic.

The péniche is the “mini-me” of river ships, and as an alternative to a hotel – even if for one night – I was intrigued. 

All aboard the MS Madeleine

In the company of Michele Rauzon, 5Continents’ director of sales for North America, we arrived in Strasbourg at night, hailed a taxi and made our way to our mooring point: a parkside riverbank, some 20 minutes from the city centre.

The Canal de la Marne au Rhin. It connects the Marne and Rhine rivers. Here, we boarded the MS Madeleine, a cocoon of a ship, built in 2014, measuring just 38.5 meters long and 5.07 meters wide, with two decks.

The MS Madeleine on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin. (Pax Global Media)

All of CroisiEurope’s péniches are named after family members of the line’s executive team, we later learned. “Madeleine” is the mother of one of CroisiEurope’s directors.

Lit up with neon green, blue and fuchsia interior lighting, the barge, at night, looked like a floating discotheque. Inside, however, it was more like a designer houseboat, decorated with elegant grey furnishings with pops of yellows.

As we entered the vessel’s “lobby” (a lounge with a sectional sofa lining the perimeter), a team of smiling crew members (there was just six) greeted us, insisting that they carry our suitcases to our cabins.

In fact, at embarkment and dismemberment times, we were instructed not to carry anything. The crew did all the lifting.

Inside the MS Madeleine. (Pax Global Media)

This, mes amis, is where good service begins, and that level of attentiveness remained consistent throughout the duration of our short, all-inclusive stay.

For us, it wasn’t a normal stay. The barge was on the last night of week-long cruise that had been stopping near Christmas Markets and landmarks in the Alsace region, serving up local gastronomic must-haves, like flammekueche, along the way.

We were crashing the party, filling two cabins that weren’t being used. The manifest of mostly elderly French passengers weren’t quite sure what to make of the two chatty Canadians that randomly appeared on board (on a vessel this small, any change to the environment will stand out), but they welcomed us nonetheless.

Two cabin beds on the MS Madeleine. (Pax Global Media)

The crew showed us to our cabins, which were located one floor below, downstairs. With windows just above the water level, the accommodations were small, measuring nine square metres. Mine had two beds.

Space was tight, but cozy. It had the essentials: bathroom, shower, towels, air conditioning, TV and electrical outlets. For an experience built around socializing and excursions, it’s all you need.

My six-foot-one stature, though, was a little too big for the bed. When lying down, fully stretched, my feet hung over the edge. Then again, I don’t fit in most places in Europe, where everything is smaller by North American standards. The bed was comfy. The length wasn’t a deal breaker.

Tight, but cozy. Accommodations on board the MS Madeleine. (Pax Global Media)

As I unpacked, I noticed that the MS Madeleine was moving now. Off we went into the night, slowly gliding under bridges and motoring past other dwellers of the canal, like herds of swans.

The waterway may as well have been named Swan Alley. There were so many swans.

The barge isn’t fast. It reaches a maximum speed of just 12 kilometres an hour. For people who can’t handle turbulence on water, a péniche is the way to go. Most times, you don’t even realize you’re moving.

Cocktail hour in the lounge on board the MS Madeleine. (Pax Global Media)

A world of French cuisine

Beyond its homey reception area and lounge, where there’s a bar, the MS Madeleine has one restaurant, as well as an outdoor jacuzzi on deck two.

The pièce de résistance, I’d argue, was the food.

At dinner, over a light-bodied Pinot Noir, we dove into a world of French cuisine courtesy of Chef Clément Marie, who prepared a braised beef so tender that it flaked apart in our mouths, and a Coquilles Saint-Jacques, a rich scallop dish with creamy sauce, breadcrumbs and melted cheese.

Tackling a Coquilles Saint-Jacques aboard the MS Madeleine. (Pax Global Media)

The latter was a new one for me. The classic, casserole-like dish was served enclosed in a tightly-locked seashell, which I, much to the amusement of a French family sitting one table over, couldn’t crack open no matter how hard I tried.

As I fumbled around with my fork and knife, one of the daughters in the family, perhaps taking pity on me, wandered over and politely explained, in broken English, how to open the dish and eat a Coquilles Saint-Jacques.

In a dining room with less than 10 tables, my flub turned a few heads, but the daughter saved my supper, proving that a meal in France isn’t French until it is “partagé” – shared – with others.

A private péniche

We disembarked the next morning, full of laughs and fond memories of our night on the péniche. To think we originally would have stayed in a hotel. On land! How boring!

The takeaway, for me – putting myself in the shoes of a travel advisor – was how cool it would be to charter a barge, and experience the joie de vivre (“the joy of living”) in France with a private group.

From left: Michael Pihach, managing editor, PAX News; Michele Rauzon, director of sales North America, 5Continents, experience a CroisiEurope péniche. (Pax Global Media)

Small group travel is a pandemic-era trend that hasn’t slowed, and CroisiEurope’s péniche, for all of its exclusivity and premium-level service, is an answer to the demand.

Itineraries can also be customized based on interest. “We once hosted a group of women that had a passion for knitting,” Sarah Lamiscarre, an international sales manager at CroisiEurope, later told us. “We did a specialty cruise for them.”

The lounge on board the MS Madeleine. (Pax Global Media)

5Continents FAM this spring

In Canada, péniche cruising may not be well known, but it’s gaining traction in trade circles.

This spring, 5Continents – which creates tailor-made journeys, and only works with the trade – is hosting FAMs for Canadian travel advisors on board a CroisiEurope péniche.

The seven-day cruise, with two departures, will show agents exactly what it’s like to experience France’s canals on a boutique-style barge.

As for that Christmas Market voyage on the Rhine, our main assignment, it was a marvellous introduction to CroisiEurope’s river cruising world, from its family-style dining to its affordable prices. (Click here to read all about it).

But a private canal cruise through rustic France on an upscale barge? That’s an itinerary I’d like to take a closer look at.

Next time I’m in Strasbourg, don’t worry about finding me a hotel. 

I’ll take the péniche.

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