In recent years, an unexpected -- and rather inelegant-- word has entered the vocabulary for charming European vacations: barge.
Barge rentals range from the do-it-your self approach (called "self-catering" in Europe), to pampered trips with fine wines and gourmet meals laid on. Often, bicycles are included in the holiday, so you can explore the countryside near the canals or rivers you're on.
France is one of the most popular locations for barging; the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg,parts of Germany, and the Thames in England are popular too. Barging season in Europe runs from late March to October.
For the budget-minded, the cost of a small self-catered barge is roughly equivalent to renting a cottage. Even a small boat will have a shower, bedroom, living area, and kitchen.
But, you may ask, can I handle a barge? The theory behind self-catered barging is that "if you can drive, you can pilot a barge". Allowable speeds for barges are very low -- say, 5 mph-- which makes self-driving safe. Your barge rental will include a quick 'how-to" lesson including how to navigate locks if that's on your route.
Of course there are many other options, for barge trips where the logistics are all handled for the guests. At the luxury end of the spectrum, check European Waterways which promises "floating country inns" with tapestries and French antique furniture, spa-pool, and air conditioning.
*photo courtesy of European Waterways
Friends who've tried a barging vacation have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and especially liked biking to local villages and markets.
Tip: do get instructions about handling river locks.