Sip back and relax: Exploring the vineyards of Burgundy on a Belmond barge

Maria Mellor hops aboard Fleur de Lys to embrace the slow travel ethos

Having a swimming pool on a barge is no easy feat. With guests and staff on board, the whole thing needs to be kept level – and with what is effectively a huge bowl of water sloshing about, things get a little trickier. Many said it couldn’t be done, but not Gerard Morgan Grenville. He converted a cargo ship into Fleur de Lys, a luxury barge complete with swimming pool that sails the canals of Burgundy in France. Fleur de Lys is one of seven barges owned and operated by Belmond, perhaps more famously known for fabulous hotels and a network of trains.

The vessel was converted by Morgan Grenville in 1986, and then bought by Belmond in 2004. It’s large enough to accommodate a private charter of six guests in its three double rooms, with ample space for the aforementioned swimming pool, a lounge area, dining room and a baby grand piano. A barge trip embodies the slow travel ethos – and travelling at a relaxed pace is pure luxury. I join a sailing to Dijon, each day affording me the opportunity to relax as the world goes by. There’s also plenty of time for adventure as we disembark and explore the bounty of treasures that are on offer in the red wine mecca of Burgundy.

Our guide, Albert, showcases the French countryside from the moment we meet at the train station, and our journey to the barge sees us meander past rapeseed fields of glorious yellow. I quickly witness my first of three rainbows on the trip – unlike the grey and gloomy London I have left behind, France gives rather more hopeful weather at the start of the barging season, which runs from mid-April to mid-October.

First impressions

The barge is moored in the small town of St Jean de Losne when we meet it and I catch my first glimpse of the vessel as the sun throws out its last rays for the day. The pool is already warmed and open for business. Fresh flowers adorn the deck and sit in vases on every table inside. The decor is not the stark, shiny look of modern hotels, but rather feels like someone’s home with antiques dotted throughout. I’m staying in one of the downstairs bedrooms, in a four-poster double bed. The room has a full ensuite with his and hers sinks – it’s a marvel that it all fits on such a vessel, but you are never lacking space on Fleur de Lys. There are six staff, making for a 1:1 ratio of crew to customers.

Calum, the barge’s captain, is intimately familiar with the boat, waterways and locks, having worked on Fleur de Lys for 20 years. His wife, Beverly – who asks us to call her Bev – joined the barge in 2000 as a host. This dynamic duo help to ensure it feels like home, as they have all but made it theirs. “It’s our baby,” says Bev. So proud are they of Fleur de Lys that Bev takes a personal interest in perfecting the barge each season – she was recently responsible for reupholstering the furniture, telling me she chose a lighter colour this time to keep the place bright.

We quickly become acquainted with the rest of the crew – Sorcha, Lucien and our private chef Loreena. At only 24 years old, Loreena crafts dishes with French inspiration and touches of creativity. The menu is handwritten and placed behind ornate antique doors, to be revealed each day. Guests eat a decadent breakfast, lunch and dinner aboard the boat, with one lunch per week held ashore, depending on the planned itinerary. One night we have smoked eel with a fois gras emulsion, Bresse chicken and a chocolate dessert. Another night we have endive and fennel, trout soufflé and an apple tartine. Every night there is a cheese course, with Bev introducing us to local and popular French fromages.

Curated experiences

We also meet Jonathan Foschini, guest experience executive, and Kate Brown, director of operations for Les Bateaux Belmond, the brand’s French river cruise arm. Jonathan’s newly created role is to ensure each group of guests has their needs met, going over the standard itinerary to make adaptations and alterations to suit. In special cases, a guest may be interested in sampling rare Burgundy wines – Jonathan once spent three months wooing a wine merchant to secure two bottles worth €27,000 each. A week’s itinerary is prepared to maximise everything the beautiful Burgundy region has to offer – unsurprisingly, many of these are focused on wine.

As our own trip is shortened to half a week, we squeeze in the winery visits, sampling as many as 13 wines in one day. The expert winemakers take us on tours of their establishments, each bringing their own insight. Charming, family-run winery Maison Drouhin Laroze was founded in 1850 and has since seen six generations work the vineyards, make the wine and sell the products. The cellars – some dating back to the 14th century – smell rich with the sweet fruit of new grapes mixed with layers of past vintages. We visit Maison Champy, founded by a barrel maker in 1720.

Here we eat lunch in a 20,000-litre barrel, turned into a private dining booth, where many distinguished visitors have enjoyed a tasting over the years. The winery’s private chef prepares a three-course menu (plus more cheese, of course), all paired with house wines.

Top tipples

Our final visit is to the quaint town of Beaune, which is like something out of a French fairytale. Our guide Albert decides it’s imperative we see the Hospice de Beaune – a historic hospital with incredible gothic architecture – which turns out to have its own 60 hectares of vineyards producing wine sold in a famous auction on the third Sunday in November. Winery Joseph Drouhin has interesting links with the hospice, which we learn about during a visit. Our guide explains that the winery’s second owner, Maurice Drouhin, donated three acres of vineyards to the hospice after they helped to hide him during the Second World War.

But you don’t have to be a wine aficionado to enjoy a Burgundy sailing as there are plenty of other activities that can be arranged. Bikes are stored on board for you to use at your leisure, and you can play boules or a round of golf. More extravagantly, a hot-air balloon ride can show you the French countryside in a loftier fashion, or conversely you can get low to the ground for some truffle hunting with an expert guide and highly trained dog. Our last night on the boat is tinged with sadness. I don’t want to leave, but the crew make this night special. We dress up for a gala dinner, which starts with a kir royale toast.

My fellow diners and I toast with another Grand Cru, and enjoy white asparagus for starter and duck breast for main course. The dessert is listed on the menu only as ‘dessert maison’, and so we are filled with surprise and delight when the whole crew emerges with glasses of champagne and a meringue cake topped with two bright, flaming sparklers, as they wish us bon voyage for our journey home. This slow travel experience filled up my cup (quite literally), but if I had it my way it would be even slower, and I’d still be on board the marvellous Fleur de Lys.

Belmond’s French fleet

Belmond’s fleet in France, coined Les Bateaux Belmond, consists of seven luxury river vessels. Fleur de Lys is joined on the Burgundy canal network by Amaryllis and Lilas, each of which can accommodate eight passengers. In Provence, the 12-passenger Napoléon is available for private charter or can be bookable by cabin. Four-passenger Alouette sails from Carcassone to Béziers on an exclusive takeover basis, while eight-berth Pivoine takes guests between Avignon and Sète. A new addition this year was Coquelicot, which sails the Champagne region and accommodates up to six passengers on private charters.

La Semaine Des Grands Crus

For one week a year, Fleur de Lys celebrates La Semaine des Grands Crus – an exclusive sailing during which guests sample each of the 33 Grands Crus of Burgundy. Winemakers host private tastings and gourmet dinner parties on the barge or in their private cellars. Guests also disembark to meet winemakers, taste revered vintages and explore properties not usually open to the public. Prices start from €125,000 for a week’s private charter.

Book it: A week’s private charter on Fleur de Lys starts at €69,880, including table d’hôte meals, drinks, all excursions, use of the vessel’s bikes, a guide and return transfers to Paris. Belmond.com

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