Last year, Belmond, the well-known hotel, rail and river cruise company now owned by LVMH, the French luxury goods conglomerate, introduced a new way to visit the Champagne region. From March through October, the Belmond Pivoine (“pivoine” means “peony” in French), a 128-foot barge with an English-speaking staff of six and four impressively light and spacious cabins, a lounge, a dining room, a deck terrace and a heated outdoor plunge pool, plies the waters of the Marne river and the Canal Lateral à la Marne. Itineraries run between either Château-Thierry and Châlons-en-Champagne or Épernay and Couvrot during six-night cruises that begin with a two-hour road transfer from Paris.
This barge is available only for private charter, so we embarked with a group of friends. It proved to be one of the most pleasurable and memorable trips we’ve ever taken in France, not least because we had to unpack only once. We also appreciated that onshore sightseeing excursions were interspersed with plenty of downtime, during which we could enjoy a close-up view of the exquisite scenery, which looks much as it did when it was a favorite subject for Cézanne, Corot and Pissarro.
We’ve taken other barge trips in France, notably in Burgundy, but none has offered the level of comfort and personal service we found on the Pivoine. The cabins offer almost all the amenities of a five-star hotel, notably full-scale baths and dressing rooms, and feature chic décors by London-based interior-design firm Muza Lab. Every cabin has a picture window, a king-size bed made up with high-quality linens, a soothing color scheme and oak paneling. A particularly nice touch is that the floors are covered with tomettes, the rustic terra-cotta tiles found in the farmhouses of Champagne. Marble-accented baths come with walk-in limestone-lined showers, excellent water pressure, bathrobes and slippers, and L’Occitane products. Other amenities include a Bose iPod docking station, a hair dryer and a reliable Wi-Fi connection.
The indoor lounge had two skylights, white slipcovered sofas, several armchairs and a coffee and tea station. Books about Champagne are available, and there is also a dining area, where meals are served if it is too rainy or chilly to sit on the deck.
All meals and drinks are included in the rate, and menus are adapted to guests’ tastes and change at every meal. We caught our first glimpse of the Champagne vineyards while enjoying a hot breakfast of poached eggs and bacon on a misty morning on the Marne, while that night we dined under the stars on asparagus, veal medallions with baby potatoes, local cheeses and a freshly baked strawberry tart.
We boarded the barge in Château-Thierry after tour of the magnificent 17th-century Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, which was built by architect Louis Le Vau, with gardens by André Le Nôtre, for Nicolas Fouquet, finance minister to King Louis XIV. The following day included fascinating visits to World War I battlefields, including a scenic drive to Belleau Wood, where American troops helped to halt the progress of the German Army. Day three featured lunch at the idyllic Hostellerie La Briqueterie restaurant in Vinay and a visit to the abbey in Hautvillers, where Dom Pérignon is buried. Our fourth day began with an early stop at the covered market in Épernay accompanied by the barge’s chef and continued with a private tour and tasting at the Moët & Chandon Champagne house. Later in the afternoon, several of us availed ourselves of the barge’s bicycles to explore the countryside around Condé-sur-Marne. The highlight of the fifth day was a visit to Reims and its magnificent gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame, while much of our final day was spent on a walking tour of charming Châlons-en-Champagne.
From first to last, our cruise was an exceptionally pleasant and well-organized experience. The Belmond Pivoine provides a near-perfect setting for a special occasion or a family reunion.