While not everyone can afford to own a luxury motor boat or yacht, cruising by barge is not only one of the most relaxing and rewarding holidays around, it can also be one of the environmentally “greenest.”
In fact, a barge holiday is estimated to be 20 times better for the planet than spending two hours flying for a holiday abroad. And it’s a glamorous and romantic holiday option, too. For their own private Indiana Jones adventure, Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart chartered a barge for a cruising holiday along the Llangollen canal in Wales, which has boosted the appeal of a get-away-from-it-all boat trip – and it’s certainly not just for rich and famous Hollywood celebrities.
Europe’s leading specialist barge holiday company, European Waterways (established 1974), offers an enticing selection of itineraries across the canal waterways of France, Italy, Holland, Ireland, and the UK. They seek out the finest classic working barges and then transform them into fully-crewed and catered luxury floating country hotels. With only eight to twelve guests on board, it’s an intimate house party for couples and single travelers – or perfect for a private charter. With a great value all-inclusive fare, the emphasis is on complete relaxation, fine food and wine, and daily shore excursions.
Highly recommended is a week’s cruise on board the Scottish Highlander. The barge dates back to 1931 when it was built as a Luxemotor river ship to carry grain, converted to a riverboat hotel in 2000. At 117 feet long and 16 feet wide it has four double staterooms for a maximum of eight passengers. With a touch of tartan, leather Chesterfield sofas, paintings of stags, lochs, and mountains, and a bar lined with whisky bottles, it has the elegant ambience of a Scottish country house. The epic itinerary follows the Caledonian Canal between Fort William and Inverness through the Great Glen and the legendary Loch Ness.
TRAVEL BY TRAIN
As the cruise itinerary starts at either Fort William or Inverness (alternating directions weekly), the best way to get there is by train from Glasgow and Edinburgh. Alternatively, from London you can travel north overnight on the Caledonian “Deerstalker” Sleeper train to Inverness or Fort William.
Ken and I traveled north from Glasgow to Fort William on the First Scotrail “West Highland Line” – the famous Victorian “Iron Road to the Isles” and without doubt one of the greatest railway journeys in the world. Your carriage is sure to be full of keen walkers and mountain climbers with their rucksacks and camping gear, heading north to experience glens, bens, and the West Highland Way trail. What you don’t need is a book to read on the 3 hour 45 minute journey. Leaving the city behind, it quickly reaches the river Clyde and follows the shore line north up to Helensburgh to Gare Loch, past the Faslane Naval base. The track rises steadily over steep hills before descending to the shore of Loch Long. The train sweeps over the Manse Viaduct through the villages of Arrochar and Tarbet to reach the majestic views of Loch Lomond.
From the gentle lowlands this is now serious Highland country, through Glen Falloch with glimpses of dramatic rocky waterfalls amid verdant pine forests. Traveling on to Crianlarich, the gradient ascent is 500 feet in five miles, slowly descending to follow the curving Horseshoe viaduct – a wonderful sight. From here we head across the dramatic, bleak, yet beautiful Rannoch Moor where you may well see herds of wild deer. The isolated station at Corrour (featured in the movie “Trainspotting”), is the highest point on the West Highland line. The train then descends into a low lying valley following the River Spean towards Loch Linnhe and the town of Fort William in the shadow of the mighty Ben Nevis mountain. A private transfer by mini bus takes us on a short drive to the “Scottish Highlander” moored at Banavie.
LIFE ON BOARD
We are welcomed on board by Captain Dan, Hostess Chloe (our waitress, barmaid, housekeeper, and bo’sun) and Head Chef Christian. On this cruise, fellow passengers are from the United States, England, and Scotland. (For one couple, this was their 3rd Go Barging cruise – which speaks volumes). There is one spacious suite, the Cameron (double bed), and three compact staterooms – Mackintosh, Frazer, and MacPherson – which can be arranged as double or twin beds. Your ensuite shower room (piping hot water) is supplied with a generous supply of soap, shampoo, shower gel, towels, and bathrobes. Cabins are extremely well heated with efficient radiators, and there are thick tartan rugs on the bed. You will be cozy whatever the weather!
If you have never experienced a cruise before, there is no need to worry about seasickness on this barge. They travel at a gentle pace and moor in a sheltered spot beside the canal towpath by night. By day, in between gourmet meals, there’s time to sit on deck, take a bike ride (6 bikes on board), or stroll along the tow path and observe at close quarters the incredible engineering feat of creating the Caledonian Canal. Designed by Thomas Telford and William Jessop and constructed between 1803 and 1822, it features twenty-nine locks, ten swing bridges, and four aqueducts – an essential waterway to allow naval, cargo, and leisure ships to avoid the treacherous stormy waters of the Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath around the north coast of Scotland. The Canal stretches 60 miles slicing through the Great Glen, a geological faultline across the Highlands, linking four natural lochs. At Fort William, Neptune’s Staircase is an incredible progression of eight Locks from where our cruise begins.
BARGING THROUGH THE HIGHLANDS
The whole Scottish Highlander Experience is a rich and colouful cultural journey by both waterways and by land. Over the leisurely week’s cruise, there’s the opportunity to visit historic castles, lochside villages, and woollen mills, viewing stunning scenery and wildlife along the way.
On our first morning, after breakfast of porridge, poached eggs, toast, and coffee, our driver guide arrived to take us on a short drive to Glencoe, a magnificent, dark, and dramatic valley of high snow-capped peaks. At the National Trust Visitor Centre there’s a well-illustrated exhibition of the local geology and history of mountaineering, as well as a film about the notorious massacre of 1692 between the Campbells, King William’s army, and the Macdonald clan. En route back to the barge, we tour the Ben Nevis Distillery to hear all about the production of whisky, ending with a wee dram itself.
Every day, morning or afternoon, there’s at least four hours of “sailing,” when you can relax in the lounge (library of books, newspapers, and CD player); sit on the sun deck with binoculars to spot birds, flora, and fauna; or join the Skipper in the Wheelhouse – (except during a difficult navigation in or out of a lock). We continue through the peaceful Loch Lochy surrounded by birch woodland before entering the man-made canal again through the Laggan lock. It’s fascinating watching the lock keepers at work, opening the sluices to raise (or lower) the water level, when we move forward through the next gate. Alongside our very long barge, the canal traffic in the locks is occasionally chocabloc with several motor cruisers and yachts, and we wave a greeting in common nautical language. As we motor on towards Loch Oich, Skipper Dan alerts us to come on deck to see Laggan Avenue, a tranquil, meandering, curving canal framed by a woodland of tall, slender Scots Pine.
Moored by late afternoon above Cullochy Lock, the sun is shining and three of us borrow bicycles for a five-mile ride along the very flat towpath to the pretty Kytra Lock with its white-washed cottages. Then it is back on board to shower, change, and a refreshing gin and tonic before dinner. Cuisine aboard is a celebration of quality seasonal locally-sourced seafood, beef, game, fruits, and vegetables, and our superb Chef Christian Rhein enjoys researching and preparing classic dishes such as Kedgeree, Cranachan, and Cullin Skink. We indulge in hearty breakfasts, a feast of a buffet lunch, and four course candlelit dinners. To compliment the food, a selection of French and New World white, red, and rose wines are served at lunch and dinner.
Tonight, we are treated to creamy potato and oatmeal soup, Shetland salmon with asparagus, lemon tart and Perthshire raspberries, and a platter of superlative Kintyre farmhouse cheeses with oatcakes. We sit chatting with a whisky nightcap until quite late, and then it is time for bed – lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat and utter peace, no wonder we sleep well on board.
In the heart of the Great Glen is the quaint old village of Fort Augustus, a busy, bustling Highland destination for boating, yachting, and barging sailors, motoring visitors, and walkers. The Caledonian Canal Visitor Centre is located here (free entry, well worth a browse to learn about the building of the canal), as well as gift shops, art galleries, woollen mills, cafes, and pubs, too.
After lunch (goat’s cheese tart, chicken, ham, green salad, and crisp Vino Verde wine from Portugal), we set off for a fabulous sun-drenched drive through Glen Shiel to visit Scotland’s most iconic, photogenic, and photographed castles, Eilean Donan, a few miles south of the Isle of Skye bridge. The ancient castle, with its fine antique furnishings, paintings, and weapons, is privately owned by the MacCrae-Gilstrap family. Perched on a rocky island at the confluence of three sea lochs, it’s an exhilarating walk over the old stone bridge following in the footsteps of warriors, Vikings, Jacobites, and Sean Connery, who was here to shoot his epic movie, “Highlander.”
Our journey by barge continues through the five locks at Fort Augustus, slowly dropping 40 feet down the giant stone and water staircase to reach Loch Ness. Legendary monster tales aside, this has amazing facts and figures: 1,000 feet deep, (more than the North Sea), 22 miles long, and covering 35 square miles. Most people drive along the north side, but to cruise right up the loch is an amazing experience, and we spend many an hour on deck to enjoy a fresh breeze and scan the sky and forested rugged coastline for eagles and deer.
Other shore excursions include the spectacular Urquhart Castle, perched high on a cliff above Loch Ness. This is a must-visit attraction with a superb film on its bloody battle-filled history. On our last day, we visit the beautifully-preserved Cawdor Castle, renowned for its literary connection with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is a bewitching place, stuffed with family paintings and antiques, with a lovely garden, nature trails, and cashmere and tweed boutique.
Nature lovers will be in their element on this trip: British Waterways protects and preserves this natural habitat for oyster catchers, herons, amphibians, and the endangered bumble bee along the canal banks. Amidst the flourishing woodland and wild garden of bluebells and yellow broom, we spot tits, finches, warblers, wagtails, green mallard, and goosander ducks. On the open lochs a variety of gulls swoop and soar, with a flock mobbing a buzzard near Urquhart Castle. A memorable sight is a golden eagle gliding high over the Five Sisters of Kintail, the range of hills near Eilean Donan.
Our week’s cruise is almost over. It has been an exhilarating, romantic adventure. With our international floating house party, we enjoy lively conversations with much laughter over meals and drinks at the bar. Our fantastic crew ensures that we have a comfortable, lazy, relaxing time – not least the exceptional standard of cuisine. This has been a foodie journey across the Great Glen – an appetizing, inspiring, exciting boating experience. I would recommend this unique European Waterways trip for all ages, and it would be particularly fun for a group of friends or families with children (age 10+) to charter for their own private “Swallows and Amazons” holiday to explore the wild landscape across the Highlands and the mystical magic of Loch Ness.
Rates for a cruise aboard the Scottish Highlander in 2010 are from €2,510 per person sharing a double cabin.
For more details, call European Waterways on +44 (0) 1784 482439 or visit www.gobarging.com .