The Saint Louis hotel barge cruises the lesser known waterways of South West France, along the Canal de Garonne. This area is known for its history and beauty, and of course, the wines of St Emilion and Bordeaux.
Your hosts on the Saint Louis are Peter and Wendy; they are Irish and passionate about barging. They have known each other since school and their families share a terrific bond. When Peter and Wendy were first persuaded to go on a hotel barge on the Canal du Midi several years ago, they were half expecting a ‘caravan on water’. However, they were overwhelmed with how spectacular the trip was and fell in love with barging and France.
They found and purchased Saint Louis, already operating as a highly popular hotel barge, and spent a year shadowing the previous owners before embarking on their first season at the helm in 2014. It proved to be a huge success.
Wendy at the Wheel
There are only a handful of female hotel barge pilots in France, and Wendy is one of them. Having taken responsibility initially for all the interior and exterior refurbishment of the barge and also filling the hostess role on board, she has now trained and qualified to become the full time pilot. Handling the barge takes concentration, and manoeuvring through bridges and mooring up takes practise, but you soon learn, she says. “One of main issues is that smaller boats don’t understand that we have to stay in the centre of the canal or we go aground. There is no overtaking. And of course, Saint Louis cruises are designed to be relaxing – we go at a slower pace.”
Food is an important part of any barge holiday and the Saint Louis is no different. Peter tells a great story where he and Wendy were at the French Embassy in London and the chef prepared quail breast with curried vegetable paste. They were so impressed with the gastronomy that they asked to meet the chef – and they went on to become great friends. And now that special dish is on the Saint Louis menu. Fabulous.
As Peter says, “We really like our guests to engage with us on their food so that it becomes a real collaborative effort. We encourage our guests to be hands on with matching and pairing wines in a fun and non-snooty environment. And we’re keen to introduce our guests to the hidden culinary gems of France, giving them an experience that they only get on our hotel barge.”
Every meal is set off with completely different table settings; imaginative dishes made with locally sourced fresh ingredients, delicious French cooking of Michelin quality and world class service – all designed to meet your specific likes and requirements.
The Saint Louis sails with two other crew members: a hostess and a chef.
In 2017 they arrived as a pair – Julia and Martin live locally near Montauban. Julia, the hostess, is French (and speaks perfect English) and started working in the hospitality sector in Montpellier six years ago before moving to Scotland to broaden her experience. There she worked with Michelin Star chefs Tom Kitchen and Dominic Jack and managed the front of house for their restaurants. She is a people person and, like Wendy, is quality driven and loves delivering simply flawless service with a smile.
Martin is also French, speaks excellent English too and has grown up near Saint Louis’ home base at Lacourt St Pierre – so he knows the region and its gastronomy well. Over the past six years he has worked with some of the finest Michelin Star chefs in France, Biasibetti and Pourcel. His training and extensive knowledge of French cuisine makes him a perfect fit within the team and his love of food shines through in every dish he prepares.
As recent guests said, “What a memorable week we’ve had. Way beyond our expectations. Hosts Peter and Wendy, 1st Class, Julia anticipated our every need and Martin’s food was the most delicious and beautiful we’ve ever had!”
What’s Saint Louis like?
Saint Louis can accommodate up to six guests in three airy cabins with comfy double or twin queen size beds. Air conditioning has been installed throughout and is individually controlled in all cabins. But Peter agrees that it’s the sun deck on Saint Louis that really sets it apart from other hotel barges – it’s one of the largest (at 9 metres by 4.5 metres) in France and is completely flat, making it ideal for lounging, eating and moving about easily.
The interior decor is contemporary – clean and smart, echoing the French country style of painted furniture, dainty classic furnishings and relaxed luxury.
And what about excursions?
Peter’s favourite destinations on the barge are Lauzerte and St Emilion. Lauzerte has been voted one of the most beautiful villages in France for the last 25 years as part of Les plus beaux villages de France®. Peter says that he finds it inspiring and reflective, and he likes to help his guests discover things one don’t normally find as a tourist.
The St Emilion wine tour is a huge success where guests can gain expert knowledge on one of the finest wine areas in the world. This a truly special full day spent with Saint Louis’ distributor in St Emilion and includes an education in Bordeaux wines, private tastings, private chateaux visits to major vineyards in St Emilion, a Michelin starred lunch and further fine wine tastings. It costs a little extra but guests really appreciate this exclusive opportunity.
Peter says that he wants guests to feel “as if they are spending a week with friends. We want the atmosphere to be relaxing so that guests feel as if they are coming home. We encourage guests to come into the galley and watch the chef at work or take a turn with the pilot steering the barge… It is about having a laugh and enjoying yourselves.”
He believes that he sets a very high standard and strives to deliver it year after year: “We want our guests to have their ideal trip so we discuss options and personalise the cruise for them.” On one cruise, they even organised an impromptu tomato tasting as their guests had been impressed with the varieties on offer at a local market.
Peter sums it up nicely when he says that holidays on the Saint Louis are “relaxed but professional and delivered with a huge Irish welcome.” As Peter concludes, “the craic is mighty” and we can’t help but agree.
Find out more about the Saint Louis