A luxurious and leisurely cruise through the Loire on a barge named Après Tout
English couple Rory and Caroline Macrae are providing
passengers with a new taste of France on a vessel that is their labour of love.
As we sipped the second glass of elegant Pouilly-Fumé in the
cool of the Château de Tracy wine cellar we asked our enthusiastic and
jovial guide Cedric what type of food he would recommend to go with it.
We were expecting a one word answer such as seafood, fish, chicken
or maybe the local goat’s cheese for which the Loire Valley is famous, but in
the manner of a true bon viveur Cedric launched into an eloquent answer.
The detailed description of the salad made with courgettes - thinly cut
lengthways - finely sliced red onion, marinated together in lemon juice, salt
and pepper for one hour before served topped with shaved parmesan cheese had us
Earlier, during our private tour around the estate - one of
around 100 producing Pouilly-Fumé on nearly 3,000 acres of vineyards 125 miles
south of Paris - we were equally fascinated to hear that Château de Tracy could trace its roots back to the Scottish
noble Stutt family who travelled to France in the 15th century to
help the future King Charles VII during the Hundred Years War, the name later
Gallicised to become d’Estutt or Destutt.
The very personalised nature of our tour and tasting was a
benchmark for a wonderful week aboard the Après Tout hotel barge owned by Rory
and Caroline Macrae. For six days we explored the countryside in around the Canal Latéral à la Loire which shadows
the course of the namesake river. We might have only covered just over 60
miles, but this form of slow travel is the very essence of barging and provides
plenty of time for a truly insightful experience.
day before we’d arrived in Paris and started to get to know our on board guide
and driver Glen as he drove us to Après Tout’s mooring place at Nevers. With
the afternoon sunlight gleaming on the pristine teak deck - which Rory
painstakingly oils from scratch each year rather than using varnish - the
two-deck barge stood out amongst the assorted pleasure craft docked nearby.
glass of Champagne in hand we toasted our fellow shipmates before Rory cast off
and Après Tout edged beneath the bridge at the start of our leisurely journey.
Later, the sound of water gently lapping past the gleaming blue prow was
punctuated by our appreciative exclamations as the first of Caroline’s meals arrived
at our al fresco table.
127ft barge began life in the 1950s carrying grain along the network of 19th
century French waterways. Today its modern day freight comprises just six
passengers and a crew of five - skipper Rory and second captain Cedric, whom
Rory originally trained, cordon bleu chef Caroline, Greg and hostess Alana.
Creating an atmosphere akin to a luxurious floating house party, albeit without
any stuffiness, by the second day it was clear that nothing was too much
trouble for the charming and easy-going couple who took the proverbial plunge
in 2012 and bought their own barge.
it had been converted into a hotel barge in 2004 it was in need of plenty of
TLC after languishing on the side of the Canal du Bourgogne for three years.
The Macraes, who had worked in the luxury barge business for two decades, refurbished
and it from bow to stern and it now has a cosy salon and inside dining room,
three well-equipped double or twin cabins with super comfortable beds and surprisingly
spacious bathrooms and showers, an expansive sun deck and a hot tub. Then they renamed
it Après Tout - French for 'after all' - as a fitting reminder of their
decision to go it alone after all the years of working for someone else.
a sailing season from April to October, Après Tout originally cruised in
Burgundy and in 2018 it was relocated to the Loire to provide the growing
number of repeat passengers with an alternative itinerary. Future plans
including taking it to Alsace.
first day began with a walk through Apremont, nestled on the banks of the
Allier river and justifiably described as one of France’s prettiest
villages. Afterwards we strolled through
the equally enchanting Parc Floral, with its fun follies and themed beds that
were a riot of colour and fragrance.
day brought something different and, if requested, alternative tours can be
arranged if passengers prefer to do something different. That said, we were
more than happy to go with the flow and join excursions that included exclusive
wine tastings, a walk through the steep streets of the medieval hilltop town of
Sancerre and a visit to the grand Château de Saint-Fargeu with a
unique private tour through the vast and towering rafters. Back on the barge we
relaxed on deck, strolled along the canalside or headed out on one of the bikes
kept on board. As Après Tout moves at a walking pace it’s easy to be picked up
at one of the locks, many with colourful houses and overflowing window boxes
tended by the lock keepers.
evenings we’d stroll through sleepy villages resembling film sets before
getting back to Après Tout in time for the omnipresent cocktails and dinner,
pausing to take photos of the barge mirrored in the still water. On the
penultimate day passers-by stopped to take pictures of us as Rory navigated the
impressive 2,170ft Briare canal bridge over the
1896 and 2003 it was the world’s longest navigable aqueduct, before the opening
of Magdeburg bridge spanning Germany’s Elbe. It was a head-turning sight as
Après Tout glided across.
each day drifted by we increasingly slowed down to canal time, leaving behind
the stress and rush of modern day life and becoming progressively more relaxed;
doubtless assisted by Caroline’s superb hospitality and the open bar. Days began with a beautifully laid-out breakfast
including out-of-the-oven croissants, pastries and baguettes from the nearest boulanger
and progressed through buffet lunch with all manner of delicately flavoured
salads and home-made tarts to a four-course dinner heralded by a hand-written
illustrated menu guaranteed to get the digestive juices flowing once again. Each
lunch and evening meal was accompanied by different wines, expertly introduced
by Glen, and daily cheeses - three at dinnertime.
It was a holiday to truly savour in every sense of the
word. I returned home with Caroline’s cookbook to try and recreate some of the culinary
memories of our time in the Loire living life in the slow lane. And having
heard it so lyrically described, I must try and make Cedric’s courgette salad
cruises on the Après Tout cost $6,500 (prices converted to sterling at time of
booking) and include all food, wine and an open bar, excursions and return
transfers from Paris to the barge. Whole boat charters and bespoke cruises are
also available. For further details, itineraries and departure dates call +33 (0)686 890318 or visit www.bargeaprestout.com.