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Suddenly, swanky barges offering intimate cruising along Europe’s canal waterways are everywhere, with crews that double as sailors by day and chefs by night.

The last four years has seen a big rise in bookings for these vessels, which essentially offer “slow cruising” – they travel around 70 km in a week, and let guests experience as much food and culture on shore as they can.

John Wood-Dow, of barge operator European Waterways, said bookings are up more than 30% this year.

“It’s a smaller, more intimate type of cruising,” he told Travel Weekly. “The idea is to really let you understand the food, the gastronomy, the culture, the history of the region you are traveling.”

“You might pass a half a dozen other vessels during the day,” he said. “But when you moor up, you have the bank to yourself.”

Unlike mainstream river ships that sail major rivers such as the Danube, Rhine and Rhône, barges ply peaceful waterways and canals that are inaccessible to larger vessels – France’s Canal du Midi and chateau-studded Loire, Italy’s River Po and Bianco Canal and Ireland’s picturesque Shannon River, just to name a few.

They are tiny compared to regular river ships, which typically accommodate 110 to 180 passengers, and there are far fewer of them. European Waterways is the biggest operator, with 17 vessels that accommodate from six to 12 passengers. CroisiEurope’s fleet of five take 11 or 22 passengers; and Belmond has seven ultra-luxe boutique barges in France that cater for four to 12 passengers.

You can charter a whole boat for your own group – some are only available for full private charters – or book a cabin as a single or couple if you’re happy to take a chance on spending a holiday in (very) close quarters with people you don’t know. A captain and small crew do all the navigating and catering and most fares include meals, drinks and tours to local attractions such as vineyards and castles. 

Whereas traditional river cruises can traverse several countries and long distances over a week, barges putter along at a leisurely pace. In fact, you can go faster if you walk or cycle alongside them.

And one big advantage of barging is that because the vessels sail on canals controlled by locks, there’s no worry about water levels.