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Hotel Barging with a Scottish Flair
by Hideaways President Mike Thiel

Milwaukee Know How

We've sampled the inland waterways of Europe a number of times, in about every way imaginable—self-hire barging, river cruising, and floating along on hotel and charter barges. I'd have to say our favorite is the latter. It's the best of all worlds for exploring Europe's inside passages—intimate but social, with the camaraderie of like-minded travelers and the local attractions up close and personal, and all while enjoying great cuisine and service. But hotel barges aren't just limited to Europe. Depending on where you draw the distinction between a hotel barge and a river cruiser, you can have a similar experience on the Amazon, Zambezi, Mekong, and Ganges rivers, and closer to home on North America's rivers and coastal waterways.

But I digress. Let's talk about Gail's and my recent cruise of the Caledonian Canal through the Highlands of Scotland with European Waterways, a company that has been perfecting this elegant and relaxed form of touring for about 40 years.

Barging with a Past

Everything about Europe's hotel barging experience is vintage: the vessels, the countryside you travel through, and the towns, castles, and vineyards you visit. Before being converted to cozy and luxurious passenger vessels, most canal barges spent their days as cargo vessels on the extensive waterways of Europe. Our barge, the Scottish Highlander, was built in 1931 and was a Dutch trader that carried grain and other commodities throughout the Netherlands.

However, like Cinderella, the Scottish Highlander was beautifully transformed, in this case into a luxurious home for just eight people. Each couple enjoys its own comfortable and cozy cabin with a modern en-suite bathroom. Our barge home for the week had a combined bar, dining room, and lounge that, with a subdued tartan decor and rustic artwork, set the tone for an ideal Scottish sojourn. Some boats carry as few as 6 persons, while others accommodate up to 20 guests. Beyond booking by the cabin, you also can charter these barges for an intimate getaway with your friends or a multi-generational family reunion.

The waterway we cruised was more historic than our boat. The Caledonian Canal was cut through the Scottish Highlands in the late 1800s, joining its deep lakes—Loch Oich, Loch Lochy, and the famous Loch Ness—to offer safe passage for commercial vessels from the North Sea to the Irish Sea and Atlantic while avoiding the tumultuous north cape. It never was a commercial success, but it is one hell of a beautiful passage through Scotland's most gorgeous scenery.

Going Native

Our voyage started in Inverness, the elegant capital of the Highlands that sits at the northeast end of the canal on the banks of the Ness River. We arrived a bit early and hungry, so we strolled into town for a bite to eat. It was a Sunday—most cruises run six nights—and only a few pubs were open, but we made a fortuitous find and tried our first local appetizers of pork belly, white bait (small fish fried whole), and yes, haggis balls, washed down with a nice local ale.

Later that afternoon, after taking in some of the lovely Inverness sights, we met up with our fellow passengers at the designated riverfront hotel. Soon we were escorted to European Waterways' comfortable van and whisked to the boat, where we were greeted by our hostess, Sophie, with glasses of bubbly.

We stayed at the dock that first night, so I enjoyed a late afternoon stroll to the sea lock at the very end of the canal, where it empties into the stark and windblown Moray and Beauly firths (Scottish for "bays"). It was cocktail hour when I returned, and Sophie had laid out a spread of appetizers. This was a relaxed time to settle in and get to know our traveling companions—just one other couple, the McDonalds, visiting Scotland to explore his family genealogy.

The Scottish Highlander, like all European Waterways vessels, has an open-bar policy, and I was pleased to see it offered an extensive selection of top-shelf, single-malt Scotches—more than 20—plus a good selection of other top liquors. Since we were in Scotland, I vowed I would sample, dissect, and enjoy every brand of single-malt offered on board.

Farm- and Sea-to-Barge Dining

Dining was a real treat. Most meals were from a set menu, since we were only a handful and the chef operated from a cramped galley. However, if you have special dietary requirements and notify the company in advance, those could certainly be accommodated.

Happily, the menu focused on fresh Scottish produce and cuisine. This is a refreshing change from most ocean and even river cruisers where the culinary offerings don't necessarily reflect the cruising territory. I realize Scotland is not known for its high cuisine, but chef Sasha, who hails from Eastern Europe, turned out gourmet versions of Scottish specialties. Interestingly, Sasha also doubled as a deck hand and worked the lines each time we went through the locks.

Dinners were relaxing four-course affairs served at a common table, which encouraged plenty of conversation with fellow travelers. The first course might be a soup, often a take on a Scottish favorite, or a delicious salad. The main course was also local—roast venison, Scottish salmon, or some other local seafood. Sasha, shy as she was, always came out of the kitchen to explain the menu and its relevance to the local scene. Sophie introduced us to the evening's wine selections, always a well-chosen white and red. Desserts were scrumptious, and the surprise of the evening was a cheese-and-fruit course.

Our first evening, the universal reaction at the table was, "Gosh, we're too full to do cheese." But after Sophie explained each of the several selections and we tasted them—all delicious local varieties—the cheese course became one of our favorites.

Breakfast was informal and consisted of a small but nice buffet with fresh-squeezed juices, cereal, fruits, and yogurt, or Sasha would whip up almost anything you liked. For Gail, Scottish porridge with embellishments became a standard. I followed my daily whims, ordering a full Scottish breakfast with eggs and meaty back bacon or perhaps finnan haddie. Lunches were simple and delicious—creative salads, gourmet sandwiches, and often another local specialty like Scottish skink, a thick cream-and-potato-based chowder made with smoked haddock.

The Barging Lifestyle

Cruising on a hotel barge is a leisurely affair. For starters, the ships travel slowly, usually meandering along at between three and five miles per hour. That means you can keep up with them while doing a power walk along the ever-present towpaths. Or you can have the crew unload a bicycle and meet the ship at your next destination.

Between the slow pace and the locks to be negotiated, barges seldom cover more than 75 to 100 miles during the entire week. But the regions they cruise are usually very historic and interesting, and you always cruise by day to enjoy the scenery.

And did I mention beautiful? Cruising in Scotland was positively mystical, gliding along moody Loch Ness and looking out for Nessie all the while. The mountainsides and moors were ablaze in the yellows of gorse and broom, the valleys carpeted in bluebells, and the canal banks decked out in the pinks and lavenders of rhododendrons.

One of the highlights of barging is negotiating locks. We passed through some 29 locks going up and down between the North Sea and the Atlantic. In spite of that number, you only rise and fall about a hundred feet total. Some of the locks are in "flights" of four, five, and more, like those in St. Augustus, a quaint if somewhat touristy little village. As the barge negotiates the locks, you can hop off and visit the shops or walk around town. Other locks are in the countryside, but you can always chat up the lockkeepers, all of whom are invariably friendly and interesting characters.

Because everything you might want to see and do is not immediately along the banks of the canal, European Waterways provides a comfortable van and guide/chauffeur to take you on daily excursions. In the Highlands, Paul, a most knowledgeable fellow, took us to the ancient Urquhart Castle, brooding over Loch Ness and now turned into museums. For contrast, we visited Cawdor Castle, home of Shakespeare's Macbeth and still residence to the umpteenth generation of a Scottish baronial family. Paul even accompanied our small group to dinner one evening at a local restaurant—a night off for Sasha, and a fun way to gather insight from Paul about the local scene.

Of course, we also visited a distillery to learn how Scotch is made and to sample the elixir. And, given Scotland's turbulent history and relationship with its English neighbors, we had to visit Culloden Moor, site of a famous battle between Bonnie Prince Charlie and English loyalists. It's quite an impressive battlefield museum, tells a good story, and is set in beautifully rugged countryside.

I often measure the success of a vacation by answering the question, "Would you do it again?" In this case, the answer is an emphatic, "In a heartbeat!" That goes both for visiting Scotland—a beautiful, friendly destination where we left a lot undone—and for the barge cruising experience in any of the interesting destinations where it's offered.

January/February 2016

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