We are chugging toward Dijon at an escargot's pace of 35 miles a week when it happens. There we are, tucking into a lunch of cold Charolais beef smothered in garlic-anchovy sauce, green salad with quail eggs, haricots verts with artichokes, a tomatoï¿½puff pastry tart, panettone with blueberries and fresh mint—among many other things—when wham, the prow of our barge swings into the side of the canal and a splash of water sloshes out of the foredeck hot tub. The boat has rubbed up against a patch of mud. Cedric, our profoundly tan French helmsman rushes aft to check on us. The collision was a love tap, but we tease him and stash the event in short-term memory, within easy reach to further abuse the poor guy. Then we get back to business—the serious business of a ripe Camembert, a so-fresh-it's-wet goat cheese and a subtly blue Fourme d'Ambert, all demanding to be consumed with the well-selected, highly drinkable red and white Burgundies on our table (a 2002 La Chapelle Notre-Dame Domaine Dubreuil-Fontaine and a 1999 Les Caves des Hautes Côtes, respectively). This is high drama on the Canal de Bourgogne.
We are journeying east aboard the Prospérité, a 128-foot barge that formerly plied the rivers and canals of Holland and Belgium carrying commercial freight; five years ago, a pair of English and American investors with experience running boutique hotels bought the barge and renovated it; now it's a luxury cruiser with four spacious staterooms below and a living room, dining room and open kitchen upstairs. This year, the high-end outfitter Abercrombie & Kent, which arranged my trip, has added the Prospérité to the portfolio of barges it books.
Although the Canal de Bourgogne stretches 150 miles through so-called deep France, our trip will span only a short squiggle in the Côte d'Or, starting at the tiny village of Vandenesse-en-Auxois, visiting the winemaking town of Nuits-St.-Georges and the famed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and ending at the regional capital best known for its mustard. But it's a lovely squiggle, hilly and bucolic, a welcome shift from the flatness of Bordeaux, where I have been spending time researching a book on American wine connoisseurship from Thomas Jefferson to the present. Though a barge trip is the classic and perhaps ideal way to experience Burgundy, it's a first for me—and I'm lucky that my inaugural trip is on this posh boat.