I had the realization after the foie gras course. We were in the southwest of France, aboard the Barge Saint Louis, and the rich livers had been served with ripe slivers of nectarines flambéed in Armagnac from a small producer we had visited earlier that morning. The effect was sweet, savory, meaty, and full of happy depth. It was paired with a miraculously not-too-sweet Sauternes.
I slipped into my cabin to go to the bathroom between courses—each night on the barge began with pretty canapes and proceeded with a four-course meal cooked with local delicacies. When I slid back into my seat, I noticed something: I wasn’t wearing any shoes. Nether were my dining companions.
I have never had foie gras without shoes on, until that night. Or a four-course meal on a table set with tablecloths, jacquard linen napkins, candles, and fresh flowers in my most comfy shorts and t-shirt, paired with gorgeous local wines. Outside the window, bright green tree canopies rustled in a soft breeze. Inside, I wiggled my toes. The whole thing felt sort of radical…and really, really good.
This summer, I was lucky enough to have my first barge cruise experience. The moment I stepped on the Barge Saint Louis—only a day before my foie gras epiphany— I felt a sort of existential exhale. The handsome boat was docked about an hour outside of Bordeaux City in the rural southwest of France on a tree-lined canal. On board, flowers bloomed in splendor. Co-owner Peter Carrington had picked us up from the Bordeaux train station, and his wife and business partner Wendy Carrington greeted us with flutes of champagne. I had a good feeling—this was going to be an excellent week.
I was right. I had come fresh from a super busy work season in New York City, where I live, and I was looking forward to hitting the breaks on the pace of life for a bit. During the day, the boat floated along at about 4 miles per hour, about the pace of a not too brisk walk. The leisurely canter of the barge embodied the laid-back rhythm of the whole trip. It was totally luxurious. It was Barefoot in Bordeaux.
A day on the Saint Louis started whenever I liked. If I felt inspired to wake up early and join Peter for a croissant run to the bakery in the postage stamp-sized nearby town, great. If I wanted extra time in my comfy robe in my comfy bed (I was officially claiming it as mine!), that was another perfectly sound option. The Wi-Fi was spotty, so I had no choice but to forgo checking my email in favor of reading my novel on the sundeck on the reclining lounger, the canal stretched in front of me, bisecting fields, forest, and blue sky. If I wanted, I could stroll or bike along the shaded path that wrong alongside the canal. Or if I preferred, I could stay right where I was on the sundeck and help myself to another espresso.
In the afternoon, Peter took us on adventures to cobblestoned towns, old churches, that generations-old Armagnac producer, and Latour-Marliac, a remarkable garden of lilies. We’d arrive back to the barge in time for a nap, if we wanted, or a gin and tonic in the cabin. Soon the canapes would start arriving—every night something different, thoughtful, and no-joke delicious: shots of garlicky gazpacho, sweet marinated mussels. The sun would set languidly over the deck of the boat, and I felt like the luckiest person in the world.
Being Barefoot in Bordeaux is surrendering to the full-body joy of a dinner cooked from the summer bounty of fresh fruits, veggies, meats, cheeses and wine from one of the world’s most beloved culinary regions with a few close friends, all while laughing so loud you have to concentrate not to shoot silky Chardonnay from your nose.
It’s being excited for each night’s unique cheese course, served with homemade jams and fresh berries and crusty baguettes and paired with wines from the Saint Louis’s 600-bottle cellar, curated by an expert in nearby St Émilion. It’s lingering over the table until Peter joins to share stories of his French friends and the local butcher. It’s declining a fine after dinner drink for a cold can of Diet Coke instead, just because that’s what hits the spot. It’s listening to the birds chirp out the windows as you tuck yourself into your soft sheets, dreaming of the next day in Bordeaux. It’s not really wanting to go home, but knowing you’ll remember that goat cheese with the thin layer of ash, the church with the spindly black spire, the exquisite respite of being Barefoot in Bordeaux.
Here’s How to Book
The Saint Louis is mainly a charter barge for a maximum of six guests, ideal for small private groups of friends or family. They offer weekly cruises from May to mid-October. You can book this and other European barge cruises at bargeladycruises.com, or by reaching out to the Barge Ladies at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800.880.0071.
Hannah Howard is a writer and food expert who spent her formative years eating, drinking, serving, bartending, cooking on a hot line, flipping giant wheels of cheese, and managing restaurants. She is the author of the memoir Feast: True Love in and Out of the Kitchen. Hannah is a graduate of Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. She writes for SELF, New York Magazine, and Salon.com, and lives in New York City.