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.

Apres Tout on the Canal Lateral a la Loire 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 salivating.

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.

Chateau de Tracy vineyard 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.

A view from the Apres Tout sun deck The 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.

A 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.

The 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 Rory Macrae at the helm 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.

Although 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.

Caroline Macrae, left, with Jeannine Williamson With 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.

Our 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.

A folly in Apremont's Parc Floral Each 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. 

Some 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. Apres Tout navigates the spectacular Briare aqueduct On the penultimate day passers-by stopped to take pictures of us as Rory navigated the impressive 2,170ft Briare canal bridge over the Loire. Between 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.

As 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. Beautiful hand-drawn menus preview the daily meals 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 too!  

More information

Six-night 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.

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Jeannine Williamson

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