It’s a hot, drippy day in southwestern France’s Gascony region this summer, but Captain Wendy Carrington looks perfectly put together in her pressed blue shirt and crisp white shorts. She’s at her usual spot: the helm of the Saint Louis Barge. The wooden wheel is larger than she is. In front of us, the sleek barge’s deck is dotted with pink and purple flowers in bloom. Tree canopies drape the narrow canal for some welcome shade. As a New Yorker, I’m fascinated by the quiet. Besides the occasional bird chiming in, the day is almost loud with silence.
Wendy did not set out to pilot a barge, or even a boat. Her background is in art and design, and it was during her first career in Ireland where she met her husband Peter Carrington, a fellow creative soul and food and wine lover.
“About 14 years ago, school friends of mine invited us to a family barging holiday on the Canal de Midi [in the Languedoc, in southern France],” Wendy remembers. “Peter was not keen, but the food, the wine, and the region won us all over. We were then not boat people and had no idea what to expect, but needless to say we loved the whole experience.” The seed was planted.
Fast forward 8 years: Wendy and Peter’s kids had grown up, their retail business was feeling the strain of the financial downturn, and their friend’s wife had sadly passed away from cancer. The friends decided it was time for a new project—they would leave their lives and their country to buy and run a hotel barge in the south of France.
“It all seemed perfectly sensible—our friend, who had never piloted anything bigger than a hire barge would pilot, Peter would be chef (though a very good cook, he had never worked in a restaurant), and I would be hostess without ever having worked in hospitality!” It sounded like a wild plan, but they went for it.
Peter, Wendy, and their friend took over the business in 2014. They haven’t looked back. “I’m known for my determination,” says Wendy. “When our friend had re-married and could no longer pilot, I decided that I would step up, gain my professional license and become our pilot. I’ve always been a bit of a behind-the-scenes kind of person. It’s difficult to pilot behind the scenes, and piloting has helped me grow my inner confidence and step out from the shadows. I love the fact that I’m doing something really different and challenging, and that I own my space.” It’s hard to think of a nicer office.
Exploring Gascony and Bordeaux region via Canal Barge
As a first time—but hopefully not last time—barge cruiser, I was enamored by the whole experience. France is intersected by an intricate series of antique waterways of canals and rivers meandering through the countryside. Once used for transporting cargo, the barges have been reoutfitted as floating boutique hotels. They sail at the leisurely pace of about four miles an hour, perfect for biking or walking alongside, or watching the tiny towns and lush farms roll by from the deck.
The barge is a home base from which to intimately explore the region, Saint Louis offers two routes along this wonderful canal in Aquitaine and Gascony. Each day, Peter took us to see local gems. We visited tiny cobblestoned towns, old churches, post stamp-sized bakeries, a generations-old Armagnac producer, and Latour-Marliac, a remarkable garden of lilies. I knew these were things I would not have stumbled upon otherwise as a tourist, and they were made even richer with Peter’s colorful stories. In the evening, we returned to canapes and then a four-course meal from the barge’s talented chef featuring local ingredients and paired with wines from the Saint Louis’s 600-bottle cellar, curated by an expert in nearby St Émilion. I won’t even get into the cheese courses (that’s for my next article)…but the cheese!
The Saint Louis felt light, airy, and welcoming, thanks to Wendy’s impeccable eye. The boat they had originally bought had been a bit old-school and stuffy, and Peter and Wendy have slowly transformed the look into something classic yet totally modern. Off season, when the barge is not booked with guests, is not a timeto rest, but a time to make sure the boat is perfect, inside and out. Wendy created a different table setting for every night— she used table cloths, jacquard linen napkins, candles, and fresh flowers to design an ideal backdrop for the excellent food and wine. When it was time to say goodbye, nobody wanted to leave.
140 Tons of Steel
Everything felt so pretty and effortless. But piloting a barge is the opposite; Wendy’s daily work entails “managing 140 tons of steel in changing conditions, maneuvering a 99-foot barge into 101-feet spaces, and having guests join me at the helm to steer short (straight!) sections of the canal.” Through all kinds of weather, her job demands constant concentration. The safety of her crew and guests rests in her hands. It’s a demanding job physically and mentally.
When Wendy first began driving the barge, she was “very aware of the reaction of people along the canal to the fact that a woman was piloting. More people watched the woman pilot maneuvering, more so than any male pilot. Some, mostly men, had advice to give, even though they were not necessarily pilots themselves, and the round of applause once a difficult mooring was completed or some other skill demonstrated was somewhat condescending. Peter would always say something like, ‘what did they think you were going to do, leave it in the middle of the canal?’” But the barge world is small, and by now most everyone they pass knows Wendy, Peter, and their handsome barge.
At the end of the day, it’s the community that Wendy loves being a part of. And for guests, getting to visit this other world is what makes the experience so extraordinary. “Saint Louis is not just a barge holiday,” Wendy explains. “It’s an insight into another lifestyle where the focus is on personal connection and relationships. Very often our guests leave us reflecting upon their experiences on board and the friendships made.”
My time on the Saint Louis was the opposite of what I imagined a cruise to be, which is to say commercial and generic. Barging with a crew—a family—is an intimately personal experience. It unfolds slowly, at four miles an hour over an espresso or a glass of Champagne or Bordeaux, with lots of conversation and laughter, and sometimes just that birdsong and the old, brilliant green trees out the window.
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.