Barging into life's luxuries
AFTER taking part in the Allies' D-Day landing in Normandy in 1944, the little one-time grain-barge-cum-troop-carrier Etoile de Champagne returned to her homeland Belgium - but instead of a heroes welcome she was ignominiously driven into a river shallows and scuttled to prevent her falling into German hands.
There she lay partly-submerged for over a quarter-century until Australian architect Brian Evans found her in the early 1970s, raised her, replaced the temporary troop-landing bow with a more-original rounded one, and converted Etoile de Champagne into a luxury 6-cabin floating hotel.
For the next decade and a half Mr Evans operated his "hotel-barge" on the canals of Europe for those seeking a truly personalised, indulgent and laid-back holiday experience - complete with two Bentley limousines whose drivers leap-frogged the barge to towns and villages for daily shore-side sightseeing.
In 1989 Mr Evans sold Etoile de Champagne to his skipper who later sold it to current owner and skipper, Chris Bennett - who was looking for an "out" from owning and running a high-pressure film and music graphics company in London.
"I no longer wanted to be at the corporate helm," says Chris, a still-youthful 55.
"I had twelve full-time staff, six freelancers and a team of printers, and was putting-in 18-hour days, seven days a week…
"Fran (his wife) and I decided we'd take time off, bought ourselves a little barge in France, and lived on that while we sussed-out the niche barge-holiday market."
The rest, as they say, is history. The Bennetts began taking guests - just six at a time - on their little barge which they sold in 2005 to buy the larger six cabin, 12-guests Etoile de Champagne that they re-named Savoir Faire (it means To Do It Right.)
Irish-born Fran worked aboard as barge-manager until 2008 but now spends much of her time at their home in Amsterdam as a life-skills and inspirational speaker.
Chris drives Savoir Faire and supervises a crew comprising a First Mate, tour guide, chef and two housekeepers/waitresses as the luxury barge wends a leisurely path along inland waterways from Amsterdam during Springtime's tulip season, then Brugge, Paris and the Burgundy Canal (built in the 18th and 19th centuries) over Summer and Autumn with cruises ranging from 7-days to two-weeks.
Next year he's planning a Paris to Champagne cruise as well.
And he has good credentials for these very people-oriented sailings, as he's the son of an engineer who constantly travelled the world on business, and regularly lived in hotels for up to six months at a time.
"I went to sixteen schools around the world including Australia, and was fascinated by the hospitality industry and lucky enough to have many hotel staff take me 'behind the scenes' - it was invaluable experience that I still put to use today."
This included on one cruise the twelve guests all having special dietary requirements that meant twelve different menus each day to cater for everything from allergies to vegetarian, ethnic to Kosher…
And on another sailing, the Spanish guests having staff clear the dining room every night after dinner so they could dance - all the wives were retired professional flamenco dancers.
And no matter where they come from, all guests aboard Savoir Faire are equally pampered, with grand French cuisine, complimentary wines with lunch and dinner, an open bar with hors d'oeuvres in the evening on returning from daily sightseeing that's included in the price (two mini-vans follow the barge,) a cosy salon for reading, yarning and board-games, outdoor sitting areas for viewing the spectacular countryside and towns and villages (and which are so close you can almost reach out and touch them,) a CD and book library, and bicycles for riding along the canal tow-paths.
As well as the daily excursions led by the live-aboard tour guide, guests can walk the tow-paths between locks - in seven days on the Burgundy Canal from Ancy-le-Franc to St Florentin there are no less than 26 locks in 60kms.
And so tight a fit are some of these locks, that Captain Chris has to ease the 40m-long, 5m-wide Savoir Faire into them with just 5cm (2-inches) clearance on either side.