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MS Déborah


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Passengers are drawn to barge cruises for several reasons. One, they want the intimate setting and personal service that a vessel holding fewer than two dozen people provides. Two, they like the idea of lazing around as the boat drifts down a countryside canal, taking life at a slower pace than you'd expect on a typical river cruise. And three, they expect outstanding regional food and drink.

Deborah, a hotel barge launched by CroisiEurope in 2016, more than fits the bill on all accounts. Deployed on the quiet Upper Loire canal in the centre of France, the 22-passenger boat is well-designed, with a cohesive bilingual staff and some of the best food and wine we've had on the water. Cabins are tight, as you'd expect, but attractively modern with features like above-headboard storage and USB ports next to the bed.

Our cruise on Deborah had a bilingual passenger base, with six Americans, two Brits and one Australian making up the English-speaking group and six French speakers, four of them from France and the other two from Switzerland. Usually on a boat so small, Croisi tries to keep all the passengers on the same language -- you'll never be the only English speaker on any Croisi ship -- but we found the international staff able to move back and forth between the groups easily. Contrary to stereotypes, the French-speaking passengers were friendly and wanted to interact with us, and we all did the best we could to form friendships, despite language barriers.

Plus, having French passengers onboard contributed to the immersion that we felt by sailing with Croisi. The French-owned line takes pride in its food and drink, and it goes all-out on its barges. Mealtimes follow the French model, with a scrumptious, but relatively light breakfast, followed by an elaborate four-course meal with paired wines and the most exciting cheese plates we've ever seen at lunch. Dinners begin on the later side and are also three courses (with the exception of the gala night, when you have five). Unlike Croisi's river cruises, though, Deborah provides snacks and nibbles in the late morning and before dinner. You certainly won't go hungry; in fact, you may wonder if you'll ever feel hunger again!

The charms of the Upper Loire Valley are quiet, mostly centring on wine towns such as Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire.

Likewise, the boat is pretty sparse on evening entertainment or enrichment. Afternoon activities when the boat is cruising are limited to sitting outside and watching the scenery go by; the appearance of a lock causes much excitement. (We did love the onboard wine tasting that the staff organized when a visit to a farm fell through.)

Our trip on Deborah was one of the best we've experienced in Europe. Barges travel slowly at 4 mph; we found that we, too, reduced our speed, taking time for lengthy conversations, convivial meals and long evening walks around small towns. The Frenchness of it all has an effect; we already enjoyed cheese, but after seeing the love and attention that the staff lavished on it, we'll never put a cheese plate together the same after this trip. Plus having more passengers onboard than other barges meant we weren't stuck talking to the same two people all the time. For those who are looking to give French barging a whirl, at a reduced price compared to other companies, Deborah is practically perfect.

Deborah is a very casual ship. During the day, passengers wore jeans, T-shirts, capris, shorts and pants, and often the same clothing was worn at dinner. You'll want good walking shoes for excursions and wandering in the small towns after docking. Once per cruise, there's a "gala" night where people dressed a little nicer -- sweaters, dresses, collared shirts -- but no jackets, formal dresses or heels are required.

Deborah Inclusions

Deborah includes quite a bit in the fare. The price includes shore excursions, transfers to the ship from Paris and back, most alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (with the exception of premium wines and liquors), use of bikes and Wi-Fi. Gratuities are not required on CroisiEurope. The currency onboard is the euro.

Shore Excursions

At least one shore excursion happens every day on Deborah; usually, taking place in the morning after breakfast. Since the towns you're visiting aren't bucket list tourist attractions, these are usually fairly mellow excursions to visit a monastery or cathedral, a winery or a goat cheese farm.

Daytime and Evening Entertainment

Entertainment during the day is limited to sitting outside with drinks and watching the scenery go by. There is no music or entertainment in the evening either; passengers usually rolled out of the dining room around 9 p.m. and maybe had a digestive before going to bed.


On one morning, our shore excursion was cut short and the boat brought on a Loire wine expert for a tasting of the different varietals in the region. This was an extremely popular activity.

Afternoons are quiet time, with no activities or enrichment planned. For the most part, passengers sat outside and talked among themselves, read books or took naps. The appearance of a lock was met with much excitement.

Deborah Bars and Lounges

Deborah's indoor lounge takes up the bulk of the main deck. It's an attractive spot, with comfy purple banquette sofas, small ottoman chairs and funky modern lamps. The pinhole lights in the ceiling changed colours during the evening, from purple to orange. There's a small bar with a few stools, although no one really congregates there. Because we didn't have a full house for our cruise, the lounge was spacious enough for everyone to have a seat; if 22 passengers were onboard, it might feel crowded.

Deborah also has an outdoor seating area at the front of the boat. With tables, chairs and sun umbrellas, this was the main spot where passengers hung out during the daytime sailing hours. Bar service at both the lounge and the outdoor space was quick and efficient; the excellent hotel manager took very good care of both French and English passengers.

Deborah Outside Recreation

The top deck of Deborah is a sun deck with lounge chairs, although the area is only open in the afternoons when the ship is docked or almost docked because of low bridges along the sailing route. The staff has a chain on the stairs leading up to it; when the captain removes the chain, you can go up. Passengers awaited this event with glee, as the lounge chairs on the top deck were extremely comfortable. There is no cover for the deck, which was fine during our unseasonably warm fall, but the heat could be an issue at the height of the summer.

Deborah has a hot tub at the front of the boat.

Deborah Services

There's a small service desk with a computer in between the bar and the lounge area where the hotel director can look up information for passengers and also hand out maps; passengers can also use the computer if they want. A few books, mostly in French but some in English, are scattered around the lounge.

Wi-Fi on Deborah is free and worked most of the time, except when we were in a particularly remote area or in the locks.

With a focus on fine French cuisine, dining on Deborah is a highlight of the cruise and meals -- lunch in particular -- are greeted with much fanfare. With so few passengers, the onboard chef has the ability to show off with complicated French dishes such as salmon en croute, lamb roasted for seven hours and beef bourguignon, all served with a rotating list of French wines designed to pair. We've never eaten so well on the water before.

For passengers who are used to lots of choice with their meals, Deborah -- and the CroisiEurope line overall -- will take some adjustment. Meals are set so there's no need to order or peruse a menu. Breakfasts are on the light side, but lunch is a nearly two-hour affair that has four courses, including a cheese course that comes with a formal presentation. Dinner, too, is on the heavy side, with three courses. Although the French in general do not snack, the Deborah staff put out pretzels before lunch (and more elaborate apps when we went through the Briare Canal) and usually served an "amuse-bouche" during aperitif hour.

Overall, the fixed menus are designed with carnivores in mind. Special diets for vegetarians or food allergies can be accommodated, but you should contact the line when you book and talk to the chef when you get onboard. Croisi is not a line for picky eaters, as the meals could include foods such as duck, foie gras and veal; we saw pork switched out for some passengers one night, but on the whole, passengers were pretty happy with what they were served.

The wines on Deborah were all French, with many reflecting the Loire Valley. They changed at every meal, and always chosen to pair with the entrée. We loved the mix of varietals and learned a lot.

Restaurant (Main Deck): Deborah's restaurant has one table for six passengers and four tables of four. It's a compact, yet attractive space with windows that open, white tablecloths and flowers on the table, purple chairs and grey curtains. People can sit where they wish, although people tended to stick with others who spoke their language.

Breakfast usually begins at 7:30 a.m. The buffet includes croissants, various breads and spreads, cheese and meats, yogurt and fruit. Hard-boiled eggs are available and there's also a hot egg dish, such as scrambled or an omelette, offered each day.

Lunch is the main meal of the day, and it usually begins at 12:30 or 1 p.m. The chef doesn't run through the meal until everyone is seated, so dawdling on the way to the table is not encouraged. Expect a starter of two cold salads such as a pasta salad with salmon and a coleslaw made from celery root, followed by a hearty entrée such as veal, lamb or pork. Our favourite was an impressive salmon en croute. The cheese course comes next -- more on that below -- and then there's dessert, which could be crème brûlée or chocolate mousse.

Deborah's lunchtime cheese courses are something to behold. Coming after the entrée and served with a green salad as a palate cleanser, these cheeses will make anything you've picked up look insignificant (and because some are unpasteurized. The French take their cheese very seriously, and have appellations for them, just like wine. Among those we were served: Sainte-Maure de Touraine, a goat cheese held together with a straw that's been rolled in wood ash; and Langres, an orange washed rind cheese that is served with schnapps to pour on top. Before the tray was put down, we were given a highly involved explanation of the cheeses that passengers greeted with clapping enthusiasm. If you're lactose-intolerant, Deborah is probably not your ship.

While dinner is a little less of a production than lunch, it's still three course (five on gala night). It begins at 7:30 p.m. and consists of a starter such as a vermicelli consommé, an entrée such as beef bourguignon and a dessert like rhubarb tart. The gala night meal was amazing, with lobster soup; homemade duck foie gras with brioche buns; rack of veal with shallots and tarragon sauce, vitelotte mashed potatoes and vegetables; Reblochon cheese baked in a puff pastry and baked Alaska flambeed in Grand Marnier. Oof. Bring antacid.

Deborah does not have room service. You won't miss it.

With the small size of hotel barges, you expect cabins to be tight. And while our lower deck cabin wasn't huge, we found it surprisingly well-designed, with excellent lighting, storage and a larger-than-expected shower.

All of the 11 cabins on the lower deck are the same size and layout. The décor is modern, with purple carpets and bed accents and grey velvet curtains on the windows (which are placed at water level toward the top of the room -- you have to stand to see out).

Every cabin has two twin beds that are fixed (meaning that couples will have to sleep apart) and a small desk with a stool. There's a closet with space for hanging clothes on one side and cubbies on the other. More storage lies behind the beds, above the headboard, with a door that flips down; there's a safe up there too. Right behind the pillows there are two extremely convenient cubbies, both with electric outlets (European plugs only) and one with two USB slots.

A flat-screen TV is high on the wall near the door. While most of the channels are French, you can get English news channels such as CNN and the BBC.

While the bathroom is small, more square footage within the room is given over to the shower, so you do have room to turn around. It even has a folding glass door! (That's a nice change from small expedition and sailing ships we've been on, where the shower is essentially over the toilet.) There's a ledge that can be used to place some items, as well as hooks. Shampoo/conditioner and lotion are Croisi brand, and there's a hair dryer tucked under the small sink.

Lower Deck: The 11 identical cabins on the lower deck are accessed by a spiral staircase. Each cabin is 95 square feet, including the bathroom.

Main Deck: One cabin is available on the main deck for passengers with reduced mobility. This cabin offers the same square footage, but the bathroom is larger to accommodate a roll-in shower and the bedroom has a single double bed. You’ll also see more from the larger window.

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