Review by Fiona Duncan, published 10th October 2005.
Belgium? There are now about 60 hotel barges – not to mention all the self-drive peniches – plying the Canals de Bourgogne and Midi, witness to the overriding popularity of these cruising grounds for holidaymakers. So when Greg Birra and Tracey McKinstry decided to build and run their own super yacht- style barge for private charter and tailor-made itineraries, why did they choose Ghent as their base? “We found Golden Odyssey, a 1926 freight barge, in Holland,” says Greg. “After rebuilding her there, which took four years, we were on our way south to Burgundy when we stopped in Ghent. We fell in love with the place and thought, why go any further?”
It wasn’t just the city that seduced them. Compared to French waterways, northern continental ones are far superior, kept up to scratch by active commercial use. “You only have to experience the new hydraulic lift at nearby Strepy-Thieu where you and your barge are lifted 215 ft in five eerie, smooth, silent minutes to reach the next canal, to know that it’s not just tourists who use this transport system.”And then there’s Flanders, attractive, prosperous and rich in art and history. “Best of all are the people, so friendly and easy-going”, says Tracey, Greg’s New Zealand-born partner, an acclaimed chef. Her words are born out by a tour of Ghent, guided by Greg, and beginning with Van Eyck’s incomparable altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. For a first–time visitor like me, Ghent is a revelation, with a sweep of lovely squares, churches, and old gabled houses, threaded by two rivers and punctuated by charming shops and cafés. Greg has been a boat captain for over 30 years and Golden Odyssey, 112 ft long, now resembles a classic yacht, with Persian rugs on varnished floors, William Fife panelling and a log-burning fire in the saloon, plus en-suite bathrooms, air-conditioning, telephones, internet connection and, sunk into the fabulous Burmese teak deck, a mosaic-tiled spa pool. Fine linens on the beds, antique mahogany doors on the cupboards, fresh roses on writing desks and generous baths make the cosy cabins havens of comfort. You don’t have to stay in Belgium.
As you might expect at these prices, each charter is tailor made to the clients’ wishes, and the barge often cruises to Paris (quite something, seeing the Eiffel Tower float by from the comfort of a teak sunlounger) and further afield. But I would highly recommend a week in western Flanders, beginning in Veurne’s eye-opening Spanish-style square and later passing between Allied trenches and Axis bunkers, put into context by an afternoon tour of World War I battlefields with a local expert. Then via a curious circular lock to Nieuport, noted for its fish (which Tracy will serve for dinner) and on through pretty open countryside to Bruges and then to Ghent. Deckchairs in the sunshine, a warm fire below, plenty of board games and a library of books, the friendly chug of the engine, Tracey’s subtle, healthy, inventive cooking, Greg’s stock of fine wines, a uniformed stewardess to serve you and a deckhand to open the locks…all the props you need for a stately glide through an ever-changing landscape.
The Golden Odyssey can be booked through Nigel Burgess (020 7766 4300; www.nigelburgess.com) and costs £17,200 for one week’s charter for six people or £22,900 for eight people. The cost includes all on-board expenses, full board, fine wines and beers from the cellar for lunch and dinner, an open bar and chauffer-driven limousine transfers. northern European canals make a great alternative to the more popular, but crowded French ones.