Before we ever arrived on board, the staff were very helpful on the phone with our booking and with directions to the barge. The weather, to our great fortune, was perfect, and as we drank our glasses of nice wine in the sunshine on deck, smelling the fresh air and the clean canal water, surrounded by the leafy trees lining the banks, we looked forward to a very special occasion, which marked the last evening of our visit.
The barge began its slow cruise down the canal a few minutes later, gliding between rushes and irises on either side. The moment was heavenly.
I wish I could say that the rest of the evening was equally perfect, but in several ways La Peniche failed to live up to its potential. Having the franchise of operating this really charming, handsomely appointed barge on the restored canal, the management don't seem to give adequate thought to what the expectations of their visitors might be. As a result, the cruise doesn't succeed fully either as a dining experience or as a unique opportunity to experience the historic canal.
To start with the cruise aspect: we were surprised to learn that meals had to be taken in the dining room below decks. After beginning our drinks, we were shepherded downstairs to eat. Although the dining room is truly lovely, it deprived us of the wonderful canal views. because we had ordered three courses, which did not arrive in quick succession, we spent ALL of the rest of the trip in the dining room. We were permitted to go up between courses, but my mother did not feel comfortable negotiating and renegotiating the narrow stairs; a younger person could have done so easily.
The pilot navigated skillfully and also operated the locks, an entirely manual operation that is a show in itself. I know about this from having witnessed it previously from the banks. The human-powered mechanism is beautifully quiet and simple and should have been a highlight of the cruise, but many passengers never got to see it and, indeed, the crew made no mention at any time of the lock process; they did not announce the entry into the lock, the sealing of the back gate of the lock, or the start of water flowing in/out. The educational opportunities of the cruise were entirely overlooked; at a minimum, we might have been given a printed leaflet on the history of the canal and the mechanics of the lock.
As to the food, the wine was nice, and the goats-cheese tart was truly lovely. The meats-and-cheeses board contained two delicious cuts of cured meats and a couple of very nice cheeses, none of which were identified on the menu or otherwise--again, more information would have been nice. A pleasing touch was the handful of greens on the board, lending a nice fresh counterpoint to the meats and cheeses. Overall, though, the dish was not distinguished by impressive variety. The beef and Guinness stew was bland; the Guinness flavour was not detectable, nor were there enough seasonings to enhance the beef, which was also rather dry. The clever dessert of strawberries and crushed meringues was very tasty, but each dish contained the equivalent of about half a small strawberry--hardly what we expected!
With the wine, three courses, and a bottle of water (tap water is not available), our meal came to nearly €50 per person. We did add a bit for a tip to our very kind and helpful waitress. In the end, I am sure we will remember the evening for the beautiful light and the few minutes we were able to spend on deck--but the experience could have been so much more.
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