After hot-air ballooning, there seemed to be no new ways left to see the French countryside. But now a fleet of luxury barges is giving travelers another view—from some of the 2,700 miles of waterways and canals snaking through the Loire Valley. Owners Steve Pope and Martine Gibelin have turned three former grain vessels into elegant chartered cruisers, each with a five-person staff, outdoor terraces, dining room, and four staterooms done in mahogany and toile. The weeklong trips, which Pope and Gibelin limit to eight people (boats actually hold 24), are completely tailored to passengers' whims. They might include a tour of scenic châteaux, like the privately owned La Bussière and Renaissance gem St. Fargeau; wine tastings in Pouilly-sur-Loire or Sancerre; and shopping in Gien, famous for its cobalt-blue faience. Of course, the main attractions are the canals themselves. Passengers floating through the middle section of the Loire canals get to see the gorgeous Pont-Canal de Briare, said to be Europe's longest aqueduct, designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1890. Rates, $28,500-$37,500. Some staterooms can be booked individually, for $4,000-$5,200 per person. Contact Abercrombie & Kent, 800-554-7094; www.abercrombiekent.com.
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