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As we headed off road down the dense forest track, ducking to avoid branches and alternately shrieking and laughing as we splashed through mud and puddles, it was hard to believe we were on actually on a vineyard tour. The sense of adventure was heightened by the fact we were in a World War Two jeep with the top and windscreen folded down - and the American behind the wheel hadn't driven a manual vehicle for more than two decades (although there were helpful numbers written on the floor pointing in the general direction of the gears!).
But this was no ordinary excursion, and as we arrived windswept and exhilarated at the small family-owned vineyard that was our lunch stop it neatly summarised the daily surprises during an extraordinary week floating along Burgundy's Canal du Bourgogne.

apres tout cruising on canal
apres tout cruising on canal
caroline and rory
fine dining
deck on the barge apres tout
apres tout on canal

Although I've clocked up a fair few maritime miles on ocean and river cruises - and sported badge of honour callouses dealing with locks on English canal boat holidays because I couldn't get the hang of steering - nothing had prepared me (or my fellow passengers) for the reality of life on Apres Tout, originally a working barge and now a luxury hotel boat owned by the charming and engaging English couple Caroline and Rory Macrae. It became a standing joke that I'd emailed to ask if I needed to bring towels, particularly when faced with the fluffy assortment awaiting in the cabin, to say nothing of the robes, L'Occitane bathroom products, separate towels for the sun beds and hot tub on the huge teak lounging and dining deck - one of Apres Tout's stand out features - and cuddly blankets so you can still enjoy the latter on chilly days.
After working in the high end French barging industry for 20 years the couple struck out alone in 2012, with Rory at the helm and Caroline, a Cordon Bleu trained chef, in the galley. Their very able shipmates are the hugely knowledgeable guide and driver Nick and the delightful Hannah, who created beautiful hand-drawn menus and table decorations, served meals and kept the cabins shipshape.
Carrying just six passengers, Apres Tout offers very personalised cruises, which can follow set itineraries or be tailored to suit families or specific interests such as golf, cycling and wine, albeit there was no shortage of that on our journey from Pont d'Ouche to St Jean de Losne, France's largest inland port, ending with a cruise on the River Saone.
Although it's often chartered by groups of friends and families it won't matter if you don't know your fellow passengers. With the welcoming atmosphere, assisted by the open bar stocked with every imaginable drink that's included in the cruise, friendships are guaranteed to form during the week and I'm still swapping email memories with my Apres Tout amigos.
In six days we only travelled around 100km on the 38 metre barge, but the gentle pace enabled us to hop on and off and stroll between locks, or pedal along on bikes kept on deck, and thoroughly immerse ourselves in the day to day life of the small villages and towns along the way. I practised rusty schoolgirl Franglais on the amiable lock keepers who aided our progress through the week's 65 locks, some of whom still live in pretty houses by the canalside.
In addition to transfers to and from the barge which is moored around three hours outside Paris, cruises include daily excursions which are again personal and authentic, far removed from the nose to tail groups led by flag waving guides we saw in Beaune, capital of the Burgundy wine region, as we headed for a private wine tasting in the Joseph Drouhin wine cellars. Another day we visited the studios of Paul Day, tucked away in a village near Dijon and not normally open to the public. The British sculptor created the giant kissing couple statue at London St Pancras railway station and Battle of Britain memorial on Victoria Embankment and we gained a first-hand insight into his very individual work. Other trips saw us having afternoon tea at the grand Abbaye de la Bussiere, now a magnificent hotel that's not open to passers-by who are not resident or dining in the restaurant, digging up truffles with the help of a dog - followed by a tasting - having dinner in a Michelin star restaurant and watching a horse tilling the precious land at Romanee-Conti where the wines are amongst the world's most expensive and sought (in 2011 a rare case sold for £192,000). And you couldn't get further off the tourist track than the jeep tour. We originally thought it was a novel form of transport to take us on a gentle tootle through the vineyards around the medieval chateau Clos de Vougeot. It turned out to be a drive through villages and off road tracks leading to the vineyards. Bring your driving licence if you want to get behind the wheel.
On board days slipped into a cossetted routine beginning with fresh croissants and goodies from the nearest bakery and punctuated by Caroline's unfailingly exquisite meals and different Burgundy wines served to the accompaniment of Nick's informal and fun tuition.  Cocktails and canapes welcomed us back after excursions
By the end of the week I knew my climats (plots of wine-growing land with precisely defined limits) from my clos (vineyards defined by man-made walls) and like amateur sleuths we examined and deciphered wine labels, aided by a few clues from Nick. At the last meal there were still a few metaphorical hiccups as we muddled a producer and wine estate and, even with our newfound terminology, dithered over how to best describe the wine.
But Nick had some cheering advice. "The more you drink, the more you learn."
So for once it pays to be a slow learner. With around 200 million bottles of Burgundy produced each year there's plenty of scope to do my homework, and each time I uncork a bottle - purely in the interests of research of course - it will always remind me of the most wonderful week on board a slow boat through Burgundy.
Luxury Cruise Link: www.bargeaprestout.com
Jeannine Williamson 9/9/13
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