The French call them peniches and their squat bows bear such names as La Litote (the understatement), Nenuphar (water lily), L'Escargot (the snail), and Bonjour (hello). They cruise at a snail's pace along an intricate network of ancient canals and rivers, carrying their cargo of vacationers through a variety of ecluses (locks) and calling at such historic towns as Auxerre, Nemours, Moret-sur-Loing, Carcassonne, and Toulouse. These are the popular hotel barges found in the Midi, Cote d'Or, Brittany, Alsace, and Languedoc. To say they are ''all the rage'' this year is, indeed, an understatement.
Nothing can prepare one properly for the serenity and peace experienced during six days aboard a hotel barge. There is time to marvel at the reflections in the water, wave to the patient fishermen lining the banks, and enjoy a Vivaldi recording in the distance while wondering what lies around the coming curve (yes, canals do curve). Every day is a good day, and relaxation is complete.
Life aboard a peniche means heavenly, fresh-from-the-oven croissants every morning (and a vow to eat only one), local cheeses and pates with crusty breads and salads for lunch, and gourmet dinners. It also means making friends and sharing special moments. For diversion, there are walks along the towpath and chats with personable lockkeepers, while your barge cruises along at four miles an hour. The hands-down favorite among recent La Litote passengers was the jolly fellow just before Montargis, who scurried home to shave lest les touristes be offended!
Being aboard a peniche also means comfortable, but very cozy, cabins; trying to maneuver a bicycle along narrow village streets; mini-excursions in the barge's minibus to nearby chateaux; and a pile of unopened books.
The number of hotel barges catering to an English-speaking clientele grows steadily each season on France's waterways. Fifteen boats this year are owned and operated by three companies specializing in this unique type of cruise holiday. The oldest is Continental Waterways, which began some 15 years ago with the 16-passenger Palinurus. Its first owner and captain, Richard Parsons, is still going strong (on La Litote) and has, it seems, plans to barge everywhere!
Meanwhile, the Palinurus has moved to the 17th-century Canal du Midi, perhaps France's most historic link to the Mediterranean. The Palinurus cruises until Nov. 10 between Castets and Beziers, including the dramatic Toulouse-to-Carcassonne section. Rates are $690 a person for the six-night adventure, which includes three bountiful meals daily and most beverages.
The charming and lively 20-passenger Litote and the 24-passenger L'Escargot follow one another around the edge of Bourgogne each season, drifting along the canals of Briare, Nivernais, and Bourgogne between Paris and Dijon. Mini-buses arrive every Wednesday afternoon in the French capital to collect participants for their six idyllic days aboard and then deposit them back the following Tuesday morning. All this takes place from now through November 2 for $1,080 per person (L'Escargot) and $990 (Litote) in sensible cabins with good facilities.
Those who desire to float through the Burgundian air as well as along its gentle waterways may sign up with the famous Buddy Bombard, whose fleet of colorful balloons offers adventures unsurpassed. From July 14 through August 24, Buddy and his team have chartered L'Escargot for six cruises in the Montbard area plus any number of 'air lifts.' All this for $3,100 per person and if you wish to ascend high over the Atlantic as well, Buddy suggests you consider the Concorde. From the sublime to the supreme. . .
Three similar vessels in the Continental Waterways clan are the six-passenger Virginia Anne and Zeelands Luister as well as the eight-person Mark Twain. Charlie and Beth Pope run the Mark Twain in Eastern France (Alsace, Lorraine, and France Comte) for $1,150 per person. The Virginia Anne in the Midi is available for charter only ($6,600) and so is the Zeelands Luister in Champagne/Ardennes and Meuse ($4,950) from Wednesday to Tuesday each week.
Contact Alison Field, Continental Waterways, 11 Beacon Street, Boston, 02108 (617-227-3220) or any Air France representative for further information.
The eight-passenger Bonjour, pride of Floating Through Europe (217 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016) now says 'good morning' to the Midi and Languedoc coast through November. A week aborad this single-deck barge with gourmet meals costs $1,325 per person ($1,275 in November). The 14-passenger Linguenda remains in the Bourgogne region, cruising between Sens and Pouillenay/Clamecy for Sunday morning to Saturday morning sailings ($1,300 per person through October; $1,235 in November). Flagship of the expanding fleet is the popular 24-passenger Janine , whose Cote D'Or cruises are accompanied by Gastronomy professor Michel Lafond and a fine crew of eight. Because attention is lavished on the best France can offer here, cruise rates are about $100 higher per person. The American-born chef has recently been honored as a 'Commandant' of the Commanderie des Cordons Bleus de France.
From Paris to Reims or Joigny, Australian Peter Evans takes 12 passenger guests aboard Etoile de Champagne. This barge built in 1979 is 128 feet long, and offers the most space per passenger of any vessel in France. Cabins are spacious and there are two lounges in addition to the dining room. Rates for sailing from the romantic Seine to the historic Marne or Yonne rivers are $1,430 per person from Saturday lunchtime to Friday breakfast. Peter will collect you in Paris and provide return transportation as well. (Write Jackie Keith at Esplanade Tours, 38 Newbury Street, Boston 02116 for further information.)
The 1982 season of the Midwest-based Horizon Cruises features the 16 -passenger Nenuphar between Nemours and Nevers ($1,500 per person), the 13 -passenger Horizon between Dijon and St. Florentin ($900 per person), the 10 -passenger Liberte also in Bourgogne region ($1,150 per person). On full charter only are the 6-passenger De Hoop between Villeneuve-sur-Yonne and Chatillon-en-Bazoie ($6,000 per week) and the 6-passenger Sara Jane in the Midi ($5,000 per week). Full details are available from Horizon Cruises, 215 North Street, Belleville, Ill. 62223 or any Air France office.
Two other single hotel barges worth noting are the 12-passenger charmer Christiane Maryse on the Canal du Midi, with sightseeing excursions under the direction of Pierre Noubel (contact Esplanade Tours), and the well-known Secunda. This latter barge is operated by John Liley, a seasoned captain and author of ''France, The Quiet Way'' (available for $18.50 through Floating Through Europe's bookstore. This book is a splendid introduction to the art of barge cruising in France, indeed, anywhere. For it is an art - and one that very soon becomes a habit!