Messing about in boats
Barge Nilaya approaches the village of Lutzelbourg in Lorraine
Whether you're happy at the helm of a self-drive cruiser or prefer to relax while your captain plots the route of your luxury pÉniche hotel, there is no doubt that boating is one of the best ways to explore France.
You could be chugging down a quiet waterway through open countryside or admiring the waterfront architecture of major cities; you could be watching fish leaping and kingfishers darting, or hopping ashore to visit a nearby cathedral or wine domaine. Life moves at a slower pace on a boat, but there's no shortage of things to see along the way, from silent herons standing poised to strike and gliding flotillas of swans, to majestic medieval chÂteaux and quaint waterside towns.
You can go boating in nearly every area of France so whether you fancy Alsace or Aquitaine, Burgundy or Brittany, the Loire or the Lot, the Camargue or Charente... the choice will keep you going for years. And in areas where the self-drive hire companies are thinner on the ground, the hotel barges will take you in style - Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Paris, Champagne, the River Rhône - and all without you lifting a finger.
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If you opt to captain your own boat, once you're on board and have mastered the controls (all hire companies provide excellent instruction before you're let out on your own) you're all set to see France from a completely different perspective and at a pace that demands you relax. You don't need a specific licence to drive a pleasure boat and with speed limits restricted to a maximum of 8km/h on the canals and 10km/h on the rivers, it's impossible to rush. It's amazing how long the days seem when you are forced to slow down.
By contrast, if you have long dreamed of exploring the tranquil backwaters of France but the idea of paddling your own canoe fills you with dread, there is a wide selection of luxury barge companies that offer a completely hands-off experience. With a full-time crew, there's absolutely nothing for you to do but sit back, relax and watch the world go by; with a good bit of fine dining thrown in for good measure.
Barge Luciole passes the Rochers du Saussois in Burgundy
Boating is a great way for the generations to mingle on holiday; for families with young or older children to have fun together; for that long-anticipated reunion of old friends or for couples looking for a romantic getaway; and with the option of mooring up at a remote spot under the stars or stopping in a big city port de plaisance and heading out to dine in style, the variety of things to do will suit all tastes and budgets.
For boating holiday purposes, you can roughly divide France into five areas: Charente, Brittany and the Loire; Nord and Picardy; north-east France; Burgundy, Centre and the River Saône; and the Midi and south-west.
Each of these five areas is crisscrossed by a network of interconnecting canals and canalised rivers that can all be explored by boat. Search online for ‘boating in France' and you'll see what I mean. The choice is huge. There are lots of companies offering a wide variety of cruises from day trips to longer excursions. You can do one-way or return trips. You can travel à la Rick Stein with onboard chef, helmsman and crew when the route, the food, the sightseeing and all the activities are handled for you; letting you set the responsibilities of day-to-day life aside and really relax.
It's also nice to be independent and piloting your own craft gives you the freedom to decide when to set off, where to stop, which places to visit and where to moor up for the night. On the canals, there are plenty of official moorings in the towns and villages en route but you can also ‘moor in the wild', which basically means finding as quiet and picturesque a stretch of canal bank as possible, banging in a couple of stakes and tying the boat to them.
Sometimes this is a necessity, particularly if you misjudge the time it will take to get from A to B and the locks close for the night, but actually it's bliss to be right out in an inky black, star-lit landscape with a fully equipped kitchen, piping hot shower and proper toilets; not forgetting a fridge stocked with nicely chilled local wine.
On the rivers though, it's not safe to tie up just anywhere as river levels can rise or drop dramatically without warning. On the Saône, the Charente, the Vilaine or the Lot, for example, you must pop into port and take an official mooring spot. At most of these, particularly in the larger towns, you have to pay a fee to stay overnight. The cost varies between approximately €8 and €20 per boat per night and depends on the facilities on offer. All moorings provide water and electricity while some have showers and laundry facilities too. The price goes up accordingly. In some of the smaller ports the locals make the most of the passing boat trade by taking orders for breakfast; they arrive the following morning bearing fresh bread and croissants - practically breakfast in bed.
Self-drive boating on the Canal de Nantes à Brest in Brittany
The simple life
Then all you have to do is cast off, motor along for a while, maybe taking in a couple of locks, perhaps with a chatty Éclusier (lock-keeper) on hand to help you in your efforts. You can admire the scenery along the way, waving to other boaters, walkers and cyclists, before you stop for lunch at a suitably tranquil spot and then repeat the process before bed. What's not to like about that?
You find villages and towns you would never have stumbled across by road and because you're often way out in the middle of nowhere, you stumble over restaurants, wineries and even museums dedicated to obscure elements of French rural life that don't appear in any guide books.
On the pÉniche hotels, the crew will know all the best places to visit and have sightseeing trips in mind to make sure that you really get to know the area you are travelling through. When you jump back onboard after a full day's exploring, they will meet you with a chilled glass of wine and a delicious meal; no slaving in the galley for you.
It really is a pioneering way to get under the skin of France and being on a boat is a great ice-breaker too. Everyone will want to chat to you. Once during a slow descent down a staircase of locks in Agen, we got to know the life history of a friendly French family who strolled down the towpath, accompanying us until we got to the bottom and waved them farewell. The stress of trying to look vaguely competent at the helm through four locks while chatting in French nearly killed me, but that's another story!