Exotic Boat Charters

Published: December 2011

These three destinations are high on many people's boating bucket lists. Here's what it's like to go, and how to plan your own boating trip.

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité Afloat

French Canals

By Bernadette Bernon, Rhode Island

For years I'd dreamed of taking a barge vacation through the French canals. I'd imagined lingering in picturesque countryside villages, browsing the open-air summer food markets with a basket on my arm that was full of the gastronomical treasures I'd selected for our lunch. I'd imagined sampling the artisan cheeses and ogling the massive selection of olives and mushrooms and pâté and breads, then climbing back aboard our cozy vessel as we pushed off to languorously putter on the canal through the stunning farming valleys, passing whitewashed cottages, with their colorful wood shutters and overflowing flowerboxes. But there was a snag. My husband Douglas didn't share this dream. Actually, that's an understatement; he thought crawling through France at four knots on a fussy barge full of strangers would be a little slice of hell on earth.

Luckily, we have good friends who talked him into it, promising that we'd cycle and hike every day, that we'd unabashedly overdose on the finest food and wine in France — but on our own terms, and without spending a fortune. The key? We'd charter a modern 42-foot fiberglass self-drive barge, have it all to ourselves, and be free to do as we pleased … and that's what happened. Last June, with our friends, we embarked on what would be one of the best holidays of our lives exploring the Canal du Nivernais.

Sitting on the top deck, we watched the wildflowers and grasses undulating in the breeze, and took turns driving as our barge slowly made the gentle arcs that introduced around each bend one vista more stunning than the next. Every hour or two, we came to a lock with massive metal doors that opened like the gates of heaven. We'd enter and tie up inside as each unfailingly charming and friendly lockkeeper turned the manual gears that closed the gates behind us. Next he'd open the valves to allow the water to rush in, raising the boat until we were up to the level of the water ahead; then he'd rush to the front, open those gates, tip his hat, and out we'd pop, into another gorgeous setting.

The food was out of this world, and it did seem sometimes that we were eating our way through Burgundy. But we had loads of exercise every day, and refused to worry about it. The canal system was once the main commercial transportation system linking the towns of France. They're wide and deep all the way to the sides, with solid-rock walls, and — the best part — alongside them are bike paths! In the old days, horses pulled commercial barges full of lumber and supplies; today those paths remain, but they're paved, wide, and flat! Our boat was equipped with bikes, and as long as two people stayed onboard to negotiate the locks, we could cycle to the next town, or through the countryside. We'd stop for café au lait when we liked, or to pick fruit — it was cherry and raspberry season — or just to sit on the banks and watch the world go by, trying to decide in which gem of an antique town we might pause for the evening, until our friends came 'round the bend and we jumped back aboard.

On one of my favorite evenings, we just pulled over to the side of the canal, where the scene was magically lit under a full moon, and the little town in the distance was from a picture postcard. Each barge comes with a sledgehammer and a couple of picks, which you just tap into the ground and tie to on those days where you want to forgo the village bustle for some solitude; docking all along the canals is free. The locks close at 6, so there's zero traffic in the evenings. That night, on our dining table were mouthwatering fresh foods from the day's markets, delicious wines from the region — inexpensive, yet some of the finest we've ever had. My dream had come true, and it was a more stunning — and more affordable — voyage than we'd ever imagined. Douglas has been talking about going back.

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Logistics:

Fly to Paris, take the train directly from the airport to Migenne, where you can provision, pick up the boat, and take off the same day. On the return, after turning the boat in by noon, simply take the afternoon train back to the Paris airport, and fly home that night. Of course a few days spent in Paris are a delight, but if time or budget is a concern, there's no need to stay over in the city; trains are plentiful and run regularly.

Planning:

Le Boat is owned by TUI Marine. Their fleet of self-drive barges is in terrific condition; they come in many sizes, and are absolutely simple and fun to operate. There are governors on the engines that won't allow them to travel at more than 5 knots, and thick integral bumpers all around the hulls so that you can kiss the sides of locks without worry. Most French locks are operated by full-time lockkeepers, some of whom even live on site with their families, and who are all super-helpful and friendly. The one-week charter described here was on a 42-footer that slept four couples. In June, before school vacation began in Europe, the canals were peaceful and unhurried.

A three-cabin, three-head barge on the Canal du Nivernais, for a week in June, is $3,766.50. In June, before school vacation began in Europe, the canals were peaceful and unhurried.

 

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