A Family Vacation In France

By Bernadette Bernon

This crew of six piles en famile onto a 55-foot barge and takes on the French canals — and togetherness.

Photo of the embankment along the Briare AquaductOur barge is tied alongside the embankment, just outside the Briare Aquaduct, the longest navigable aqueduct in the world when it opened in 1806. Brooke and Hannah admire the elegant abutments, designed by Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

In theory, the idea of a family boating vacation — a brother and a sister, our spouses, and two teenaged girls all spending a week on a small boat in a foreign country — sounded perfect to my brother Mark and me. But to my husband, Douglas, and my sister-in-law, Gina, it may at first have struck a chord of terror because, let's be honest, boats offer little in the way of escape from the 24/7 quirkiness of loved ones.

Photo of cruising the French Canals on a barge

Luckily, on my end, thanks to both the complex point system that Douglas and I employ when it involves getting him to attend social functions and a certain month-long hiking trip he'd taken while I'd held down the fort at home, well, his options about whether to go or not were confined to one. Gina, too, was skeptical about the idea of living on a rented self-drive barge — "a what?" — with the gang of us. But it was their daughter's last summer at home before going away to school and, drum roll, Hannah had been studying four years of French. We also invited a young cousin, Brooke, who was over the moon at first but then got a twinge of nervousness about her diet, which at that moment in adolescent time was limited to Frosted Flakes, French fries, and chicken nuggets. So while Douglas began downloading a fortification of books onto his Kindle and Gina researched all the emergency rooms on our route, Hannah packed outfits for Paris, and Brooke Googled which breakfast cereals were available in France, Mark and I booked the trip.

Canal Lateral a la Loire

In June, we converged by train and taxi at the LeBoat base in Decize, a small town in France's Loire region. Mark, Gina, and the girls arrived from a few days in Paris, bubbling with all the excitement of the City of Light. Douglas and I arrived from a sweaty, fun week cycling through the vineyards and castles of the Loire Valley. We piled ourselves onto our LeBoat Magnifique C595 barge and cast off.

Immediately, life mellowed. Mark was a natural in maneuvering the boat in close quarters, the LeBoat umbrella over his head for shade. Gina was great with the girls, cajoling them into doing new things; I loved watching her ease as a mom, how she could find the funny in any situation and lighten up any drama. Douglas took turns driving, snapped lots of photos of the kids, and we all hung out. The boat offered a great top deck for taking in the changing view and all kinds of nooks and crannies for a quiet retreat.

Photo of a French book shop signOne of the many creative shop signs from the village of books.

We were off the beaten track, for sure, on this canal connecting working French villages, each with its doll-like houses, flower boxes, hedgerows along cobble streets, and church steeples gently tolling the hours. We puttered through farmlands and wheat fields sprinkled with red poppies and passed herds of snow-white cows and countless hay bails rolled up like giant crepes.

Every morning, the first two up — usually including Douglas — got the kettle going, chopped some fruit, and gently shoved us off. Hannah and Brooke were our official line handlers and dealt with the five or six locks we passed through every day. They instantly got the hang of it, wrapping their lines around the bollards of the lock, letting out slack as the water lowered or pulling in the lines as the water rose, then coiling them after we exited the lock and carried on. Sometimes they thought this was fun, sometimes a complete yawn. But it engaged them in a voyage that might otherwise have been a little sleepy for kids.

At lunchtime, we'd drift over under a canopy of shade trees, untie the bikes, and two or three of us would go cycling for a poke around, to be picked up somewhere down the way. There was no getting lost. There was only the canal, winding its way through the French heartland, and our little barge chugging its heart out at 5 knots.

Mark found his favorite stop at the medieval village of Sancerre, a golden crown atop a hill. We pulled over to the bank of the canal and set out on foot — up and up through the vineyards — until we entered the web of winding cobble streets, cream-stone buildings, and belfries from the Middle Ages. Looking down from the ramparts of this magical place, steeped in the ancient history of France, we saw the vast quilt of fields producing the pinot noir grapes that make this region famous.

Photo of the village of Apremont-Sur-AllierThe village of Apremont-Sur-Allier.

Gina especially loved the 14th-century medieval village of Apremont-Sur-Allier, a Lilliputian lane of preserved cottages once home to the quarrymen who cut stone for the soaring churches upriver in Orleans. At the head of the storybook town was a castle surrounded by acres of exquisite gardens. We strolled along the flowerbeds, over a Chinese bridge, down trellised paths, and into an open-air antiques flea market selling everything from black-and-white photos from the last century to vintage French clothing.

Douglas's favorite memory was from a restaurant called La Grenouille — pronounced grahn-wee, "frog" in French — where a handsome French couple sitting nearby realized that we were visiting from America and hadn't sampled the specialty of the house. The young man came over and dramatically placed his own hot platter of fried frog legs in front of Brooke of all people. "You MUST try zem!" he said. Stunned, the girl who'd snuck a jar of Nutella into her suitcase for emergency rations had no choice but to shakily bring a frog leg to her mouth and slowly bite into it.

"Delicious, non?" Jean Luc smiled.

A lightness flooded over her young face. "It's good!" she exclaimed. There it was, that precious moment of gastronomic metamorphosis we all experience when we're young, when we first realize that an entire world of foods previously considered completely disgusting were actually pretty yummy. The next day, Brooke tried snails.

What Goes Down

We had four bikes aboard tied onto the stern platform, and we unknitted them every day to go cycling. One hot afternoon, we coasted the barge into a lock. The girls laconically looped the lines around the bollards, the gates closed, and water gushed in from ahead. But as we handed the bikes ashore, somehow one splashed overboard, to be swallowed into the black water. Everyone bolted into action. The lock keeper grabbed a 30-foot rake kept near the locks for emergencies, tossed it to us, then drained the lock as far down as he could. We slowly inched the barge forward, then back, again and again, with Mark raking the bottom, picking up a century of mucky detritus. While we all stared transfixed, I silently multiplied how much this buzz kill was going to cost us in French francs. Finally, Mark snagged something, and slowly ... inched ... up ... the bike! Massive cheering erupted.

Photo of Brooke, Gina, Hannah, Mark and DouglasBrooke, Gina, Hannah, Mark and Douglas.

"That must happen all the time," Douglas laughed to the lock keeper, who shook his head, refilled the lock, and said something in French. "I think he said 'Never,'" Hannah whispered to Douglas as we puttered onward. "That he's worked here 10 years, and this has never happened." We were simultaneously giddy with relief and mortified. Months later, I'd hear Hannah describing to a friend her favorite parts of our French trip. All of Paris, she said, and the melodrama of Uncle Douglas dropping the bike into the lock.

On our last morning, we approached the piece de resistance, the splendid Briare Aqueduct, a turn-of-the-century engineering masterpiece carrying the Canal Lateral over the Loire River. We crossed the quarter-mile steel waterway in awe, floating on 13 tons of water, looking down on the river far below, our canal adventure reaching a dramatic end.

All voyages seem, when time passes, to become a few special moments strung together in memory. My string included watching Hannah, at first so shy about her French, blossoming as shopkeepers, waiters, and lock keepers encouraged her on with friendly conversation. I smile thinking of cycling over hill and dale with Douglas, exploring this magnificent valley of castles and vineyards together, stopping for picnics in places we seemed to have all to ourselves. I think of Gina, so effortlessly stylish, showing the girls how to wear their new scarves "the French way" before strolling into the market to search for a patisserie offering macaroons, the colorful meringues to which we'd all become addicted.

But the memory I savor most is how, late into almost every night, my brother Mark and I were the last ones awake on the top deck, talking under the stars, sharing where we were in our lives. Being six years apart, our childhood memories differed, so each of our recollections added fresh perspective for the other. This was a gift we got from this little barge — the peace of a stopped world, where for a time we were at the center, listening to one another. It's always the way, isn't it? The best memories have little to do with the places we visit, and everything to do with being together for the ride. 

Editorial director of BoatUS Magazine, Bernadette and her husband, Douglas, live in Rhode Island, and have a Seaway 24.

— Published: December 2015

Need To Know

  • Chartering a barge from LeBoat costs between $1,076 and $7,015 per week, depending on boat size and month. July and August are most popular, and the locks are busy; June is beautiful, sunny, quiet. Wi-Fi and bikes are available for a small fee.
  • Docking is simple. Drift to the side, stop, hop off — barges have built-in bumpers. If there are bollards ashore, tie to them. If not, use the spikes and mallet provided, pound the spikes into the grass, and tie to those. There are no overnight fees, tide, swell, or waves. The Canal Lateral de Loire is pretty, quiet, not touristy, and off the beaten track. The villages mentioned in this article aren't located right on the canal, but are a short bike ride or taxi ride away.
  • Little open-air markets are held in French towns on different weekdays, listed in the LeBoat cruising guide.
  • Vineyard wine tastings and cheese-making tours (reservations needed) are easily arranged with companies such as Vinitour, which operates seven days a week. Arrange pickup by phone anywhere on the canal.
  • At least one person in your party should enable a cellphone for use in France to contact the LeBoat base, taxis, tours, restaurants, and vineyards.
  • Before meeting at the boat in Decize, Douglas and I cycled across the Loire Valley on a one-week "self-navigating" bike trip, which means we weren't with a group. This relatively flat region features fairy-tale castles and hundreds of miles of spectacular vineyard roads with few cars. Contact Detours in France for bike rentals, detailed route maps, and hotels.
  • The French train system is extensive. Depending on your destination, you can often take a train right from Charles de Gaulle airport, in Paris, to your canal-charter destination and board your barge that day. (LeBoat will arrange train-to-base taxi service.) For departure, leave your charter in the morning, and train to Paris for evening flights.


Chartering In France With Children

Though June is a perfect month for peace and quiet and offers no waiting at the locks, if you have children aboard, July and August might be a better choice. European schools let out in July, so more families are on the canal then, offering the opportunity for kids to meet each other at the locks and in the evenings when docked. Plus, most summer events in the villages are in July and August.

This is a peaceful holiday, so you'll have to come up with ideas to keep younger children busy, such as making a scrapbook of keepsakes from each day, including painting pictures from the scenery and experiences. Bring books to read. If you have time, create a simple treasure hunt for each town. It's easy to research this in advance (using the LeBoat guide you can order beforehand); pick statues, fountains, and food markets for the kids to find, offering clues — it's a great way to get some history in, and encourage exploration.

The Canal Lateral a la Loire parallels the beautiful Loire River, where there are kayaking, swimming, and fishing opportunities in some areas.

Canal barging is a popular holiday for European families, so the canals are very family friendly. The bike paths are plentiful and mostly paved; older kids can cycle unaccompanied.

It takes only two people to operate a barge through a lock — one adult to drive, and one adult or older child to handle the lines. The boats have built-in bumpers all the way around, and a 5-knot governor on the engine. It's almost impossible to go wrong.


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