Aye Aye, Captain! The Basics of Canal Boating in France
Be your own captain and discover the wondrous heart of France aboard a self-drive boat. France is ribboned with great canals and navigable rivers that played a vital part in the rise and fall of cities and kingdoms, making any boating holiday an interesting and memorable experience highlighted by medieval towns, age-old ruins, hilltop villages and spectacular rural sights. Go back in time as you cruise the picturesque Canal du Midi, or embark on a great wine adventure as you trace the sinuous length of the Canal de Bourgogne and make your way through Burgundy, France’s prime winemaking region. Self-drive boats let you reach destinations inaccessible to bigger ships or by land, opening up a whole new world of exciting possibilities which you can all explore in your own pace, at your own time.
Read on to learn about the basics of self-drive boats and see if this awesome, new way to explore France is something right up your alley.
No license required
Yes, you read that right! You don’t need to have a license to operate a river cruiser. Lack of prior experience is also not an issue and driving a canal boat is quite easy. Remember this: If you can drive a car, you can drive a river cruiser. To get you on your way, a demonstration is given at the base prior to departure as well as a captain’s handbook. An expert will show you the different features of the canal boat you chose and what the many buttons are for. River cruisers are easy to handle—you’ll be ready to drift through waterways and go chateaux chasing in the Loire Valley or eating your way through Aquitaine’s gastronomic scene in no time!
No unpacking and packing
Everyone can relate to this! Packing and unpacking one’s suitcase or luggage is definitely one of the greatest travel woes of all time. Packing your things for a trip is a breeze, sure, unpacking them is easy as well, but doing that every time you switch hotels or transfer cities is an exercise in patience and resourcefulness. With all the knick-knacks you pick up along the way, the size of your luggage will surely double (or triple) before the trip is over! That is never a problem with self-drive boating holidays. Since your canal boat is basically your hotel albeit a floating one, you don’t have to face such luggage dilemma. Unpack your things once you go on board, stash them in the numerous compartments typical of river cruisers and never worry about them again until the end of your boating holiday. Your self-drive boat is sure to have enough space for all the souvenirs and stuff you want to take home.
No set itinerary
Think about seeing the best France has to offer without the rush of a set itinerary or tour schedule. You will be briefed with a general itinerary of your chosen cruise route of course, but pacing is up to you and you’re free to be inventive with your boating holiday. Want to moor and eat breakfast at the café you saw near the canal? Or maybe dinner at that charming local restaurant you spotted? How about a picnic in the shade surrounded by tranquil and stunning scenery? Since you are the captain of your own cruiser and your own tour guide, you can travel at your own speed and do whatever it is that strikes your fancy!
Comforts of a home
One thing plenty of people seem to think is that self-drive boats can be uncomfortable and spending a night in one is not exactly relaxing. Well, let’s get that sorted out right now. Canal boats are equipped with all creature comforts and some are quite lavish enough to rival hotel rooms! The 5-star Royal Mystique, for example, has designer-style saloon, plenty of room for fine dining, heating and air-conditioning, a huge sundeck and cabins with en-suite bathrooms that includes a shower, electric-flush toilet and luxurious sink. Planning a multi-course dinner? River cruisers have a fully-equipped galley (that’s nautical for kitchen) complete with a small oven, stove, microwave, large electric refrigerator and high-quality equipment and utensils. Going ashore and trying out the local cuisine is always a tempting part of a self-drive holiday in regional France, but a fancy dinner on your own canal boat is an equally appealing option.
More locks, more fun
Ah, the water elevators! Or staircases! Locks are easy to navigate through and should be no cause for worry—they’re all part of the fun of a canal holiday! Most locks are automatic and operated by a lock-keeper who is always glad to help. For the more manual locks, all you have to do is have one member of your party go ashore to help secure the boat with lines. Once done, get a person on each end to keep the pressure on the lines and stop the boat from moving too much as the water level changes. Here’s a tip: Bring work gloves! The gloves will make it easy to maintain a grip on the ropes and work the lines. Besides, you wouldn’t want rope burns or blisters ruining your boating experience. Once you through your first lock, the next ones are nothing but mini adventures! Some locks even have museums or shops where you can mingle with the locals or swap stories with other travellers. If you’re cruising Canal du Midi, the Nine Locks of Beziers which raises boats at a height of 21.5 metres to cross the river Orb is something to look forward to!
Where to moor
You can moor wherever you want along public river ways or canals. There are some private and restricted areas, sure, but finding free moorings is not a problem in most cruising regions. However, for a few euros you can moor in a marina where electric hook-ups, showers, water refill snacks and other facilities are available. Make sure to call the marina you plan to moor in a few hours before your arrival as marinas tend to be crowded and moorings subject to availability.
Self-drive holidays usually include the rent of the canal boat and its equipment, a fully-equipped kitchen and all the expected utensils and equipment, towels and linens, a boat-handling demo, on-board cruising information, technical support and lock fees. Take note that fuel consumption cost and mooring fees are not included, but bikes, barbecue grills, sundeck cushions, WiFi and other amenities can be added to your booking. You can also get your river cruiser provisioned in advance by including grocery packs in your boating package.