Canal Boating In France I -> Practical Details
We’ve made it to October, blog-wise anyway (wheeeee!) which means I have another exciting adventure to share.
This time it’s something I’ve never done before, but always wanted to do; taking a canal boat trip in France. I’ve dreamt about this idea for years, and sometime during our many COVID lockdowns last year it all just bubbled to the surface and demanded to be. The time was nigh, the place was here and we just happened to have good friends coming to Europe who were eager to jump on deck with us. Around 8 months later it all came together in a fabulous 1-week, 185km trip down the Canal du Rhône-Sète and Canal du Midi in Southern France.
And honestly it ended up being even better than I’d imagined….
Envision yourself cruising along at a pleasant 8km/hr on a calm canal, stopping in at a quant French town to eat oysters harvested that day from the sea, over-nighting for a tour of famous Vermouth producer, crossing historic aqueducts and drinking sundowners at your own private boondocking site. Oh, and you’re on a UNESCO heritage waterway during most of this too, by the way.
Yeah, it’s pretty frikkin cool!
This was the essence of our trip with our good friends Hector and Brenda and I’ll share all the juicy details of that in my next blog post, but before we got this far there was quite a lot of prep research that had to be done. What is canal boating in France? Where can you go? When should you go? How do you actually do it? And how much does it cost? So many questions on a subject I knew absolutely nothing about 10 months ago, but that I can now share all the beautiful details of with my readers.
So if you’ve ever dreamt of canal boating in France, but never knew the what or how, this is the blog post for you. Enjoy!
What Is Canal Boating?
Quite simply, canal boating involves navigating inland rivers and waterways (most of which are man-made, or at least have been adapted by man) with a flat-bottomed craft.
In France it’s a tradition that dates back to the 17th Century and the construction of the first transport canals used to haul heavy goods (coal, food, wine etc.) that simply couldn’t be easily moved any other way. In those days barges were either sailed or pulled manually (by man or horse) before the engine was invented and took over, well after the Industrial Revolution.
The first of these canals appeared in the North, Canal de Briare, constructed 1604-1642 to connect the the Rhone–Saône and Seine valleys, and by the mid 18th century more than 500 wine barges used this route.
However the most famous (and most insane) project was undoubtedly the Canal du Midi in the South, an ambitious 240 km (150 mi) waterway constructed to connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea. In truth it seemed an impossible project that no one dared attempt before an eccentric and passionate French-man by the name of Pierre-Paul Riquet came into the picture.
A wealthy salt tax collector by trade, Riquet had a vision and a design and in 1666 he managed to persuade the then-King Louis XIV to give him the job. The project became one of the greatest construction works of the 17th century requiring fifteen years and employing 12,000 workers at its peak with multiple engineering feats so phenomenal (specifically ingenious lock and bridge-aqueduct designs) that the Canal du Midi is now a UNESCO Heritage Site in its own right.
These days there is still some commercial traffic on the bigger canals, but the smaller canals are no longer hauling goods and have simply become pleasure-cruising and tourist routes. However they all retain the essence of the grand history that once was.
When Can You Do It?
For pleasure-boaters the open season for canal cruising is primarily April through October. The main reason for this is weather (ice is possible in winter, plus it’s just miserable that time of year), but maintenance (parts of canals are often closed or drained for maintenance in winter) and lock closures also play a part.
What are locks, you say?
Well, locks are mechanisms used for raising and lowering boats between stretches of water of different levels on the canal. They’re kind of like mini-double-dams which can be filled and drained (with a boat inside) and they’re the reason canals can exist as they do through hills and uneven ground.
As an example the Canal du Midi starts at Toulouse at 132m above sea level, climbs to a summit at Seuil de Naurouze at 189 m above sea level and then ends at the sea. A total of 86 locks manage this change in water level, some of which are automatic while others are manned by VNF (Voies navigables de France) personnel.
In summer all these locks are open from 9-12am and 1-7pm, but in winter you have to call ahead and request permission to pass (assuming the portion of the canal you plan to cruise is itself still open), so it’s not quite as straight-forward.
Also like all tourist-type operations the height of summer months tend to be the craziest especially on the most popular canals, while April and October are quieter.
You can guess which month we chose….
Where And How Can You Do It?
In total there are ~100 navigable waterways running ~8,000 kilometers across France and pretty much any of them can be done in a canal boat.
Mostly it comes down to a personal choice of what kind of cities and landscape you’d like to see, and how many other boaters you want to share this experience with. For example Canal du Midi in the south is famous with multiple spectacular/historical towns and is thus one of the most popular (=highly visited) canals, whereas Canal du Nivernais in the center of France is a less famous/quieter alternative. Both are interesting trips with lots of places to stop and discover, but they’re simply different experiences.
How you want to travel is also key….
Generally there are 3 ways for non-boat-owners to travel the Canals of France, but not all methods are available everywhere:
- Hotel Barges or Private Barges – Hotel Barges are smaller boats that only carry ~8-12 people with a skipper and crew that take care of everything for you. The barges typically have staterooms for all guests, but may only have simple common areas such as a deck and one main dining/lounge area. They’re intimate yet full-service, generally quite luxurious, can travel all canals and have itineraries that can be customized to the guests.
- Riverboat Cruises – Riverboats are larger boats that can carry upwards of 150 people or more. More space and options here especially individual cabin-types and (often) multiple common areas, plus these boats can go faster and thus travel further (e.g. across multiple countries) than the smaller barges, thus allowing for more sightseeing. However the itinerary is fixed and you can’t travel the smaller/narrower canals.
- Self-Driving Cruises – These are smaller, self-driving rentals. You must navigate yourself, self-cater everything and you can’t go very fast (most rentals have limited engine power), but you have ultimate control of your own itinerary. Also key for paw-lovers, these boats are generally pet-friendly.
Which one of these you choose is completely individual. Do you want to just kick back and let someone else take care of everything, or do you want full control your own route? Do you have the $$$ to rent your own private barge and skipper or do you prefer a cheaper self-rental or riverboat option? Are you bringing a pet or traveling paw-less? All options can be fun, just in different ways.
Finally, certain canals can only be navigated by specific types of vessels. For example the cruise from Paris->Champagne in the north crosses areas with commercial traffic and so can only be undertaken on a hotel-barge or commercial riverboat, whereas Toulouse->Beziers in the south can be done by hotel barge or on a self-driving rental.
Note/ Climate Change & Drought – This past summer was unusually hot sending parts of France into severe drought conditions, lowering water levels and causing closure of over 521 km of rivers and canals to water traffic. Canal du Midi (around where we were) was not affected, but other canals (and canal boaters) were. A good rental company will always guide you and offer alternatives, just be sure to ask about their policy regarding drought closure before you pay a deposit.
How Much Does It Cost?
This is one of those “it depends” questions, especially what option you chose and when/where you decide to go, but I’ll give you some general ranges for reference.
Hotel or Private Barges are by far the most expensive option as they tend to be intimate/lux, fully-serviced and catered. I’ve seen prices ranging anywhere from EUR 2500/person to EUR 7000/person for 1 week cruises.
Riverboats range a lot in price depending on the size and luxury of the boat, but they’re typically cheaper than hotel barges. I’ve seen prices around EUR 1000-2500/person for 1 week cruise.
Self-Driving Rentals tend to be the least expensive option running around EUR 600-2300/week for the entire boat (multiple people can rent a single boat, making it quite economical). On top of this you should expect to pay extra for diesel, plus rental bikes and post-cruise cleaning (if you opt for it). Lastly if cruising one-way you may need to pay for a taxi to take you back to your start dock.
Note that end of the season (April, Oct) rates are always significantly cheaper than the high-season months (middle summer), no matter which option you chose.
Note/ Minimal Docking Fees: Although the self-driving rental price may still seem quite high, it’s worth noting that we paid minimal docking fees our entire trip. The ports on Canal du Rhône à Sète were non-paying (during our timeframe) and Canal du Midi allows free docking almost everywhere (with a few key exceptions). The boat price is basically lodging and driving in one.
What Did We Choose?
Obviously we researched quite a few options before we went, including a private boat hire (we actually found a really cool deal with an independent captain, but the barge was on a canal was more than 7 hours away, too far) and a self-drive rental. A riverboat cruise was never an option for us simply because we were bringing Polly (naturally) so it had to be dog-friendly.
In the end we opted for a Locaboat hire. Compared to Le Boat we felt they had a much greater variety of modern (i.e. not so beat-up/used) boats on offer and the one we chose (950E) turned out to be a great choice. It was in very good shape, had bow-thrusters (which ended up being key for maneuverability!) and a really clean, modern, flat layout which suited Polly perfectly (who can’t really do stairs anymore). Plus it had two “rooms” that could be separated at night and converted into one spacious grand living space during the day. It was compact, but fine for the 4 of us.
Bonus points? A few weeks before our hire date they offered us a one-way cruise instead of a return for the same price with taxi thrown in, presumably because they needed to move a boat. This ended up being a fabulous gift in retrospect, and took us to places we hadn’t even considered beforehand.
But those details are for the next post….
Suffice to say we loved our cruise and would absolutely recommend it, especially with good friends on board. An adventure well worth taking!
Specific, Useful Resources:
There’s several specific resources which I found very useful for our canal trip planning:
- VNF -> This is the organization that operates/manages all the waterways in France. Their website (https://www.vnf.fr/vnf/) has information (in French) on all canals, locks, closures, news. You can also plan/map a specific itinerary via their trip planning page here: http://www.vnf.fr/calculitinerairefluvial/app/Main.html
- French Waterways -> Comprehensive website in English on everything to do with canal boating in France. They also offer booking services from hotel barges to self-rentals (https://www.french-waterways.com/)
- Guide Fluvial, Editions Breil -> IMO hands down THE best books for canal cruising with specific map details on navigation/stops/locks as well as useful phone numbers and more. We used our Canal du Midi (07) book absolutely everyday of our cruise (https://editionsdubreil.com/en)
- Self-Rental Agencies -> Two of the best-rated self-rental agencies in the biz are Locaboat, and LeBoat.
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