Travel France – The Romance of Canal Tourism
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The best way to explore regional culture, history and architecture
Looking for the best places to eat in France? Locals will tell you to follow a canal or river to the nearest bridge and you will find the best restaurants – dining secrets from those in the know.
Waterways in Europe were once like modern highways, but now provide tourists the best way to access regional culture, history and architecture. Canal tourism grows more popular every year, fueled by those seeking both peaceful escape and cultural adventure. Whether self-captained houseboats or luxury hotel barges, 90 percent of traffic on canals is now tourist-driven.
Originally engineered in the late 1700s and early 1800s in France to facilitate movement of traffic and products, water highways connected Paris to the Saone and Rhone Rivers, Loire to Burgundy, and the Midi to Bordeaux, which means that there are many great vacation routes from which to choose.
Commercial barges are being converted into luxury floating hotels that let tourists explore French countryside, villages and cities – even Paris – in a more intimate way than by train or car. Every waterway offers a different focus but if you’re a wine and food lover, the Canal du Centre harmonizes the Burgundy’s wine, food and scenery to perfection. Producers along the canal post signs that generously offer to deliver wine purchases to the boat.
You can bike through vineyards and visit cellars in wine villages including Rully, Mercurey, Puligny Montrachet, Mersault and Santenay (home to the Burgundy’s only casino). Life on canals and rivers is a getaway whether you choose to be pampered on a hotel barge or prefer to captain your own houseboat for a week or two, stocking the larder as you pass through villages and towns by shopping in marketplaces for local ingredients – cheeses, baguettes, meats, wines.
How To Begin
Decide whether a houseboat or a hotel barge will best suit your budget and time. Ask about discounts for early booking, seasonal specials, extended rental discounts, and group discounts.
Managing Your Own Boat
Steering a flat-bottomed boat is relatively simple – two positions on the control lever move you forward and reverse, slower or faster, no driving license required. Locks give you exercise and step you up or down canals. Plan on 15 to 20 kilometers per day, about 15 minutes for each lock if there is no wait, but plan on line-ups during busy summer season. The big decision is to decide where to go. The goal is to get the boat back to the base on time.
Rental periods run from mid March to the end of October. Shoulder season rates are half the price of high season months of June, July and August. The months of May and October nicely juggle budget and crowds. Choose from a variety of boat hirers and departure bases. Most boats carry from four to eight passengers; some “theoretically” sleep up to 12. Kitchens, generally equipped for both propane and electricity, come outfitted with linens and dishes. You shop for provisions.
House Boat Information and Rental Options
Crown Blue Line offers 16 cruising regions, 22 departure bases including Holland, Ireland, Germany, Scotland and Italy.
Decide on itinerary
Each company can provide cruising itineraries, attractions, distances, estimated cruising time and number of locks. One-way trips from one base to another are available. Hirers can transfer your car to the return base for a supplementary charge. Bikes are rentable – and an absolute must.
Hotel barges offer a luxurious way to explore a number of regions in France. For example, twenty cruise barges ply up and down the waterways of the Burgundy region with cruises ranging from two to seven days. Most canal barges have a capacity of 6-24 passengers and feature special outings, entertainment, visits to cellars. All carry bicycles on board. Larger hotel barges use rivers such as the Rhone or Saone waterways. Price depends on amenities and season.
Hotel Barge Companies
Continental Waterways has the largest fleet of deluxe hotel barges with the widest choice of cruises for 20 to 511 passengers in the most beautiful regions of France, Holland and Belgium.
Burgundy fleet (Saone/Canal de Centre) to Chardonnay holds 50 passengers but The Mirabelle, Lafayette or Escargot carry only 24 passengers each.