Cruising the Canals of Europe
You could spend a lifetime exploring the canals of Europe and the British Isles aboard your own boat and still never see them all. France alone offers 90 separate waterways covering more than 5,000 miles. Within each country, all canals are governed by an agency that oversees navigation and lockkeeping. The French National Waterway Authority (Voies navigable de France; vnf.fr) administers all French canals. The tolls for a 40-foot vessel were $55 (50 euros) per day or $495 (450 euros) per year; for charterers, tolls are included in the booking fee. Each canal system is defined by a “gauge” — that is, a set of vessel dimensions based on draft, bridge height, and the volume of lock pounds. The gauge inside the Canal du Midi is smaller than those of other canals: a draft of 4 feet 5 inches and a height of 9 feet 10 inches. The more typical Freycinet gauge in other canal systems allows for larger commercial craft up to 300 tons.
For our weeklong trip we used a trilingual waterway guide published by Èditions du Breil in France (www.carte-fluviale.com). Edition 7 of that series covers the Canal du Midi and environs. For even deeper knowledge, EuroCanals Publishing (www.eurocanals.com), based in New Mexico, provides an excellent website and country-specific print cruising guides to all the canals in Europe.
Canal Chartering My family chartered a Vision4 SL from Le Boat (www.leboat.com). Because Le Boat is owned by the same parent company as The Moorings and Sunsail, we were able to make all our arrangements in U.S. dollars with a travel agent in Clearwater, Florida.
The weekly rate for this boat, the flagship of the fleet, ranges from $2,800 to $3,800 in the spring and summer of 2017. If you travel with eight people, that comes to $50 to $68 per person per night. Smaller boats cost less. For our party of seven, we rented four bicycles; we used them every day.
The Vision4 SL, in its own way, is a marvel of engineering. Start with the length: 49 feet 1 inch (14.95 meters). By French law, any vessel larger than 15 meters requires a licensed operator; this boat comes to within centimeters of that mark. The boat’s height is precisely designed to fit under the Canal du Midi’s 17th-century bridges — provided that all heads are ducked, and all wine bottles removed from the flybridge dinette. Within the envelope of those hull dimensions is a fine hotel: four double cabins, each with its own en suite bathroom, plus an ample main saloon and a sizable kitchen. (Yes, “bathrooms” and “kitchen” are how the brochures describe them.) After a quick learning curve, operating the boat is relatively easy — and made easier by a bow thruster and an articulating pod driven by a joystick in docking mode.
If you go
We traveled to Languedoc in the third week of April. Two days of our week were sweater-chilly, with occasional light showers; the other days were short-sleeved and sunny. Later in the season, it becomes drier and warmer, but crowds thicken between July 15 and August 31. May, June and September seem ideal.
Our canal itinerary was upstream, beginning in Homps and ending in Castelnaudary. Our travel agent from Le Boat made two excellent suggestions: that we set the date of our overnight U.S.-to-Europe flights to land a full day before boarding the boat, and that we spend our first night in Narbonne, just 20 miles from the Le Boat base at Homps.
That said, we were able to improve on her third piece of advice, which was to fly into Barcelona, then take a train to Narbonne. As much as we would have relished a visit to Catalonia, our tally of round-trip train tickets for seven people came to roughly $1,000. Instead, we booked flights into Toulouse, landing midafternoon, and rented a one-day diesel van from Europcar. (We found that a one-way car rental across national borders was complicated and costly.) The van easily carried all of us and our bags to Narbonne for our first night, and then on to the boat the next day, all for less than $300. My state-issued driver’s license and a credit card were all I needed to rent the car, and the driving time was less than two hours. The return train connection from Castelnaudary to Toulouse was an easy 40 minutes and cost us less than $15 per person.
Read the full story of a canal charter through France here.