It seems to me that the reviews on canal boat trips are pretty divided. I am wondering if only the folks who enjoy the whole process of going through the locks like the experience. I am certain that my family of 4 would be enchanted with about 2 locks and then dread the next lock. So, that said, is there a canal or houseboat rental experience in France that we would enjoy? We are pretty flexible. We will be in Paris, then the Loire till about June 18 and then thinking of potentially heading to the waterways. My first bit of research involved Canal du Midi but the reviews were pretty divided. We could do this for up to a week if we find a good fit. Thanks!
People talk about the locks because they're a novelty and something to brag about after the first trip. You really don't notice them by the end of the second day except as a break from the relentless screaming along at two and a half knots. If you think you'd really dislike them, look for a route that has fewer. The Canal du Midi can be a bumper boat mad house. I've run the length of the whole system in a larger boat. You couldn't bribe me to do it in a canal boat.
I really should not weigh in because not only am I (1) not one of the "folks who enjoy the locks," I've (2) actually never done it even once. But there was a time when I thought this would be a pretty much perfect family vacation. Then I went bicycling in Burgundy and saw the scene close up, albeit from the outside. Here's what I saw: Bored-looking men (universally) putt-putting their very slow barges from lock to lock, where they queued up to do it again for a few miles to the next one. This was in April; I can only imagine what it would be like in high season. Add that most barge rentals are for weekly terms. This might work well for some, and I do not begrudge, but it was really nothing like what I'd imagined. So think about if it would work for you and yours: how would you spend the time, who would drive, etc.
Adam and Ed:
The slow putt putt and bumper to bumper thing is not our idea of fun. We like active vacations and sometimes doing things a little off the beaten path. I think our vision was cruising down the waterways, pulling up to cute towns and hiking or biking and being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the boat. We did an RV trip for 60 days one summer and like the idea of seeing the country via a different vehicle. Not sure this canal boat idea will be right for us?!
Michele-first, glad that Gites de France yielded you results. Second, I typed up 2 replies here and neither one posted, so here's my 3rd try. In May 2003 we cruised the Canal du Midi & rented from minervoiscruisers.com, ex-pat Brits with classic English canal narrowboats. From their Website just now it appears they retired the old, low-slung boats and have a new fleet. Although the motor was miniscule it was a stout diesel and the price was right. Dutch speedboats passed us, in a hurry to get somewhere and not exactly observing the posted speed limit or no-wake signs. Just piloting the boat was an adventure-especially thru the Malpas Tunnel. It's not rafting Brown's Canyon or even kayaking Boulder Reservoir, but you settle into canal-mode and enjoy the scenery & towns along the way. We didn't do any locks due to a strike (imagine the French staging a "greve"!) that started the day we started and ended the day we ended, so all locks were closed and that limited our range-that's the way it goes. We were prepared for but never had a lock experience by boat. The first night, while preparing dinner in our galley, we heard bells on shore. A herd of hundreds of sheep galloped by, taking a good 10 minutes to reach the end, with the shepherd in back. Even with Colorado's large lamb industry, you'd never see that at home, or by road! Read "Narrow Dog to Carcassone" for more insight on canal trips. BTW, unless they have better bikes now, or you bring one, don't expect much there. The bikes on the boat had bad gears/chain/rims. Still, going into towns along the route is doable and recommended, but there's no rocking to sleep. The canal is flat water, traffic stops for the night, and our steel boat was as solid as a battleship. Just don't swim in the canal like the local kids-boats dump their head (toilet) into that water and it's not sanitary. Great if you stay on board, though!
I was reading Cyn's interesting account, but I have to add that emptying the waste water into the canal or any body of water is illegal. There are stations for that. Our family had a house next to the Burgundy canal for forty years. Though none of us, or anyone in the village, swam in the canal, the boaters used the waste stations provided in the villages, as well as the waste and recycling bins. From Cyn's description, the Burgundy canal is a lot calmer than the Canal du Midi. It's dicey to rent a boat for a week with no guarantee of good weather. We used to see people either bundled up in cool summer weather, or sunburned if the sun was pounding down.
Read up on 'holding tanks'. In the US the fine is something like ten grand for discharging unless you're twelve miles offshore. I'm sure France has similar laws. Holding tanks are pumped and flushed at each turn-around. Funny side story: A couple of years ago I yelled at a guy on a narrowboat since he thought he was filling his freshwater tank but had the hose stuck in the blackwater pump outlet. He gave me the finger. I went for beer and lunch. When I got back he was ankle-deep in sewage in the cabin of his boat. He asked for advice and help. I advised him with a finger and left.
Many years ago we seriously thought about renting a canal boat, most likely on the Canal de Midi, having walked large parts of it. Then some friends did it, and their experience soured us. It rained a lot, and that, among other things, often made it difficult to deal with the locks. And in a week you can't cover a whole lot of territory, especially when you have to return the boat to the starting point. So since then we've rented houses along or near canals and did a lot of walking along them.
France has plenty of trips that are one-way and they'll even move your car. Check out Locaboat and especially look at trips in Brittany. The best trips, however, are on the canals of England. BW does a super job of keeping them up despite the money crunch. The locks are simple and you work them yourself - - the only times you even see a keeper are at the staircases like Foxton. For something a bit different, you can run Loch Ness and the Caledonian from Inverness to Ft William and back in a week with a double run on the Fort Augustus staircase.
Just to assure everyone that I don't routinely soil public waterways, as a native Hoosier & IU grad who used to sail Lake Michigan/Lake Ponchartrain/the Caribbean on my sailboat (which had a tank that had to be siphoned out) before moving to land-locked Colorado (which has better skiing), kids were swimming nearby when we picked up the boat, and we were advised not to do the same, as the folks at Minervois Cruisers "knew what went in that water." I was somewhat horrified to see how the toilet on the boat appeared to operate, as you had to pump a button on the floor to introduce water into the bowl, which appeared to be canal water and not fresh water from a WC tank, then used more foot strokes to pump the water away. Our shower and sinks had fresh water. This was 10 years ago, and perhaps regulations have changed and that may be why they might not rent those narrowboats anymore. Trains are a similar deal - in the old days, toilets had a hole in the bottom, and "stuff" fell on the tracks. The rules were you didn't use the bathroom within a certain distance of a station. I imagine modern trains all now have sophisticated plumbing and no waste is discharged on the tracks. Maybe the water in the Canal du Midi is cleaner now, for several reasons, but still, even with just the geese and ducks doing their thing in the pea-green water, I wouldn't swim in it. I'd still recommend a canal trip, even once, to Michele.
Cyn: funny, I am a native Hoosier and IU grad also! transplanted to Colorado for my masters and my husband and have stayed and love it here in Boulder! I know my way around the fresh, gray, and black tanks from our summer spent in an RV across America! I think I would only consider 1 way canal boat options.
I imagine modern trains all now have sophisticated plumbing and no waste is discharged on the tracks. You'd imagine wrong, I'm afraid. Yes, all new equipment throughout Europe how has special CET tanks and more and more of the new equipment comes regularly as very old trains are replaced and more high speed trains come on line. But, there is a great deal of the older train stock still about. In the last year I have ridden on non-CET trains in the UK, France and Italy.
Basic Plumbing for Serious Boats: Head - - Flushwater comes from the sea through a separate seacock. Discharge is through a Y valve into eithe the sea or to the blackwater tank. This tank may be either discharged into the sea or pumped out at a facility. Sinks and showers - - The cold water system may be either seawater or come from the freshwater tank. Hot water comes only from the freshwater tank since seawater would corrode either of the two water heaters. The tank can be filled by a hose, rain catchment, or the watermaker. Discharge may be either overboard or into a graywater tank. Engine - - Cooling water in the jackets is freshwater inserted essentially in the same manner as in an automobile. This water is cooled in a heat exchanger which circulates seawater on the other side. My experience in French boats goes back well more than ten years. The boats have always been non-polluting. My experience in repairing, building, rebuilding, and sailing across whole oceans by myself goes back more than fifty. Extra Scoop: a. The Canal du Midi was built to connect the Atlantic and the Med. It still does. It flushes. b. Mammals and fish crap in the water as do birds. Whale turds are huge. The oceans should be closed for swimming. c. Green algae and pond scum are signs of healthy water and provide no indication of its potability.
Too funny, Ed! I actually saw a Blue Whale crap once. It was more like a giant attack of orange diarrhea that spread in all directions.
Well, whales and their bowel movements. You just never know what gems of information you'll pick up here, do ya!
The lecture series 'Lump vs Liquid Fecal Differential Determination of Baleen vs Toothed Whales' has been cancelled for lack of stated interest. Please check back next semester. In the interim, the Crafts Department is offering a one-week free course on the drying and preservation of dolphin droppings for use as bookends.
In the late 60's, a friend from the tony end of Long Island Sound showed me a "host present" his father got for his big wooden power boat. It was a metal rod that looked a bit like a slim fireplace poker. Its purpose was to break out the bottom of a glass beverage bottle, so that it could be disposed of over the side of the boat. Let's not over-estimate the ecological sophistication of boat-owners and renters. It's kind of like the small proportion of pet-owners who delude themselve that their dog is the only one in the world that defecates outdoors.
Re: Trains, I was originally going to specify TGV, AVE, etc. but to keep things shorter just said "modern." There is a lot of rolling stock in the world from the 19th and 20th centuries still in use but clearly without "modern" toilet provisions. Re: Watercraft, that's one advantage of renting for a week - IF a boat has a holding tank, the rental company deals with it (although none was mentioned for our English boat in France). Re: Canal water. Any whales plying the Canal du Midi are likely very small and don't foul the water too much. And they probably avoid the locks. Green water may or may not be healthy or potable, but I'll go with tap water or a bottle of Volvic and would not willingly drink or swim in the CdM. Re: Ecological impact, we all leave some footprint/flukeprint/pawprint, and hopefully can keep it to a reasonable minimum.
I've never seen a British narrowboat (at least not in the last 20 years) without a black water holding tank. You simply can't discharge over the side into canals. You'll be pleasantly surprised on many boats by how well kitted out the facilities are.
"I think our vision was cruising down the waterways, pulling up to cute towns and hiking or biking and being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the boat." We experienced exactly that about 10 years ago, when we rented a canal boat for a week. It was one of the most enjoyable weeks we have ever had. We rented from Locaboat, roundtrip from Agen. We were on the Garonne Canal for a short ways, then turned off onto the River Baise. We stopped often, at charming little towns, to hike, wander around, eat. Sometimes one of us walked along the riverbank while the other piloted. You can rent bikes to take on your boat too. The locks initially made me a bit nervous but by the end we were looking forward to them. There was very little traffic on the River Baise; it was peaceful and gorgeous and the little towns were so beautiful. Waking up on the river was the most amazing experience. We went in mid-September. LeBoat is another boat rental option; check out their website to see the route we took. They have a base at a tiny town called Buzet, where we had the best dinner of our entire month in France. They also have a base at the end of the River Baise so I suspect you could do a one-way rental from Buzet to Valence. I would highly recommend this experience. My biggest recommendation is when choosing a boat, look closely at the sleeping diagram. Usually when it said a boat would sleep 4, two of them were on the kitchen table/benches. Get a bigger boat than you think you need, so everyone gets a bed. My other big recommendation is to stock your boat with plenty of food. We ran into an instance where all the restaurants in a town were closed because it was Sunday night (and then because it was Monday). Monday night we had apples, wine and stale bread for dinner! You can be sure that on Tuesday we stocked up.