My wife and I would like to do a barge trip through France next summer. We are in early 60s, been to France several times, and I speak some French. Would welcome some basic info. How long should it last, where should it go, what are the best operators, are there some ways to cut costs? And whatever else you would like to offer. Many thanks and Aloha
U-drive or crewed? If the latter, I'm out.
Previous posters on this topic mentioned that the canal boats can be bumper to bumper during prime European vacation time (August) so take that into account.
I'm the previous poster on the French canal system. That comment only applies to self-hires on the Canal du Midi - - nothing and nowhere else.
Ed, since you seem to have experience with this, any general advice? Thinking of getting together a few friends for a week on a u-hire in summer. Don't really care much where we're going specifically.
To stay in France, it would be a route with one terminus in Dinan. Just to have Loch Ness bragging rights, it would be the Caledonian. The only route I've done more than once starts at Market Harborough and I'd be willing to do it again. The worst route of all time started at Nottingham. In most respects I prefer narrowboats and the BW canal system over anything in France.
Another great thing about British canal boating are "rings". Depending on how long you want to boat, 2 weeks, 10 days or a week, there are routes that can be worked in a round direction so its always new scenery as you don't retrace your steps. On the other hand, there are plenty of places for an "out and back" where, going at whatever pace suits you, you can find a place (a "winding hole") to turn around and go back to the start. Believe me when I say that the same scenery looks quite different going the opposite way. Whichever, it would be fun. Ed's not wrong about the waterproof slicker and big waterproof hat. For one thing, the more waterproof gear you have the more chance that the sun will shine.
Sarah, to follow up Ed's post, there's quite a difference in canal boating in France and the UK. I've seen the boating in France but have not experienced it whereas I've been over a fair bit of the English canals. British canals are, in much of the network, too narrow, because of the narrow locks, for broad beam boats. So they use narrowboats which are around 7 feet wide and up to 72 feet long. A long narrowboat can take up to 6 adults or even more; a shorter narrowboat is designed for 2 to 4 people. Most British locks are operated by the boaters using a metal windlass and winding the paddles up and down to move the water in and out of the lock, and using the "muscle" of the boaters to move the beam to open and close the lock gate to allow the boats in and out of the locks. >> It is an absolutely relaxing and chilling experience which is enjoyable by everyone from toddler to senior.<< The French canals are usually much wider and the boats are much larger and wider. Most locks are electrically operated and here are more lockkeepers. Ask Ed for specifics.
Since Tom hasn't told us what he's about, Nige and I will keep helping Sarah until we think of most of it. 'A few friends' and Nigel's comment about how many people can sleep on a shorter narrowboat just set off an alarm. Look real carefully at the plan of the boat you are thinking about renting. 'Sleeps four' means that two people are sleeping on a cocktail/dining table. The exterior door is blocked unless the other two people crawl over them. Hard-sided luggage is out of the question since there's no place to put it. When we travel with another couple, we go for a boat that's advertised to sleep six or seven and its still pretty darn intimate. Also look for enclosed rather than covered steering. (Won't happen on a narrowboat since they're all steered by a tiller on the aft open deck - - bring a rain jacket with a hood.) When we were running Loch Ness we had covered steering only. The boats are governed down to about three knots. The rain was blowing so hard that we were soaked to the hide at the helm. It was probably spring, maybe even early summer, but we had to take fifteen minute tricks at the helm and spend the next fifteen below standing by the heater. The most important thing in selecting a route is to have one with plenty of potential stops. Hence my fondness for the run out of Market Harborough with a pub every hour. Operating the boat is simple. My kids were doing it when they were seven or so while the old folks walked the tow path to stretch their legs.
Thanks guys, you've been a big help. I was specifically considering France but this might be a way to see some of the more rural areas of the UK too. Specifically thanks for info about the tight quarters. I'd heard the biggest boats sleep 4 comfortably, was hoping to find something bigger for maybe 5. Sounds like 4-5 would be the absolute limit for a 6-7 person boat.
The best thing is to get onto a couple of boat hire websites and read everything carefully - then look with a discerning eye at all the photos of the boats and the floorplans. The best hire companies are copious with both. Two really good companies are Alvechurch and Black Prince. Kate's boats in Warwick is pretty good too but very small. A lot will depend on the group dynamics. Remember, having a few folks on the boat with you can be a >> good thing <<. One to make the tea, one to steer the boat, 2 or 3 to work the locks, one or two for general purpose relief. And one to cook the breakfast.