Please sign in to post.

Canal Du Midi Cruise - 2nd Time's the Charm!

Just wanted to share my trip quickly (ha!) with y'all in case anyone is considering this unique form of travel.

Background: You can rent boats (not just here but all over France and Europe) and do self-drive canal and river cruising - or even in the bay around Venice. No special license is required. This was our second trip - the first one was 4 years ago, covering most of the same route.


-This kind of vacation is at a very unique pace. The boat moves slower than a bicycle but a little faster than a fast walk. So it's a way to really slow down and experience scenery without the same kind of physical effort involved in a hiking or cycling vacation.

-It's also a little bit like being on a slow-moving RV in that your boat is your home, with a kitchen, toilets, etc. There are frequent areas to moor up, either in a port, often with electricity, water, off-boat bathroom facilities or a "nature mooring" which can be just about anywhere with some safety restrictions in certain areas. So you can really set your own itinerary.

-Depending on the route chosen, it can be an interesting mix of an active holiday or a very relaxing one - again, you can choose your route, set your pace, etc. It lends itself well into a deep-dive exploration into a relatively small area.

-Handling the boat isn't easy. In addition to just driving straight (boats don't behave like cars!) you have to do the work of handling lines to moor up, and in most cases, going through locks. On certain routes, there are days that are going to be very active for 2-5 people depending on the size of your boat and the number of obstacles, which can also include extremely low and tight bridges from the 17th century, other boats, intersections with fast moving rivers, even tunnels! So you'll need to have at least a few people who are willing to do the work, are good at communicating with each other, and are reasonably competent with decent mobility.

-The cost isn't cheap. I haven't done the math yet but it would be difficult to make the trip cheaper than a more normal trip staying at mid-range hotels or flats with a rental car or bike. You can of course cook on the boat, but it's not particularly easy compared to a normal kitchen, and your transit is included but you're going such short distances that say, a biking trip would certainly cost less. But it's not horrifically expensive either.

-You're cooped up in a relatively small space with other people (I wouldn't recommend a couple get a boat on their own the first time - couples alone seemed to be very experienced.) You should like the people you're with and still expect tempers to flare and frustrations to occur. I would never do this trip with strangers, and I did do it with one person I hadn't traveled with before despite knowing well for years and I still learned things that I'd rather have not known about their personality! It's a good option for a family with older kids and teenagers that get along and are used to doing activities that require teamwork and cooperation, or couples. Not great for a group of singles unless you're willing to share a real small room with your friend.

-A bit of a corollary to the last point: you will get to know your shipmates intimately, or as I told my friends, "By the time this is over, we will all know too much about each other's pooping habits." Halfway through the trip, I was right.

In summary: I really love this style of travel. It's a bit stressful, but in a good way - I barely thought about my normal obsession, US politics, the entire time because I was just too busy handling lines, planning stops, preparing apertivo plates, to be able to worry about anything but our next part of the trip, and there is a real zen that comes with that.

Onto the trip itself!

Posted by
3049 posts

So our first trip in September 2015, a group of 4 expat couples from all over rented a Tarpon 49 (i.e. the 2nd biggest boat you can rent) from the Les Canalous company, from Homps to Carnon. You can read about that trip here. It was rereading that trip that made me decide NOT to go with Les Canalous again - I'd forgotten how much our problems with the boat they provided dictated our trip and how frustrating that was.

This group was myself and my husband, "experienced" boaters (lol), another couple, and a friend, all expats in Germany. Originally we'd hoped to boat on a river for swimming purposes, or somewhere closer to Germany, but after much research and discussion we went with the Midi because it simply seemed to provide for the better off-boat exploring options and that was important to the group. We settled on a 3 room Calsypo boat with the "Le Boat" company, which caters to UK tourists and is a little more expensive than Les Canalous but we'd hoped we'd have a better boat and better customer service, which we did. I'd rent with Le Boat again in a heartbeat.

Our route was Narbonne to Port Cassafieres, just west of Agde, about half the length of our previous trip, so instead of needing to average a little more than 4 hours driving time per day, we needed to average a bit more than 2 hours a day. I think this factor, along with a boat without any major mechanical problems, made the trip a lot better.

One downside for us is that it wasn't very practical to get from Southwestern Germany to Narbonne. My friends drove 11 hours, overnighting in Dijon. I really don't like long car trips in Europe, and when I found cheap flights from Strasbourg to Montpeiller, we decided to go that route, although it was still complicated. (Evening TGV to Strasbourg, one night in the unpleasant Hotel de Grillion, left the hotel at 4:15 to catch a 7:00 flight, then shuttle and tram from Montpellier airport to train station, then train to Narbonne, arriving at 10:00. A long day already!) In the end, between gas, both groups needing a hotel room, tolls, etc it was slightly cheaper for us to fly regardless because driving in France is expensive and I'm still glad we didn't.

We went to the LeBoat office and started check-in with the very pleasant staff who spoke excellent English, but we couldn't really get started until our entire crew arrived later that afternoon, so my husband and I went off to explore this very charming and ancient city and get lunch. Despite being extremely sleep-deprived, we enjoyed the Cathedral and had fun at lunch at Le Centauree talking to a retired Texan couple who have purchased a summer home in a tiny village near Agde. Narbonne was not huge but definitely felt a bit cleaner and more polished than a lot of other similarly-sized cities I've visited in the South of France. I found it really lovely. We did a little sightseeing after lunch in the old quarter and then our friends had arrived so we went back to the Le Boat port, 20 minutes on foot on the Canal de Robine, to begin our instruction.

Unfortunately a few things got frustrating here, but it was equally on LeBoat staff and our group, in terms of people not making up their minds about things like when to move the car to the secure parking area, which resulted in the end of us getting our provisions for the journey on foot and not getting our boating instructions appointment until the next morning. While LeBoat was not as flexible as we could have hoped, half of the issue was on us so I don't hold them entirely responsible for the situation.

Once we'd figured out the plan we had dinner at a gimmicky Le Meli-Melo where "everything in the restaurant can be purchased" but the food was just so-so for the price and time. I was exhausted. Time to go sleep on the boat.

Posted by
3049 posts

The next day, feeling remarkably refreshed after 6 hours of sleep, the girls headed into town to do some last-minute shopping at Monoprix and the beautiful Les Halles (considered one of the best in France) and one more trip to Casino market before our official boating instruction at 10:00.

Our instructor, David, was very good at boating advice, telling us things right away that had taken us a week to figure out last time and giving me some new tricks on how to handle lines . He took us through our first lock, going upstream, which is significantly more work than downstream, which is what we'd done last time. After the lock he stayed on shore and we were on our way.

One of the great things about the Canal de Robine, at least the first week in June, is that it is quiet - we didn't see another boat - and very scenic. The disease affecting the Plane trees doesn't seem to have affected this area so much, and it was very peaceful. The locks are all automatic until we meet up with the Canal du Midi, so one crew had to hop on shore and press a button to start the process. Unfortunately we didn't make it to the next lock before noon (yes, even the automatic locks take a break in France for lunch - typical!) so we had a little meal of meat and cheese on the deck and proceeded at 13:00.

We were then quickly at the Aude river crossing - LeBoat had warned us about this to the point of giving us a special map and instruction and it was indeed a little hairy. The canal intersects with a major river, with weirs and a significant current on the right side, hugging close to the bank on the right with sandbars on either side, and we were warned about the cost if we ran the boat aground. Lucky for us another boat was coming the opposite direction and refusing to hug the (safer, easier) left bank. There may have been some shouting, but we survived and got our boat into the right point on the canal.

Another strange decomissioned lock and we came upon the sight of local boys swimming in the next lock. A crewmember went ahead to shout at the boys to get out of the lock before she pushed the button, but not before they asked her for beer and cigarettes. Since we didn't give any to them (they were like 11) we were taunted with very old-school rude gestures and them loudly playing a techno remix of "Hava Negliah" from their phones in our direction. Since I sincerely doubt these kids had any idea that one of us is actually Jewish, my takeaway is that for teens in this area, calling someone a "Jew" is just a sort of generic insult - not surprising in France. Very much an experience with the locals! Still insane that these kids were playing around in a giant lock and jumping 25 feet into the water off a bridge.

One more lock after that and we were in Sallelres de Aude, a picture-perfect Languedoc village, boasting two old churches and a "palace" and a couple of wineries. We found a great spot to moor up just past the lock, celebrated our first sucessful day driving with some local rose on the deck, and had fun exploring the town, visiting the wonderful winery Domaine de 7 Ecluses where we purchased a not-insignificant amount of wine (including a 5 liter box of fruity rose) and went to dinner at the amazing Cook and Roll.

I can't recommend this restaurant enough. It's actually a food truck, in a garden at the edge of town. It's beautiful, and run by a couple who cook simple but modern seasonal French food served at picnic tables. The hostess is so charming and friendly and speaks wonderful English, and the food was great value and perfectly prepared, especially the deserts. I had fish, everyone else had Guinea Foul, and then frozen nougat with a berry sauce or apple tart, but I can't do them justice just saying it. Local craft beer and wine at great prices, we even left with local produce from the trees in the garden. In the end it was an absolutely perfect day on the canal.

Posted by
3049 posts

The 2nd day was a little more difficult. It was now hot, at least an unshaded top deck, and we had 5 locks to get through before we hit the Canal Du Midi. We'd hoped to make it through them before the lunch break, but we missed the last one by 5 minutes. No worries - there was a beautiful canalside outdoor bar and restaurant, La Maison De L'ecurie, which fortified us after the hard work for the 4 locks in a row, separated only by about 500 meters each. Most of us only had salads but they were universally very good, and my husband had a duck shepard's pie, essentially, which was awesome.

We'd planned to boat all the way to Le Somail, a little way in the wrong direction, for lunch, but since the lock schedule precluded that, I suggested we go straight to our mooring at Port La Robine, which I'd check out on foot (a 10 minute walk from the restaurant) to make sure we'd have a spot and to direct the boat in. It's a good thing I did because my crew still came close to missing the turn for the port despite detailed directions by phone!

Port la Robine is a lovely spot. We moored with electricity and water for 25 euros, under pine trees, and it seems like a permanent summer mooring spot for lots of boaters, who had outdoor living rooms set up along the trail from the port to the river, which is traversed by a canal bridge - that is, the canal goes above a quite steep valley looking down to the Cesse river below. Us girls wanted to have an afternoon in the clear, cool water of the river, and the boys decided to take the bikes we'd hired from LeBoat to go to Le Somail. Afterwards we all met at "Port Minervoise", not a port at all but a cafe/bar selling some local products, but mostly tinned goods. Still it was a lovely place to enjoy cool wine overlooking the canal bridge in the shade of pines less than 10 minutes walk from our boat in the country.

Since the boys had already been to Le Somail and the rest of us were feeling it from being in the sun all day we had a simple dinner on deck and just hung out until bedtime, enjoying the sounds of the music and laughter from the port which also functions as a simple bar that's open "until everyone leaves" according to the gracious hostess, who didn't speak much English but was helpful regardless.

Posted by
681 posts

We have thought about taking one of the canal boats. It is my hubby's dream. Thanks for all the discussion of setting it up and how you really need more than just a couple. The scenery sounds lovely and the pace of the trip great.

Posted by
9145 posts

Sarah this is a fabulous trip report, so full of insight as to what to look for and great descriptions of the ways you were able to enjoy the city, the canals, and the countryside you went through, as well as some things to watch out for and consider.

I don’t think this kind of vacation is ever in the cards for me, but I am loving reading about your experience! So glad you found a better company this time. I am interested now to go back and read about your previous time. So glad you gave it another try.

Sorry about the racist French kids : (

Posted by
3049 posts

On day 3, the girls had wanted to see Le Somail, but I pointed out that it's a very busy touristic town and we might be better off just walking there instead of taking the boat, having to moor up, etc. There's a lot of energy involved in getting the boat going and getting it moored up and I think this was the right choice. Le Somail isn't huge, and I would have preferred to visit it for the second time (we'd been here before, when we ran our boat into 2 others in high winds!) but it's very charming. We enjoyed the library and bridge, and got a couple overpriced supplies from the famous grocery boat before walking the 35 minutes back.

One of the most striking things on this trip was how the landscape had changed due to the disease of the plane trees. Le Somail looked totally different, and many areas going forward (well, eastward) on the canal seemed "new" due to the loss of the trees.

We went on our way downstream after that, a pleasant and lockless journey, although we'd missed some of the amazing views above the countryside previously because of the tree removal. The view down into Capestang was pretty amazing - we all remarked it felt like being on a Disney ride, twisting on the canal above the countryside. Once past the very tiny bridge in Capestang, we moored up with electricity and water for 30, although we were informed showers were extra.

Capestang, which we missed on our last trip, was a real delight. It has a massive church (once a cathedral) visible for miles around, built by the same architects of the cathedral in Narbonne. We called ahead to see if we could do a wine tasting in town at Moulin Gimie, and were invited to come on down. The winemaker (and his dog) were wonderful and explained the differences in soil in his vineyards. As he was explaining a group of older people showed up - Canadians who have holidayed in the area for 8 years who are regulars. They now happen to live in my hometown, so it was very nice to chat with them even if one of them, a professor at a University, referred to my alma matter as third rate (SFSU in the house! He's not wrong, though.) Some of their reds are sublime and thanks to my friends who drove, I have a couple bottles awaiting the next time do a steak dinner.

Unfortunately, I'd followed common wisdom and booked a fairly famous restaurant in town, which has it's own winery and a lovely setting in the courtyard of an ancient building. It wasn't bad, but the food was entirely unremarkable. Our holiday friends were about to give use advice about where to get better food but once again, the tyranny of group travel prevailed and this time it was my fault, as I'd initially chosen the restaurant in the first place. Maybe I'm being unfair, but the menu was unremarkable and my fish was both over and undercooked in different places. If a food truck can make it work, what gives? Regardless we had a lovely evening.

Although it was this evening, back on the boat, that we first spied Chloe. The exact boat of our ill-fated trip 4 years ago - not just a Tarpon 49 from Les Canalous but the actual boat complete with the railing we'd damaged under high winds in Les Somail. Was she a bad omen? I mean, not really but she followed us the rest of the trip and things did go a little downhill after the first few idlyic days.

Posted by
3049 posts

Day 4 we come to the problem with boating: the winds. It was windy. I forgot to mention it in my opening post but we'd rented a smaller boat and were "upgraded" to a larger one. In some ways this was good - we had plenty of space for water, wine, and honestly most of our luggage (we would have made it work in a smaller boat but since we didn't have to, we had a whole extra room for stuff and we used it. But I still wish we'd gotten the smaller boat we'd requested because these winds plagued us the rest of the trip, as they had on the first trip from the beginning.

Some of the crew wanted to do a nature mooring, so based on our schedule I'd suggested we do it just outside of Beziers. Driving through strong winds, we managed to moor up next to the famous tunnel, watching a clearly drunken Australian crew come through the other side. We made it through the tunnel, and ended up doing a temporary nature mooring on the left bank in Colombiers, since we didn't want to deal with the stress of parking in a proper port (i.e. driving your boat in vertically alongside other boats, something we hadn't done yet). I think Colombiers is a pretty unremarkable town, especially around the not-attractive port, although I still would have pushed for mooring up there for peace of mind.

See, I don't love nature moorings. You are literally driving stakes into soft banks, tying your lines around them, and hoping that is sufficient as you're buffeted by winds. I enjoy camping and all but it just seems there's so much that can go wrong on a boat! But we'd promised one person a nature mooring night and so this fit the bill - we went 30 minutes further and found a place that previously would have had plane trees, 3 km outside of Beziers. It was fine but the fun of mooring up on a soft bank is just not my favorite thing.

Oh also, they made me cook. I'm a great cook, not to toot my own horn, but cooking on the boat required lighting the larger of the gas burners with a match, we never got the oven to work (also requires a match) and the boat didn't come with a skillet or shallow pan of any kind so I attempted to make a pasta frittata in a giant pot, which ended up being a weird sort of carbonara because who can flip a frittata in a giant pot?? Everyone pretended to like it.

Then on deck, having some wine we saw a fire burning about half a kilometer away. The winds were high and it was clearly spreading, but not in our direction. We called 112 anyway, and while everyone else went to bed, my husband and I - he's from Paradise, CA - watched it for a couple hours until we felt the situation was completely safe. It was clearly a pretty major fire driven by the winds and as a west coast girl I wasn't at all comfortable going to sleep until it was obvious we were safe.

This sucked because the next day was our early mandated day of the famous "staircase" locks - 7 in a row until you hit Beziers and one right after that. It doesn't have to be that much work, it's just a process, but it's only open for 90 minutes in the morning and we wanted to be first in line so we'd have a nice chunk of time in Beziers.

Unfortunately a lot of signals got mixed. The guy who wanted to drive probably shouldn't have been - he'd been used to automatic locks and not taking direction from lock keepers who thought he was going in too fast (he was). The person who requested to handle lines on shore wasn't comfortable just walking the lines down the whole way like everyone else was doing, which meant I'm throwing lines every single time. I jumped offshore at one point and offered to walk my own line but it made everyone too nervous so for the sake of group harmony, I got back onboard and proceeded in the least efficient way.

Posted by
3049 posts

I really like all the people I took the trip with but liking is not the same as working with. There was more conflict on the previous trip but by the time we'd made it to the staircase, we were like a well-oiled machine - but it helped that we had a crew of 8, not just 5, 2 of which were now suffering from tummy problems and probably due to a lack of enough coffee were not in great moods.

But we made it! Into Beziers! Which now charges a 25 euro fee if you want to moor up for more than 2 hours, which sucks, since it's a 25 minute walk from the harbor into the old town! But we paid it anyway.

I actually really adore Beziers, which may be the oldest town in France, which has an amazing canal bridge just after the staircase. Unfortunately my companions did not like Beziers, whether this was leftover feelings from the stress of the morning or illness or whatever, I'm saying I could happily spend one or two nights in a hotel there, I think it's a great city, a little rough around the edges but with a ton of charm. Also if you're into Cathar history - the phrase, "Let God sort them out" has it's root in a horrific massacre in Beziers.

Long story short, walking around, complaining, a totally agreeable lunch at a Belgian restaurant, church, complaining, restocking. and the weather - we'd had high winds and clouds for 2 days but now a serious storm with flood warnings was predicted. We'd hoped to go beyond our end port of Cassafires to Adge for a night, but the weather conditions lead us to our home port, after a few very tricky lock situations due to the wind.

The rain started as we were mooring and got pretty intense, but broke right before sunset and the nice thing about Cassafires is that it's a 30 minute walk to the beach, so my husband and I did that, watching horses gallop and an actual rainbow on the beach. After a pretty intense two days of boating we decided we wanted to spend our last day on the beach, and the other 3 of our crew could make the trip to Adge on their own, by boat or taxi, if they wished. No one wanted to do the trip without us (or rather, my husband's guidance) so we spent our last day having one of the best meals of the trip at La Gibrnie for lunch followed by some proper relaxing beach time.

For our last dinner, I suggested quite randomly that we take a taxi to an Irish pub in Vias, about 7 km away. Why not? It was actually a great experience. There was a nearby oyster stand that we got a dozen fresh oysters for 9 euros served in a Styrofoam boat full of ice before we had our mains which varied in quality (forget the burger, go for the fish and chips or the chicken curry).

I won't bore you with the details of getting home. It was 75% a good trip but it was clear by the end nerves were fraying and the weather kicking up like it did, with only one person who could handle the boat well made it tough. If we'd have another capable driver I think we would have gone on to Adge or even to the Etang de Thau, which I was VERY good at driving (nothing to hit makes it easy!) but that's not the way it worked out.

I'll follow up more tomorrow with conclusions - or will I?

Posted by
3049 posts


-The route matters and the most popular routes on the Canal du Midi are popular for a reason. There's a lot of tourist infrastructure there, a lot of points of interest. The downside is the popularity - I would not do this route in mid-June - August and even in early September it was way busier than it was the first week of June. Plan accordingly.

-Weather will affect this trip more than you can really prepare for but you can't do much about it. It's a windy region. We had lunch at a chateaux above Capestang which I entirely forgot to report, but the waiter said, "It's never not windy here." Being in a region with a lot of good ports gave us options for weather turning against us, unlike one of the other places we'd considered, a lovely river but with only one port with electricity to stay in.

-Don't do this kind of trip with people you haven't traveled with before. Try to prepare everyone for the fact that everyone will have a "bad day" on the boat (mine was luckily the first day when we were still in harbor and I was sleep deprived but I was a little bit of a jerk which I own entirely). The combination of stress of being responsible for getting a large and heavy moving vehicle from place to place will wear on everyone to some extent (unless they've given up responsibility for that fact entirely) and combine that with working with people in close quarters for a week and again - everyone is going to have a bad moment. This is actually good group travel advice in general. When traveling everyone is entitled to one little tantrum, but if they can recover from it and apologize, it's no big deal . Someone who can't or is constantly having tantrums is not someone you should travel with.

-Flexibility is key. This kind of trip needs a planner type (hi! that's me!) but everyone needs to be able to go with the flow, take other people's desires into mind, and not be locked into a specific itinerary. More so than normal travel things like wind or the feelingo sr your crewmates will determine what you see and what you pass. Like Rick says, assume you will return. I missed Capestang the first time on the boat and was super bummed - but I got to spend a lot of time there on this trip and it was great!

-Despite some of the negatives, I really can't recommend this experience enough and it is a bit addictive. I've already got a plan for next year, which involves 8 couples spread out over 2 much smaller premium boats (Horizon 1 boats). Our biggest issue is still navigation and having a smaller boat would help immensely.

-I didn't mention it, but on the first trip we had a native French speaker, and on this trip we had 3 people who spoke varying levels of French, but all better than myself or my husband. Despite the tourism, you're still kind of in the boondocks and some of our best experiences, like at Domaine des 7 Ecluses, wouldn't have been possible without some French speaking ability. Just a fair warning.

-Boats are small, pack light. Between the less-than-great showers no one is going to feel very pretty by the end. Friends brought an actual coffee grinder, which did not get used once.

-If you're remotely intrigued by this kind of trip, you should just do it. Despite frustrations and challenges, it's a memory-making experience. Nothing can replicate standing at the bow of the boat gliding past Plane Trees or shouting instructions as you pass through a narrow 400-year-old bridge, let alone warm nights with friends drinking local wine on the deck.

-Do not book with Les Canalous whatever you do. Le Boat is good, there's another couple companies with similar reputations.

Happy sailing!

Posted by
1317 posts

Sarah , do you know if you can "hire a skipper" along with renting the boat? We just got back from a week sailing in Croatia where we hired a skipper to sail our "bareboat" catamaran rental - a local skipper was terrific. Donna

Posted by
3041 posts

Sounds like a good trip for you Sarah, since you are experienced with boats, but I’m going to stick to diving off them!
Thanks for sharing this unique trip!