You could take a lifetime to crisscross France by canal barge but if you only have a week or two to charter, it’s best to identify the region you want to explore because life on a canal moves slowly. You won’t be covering much territory, as you visit cities and villages and mingle with the locals. Whether you choose to self-drive a rental boat or get the luxury treatment aboard a full-service barge hotel, the following major areas of France can accommodate what may be the most relaxing vacation you've ever taken.
You can divide France into five canal and river cruising destinations: Center/ Burgundy/River Saone, Canal du Midi/south west, Brittany/Loire, Northeast France, and Nord/Picardy. Try word-of-mouth or Google to make that first choice of where to go.
The Canal de Burgogne, Canal du Center and the rivers Saone and Seille form a network in the center portion of France that give you miles and miles of countryside to explore. Visit a hidden gem named Dole or dock in Dijon for a city feel. There are literally thousands of miles of waterways to explore so target the portion that most interests you and then find the appropriate boat.
Canal du Midi/southwest
The Canal du Midi joins the Canal de Garonne and together they’re known as the Canal des Deux Mers (Canal of Two Seas) because they link the Mediterranean and the Atlantic at the renovated city of Bordeaux. The weather is usually quite good in the south and you can visit famous towns such as picturesque Carcassone and Toulouse. The Canal du Midi is well known so it may be crowded during the high season.
Western Europe has a variety of rivers and canals including the Canal de Nantes a Brest in Brittany, which connects several rivers in the region. Cruise along next to small chateaux and cathedrals or hire a day boat to explore farther afield.
Alsace and Lorraine are just north of the Burgundy region and closest to Germany, whose influence you can see in both the architecture and the cuisine. Some of these waterways were built 200 years ago for commerce and you will pass through miles of vineyards and farmland. Some of the large barge hotels run excursions west to Paris.
The north of France covers the canals in Normandy and the upper Loire valley. You can navigate the Canal du Nord, the Canal de Saint-Quentin and the Canal de Somme and visit the town of Amiens, one of France’s oldest settlements. Go farther north to Saint-Valery-sur-Somme where William the Conqueror set sail for England in 1066.
The only other two real choices are whether you’d like to self-drive or let someone else take care of everything for you. The barge hotels carry from four to 20 passengers and can be chartered for a week or two at a time. They’re often fully staffed with a captain, a deck hand, an activities director, and chef. Some include wine tastings at every gourmet meal, excursions via a van that joins the barge at various destinations, and bicycles so you can explore the countryside and then catch up to the barge later. These floating hotels are colorfully painted and have flowers in the window boxes, and are themselves a part of the scenery. You won’t have to lift a finger while you lounge on deck or dance the night away. And because the crews are usually multi-lingual, you won’t need to stress over a language barrier. Prices range from $2,000 to $5,000 per person depending on the season, location and the barge amenities.
By contrast, a canal rental boat will put you in the driver’s seat. You don’t need a license to drive one and after your first lock, you’ll get the hang of it quickly. These boats are floating recreational vehicles that come with a galley, heads and two to four cabins. Some include a table, chairs, and parasol on deck, and you can rent bikes for an extra fee. You set the itinerary (usually with the help of the base manager) and stop wherever and whenever you like to wander through small towns, pick up a baguette and some local cheese, or visit museums and soak up the culture. A self-directed tour usually requires a bit more research so you don’t miss any highlights, or you can just stop where the big barges do and check out what they’re doing. Dust off that high school French, but don’t worry, it doesn’t take much to communicate with the lock-keepers and the locals are friendly. Prices depend on the length of the tour, the size of the boat, and the charter company.
Once you've chosen where to cruise and how to do it, all you need to do is find a charter boat or independent barge. See our Charter Companies list for more information.