4 women. 1 luxury Le Boat houseboat. 7 days. 133km. 26 locks. 27 hours of cruising.
Imagine cruising the French countryside, autumn leaves blowing in the warm breeze, landing just in front of your luxurious houseboat as you slowly wind your way along a canal in the Loire Valley. At lunchtime, you moor the boat and snack on local goats cheese and fresh baguettes before continuing to the town where you’ll spend the night. You pull into the port of your chosen home for the night, plug the boat into the electricity box and fill the water tanks before cycling to the nearest grocery store for a bottle of local wine. As the sun sets, you watch the colour of the sky change from your seat on the deck, the Amelie soundtrack playing softly in the background. After a home-cooked dinner, you crawl into your berth, open up your book, and fall asleep before you’ve finished the first page.
My partner in adventure Misha, our two moms and I set off with Le Boat Vacations for our first ever barging holiday in mid-October – just in time to catch the last of the summer weather. The season was officially winding down, so the canals were free from the summer crowds and the trees were starting to turn a beautiful yellow. The mornings were misty and cool, but the midday temperatures were in the high 20s. Before setting off, we were worried about driving (how many South Africans have experience driving a houseboat?!) managing the locks (what is a lock anyway?!) and sticking to our budget along the way. We were so pleasantly surprised across the board that I’m already planning my next Le Boat vacation.
Planning Your Route
Le Boat Vacations has been in the business for over 40 years and manages boats and routes in Canada, France, England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. The best way to decide would be to scroll through the Le Boat website or speak directly to one of their local consultants, who are experts on all the routes and can help you decide based on your interests and group.
We chose The Sparkling Cruise in the Loire Valley, which takes you from Châtillon-sur-Loire to Decize. We chose this route because locks are easy to navigate with lock keepers to help. Another motivation was the boat, the Horizon 4, which is one of the best in the fleet. If this is your first barging holiday, The Sparkling Cruise is a great route to help you get your “canal legs”.
Highlights Along The Sparkling Cruise in The Loir Valley
Cycling or Cruising from Châtillon-sur-Loire to Briare
Cycling from the Le Boat base to nearby Briare is a good way to pass the time and check out the scenery if you arrive before check-in. There are a couple of nice local restaurants and it’s very pretty. Once you’ve checked in and been handed the keys, you can also cruise to the quaint town for your first night on board. It’s a nice way to lose your first-time jitters and get a little practice in before your first official day of cruising. It’s about 12km return on your bike, or 45 minutes on the boat.
Wine Tasting in Sancerre (definitely don’t miss it!)
We were lucky enough to meet local winemaker Arnaud Bourgois, whose family have been making wine at Henri Bourgeois in Sancerre for generations. Arnaud is married to a Sigi, a South African he met at a wedding, on the day his cousin and fellow winemaker Jean-Christophe married Sigi’s school friend – another South African. So yes, you’ll feel right at home! Arnaud picked us up at the boat and took us on a tour of his vineyard before we tasted his wonderful wines in the heart of the village. It was such a memorable afternoon and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The winery is open year-round, from 09:30am to 06:30pm daily.
Booking is essential if you’d like a cellar tour. A vineyard tour, cellar visit and wine tasting over a plate of local goats cheese costs 64 Euro and this was probably my favourite experience along the route.
Find The Little Hidden Gems
We absolutely loved taking our bikes off the boat and going for a ride in every new town we stopped in. Once we found a tiny sign with a picture of a goat and the word “Fromage” and followed the dirt road to a small cheese producer where I bought 4 beautiful fresh cheeses for 1 Euro each.
When to Go
High season is during the European summer and runs from May to October. This is when temperatures are at the highest and the canals are alive with holidaymakers from around the world. Shoulder seasons have their own appeal, including fewer boats on the water and lower prices. We went in what was the last week of the season, which was great for us because we didn’t have to worry about navigating a packed canal or waiting in queues at the locks. During the summer, there is a festive atmosphere, with some routes offering free concerts and other summer activities. During the shoulder season you can save up to 20% on your boat, which goes a long way if you’re spending South African Rands.
I find that subscribing to airline websites is the best way to get good deals. Once you get to Paris, you’ll take the train from Bercy to Briare. The journey is totally pain-free and takes about 2 hours. In Briare, you’ll catch a taxi to the Le Boat base in Châtillon-sur-Loire. Once you arrive at Decize at the end of your trip, you’ll get a taxi to the Decize train station for your train back to Paris, stopping in Nevers to change trains. This journey takes about 2,5 hours. If you need help with booking your train and taxi journeys, the team at Le Boat can help.
What to Expect
We were obviously excited-nervous. None of us had any boating experience and we were a bit afraid of being an all-girl crew. But from the moment we arrived, we felt completely confident thanks to the crew at Le Boat. Before setting foot on board, we were given an extensive overview of how the route works, how the locks work, how the boat works and how to drive. Anyone over the age of 18 can pilot the boat, and you don’t need any previous experience.
The stretch we cruised can be done in 2-3 days, but you have a week to get to the end. We spent about 3 to 4 hours cruising between 15kms and 23 kms per day, with 20-minute stops when we needed to go through locks. We didn’t feel rushed at all, and there was no set time to set off in the morning or moor in the evening. This kind of relaxed pace is such a dream, especially for our go-go-go lifestyles. We would often just pull up next to one of the banks, have lunch and take a little stroll before setting off again.
Each of the Horizon 4‘s rooms has a private bathroom with a shower. The berths are pretty snug (you’re on a boat after all) but there is enough room to unpack your clothes and toiletries and store your luggage. The boat officially sleeps 9 (1 person can be accommodated on a fold-out bed in the dining area) It’s perfect for couples sharing (if you’ve got the $$$ to spend it would be most comfortable for 4 people in single occupancy or two couples with the extra rooms for storage, although it would work out more expensive per person). For a family with kids it would be perfect too.
There’s a steering wheel inside and another one upstairs, so as the driver you can be wherever your people are. The boat can’t go faster than 10km’s per hour and the canal is pretty wide, so you’re not in danger of speeding or smashing into another boat. The hardest part is navigating the locks, which are pretty tight, but if I can do it, so can you. This route has lock keepers to help, so it’s not very much hard work. The boat is wrapped in a thick rubber bumper, so even if you nudge the wall along the way, it’s not a big deal.
The kitchen is light and bright with a fridge, drinks fridge (for all that French wine), four-hob gas stove and a gas oven. Upstairs there’s lots of space to relax or have lunch under a gazebo and there’s a gas braai for summer dining. The boat can store enough power and water for 3 days, which means you can spend the night anywhere along the canal. If you stop at an official port, you will have access to a water pump and an electricity box for a couple of Euros per night.
Since we were there out of season, most of the local restaurants and bakeries had already closed for winter, but we cycled to the nearest grocery store in every town and stocked up on pasta, fresh fruit and veg and of course, wine. We loved the self-catering part of the trip, because it meant we could stop for the night anywhere – if we liked the look of a particularly lush spot, we could moor the boat and stay as long as we liked.
What to Budget
Your budget will obviously depend on the country, route and boat you choose. Boats range from budget-friendly to luxury, accommodating groups from 2 to 10 people. Our boat, the Horizon 4 is part of their new and modern fleet. We chose it based on the kitchen’s view, the en-suite bathrooms and the upstairs entertainment area. If you decide to do the same route at the same time of year, you can get an idea on what to budget right here.
Here’s a breakdown of what our trip cost
Train from Paris to Briare (4 tickets): R1350
Taxi from Briare to the Le Boat base: R250
Taxi from the Le Boat base to Decize train station: R250
Train from Decize to Paris (4 tickets): R2250
Boat hire: R35 000 for 7 days
Boat cleaning charge (imperative if you don’t want to spend your last day cleaning the boat before dropping it off): R1940
Special occasion basket (nice to have so you don’t have to bring stuff from Paris for your first night): R840
Starter grocery pack (nice to have so you don’t have to bring stuff from Paris for your first night): R720
Damage wavier (I always recommend buying all the insurance and waivers available): R4109
Eco cleaning pack (better for the canals): R145
Bicycle hire (4 bicycles with locks): R2740
One way canal fee (additional supplement for all one-way cruises): R1500
Water/electricity/port costs (could be less if you moore along the way and don’t stay in ports as frequently as us): R600
Groceries (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, beverages): R3500
Total price: R 55 204
Total per person: R13 801
We shared the boat single occupancy (1 person per cabin) but if you split that between more people, the cost would be even lower. All in all, that’s a pretty cost-effective way to spend 7 days all-inclusive in France.
My Top 5 Tips
1 Pack soft luggage so that you can easily stow it underneath your bed or inside a cupboard. A rolling duffel bag is a good option.
2 We partnered with KnowRoaming to stay connected on this trip and we loved the service! KnowRoaming provides SIM Stickers and SIM Cards for low-cost calling and data with coverage in 200+ countries. This means that you can use your smartphones like would would at home, without having to deal with the hassle of getting a local SIMs, having to wait for WiFi or coming home to an insanely high phone bill. The KnowRoaming Global SIM Card offers calling, data and SMS at rates up to 85% less than traditional roaming. It works with the free KnowRoaming companion app. This app really puts you in control, so you can prepay for all usage, check rates and monitor usage in real-time. Plus, they offer free unlimited WhatsApp data usage, including calls and video calls.
The KnowRoaming SIM Sticker offers the same features as the SIM Card, but is more ideal for frequent travelers. It’s a unique, ultra-thin SIM Card adhesive that automatically detects when you are in another country and switches you onto the KnowRoaming network. When you return home, the Sticker automatically switches you back to your home SIM and remains dormant until your next trip. The SIM Sticker also offers a service called ReachMe. This service allows you to set up automatic call forwarding, enabling you to receive all your calls to your regular mobile number while you travel. If you’re a frequent traveller, you’ll love that you can have one SIM to use anywhere you visit.
3 Pack lots of layers, because it’s pretty chilly in the morning and evening but warm in the day.
4 I highly recommend booking a boat with thrusters, which help you to navigate super easily. They make it possible to move the boat left and right and turn around super easily. All the boats in the Horizon range have this feature and I guarantee it’ll be a lifesaver for your first trip!
5 It’s never too early to plan your trip. Booking early could save you up to 20%! That means that if you follow the exact same route we did at the exact same time next year, your trip could cost R10 300 per person!
My Top 5 Reasons to Book A Self-Driving Barging Holiday in France with Le Boat Vacations
1 Le Boat has been in the business for over 40 years and they know pretty much everything there is to know about barging holidays in Europe.
2 Le Boat’s local team is based in South Africa, so they understand what it’s like to travel as a South African (and spend your hard-earned ZAR overseas) and they can advise on everything from which route is right for you to what visa documents you’ll need. The process is super smooth from start to finish, and they are always just a phone call away if you need help.
3 It’s a really affordable way to see Europe. Think about what you’d normally spend on accommodation and car hire per day. Barging means that you’re effectively cutting your costs in half.
4 It’s such a fun and unique experience. You’re always on the move, but you’re always together. I loved the fact that one of us could be driving while the other was preparing lunch. Having all your stuff with you is so nice, and not having to pack up and move every night is a dream. It’s also awesome being able to charge your devices at any time (never have a flat battery again!).
5 There are so many routes to choose from. With routes in 9 countries, you can do a Le Boat holiday every year. I am already planning a big family trip for my 30th next July!
*My trip was sponsored by Le Boat Vacations. As always, my opinions are my own. If you’re ready to plan your trip, you can visit the Le Boat website or contact them directly via email [email protected] or phone +27 21 200 1838.