Sunday, October 09, 2011

Self-drive canal cruising in France

Imagine getting into a boat in Portland, Maine, heading west, traveling in the smooth quiet of a canal until you reach Los Angeles, where you turn north and continue on to Seattle, stopping only to pass through the occasional lock or when you feel like mooring and exploring the local countryside by bicycle. There are more than 8,000 kilometers of navigable canals in France and today most are used for pleasure boating.

And that's just the canals of France. From there you can cruise east into Germany or north to Belgium and the Netherlands, that tiny bit of Europe that demonstrated to the world just how very important canals can be.

Given all those several thousands of miles of canals, once we had decided we want to take on a self-drive canal cruise, the first question we had to answer was which part of the French canal system did we want to experience first?

We narrowed our choice of canal cruising to southern France, specifically on the Canal du Midi in the Languedoc. And we've narrowed our dates down to either the first week in August or the second week in September.

Why the Canal du Midi? Two reasons.

First, we have friends who live in Mouchan in southwestern France and we hope to coordinate a trip to see them with a canal self-drive cruise. Second, as a UNESCO World Heritage site with some 175 miles of canal and some 63 locks, the Canal du Midi has the reputation of being a perfect place to experience your first canal cruise in France.

So we have figured out the where, the when and the why. Now the what and the how.

A Google search of “barge cruising in France” or "canal cruising in France" will turn up an overwhelming number of hits. Even after eliminating the ones that cater to barge owners or those advertising only hotel barges or anywhere the word “luxury” pops up, I was still left with lots of work sorting through the many online opportunities. In order to wade through the many tour brokers and boat rental companies listed, I came up with a short list of questions to ask when looking for a canal boat rental company:
  1. Where are their bases and how many do they have? 
  2. How many different types and sizes of boats do they offer?  
  3. How many different cruising areas do they offer?
After several hours of research I narrowed the boat rental ("hire") companies down to four: Locaboat, Le Boat (including the Crown Blue company) Nicols, and Minervois Cruisers, the first three of which are manufacturers of pleasure boats designed for canal cruising, while Minervois offers the uniquely designed British-built steel-hulled canal boats.  Locaboat, Le Boat and Nicols all have very sophisticated, interactive websites and offer handy, informative brochures (by mail, online or downloadable).  I also looked at Rive de France and France Passion Plaisance; both offer various models of those same boats (among others) but have a much more limited web presence and do not offer brochures.

(I should point out that Rive de France offers a handy set of videos online -- in French -- for getting started in canal cruising.)

So, we're looking for a cruise on the Canal du Midi, in a boat sized for  two people in mid-September. How do these companies shake out?

Modeled after the classic French canal peniche, Locaboat's uniquely-designed penichette canal cruisers are certainly one-of-a-kind. The boats come in three basic styles: Classique, Terrase and Flying Bridge; each style includes several different sizes and all are available on the Canal du Midi. I rather prefer the Flying Bridge version since it provides both inside and outside steering and a raised sundeck in the rear on the same level as the outside steering position. New for 2012 is the 1022FB (32 feet by 11 feet), which is the same as the 1020FB but specially designed for just two people in one large, forward cabin and adding another saloon at the very aft end.

Locaboat offers three bases along the Midi and the Camargue: Argens, Negra and Lattes.

The Camargue route, which runs along the Mediterranean, has few locks but also looks to be the least interesting. I'm leaning to one of the three itineraries between Negra (just south of Toulouse) and Argens:

Negra to Carcassone to Negra: 144 km, 80 locks, 5 hours/day
Argens to Carcassone to Argens: 92 km, 32 locks, 3 hours+/day
Argens to Beziers to Argens: 151 km, 40 locks, 4 hours/day

Locaboat offers one-way cruises as well but they emphasize that these cannot be guaranteed.

Cost for one week, out and back, September: €2247 ($3006, 1022FB).

Neither the web site nor the brochure confirm that they will pre-order groceries. However, they do have interesting "package" deals which include, the damage waiver, fuel, cleaning and bike rental  and seem to offer aggressive discounting (early booking, couples, etc.)

The penichette looks cool, comfortable and fun, and I really like the unique layout of the 1022FB

Le Boat
In 2007 Crown Blue joined with Connoisseur and Emerald Star to become Le Boat, today one of the the most aggressively marketed pleasure boat rental companies in Europe. With a brand-new line of high-end cruisers (the Vision series) and several upgraded models they also provide the widest range of optional services: from pre-ordered groceries to hiring a captain and crew (Vision series) the company continues to expand its market base. And frankly, I like their latest brochure: it's well-designed, packed with useful information (especially the cruising notes found on every itinerary page) and very easy to use.

Le Boat offers one-way cruises without condition (nice feature) and can arrange a transfer back to point of departure or transfer your.  However there is an additional supplement for one-way cruises.

The prices seemed comparable to Locaboat but, unfortunately, I couldn't find an appealing layout and boats for two seemed very basic in amenities and space.

Thumbs down for me.

One of the preeminent manufacturers of pleasure boats in France, Nicols is also well-represented in the boat hire community. They provide a nice selection of boats for small groups. I rather like the Grand Comfort series which has several unique design features as well as plenty of outdoor seating options (features lacking in most Le Boat models).

Their new Estivale series is designed for small groups and  2-6 people in particular. The Estivale has a rear (aft) outdoor sundeck with awning as well as a flying bridge and even a forward table and seating area, while indoors their kitchen appears to be designed for the serious cook. However, the Estivale Duo (for 2 people) seemed more cramped than the penichette 1022FB. The Quattro model, on the other hand, was certainly appealing (and cheaper than the penichette) with a nice indoor lounge leading directly to aft end covered seating area and also appears to have a far forward seating area as well. It was also a bit larger than the 1022FB: 35 feet by 12 feet.

Nicols has two bases along the Canal du Midi: Bram and Le Somail:

Bram to Homps to Bram: 54 km, 19 locks
Bram to Toulouse to Bram: 80 km, 30 locks
Le Somail to Agde to Le Somail: 166 km, 48 locks
Le Somail to Trebes to Le Somail: 130 km, 66 locks

Cost for September: €2107 ($2819, Estivale Quattro).

I should say that among the three companies reviewed here, I found Nicols' pricing list and calendar was the most difficult to figure out -- one had to match color coded date slots with price columns on another page; confusing.

I found both the Nicols' website and the brochure (2012) the least useful in providing information on the cruising route -- in fact, the website was at times rather confusing as to what was available and where.

For example, according to their online map, on the Le Somail to Agde route they have one getting off the Canal du Midi to go to Narbonne and then returning to the canal to finish the trip to Agde. And the number of locks listed between cities in the brochure seemed mismatched with the route noted on the map. Also, they appear to have a base at Bellgarde but that can only be accessed by going to the Camargue page -- misleading and, again, confusing.

Minervois Cruisers
Finally, I should mention this British family-run operation in southern France. They offer British-made steel-hull boats, both narrow and wide beams. The boats look rather like the keelboats found on many of the rivers in the United States during the early 19th century.

At more than 49 feet long their wide beam Sovereign Elite "Beziers" boats are very spacious and in fact the web site claims that they can even be adapted as live-aboard. At a shade over 10 feet wide, though, they seem a bit more narrow than the Nicols and Locaboat models.

Cost for one week in September: £1745 ($2745)

They offer only one base on the Canal du Midi, at Le Somail.

The website is easy to use although more photos of the interior of the boats would be helpful.

The results?

It really is down to Nicols and Locaboat -- the pricing is a bit better with Nicols and  the Quattro is a bit larger than the 1022FB but I do like Locaboat's imaginative new one-couple layout; it maximizes the space. We'll wait to see what discounting we can get for early booking or any other deals they may offer over the next couple of months.

Last but by no means least, it's important to bear in mind that besides the basic rental cost there is a hefty deposit to pay when you pick up the boat and while some insurance is included apparently damage waiver is not. All the companies offer a variety of insurance plans as well as options, including bike rentals of course, but read the fine print:  some additional costs, such as bike rentals, have to be paid up front in cash at the boatyard as well.

Stay tuned!

No comments: