The Canal du Midi may take travellers to the heart of real France, but Sian Griffiths finds she has to negotiate a few obstacles to get there.
There’s something wonderful about waking up on a boat. And if it’s bobbing on the water of Southern France’s Canal du Midi, the moment your eyes accustom to the new day can be one of sheer joy.
Lying in my cabin, I can hear my children moving about on deck and, from the galley, I smell the aroma of fresh coffee. This is the stuff holiday memories are made.
When I’d first suggested to my teenagers – Elen, 19, and Shaz, 17 – we take a boat along one of France’s most famously lovely waterways, they looked at me as though I were mad. ‘A boat?’ Elen had said. ‘Do you even have any idea how to steer a boat?’
But here we are; a couple of days into our week-long trip from Port Cassafieres in Languedoc to St Gilles. According to John Atkins of specialist tour operator Le Boat, who we meet at our starting point, the most difficult thing that Elen, Shaz and I – and our family friend Kevin, who we’ve roped in to help – are likely to encounter is mosquitoes. But, actually, I’m pretty worried about how we’re going to manage the six-berth Crusader we’re being handed the keys to.
‘This is two holidays in one,’ John reminds us. ‘There’s the sun, the sea, the beaches, of course. But then there’s the glimpses of the real France you’ll get as you travel along. The boat isn’t a means of transport – you can’t go much faster than four miles an hour, after all – it’s a way of life.’
So, with these words in mind, we spend our first day moving at escargot’s pace along the canal. We moor near Vias Plage, where we plunge into the Mediterranean and splash about in the hot sun before stretching out to dry on the sand. ‘This is so not what I expected from a canal boat holiday,’ says Shaz, brushing grains from his legs.
Once we get back to the boat, it’s not long before the first lock looms up in front of usand I hear Kev gulp. But somehow we fumble through. And so the days went on. Each morning we’d wake to the hazy beauty of the canal, the plane trees dappling the water, the occasional bike rider or jogger on the trails alongside us. Highlights included crossing the glittering Etang du Thau and, in the Camargue, glimpses of the region’s white horses. The oysters served with local Picpoul de Pinet wine will also live long in the memory.
Drawbacks? Well, the toilet experience wasn’t a glamorous one. And Kev, strangely, was bothered by the sound of the pipe that pumped out water into the canal. Each time it started, he’d look up, alert as an otter. ‘Are we sinking?’ he’d say, perhaps just a little too hopefully. ‘Should we just check into a hotel?’
‘No way!’ the kids would chorus. ‘We’re having too much fun.’
Getting there: easyJet flies from London Luton and London Gatwick to Montpellier, from around £100 return. The Canal du Midi is around an hour’s drive away.
Where to stay: Sian Griffiths and family travelled the Canal du Midi in a six-berth Crusader from Le Boat (0844 273 1033); from £627 for three nights.
Though the best way to see the Canal du Midi is by boat, it’s possible to enjoy it without taking to the water. Campingles Méditerannées, outside Agde, is 10 minutes’ drive from the canal, and six-person pitches cost as little as £17 per night. The site also offers four-person chalets; from £30 per night.