I discovered the recipe for the perfect vacation:
1 part France.
1 part boat.
Mix with 6 liters of bagged wine – enjoy!
After mingling with the bros in Punta Cana last year, we opted for culture, serenity, and independence for this year’s spring vacation. Weezie and I are rabid Francophiles, so our vacation planning often goes something like this:
Reid: “We could go to the Balkans…”
Weezie: “Or France.”
Reid: “Don’t you want to go to Poland?”
Weezie: “Maybe, but we haven’t been to France in awhile.”
Reid: “I read an article that says Montenegro is absolutely beautiful and completely undiscovered.”
And so we found ourselves in Port Cassafières, a small port barely a kilometer from the Mediterranean, receiving a brisk introduction to our 29-foot Cirrus B canal boat.
This was to be our home for a week-long, self-drive cruise along the Canal du Midi, the canal that links the Mediterranean to the Atlantic across the southwest corner of France. After a laughably short introductory cruise and a long orientation to the galley kitchen (this is France, after all), we were wished “bon voyage” and sent on our way.
Several incredulous friends have asked, “Don’t you need a permit to pilot a boat by yourself?”
The short answer is “no”. It seems crazy, I know. If somebody tried to do this in America, you’d have to sign a disclaimer the size of a phone book and personal injury lawyers would hand you their business cards as you boarded your craft. I’ve always admired how Europeans don’t feel compelled to legislate against stupidity. And, to be honest, they’ve idiot-proofed these boats. The hulls are festooned with rubber bumpers and the top speed is limited to a leisurely eight kilometers an hour.
For me, this vacation was a sublime blend of relaxation, physical activity, and sight-seeing. With the exception of the locks, which were nerve-wracking the first few times through, the unhurried pace, breathtaking surroundings, and fully self-supported vessel made it easy to de-stress and concentrate on enjoying the journey.
Our boat was equipped with everything necessary for a comfortable voyage, including a cozy double bed:
a bright dining and living area:
a full galley kitchen:
and a tiny, but tolerable loo:
With our creature comforts satisfied below deck, we were free to spend our days at the outside steering position, puttering from port to port. A typical day went something like this:
Cruise down impossibly picturesque canal lined by allées of plane trees.
Lock up or down.
The locks were never boring. Some locks were automatic, while others were run by lock-keepers. Occasionally, we went through alone. More often, we were shoe-horned in with several other boats, bumping and bobbing as water rushed into (or out of) the the gates.
Eat lunch, à la française.
Just kidding! We didn’t eat the snail. We did, however, eat a bunch of his buddies at a bistro in Paris. Escargot: proof that absolutely anything is edible if it’s served in a piping hot pool of butter and garlic.
Lock up or down some more.
The photo above is of the back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back locks at Fonserannes, just outside Béziers. This seven step staircase lock takes your boat up or down 70 vertical feet over the course of an hour. We tackled this lock on our first full day of cruising, gazed upon by hundreds of curious, camera-toting tourists. After that trial-by-fire, every other lock seemed easy by comparison.
Take a cultural excursion.
Like a bike ride through a vineyard:
or a tour of the the winding streets of a postcard-perfect hill town:
or of a quiet canal-side village:
or ogle the colorful buildings of a port city:
or hike to an awe-inspiring site like the Étang de Montady, where a bunch of overachieving 13th century monks decided it would be a good idea to drain an entire valley full of wetlands by dividing it into pie-shaped wedges that drain to a single center point:
or to the Malpas tunnel, excavated BY HAND over eight days in the year 1679:
Park the boat.
in a sleepy hamlet, surrounded by other boaters:
or in the middle of nowhere, with a view to a hill town in the distance:
or smack dab in the center of a bustling city:
Watch the sun set:
This is my happy place, at the wheel of our Cirrus B.
New life goal: acquire a French canal boat, even if it’s this one: