My retired father called up one day and said my mom and he were ready for a European adventure. One of his dreams was to travel through France…by canal boat. I knew a little about river cruising and thought that’s what he meant of course. Sounded relaxing, fun.
Not quite. His idea was a canal boat with just us four! He found a company called Locaboat that lent Pénichettes out to guests all over Europe. You could pick the size of the vessel, length of trip and style of the experience. Then, after a day’s orientation, off you go! My husband and I are only a short train ride from the place in France he wanted to explore, so plans were made and the adventure began. Watch our Locaboat YouTube clip below!
The rough Itinerary
While there’s countless routes to choose from with Locaboats, we kept in mind the length of time (seven days) and amount of locks we’d have to navigate through. Along with the logistics, we all had different activities and interests for the trip. Dad is all about the red wine, while Mom likes poking around old churches and little villages. I dig both of these things, plus some foodie adventures. Christian is all about biking through the countryside and historical points of interests.
Taking all of this into account, out best bet for a full-on trip would be the route between St-Leger Sur Dheune and ending in Mâcon. This one-way itinerary passes through several beautiful towns along the narrow canals, which eventually opens up into the larger, commercial waterway.
Pimp my boat
Locaboats have several models available, depending on your departure point and size of your group. They all have different features as well, but each boat is super clean and modern. Dad definitely wanted a space on the boat where we could relax outside, and I wanted to make sure we all had enough space to survive the week in smiles! We upgraded to a Pénichette 1500FB, complete with four cabins and a flying buttress.
It was large for our group of two couples, but we didn’t find it tough to ‘drive’ even with its size. It also included four bathrooms, a large kitchen with stove and fridge, and a good size sitting area. Above was an area where we could lounge with tables and chairs. The boat can also be driven from inside the common area or outdoors above. You can technically squeeze 12 people in a canal boat this size, but 8 would be more comfortable. This is the largest one available, while others can sleep 2 or 4 people.
Just around the riverbend
As for the route itself, we were able to take our time passing through villages and taking in all the sights. Here’s a few of our favorites:
The best meal we had all week was in town at the Le Grenier à Sel. Simple, fresh and French, this place is encased in stone and centers around an open fire grill. After classic salads of goat cheese and greens, I opted for a flame-cooked steak and green beans that blew me away. While there’s no menus in English, you can’t go wrong with whatever you point to on the menu.
A lovely canal-front town with walkable streets and plenty of al fresco cafes. On our rainy day visit we found Restaurant le Grill des Quai for some delicious local grub and of course, wine.
A beautiful village full of streets to get lost in. The cathedral in the town center was impressive and completely empty for us to quietly visit inside. Most cafes were closed around the early afternoon, but we did find some great delis and bakeries to stock up the boat.
Biking was the highlight of this village. The sun shone as we lazily pedaled through fields and the surrounding forest with perfectly straight trees. From where the boat was tied at the marine you can reach the Restaurant l’Embarcadere right on the water. They also will deliver fresh baked (and hot!) pan au chocolat right to your Pénichette door. Perfection.
I do wish we spent more time in Mâcon, as it’s much larger than the others. We did stay overnight there and had a wonderful experience strolling along the marina and the canal. As it was our last stop, we were eager to polish off all the tine we had our eye on. A short walk from the marina is Maison Maconnaise des Vins, doubling as both a knowledgeable, regional wine shop and a cozy restaurant upstairs.
Tips and tricks for canal boat captaining
Navigating a Pénichette isn’t too difficult. Everyone had a little bit of boating experience abroad, between sailing trips, motorboat vacations and a couple cruises. Before leaving, Locaboat gives a great overview of the entire vessel, from the helm to the toilets.
The main thing to recall is how to get though the locks. These come in all shapes and sizes and are basically contained parts of the water that help regulate depth and levels of the canal. The first few locks are automatic when manned by a lockeeper, who will help you learn the ropes. Later on you might encounter some manual, smaller locks that require a little teamwork to rotate the gates and tie up the boat. In the wider canal are commercial locks – HUGE locks that can fit the big barges and cruise ships. It’s wild to see you descend so far from one side to the other!
There were a few minor mishaps. We had an issue with the bathrooms where a part simply needed to be replaced. The crew from Locaboats though met us along the canal and quickly came to our rescue with a swift repair.
We also were unlucky with the rain. The canals were flooded and some were closed off from boats, but this did not negatively impact the trip. May is fairly warm and despite the rain, it’s still pleasant to be outside. When the sun came out, it made some moments all the sweeter. Pack a waterproof jacket just in case, as you’ll have to be outside part of the day regardless if you plan to cruise the canal every day.
Do keep in mind if you do a trip like this early or late in the season, some villages can be fairly closed up. A couple times we had to hunt down a place to eat or buy groceries that was open. However, this also meant there was little to no boat traffic on the canals and town were uncrowded.
With that said, opt for the rental bikes to keep on the boat. They were not only perfect for some exercise off the water, but helped us get into town even faster when pressed for time.
For a multi-generational family travel trip in France, a canal boat vacation was perfect for my retired parents, husband and I to enjoy the upcoming summer months in Europe.
If you’d like to give canal boating a try visit the Locaboat page for more information and a list of destinations across Europe.