I’ve just returned from a dreamy 7 night self-drive boating adventure through the French countryside with my partner in travel, Natalie, and our mamas. A barging holiday through France has been high on my wanderlist for a very long time and that dream was finally realised through a self-drive boating company called Le Boat. We started planning our adventure at the beginning of the year and set sail on 11 October at the end of the summer boating season, picturesque autumn in full bloom. When we were planning our trip I was a little disappointed that we weren’t traveling at the height on summer (diaries just didn’t allow), but in hindsight, I think we picked the perfect time of year. We had days that were 26° celsius and the warm pre-winter hues that punctuated our route were just breathtaking.
I know this is a long post, so settle in with a cup of whatever you fancy. I’ve tried to detail everything you might want to know about a boating holiday, from what to budget, to logistics, packing and how to plot your route. If there’s anything you feel is missing or that you’d like some clarity on, please comment on this post and I’ll get back to you.
There’s also a nifty special offer for Brandslut readers, so do keep reading.
Plotting Your Route
First, choose the country you’d like to explore. Le Boat offers 214 barging routes through 9 countries:
There are routes available for different levels of expertise, different durations and different cultural requirements. We chose our route along Canal Lateral a la Loire (The Sparkling Cruise from Châtillon-Sur-Loire to Decize) for five reasons:
- Proximity to Paris, making getting to the boat and back really easy
- Automatic & manned locks along the entire route, meaning we wouldn’t have to operate any locks on our own (win!)
- The idea of our canal winding beside the Loire seemed like it would make for some really pretty countryside, and it did!
- A route ideal for lovers of wine and lazy summer evenings listening to music along the banks of the canal. The Sparkling Cruise passes the Sancerre wine region which is a must-see!
- The Horizon 4 boat was available on this route and we loved its layout and facilities, another criterion to factor into your route-hunt.
Our Route // The Sparkling Cruise
Our route totalled 127 kilometers and 26 locks, split up over 7 days as we spent the last night at our destination, Decize. Getting to and from the bases was super easy, a short train journey from Paris to Briare and then Decize back to Paris at the end. Two short taxi rides to and from bases got us there and back, with Le Boat representatives at both to check us in and out and ensure that everything was okay. Upon check-in you’ll receive a thorough briefing, as well as a route map which will help you plan your day and timings. Eventually you’ll get a hang of how many kilometers you’re covering per hour and will be able to divide the full journey into chunks based on that. My mom found a really handy map of our route here; it cost E10 and we used it a lot.
It’s worthwhile asking your Le Boat representative for hot tips regarding the best marinas, where to do grocery shopping and also which villages are a must-see. Try and check in as early as possible to allow yourself enough time to do a grocery shop on the first day; you’ll probably need to do another 3 or 4 days later.
As 4 total novice female boaters (exactly what Le Boat experiences are designed for with no prior experience necessary) I’m really glad we opted for an automatic route with no locks requiring our manipulation. Listen, I’m sure we would’ve managed, but not having to open and close them ourselves made for a really easy, relaxed week on the water.
A boating holiday doesn’t mean you’ll be spending every waking hour on the water, so choose your route based on the places and activities at your disposal along the way. Our route, for example, is perfect for cyclists and we passed hundreds of them on our adventure. I kept thinking my husband (Eep, that’s the first time I’ve written that! We got married on the weekend :) would’ve loved it because he could cycle to his heart’s content and meet us at our daily destination or at villages along the way. You can stop at official marinas and villages or anywhere along the canal’s banks to stretch your legs and explore the areas. We booked 4 bicycles for our trip and this is a must-do as it makes exploring, grocery shopping and getting around so much easier.
If you can’t decide which route to take, ask the Le Boat sales team for their hot tips and check out the Le Boat routes on their website of course.
10 Reasons to Consider a Boating Holiday
- It’s cheaper than you think! Remember, your transport and accommodation are rolled into one. Also, being able to buy groceries and cook on-deck makes budgeting easy and ends up saving a lot of money. I’ve detailed our full budget towards the end of this post, so keep reading.
- No prior experience is necessary. If us 4 gals can do it, so can you!
- It’s one of the most pretty and picturesque adventures you’ll ever embark on. I said ‘wow’ about 100 times a day.
- It’s a great way to see and explore little villages and hidden gems that are typically off the beaten track
- It’s a lot of fun! Days are lazy and watching the countryside go by to the sounds of Francoise Hardy (or whomever you choose to listen to on the sound-system) with a drink in hand is heaven.
- It’s suited to all types; friends, family, lovers, there’s an option for all party and budget sizes.
- There’s more space than you think! Our boat, the Horizon 4, had ample space on both upper and lower decks, as well as in the kitchen/dining area and also within the cabins. If you wanted some space or a time-out, it was easy enough attain.
- Steering a boat is actually really fun and I found it quite therapeutic. Steering from the top-deck out in the open air and sun was magic and never felt like a chore.
- It’ll allow you to live out your boating fashion fantasy. Natalie and I went completely overboard (pun intended) with our nautical stripes and red, white and blues; we loved every second of it.
- Our boat had 4 private cabins, each with their own toilet and shower. I was super impressed with the facilities and this made the experience all the more enjoyable.
The Highlights of My Trip
The highlights for me were some of the unexpected little details, nuances one doesn’t anticipate like:
- The autumnal hues of France in October. The trees, the creeper-covered houses and walls, warm tones were everywhere and it made for such a pretty journey along the canals.
- Cycling to nearby villages to do grocery shopping. You’ll be amazed at how much a few women can fit onto their bicycles. Also, I just love buying groceries in foreign countries.
- Having all your things with you, all of the time. The great thing about your accommodation and transport being one and the same means you’ve always got your phone charger or camera or sunscreen or whatever at hand. It wasn’t something I’d really considered ahead of the trip, but having your full wardrobe and all your gadgets and things travel with you is nifty.
- Driving. Listen, I wasn’t the best at parking, Natalie assumed that role, but I absolutely loved the peaceful meander.
- Cooking up a storm in our cabin kitchen. We didn’t skimp on ingredients and ate like queens for the week. Meal-times were a real treat and we completely over-indulged. Yes, we managed to somehow fit 2 tubs of ice-cream AND authentic French salted caramel into one of our grocery hauls by bicycle. I mean.
- That early morning coffee above deck (or in bed) while the world is still sleeping.
- Misty mornings on the water. I’m an early-riser and a morning person and I just loved the quiet time out on the deck, our boat surrounded by mist.
- Exploring the Sancerre wine region with 3rd generation wine-maker Arnaud Bourgeois of Domaine Henri Bourgeois. The Sancerre wine region is breathtaking and Arnaud (and his lovely South African wife Sigi) welcomed us with open arms and took us on a personal tour of the area, his farm and facilities. A must-do if you’re in this neck of the woods.
- Quality time with family and friends. Travelling by boat is really unique and such a great way to combine a little light adventure with sightseeing and exploration. Many, many laughs were had and you’ll be amazed at how quickly the week will pass.
What to Pack for a Boating Holiday
- Light! A small, versatile wardrobe will come in handy and save you a ton of space in your cabin. Bring items that can be easily be layered if the mornings/evenings are a little chilly. As we travelled in autumn we needed some warmer items, but summer travel should be a cinch.
- Don’t over-do it on shoes; sneakers and sandals are all you need. If you’re like me you’ll probably spend most of the time on-board barefoot.
- Sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. It’s sunny up on deck and no one wants to get sunburnt.
- Stuff to do! We docked for the night around 5-6PM most days, so there’s time to unwind whilst cruising as well as in the evenings. Bring along some books, games and even DVDs. Our boat had a flat-screen TV and DVD player which would’ve been ideal for catching up on old Sex and the City episodes.
- Pack a backpack to assist with grocery shopping by bicycle; it’s much easier to pack a haul into your backpack than it is to balance shopping bags on your handle bars.
- Gadgets! Along with the usual suspects, pack an AUX cable so you can connect your phone to the boat’s sound-system. We listened to French music via Google Music and it set the tone for our adventure. Amélie sound-track, anyone?
Boating Holiday Logistics
- Official marinas have power and water points to plug into and recharge overnight for a few Euros. The boat’s power and water stores hold enough for 3 days which will allow you to moor anywhere along the canal to setup camp for the night.
- The boats are really well equipped (gas oven and hob, two fridges, ample cutlery, crockery and utensils, TV, DVD player, sound-system, sun-shade and gas BBQ/braai above deck, dining table and lounge area, 4 self-contained cabins with private bathrooms and USB ports).
- As the speed limits are pretty slow, you wont use much fuel; we didn’t need to fill up with diesel for the duration of our trip
- You can buy groceries at the towns and villages along the route. As we travelled at the end of the season, many of the village restaurants had shut for the winter which meant home-cooked meals and dining in. For this reason we ended up saving a great deal! We also ate like kings thanks to Natalie’s culinary prowess.
- Beware French lunchtimes and operating hours. As South Africans we’re really not used to this complete shut-down and cultural nuance, so make sure you’re not planning on navigating a lock or doing a grocery shop over lunch-time.
- You will need to assist in the locks, despite them being manned/automatic. The protocol is easy and requires securing the one side of the boat to two small posts which stabillise it to make sure the boat doesn’t move too much when the water flows in/out. Someone will also need to assume the captain position to ensure entry and exit into the lock. None of this is difficult, but you will need to help, especially if there are only 2 or 4 of you aboard.
- Pack soft, light luggage if you can to make storage easier. The cabins are relatively small and you don’t want a giant suitcase taking up your bedroom/kitchen/corridor. Don’t over-pack either, a small capsule wardrobe is all one needs.
- The boat comes with a WiFi router and a small data-bundle, however I’d advise getting yourself a KnowRoaming SIM card which is what I used to keep connected on the trip. The KnowRoaming SIM offers cheap data in 200 countries and allows you to monitor your data usage, top up easily via the app etc. It’ll cost you $9.99 and will be shipped to your home. A bonus is that WhatsApp usage is free on KnowRoaming, so you can essentially keep connected for free.
- Pack a soft, light backpack that can be used for carrying your grocery shopping. A backpack is much easier to handle on a bicycle if the grocery shop requires a bit of a ride to get there. The bicycles also have baskets which is a help, but the backpack will come in handy.
Budgeting For a Boating Holiday
Train from Paris Bercy 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 Bercy (4 tickets): R2250
Boat hire (9 sleeper): R35 000 for 7 days
Boat cleaning fee (this is an absolute non-negotiable, believe me, you do not want to spend your last night scrubbing the decks): R1940
Special occasion basket (this was great to have as it took the pressure off having to do a grocery shop on the first day and we indulged in some delicious local treats): R840
Starter grocery pack (similar to above, but with the basics): R720
Damage wavier (not worth not having in my opinion): R4109
Eco cleaning pack: R145
Bicycle hire (4 bicycles with locks): R2740
One way canal fee (additional supplement for all one-way cruises): R1500
Water/electricity/port costs: R600
Groceries (two full grocery hauls, which ended up being loads cheaper than dining out all the time): R3500
Total price for 4 people: R 55 204
Total per person: R13 801
At R13 801 per person I feel a boating holiday is way more affordable than one would expect. Bear in mind this cost is for 7 nights, all inclusive (bar flights as this will depend on where you’re flying in from and the time of year). If you’ve ever spent a night in Paris you’ll understand what one night at a hotel alone will cost you. It’s also possible to bring the cost down even further by travelling with more people (we stayed one per cabin, but couples could easily share 2 per cabin); our Horizon 4 boat also had space for a 9th person in the ‘lounge’ which could suit a young child.
10 Reasons to Book Your Boating Holiday with Le Boat
- South African travellers have the convenience of being able to deal with a local, Cape Town-based office that can can provide all the help one needs (visit www.leboat.co.za or call 021 200 1838)
- Le Boat has been in the business of barging for 40 years; these guys know what’s up and will put your mind at ease!
- Le Boat offer boating experiences in 9 countries across 214 routes so you can be sure there’ll be an adventure perfectly suited to your individual needs
- Their large fleet offers something for everyone from a size and budgetary perspective
- Le Boat’s boats come with powerful side-thrusters that make docking and maneuvering into/out of locks a dream; they turn on a dime!
- The boats are extremely well kept and maintained; our Horizon 4 was brand new and made for a premium boating experience
- As you can tell by my budget calculations in the previous section, a boating holiday with Le Boat won’t require remortgaging your home!
- The team is knowledgeable, experienced and will go out of their way to help. I found the attitudes of everyone we encountered to be positive; it’s so nice to deal with nice people.
- Le Boat’s self-drive fleet means the holiday is yours at your pace, your design, no experience nor skipper necessary.
- Le Boat is offering up to 20% off on early bird bookings for 2018 if you book before the end of November 2017.
Le Boat Promo for Brandslut Readers // Promo Code BXLBT
The fabulous team at Le Boat have very generously offered early bird discount savings of up to 20% (Ts & Cs apply), applicable to new online South African bookings confirmed before 30 November 2017 for April/May/September/October 2018 cruises. Minimum 7 nights duration. Customers will also receive two complimentary bicycles for hire with their online booking. Use promo code BXLBT when booking before 30 November.
I hope you’ve found this blog post useful and that you add a boating holiday to your wanderlist; I know I’ll be doing this again. If you have any questions or want any advice to help you plan your dream adventure on the water, please comment and I’ll get back to you.