A boating holiday on the Canal du Midi is a très bon experience for two families who join forces in search of adventure.
WORDS HILARY DOLING
It was an idea hatched one sunny afternoon in Sydney after we’d taken a small tinny out on the Hawkesbury River. Why not aim for something bigger? Why not aim for somewhere further? This is how we find ourselves afloat in France.
‘Misty’ – as our boat, Mystique 3, is instantly nicknamed – is waiting for us at the Le Boat marina in the little town of Trèbes in the south of France. The children rush below decks to claim cabins, we adults toss a Euro to decide who has the largest double cabin at the front. Le Boat’s top craft, the Vision series, does offer identically sized cabins but we like our three-cabined Mystique better as it looks more traditional.
Our first challenge comes almost as soon as we motor out of the marina; our first lock… of many. Just as well that the locks turn out to be the children’s favourite thing. It is exciting watching the water gush through the gates as the canal level adjusts. And there is enough rope throwing and scrambling up steps to keep them happy. However, our first lock is a bit of a disaster. Too many turns of the wheel mean we end up jammed sideways blocking other boats. Luckily a kind French family takes pity on us and shouts instructions from the bank; “À gauche, à gauche” (left , left). “Oui, c’est parfait!” (Which probably translates to “thank goodness they finally got it right”, as opposed to “perfect”.)
By lock two we have it nailed. We’re a well-oiled machine; mums on the ropes, dads at the front, kids climbing the walls (literally). We pride ourselves on our newfound skills and are not as generous as we should be when we see other newbies making mistakes. “What kind of rope toss was that,” says our 14-year-old scathingly as another boat’s tether lands with a splosh in the canal.
The picturesque little keepers’ cottages have green wooden shutters and makeshift shops. Stopping is a chance to buy cold drinks and ice-creams or commune with the lock keeper’s dog. At Aiguille Lock, the keeper is also an artist and has a garden full of metal animals and stick figures.
We have hired bikes (an optional extra) which we tie to the bow. The children and one particularly energetic dad cycle along the canal in the early evenings and enjoy beating the boat (the speed limit on the canal is eight knots, which is relaxingly slow). We also use the bikes to go into the little villages along the route to buy croissants for breakfast or crusty baguettes, plump tomatoes and runny French cheese for lunch. You have to pick your time to visit the villages because around noon shutters are locked and everyone seems to be having the French equivalent of a siesta.
In the evenings we play cards or word games and study the maps to plan the next day’s adventures. Le Boat also has a handy app you can download to tell you about the places you pass en route. The children also study the Captain’s Handbook avidly, mainly so they can correct their parents: “NO Dad, that’s the bilge pump.”
On quiet afternoons, those not taking the wheel (only children 16-plus are allowed to steer) read books or simply put their feet up and watch the scenery drift by. Majestic plane trees line the canal like soldiers at attention. We sail under little stone bridges so low we have to watch our heads and pass pretty cottages with flowers around the doors.
At Argens-Minervois the village is clustered around a 14th-century château which overlooks the canal and the river Aude, and you can take a tour to the local winery. Near Paraza we find an old abandoned windmill and as we pass Ventenac-en-Minervois we can see the ramparts of the old castle. At Homps we dock in the marina so the kids can swim in the nearby lake, which is freezing but fun. However, our favourite stop is Le Somail with its ivy-covered houses, where there’s an old bookshop that sells books in a number of languages, a floating barge bread shop and hungry ducks waiting for leftovers. We eat lunch by the side of the canal with a glass of vin rouge (adults) and citron pressé (kids).
It is a long time since this was a serious working canal. Now it is a friendly place thronging with other pleasure craft. Some people hoist flags so you can see which country they come from and a boatful of Aussies has a large green and yellow kangaroo banner strung along its side. Although we learn to get out of the way of the huge luxury barges with waiter service and a bully-boy attitude to we smaller fry, the kids secretly like the way our boat rocks when one of these monster barges goes by.
It is hard to leave Madame Misty behind at the end of the week, as we’ve become so used to the gentle rhythm of canal days. We’ve bickered a little, bonded a lot and eaten far too much French fromage, but we all agree this won’t be our last trip afloat. Le Boat’s yachting arm, The Moorings, also does trips to Tahiti – now you’re talking.