No worries about planning hotels in the next town, or whether you'll arrive in daylight or in time to find somewhere for a meal: take a week away, and take the accommodation with you, sailing in total freedom along your chosen route around the network of canals and rivers that crisscross France. It's perfect for gathering together a group of friends or to delight the kids with an unusual holiday: when they get back to school they'll be boasting to their friends of how they took the helm. These delightful canal boats really are that easy to handle, and the brief explanation given when you pick up the rented boat is plenty to help you overcome any fear, and master the main manoeuvres, such as mooring or negotiating a lock. After that, the trip's just plain sailing. No license or prior knowledge is needed and there's no need to hire crew.
The houseboats come in different sizes, from some that are just big enough for two, to others with space for up to a dozen people. You'll find everything you need installed on board: cabins, kitchen, dining room, bathroom and bedding; and for just a little extra, you can rent a bike for exploratory excursions into rural France. (Of course you'll have left the car safely in the controlled car park that the rental centres usually provide.)
As well as being fun, this type of holiday is perfect for recession times. Most of the canals are easily reached by car, prices start from around £230 per person per week, and you can save a fortune by doing your own catering on board and only eating in restaurants when you specifically choose to.
True, you won't get to travel a long way, as the vessels' top speed is around ten kilometres an hour, but it's not hard to find a route that includes some beautiful countryside, maybe even a beach, and lots of history. These waterways were once crucial for trade between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, so towns and villages flourished along the banks. You can pop into a different market each morning for baguettes and fresh croissants for breakfast or tie up on the bank and stroll around the peaceful streets as evening falls.
There are a full 8,500 kilometres of waterways across France, which makes it easy to find the ideal setting, from the beautiful scenery of Brittany, the Loire or Burgundy or regions closer to the Camargue, Aquitaine, and the historic Canal du Midi. The only possible downside is that bookings tend to be made well in advance, so not all options will be available at all times. If the idea appeals, don't waste time but hoist the Jolly Roger and set sail.
Tips & suggestions:
Houseboats of all sizes are available in key areas of France, as well as in Italy, Holland, Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany and Belgium. As a rough guide, a six-berth vessel will cost between £1,500 and £2,700 a week depending on the season (usually spring to autumn).
French Government Tourist Office