I just returned from a once in a lifetime experience that had been on my France bucket list for quite sometime – a French barge Cruise on the Canal du Midi aboard the Athos.
Located in the Languedoc region of France, the Canal du Midi is a 300 year old very unique stretch of water and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The canal itself is about 150 miles long and runs from Toulouse to Sète and tops out in the Mediterranean.
It was originally designed for trade to transport goods like wheat, textiles and wine by barge, before the invention of railroads. But in the early 1990’s, some of the boats were renovated into luxury vacation barges and a new tourism sector was born.
If you’ve followed me, you’ll notice I don’t talk about cruises. I’m not a fan of the typical cruising experience, which is generally ginormous ships that resemble floating cities with millions of people, food buffets and aggressive itineraries. That type of travel doesn’t appeal to me.
But a barge cruise seemed the antithesis of a cruise, a slow travel experience, with just a handful people on a small vessel, only covering a short amount of ground per day with more focus on local food and wine. And that’s exactly what it was.
Here are some reasons I think you should consider a French barge cruise along the Canal du Midi.
1. The Scenery
Some of the most amazing scenery. A mixture of poppy fields and vineyards, postcard pretty. An old house here and there, beautiful bridges, aqueducts and charming villages, all surrounded by the backdrop of the canal, which is lined with Cyprus, Plane and Umbrella Pine trees. Dappled sunlight that dances across the water through the leaves. It’s very serene. And as you’re driving to and from daily excursions, you get to relax and enjoy different views of the French countryside.
2. The Slow Pace
The barge travels about four MPH and you have the ability to get on and off to either walk or bike (they have bikes onboard) along the towpath and meet up with the boat or just take it easy on deck, read a book, take a nap, chat with fellow passengers or the crew. It’s a very relaxing vacation or it can be more active – you get to choose. Another bonus – absolutely no seasickness, so if you’re prone to that on ocean liners, you won’t need to worry here.
3. The Weather
The Canal du Midi is located in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the South of France. The area boasts over 300 days of sunshine a year. And though it can be windy and a there can be a chance of rain – during the season, which only runs from April through October, you’re almost guaranteed good weather.
4. The Locks
The locks are an amazing feat of architecture and engineering. Some are very small, but others, like the Nine Ecluse, a succession of eight locks near Fonserannes are a downright marvel. Water gushes in to fill up the basins with the power of what seems like Niagara Falls. And it’s fascinating to be on the barge to be part of it all.
5. The Crew
They pamper you, but not in an annoying way. Very unobtrusively. They ask before you even board what your favorite drinks are and if you have any food allergies. They know the area well and are knowledgable, entertaining and happy to tell stories about their time on the barge. They really want you to enjoy your time on board (and off) and will go out of their way to make you happy.
6. The Food and Wine
We had some absolutely amazing meals on board. Every day when we stopped in a new village, one of the guides would make a run to the boulangerie and the chef would shop for local specialities at the food market. The food was fresh, gourmet, local and it was plentiful. We ate like royalty.
We enjoyed a cheese course every night at dinner which included a variety of local cheeses.
And since the Languedoc is a huge wine region – all of the wine was local as well. We had a nice mix of red, white and rosé and the bottles flowed at lunch, dinner and apéro for as long as you wished. It was expertly paired with our meals and both the chef and wait staff would describe every course and each wine in detail, which was a nice touch.
7. It’s All Inclusive
Everything from soup to nuts is included on the trip. You pay one price which includes the barge, transportation to and from the barge, the crew, all of your meals on board, all of your drinks, wine, cocktails (as much as you want) and all of the excursions. You don’t need to worry at all about handling money or bringing it along with you, unless you wanted souvenirs or to buy something during one of the excursions.
8. The Excursions
We got to visit some pretty amazing places. Each barge has a choice of the places they visit and create their own itinerary, but the Athos included the villages of Pézenas, Carcassonne, Capestang, Narbonne, Marseillan and Minerve. We also got to visit the Noilly Prat vermouth distillery, a covered food market in Narbonne, a local olive cooperative and had time one night to walk to the Oppidum d’Ensérune with our guide. It was a nice mix of history, food and charming villages.
Stayed tuned, I’ll be posting more about my trip over the next few weeks – you can look forward to posts on my favorite photos, what to pack and also a day-by-day account of exactly what the trip was like.
Disclosure: I was a guest aboard the Athos barge. All opinions and photos are my own.
So, what do you think? Would you take a barge cruise along the Canal du Midi?