Barging into the South of France

Want a Euro family outing you're really going to remember? Grab the kids, rent a boat, and take to France's canals.
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Canal du Midi
LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE: France's Canal du Midi  (PhotoDisc)

It was late afternoon by the time we left Castlenaudary that first day, tying up for the night barely three miles away from where we started. But cruising a canal in southern France is not about making good time.

Time on the canal is measured in sunrises and sunsets, in moments both remarkable and ordinary. It's not about speedometers or schedules, it's about doing what you want—or doing nothing at all—because there's no place you have to be, no set number of hours to cruise in a day. It's about moseying hand-in-hand with your kids on the cobbled streets of medieval ports and sitting on the deck, all together, sharing an adventure that's bound, in ways you can't yet know, to transform you all.

We chose two canals for our two-week family odyssey, Canal du Midi—Europe's oldest manmade waterway and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in the 1600s—and Canal du Rhône à Sète, which skirts the Mediterranean coastline as it flows into the Camargue, a wildlife refuge in the southwest corner of Provence. The two meet at a wide saltwater lagoon called Etang de Thau, and while there are many options for voyages in this area, some one-way charters, others round trip, we traveled the waters between Castlenaudary on the Canal du Midi and Gallician on the Canal du Rhône à Sète.

Cruising France's southern canals is like sailing into an Impressionist painting—fields of gold and lavender under vivid skies, the sunlit sea in the distance, and ever-changing light continually recreating the living canvas. It's easy to understand why so many masterpieces were created here, but even without the inspired reference of an artist's transforming brushstrokes, the landscape would still be mesmerizing, multi-hued and exotic, a slowly passing backdrop of seductive beauty.

Unlike the pastoral countryside through which we floated, our boat of three women and five children ranging in age from nine to teens was rarely quiet. Occasionally, though, there were sights that even left the kids grasping for words.

"Mom, I'm going to go, uh, on a walk. Okay?" Shuffling the sand and putting on a brilliant wide-eyed-picture-of-innocence look, my son clarified in quasi-military terms. "Actually, a recon mission to find out…what's around here. Because, you know, we've never been here."

Published: 2 Apr 2007 | Last Updated: 5 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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