Barging into the South of France - Page 2

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Canal du Midi
HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Cruising the Canal du Midi  (courtesy, Crown Blue Line)

I knew his real mission. But, as usual, on-the-spot parental wisdom eluded me except to say, "No, you cannot take the camera." Words didn't matter. He was already past me, scouting the gold-infused Mediterranean beach for topless sunbathers.

Sunbathers aside, what made this a great family vacation was not so much what we saw, but the fact that we saw it by boat—our boat. The kids took over the bow space, often sitting together watching for whatever might appear. Sometimes they'd draw or write in diaries, but mostly they played games we adults weren't part of, and yes, sometimes quarreled and came perilously close to falling—or being pushed—into the water.

When we moored they found plenty of entertainment in the rich environment. They perfected the arts of crab catching and skipping stones, and at the marinas unloaded the rental bikes and practiced endless wheelies. The simplicity of it recalled for me the kind of play I knew as a child—the kind before technology ruled.

This type of vacation is often called "barging," but that's something of a misnomer. While there are still barges, mostly for large groups, most canal charters are well-appointed cabin cruisers like ours from Crown Blue Line, outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and amenities. Our 42-foot boat included four cabins, two heads (bathrooms), a spacious salon, and an upper deck from which to watch the world go by.

Canal life, even in the nicest of self-drive vessels, isn't without challenges, like seven other people hearing you in the bathroom, the rumble of a relative's snore, and locks that proved harder to work than pre-trip literature or brief instructions suggested. And then there were the lockkeepers themselves, like the first we encountered on the Canal du Midi.

"Where are ze men?" he demanded, eyeing us with deep suspicion.

"There are no men," we called back, trying, unsuccessfully, to secure our boat to the lock walls without ramming the other three boats also gliding into position in the tight space.

"No," he shouted as if we hadn't understood, as if what he was looking at was utterly incomprehensible. "Where are ze men?"

The lockkeepers apparently maintain telephone contact, because at each lock over the next few days we were greeted with the same bemused suspicion or sad shaking of heads. "Ah, ze American women with no men."

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