Both memorable and manageable, a self-guided Le Boat cruise allows families of all sizes to experience France's "good life."
If you’re looking for a unique and unforgettable way to discover some of Europe's most breathtaking scenery with your kids, then why not take a detour from the main roads, or better yet, just get off the roads altogether. It’s not everyday big families like mine splurge on vacations to Southern France, and we dreamed of making it memorable and carefree. So when my crew of six - including my husband, 14-year-old daughter, 12-year-old son and ten-year-old twin daughters - learned we could experience the breathtaking scenery of a Van Gogh painting from the top deck of our very own boat - stopping whenever and wherever we pleased - we wanted to get on board! UK-based Le Boat, Europe’s premier supplier of drive-it-yourself cabin cruisers, offers excursions through some of the most stunning canals, lakes, and rivers throughout France, Belgium, England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and the Netherlands, plus newly introduced routes in Canada starting May 2018 along the Rideau Canal. Le Boat has the widest choice of boating vacations and charters across France. We chose to cruise the Canal du Midi because the route is great for beginning boaters like ourselves and offered my family a chance to relax and slow down following a week of sightseeing in Paris. The Canal du Midi stretches 150 miles through Southern France and links the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered a masterpiece of both hydraulic and structural engineering. Tourists who cruise the 325-year-old canal can’t help but fall in love with its quiet, natural beauty. When you drive your very own boat down the Canal du Midi, you can stop to explore tiny French villages, gorgeous sunflower fields in full bloom, and the many vineyards dotting the hills of the Languedoc region. Experiencing Southern France from the comfort and luxury of a cabin cruiser means never having to check in and out of hotels or spend a small fortune at restaurants because these boats have all the amenities of a luxury RV.
Whether your family is a crew of two or twelve, Le Boat has a boat to fit just about any crew size. And here’s the surprising part - this kind of European boating vacation requires no special license and no previous boating experience! Le Boat staffers give an in-depth introduction and hands-on demonstration to make sure that you’re totally comfortable before you launch.
KidTripster Tip: This kind of vacation isn’t for everyone. If your family is still in the baby stage or you have young kids, I’d suggest waiting until they are older to navigate Europe’s canals. Our youngest crew mates were 10 years old, and they did just fine. The beauty of cruising with your kids is that you need them to get your boat safely through the locks. This is the kind of family vacation where everyone becomes an active participant, and while it may sound like work, it’s actually fun and empowering for kids.
Where to stay?
When you book with Le Boat, you don’t have to worry about where to stay. The boat becomes your floating home for days or weeks, depending on the route you chose. Let’s face it, living out of suitcases and checking in and out of hotels with kids can take the joy out of international travel. When you drive your own Le Boat, you get to cruise from one quaint French village to the next without ever unpacking your bags. Having everything we needed aboard our luxury Horizon 4 made our week in Southern France easier than I could have ever imagined.
Launched along the Canal du Midi in the summer of 2017, the 45-foot Horizon 4 is brand new and gorgeous. It sleeps 8 comfortably, giving my family of six plenty of room to eat, sleep, and play. Each of the four cabins has a private bathroom with a shower and locking cubbies for personal belongings. My four children shared two cabins between them, and they each slept on comfortable twin beds with nice, quality bedding. My husband and I shared the two staterooms at the bow of the boat. The individual rooms didn't have televisions, and we were thrilled that our children never asked to use the large TV or DVD player in the main saloon of our boat. Cooking for my big crew was easy and enjoyable thanks to the full kitchen. The Horizon 4 comes fully equipped with an oven and stove, two refrigerators, microwave, cooking equipment, utensils, and grill. Eating al fresco on the top deck of our LeBoat was my family’s favorite place to dine. The natural beauty of the Canal du Midi at sunset just can’t be beat. Click here for a tour of our digs.
KidTripster Tip: Le Boat offers different boats along the Canal du Midi route, as well as other locations in Europe. I’d strongly recommend choosing a boat that has bow and stern thrusters which maneuver the boat from side to side. It makes navigating a lot easier.
Le Boat offers about a dozen optional services and boating "extras," aimed at making your cruising holiday more family-friendly, comfortable, and convenient. These extras include WiFi, one-way car transfers, early or late check-in, grocery delivery, bike rentals, cleaning service, and more. We opted for several pre-bookable extras that made our time on the boat more relaxing and fun. Whatever you do, rent the bicycles! And while wearing bike helmets isn’t en vogue in France, Le Boat staffers went out of their way to make sure that we had six new helmets to use during our cruise. Now that’s customer service!
KidTripster Tip: Another extra that we didn’t pre-book but added on the last day was the cleaning service, which was worth every penny. You can clean the boat yourself, but I would let Le Boat do the scrubbing. We received the boat in immaculate condition on day one. With six of us running in and out of our boat for an entire week, I left it to the pros to return it to shipshape! Depending on the size of your boat, cleaning fees range between $100 to $200.
What to do?
The Canal du Midi is one of the most historic and scenic canals in Europe; it’s also fun to explore! What makes this kind of vacation more organic and relaxing is that you can slow down and park your boat anywhere along the canal to get a closer look at the things that interest your crew. We stopped for things like wild fruit trees, signs pointing to bakeries, sunflower fields in full bloom, birds, otters, and many quaint villages.
KidTripster Tip: Le Boat sent us a fantastic guide early in our vacation planning that really helped us to get an idea about how to map out our trip along the Canal du Midi. It includes information on how long it takes to cruise from town to town, summer events and festivals, boating etiquette, and more.
As mentioned above, you can rent bikes from Le Boat for an additional fee and make sure you rent them for your entire crew. Biking was the perfect way to quickly get my family to nearby markets and restaurants located in villages up and down the canal.
We spent two days cruising roughly six hours a day in order to make it to the city of Carcassonne, where we found the best attractions for teens and tweens. You’ll discover the beautifully restored medieval fortress town up on a hill. Let your imagination run wild as you explore the Citadel of Carcassonne. This place looks like a fairytale castle and dates back 2,500 years. Hollywood used Carcassonne as a backdrop for Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and it likely inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. Make sure to set aside an entire day to explore the medieval town, ramparts, castle, cathedral, and more. This fortified town is lively and filled with boutiques, sweet shops, toy stores, restaurants, and bars. Take your time walking, exploring, and photographing the incredible double fortified walls which boast 52 separate towers. And whatever you do, don’t miss the live action show called The Grand Tournament of Chivalry. This medieval jousting tournament takes place within the outer walls of the fortified city, and despite being entirely in French, it's very entertaining! Your kids will love it, and you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported into a Game of Thrones episode. The hour-long show runs twice daily in the summer months of July and August. Cost: Youth €6 (about $7); Adult €12 (about $14).
KidTripster Tip: You can moor anywhere along the banks of the canal and stay for the night at no charge. You also can take advantage of private marinas for a small fee. When we arrived in Carcassonne, we spent a little extra to moor at the port harbor. For just €20 (about $23)/night, you can fill your water tank, empty your garbage, take a hot shower, and do your laundry at the clean and safe port facilities located at the private harbor. There’s also a tourism office located close by where you can pick up maps, bus schedules, and information on just about anywhere you’d like to visit in the area. To make a reservation in advance, email the port office at email@example.com.
There’s no swimming in the water of the Canal du Midi, but Carcassonne has a remedy for that. Just five miles from town, you'll find Parc Aquaviva. My four kids would have played at this water park every day of our vacation, if I'd have let them. Parc Aquaviva is located on Cavayere Lake and offers a dozen massive inflatables and two, wickedly-fast water slides that launch you into the air and then right into the lake. Helmets are required while zipping down the slides, which should explain the extreme nature of this thrilling water park.
France has this special thing going that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Here French culture, history, fashion, fine wine, and gourmet food combine to create an unforgettable travel experience. The Languedoc region produces some of the best red wines that we’ve ever enjoyed, and they’re very affordable. And while we visited some great restaurants and bakeries along our Canal du Midi route, my family enjoyed cooking most dinner meals together in our boat’s modern and light-filled kitchen with the provisions that we purchased at local markets or grocery stores. Dining al fresco on the top deck and watching the sunset along the Canal du Midi just couldn’t be beat!
That being said, we did splurge at a couple of noteworthy restaurants along our route. In Carcassonne, we dined like kings and queens at Restaurant Le Saint-Jean (Place Saint-Jean). Located within the gorgeous, walled fortress of Carcassonne, our outdoor table offered breathtaking views of the Chateau Comtal. At Le Saint-Jean, the standout meal had to be the scrumptious bowl of Cassoulet that we all shared. Cassoulet is a savory stew made with white beans, rich broth, and chunks of pork, duck, and sausage. The origins of Cassoulet are famously contentious with several French towns all claiming to be the first to make this classic dish. Residents of Toulouse, Castelnaudary, and Carcassonne all claim Cassoulet as their unique, regional dish. The Cassoulet at Le Saint-Jean was delicious and hearty. Open up a bottle of red wine from the Languedoc region, and you’re in for a treat! Le-Saint-Jean’s menu was kid-friendly, too, with a list of inexpensive kids meals which included drinks and desserts.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure to ask to dine al fresco on the outside patio.
In Bram, we rode our bikes into town in search of my family’s favorite French treat: crêpes! We were happy to discover a small, family-owned crêperie called La Flibuste Creperie Bretonne (23 Place Carnot) that serves delicious sweet and savory crêpes at reasonable prices. When we arrived along with our Australian friends, the cooks tried to explain that the restaurant had been reserved for a private party. Well, the owner must have sensed the disappointment on all of our faces, because he handed us menus, sat the 11 of us down, and told us that they could fill our orders if we hurried. My kids loved the specialty crêpes which were loaded with whipped cream, honey, sweet apples, and drizzled with caramel sauce.
Our favorite bakery? Okay, this is a tough one. We enjoyed so many delicious and classic French pastries, breads, and desserts during our week in Southern France. We’ll be dreaming about the pain au chocolat, cream puffs, eclairs, madeleines, and croissants that we ate for a long time to come. In Capestang, we loved the sweet treats at Le Fournil des Bousquets (11 Cours Belfort). Our favorites were the fresh apple pastries and raspberry tarts. We also took home two jars of fresh preserves that were made from the fig and apricot trees growing behind the bakery. The fig jam is the best that I’ve ever tasted, and I wish that I had bought more!
The cost of renting the Horizon 4 from Le Boat for one full week was $5,996. The Horizon 4 is the newest, luxury, cabin cruiser in Le Boat’s fleet along the Canal du Midi and perfect for big families or multi-generational groups. The Horizon 4 sleeps eight people and includes an extra convertible bed just in case you need room for nine! This 45-foot cabin cruiser could easily fit two smaller families willing to share in the cost and excitement of cruising together. If you’ve got kids who love to ride bikes, make sure to add bikes to your reservation. The bike rental cost for the week for my family of six was $378. Another additional expense was the WiFi which can add up to $63. Fuel is not included, and we used about $225 worth during our travels. When you book your boat, you’ll also pay a non-refundable, damage waiver to cover collision insurance during your cruise. We paid $29/day, for a total of $203 for the week.
KidTripster Tip: Le Boat runs special offers especially during the fall. Check the Le Boat website for deals.
How you get to Le Boat’s Castelnaudary base is completely up to you and your unique itinerary. We took a high-speed train from Paris to Toulouse and then onto Castelnaudary the following day. Le Boat’s office is a short, five-minute walk from the train station. The two nearest airports are located in Carcassonne and Toulouse.
Le Boat also has bases in Trebes, Homps, Narbonne, and Port Cassafieres.
Kidtripster Tip: With Le Boat, no itinerary is the same. You are totally free to go with the flow as long as you return your boat on time to the pre-determined base. If we were to vacation along the canal again, we’d definitely do things differently. We’d book a point A to point B route instead of having to turn around and go back to the base where our excursion began. This would have given us time to cruise to the lively towns of Homps and Capestang. Remember, canal cruising takes time since you cruise at a fast-paced walking speed. Book a one-way cruise if you want to see more of this gorgeous place.
For a detailed day-by-day account of our Le Boat vacation, click here.
Want to know what our KidTripster Teen thinks of cruising with Le Boat? Read here.
Deanna Connell lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with her husband and band of lively pirates. When she’s not driving her kids to their sports, music, and play practices, she’s daydreaming about tropical beaches. In her previous life (b4Kids), she worked as a journalist and then host of a gardening show on PBS. These days, she claims that her most noteworthy accomplishment is having kept Toulouse, the family goldfish, alive for nearly 4 years.