The Canal du Midi is part of the system that connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean, on the west coast of France.
Designed and built by Paul Riquet, France’s answer to Thomas Telford, it meanders through the French countryside and past historic cities. The canal was built for the transport of cargo but is now used mostly by pleasure craft of all manner of shapes and sizes.
Hotel Barges vs. Self-drive boats
There are two ways you can travel along the canal. You can board a hotel barge and be piloted along the canal by a small crew who will arrange shore excursions and provide meals as well. Or you can hire a boat and pilot yourself.
Exploring the Canal du Midi by Hotel Barge
Hotel barges are converted cargo barges that plied the French, Dutch or German waterways. Now they are converted to carry people in luxury with just a few cabins for passengers; enough for 4-12 passengers.
The pace of life along the canal is slow. The Canal du Midi has a speed limit of 6kph or approximately 4mph which means you can take in the details of the French countryside you are passing. If you are feeling energetic or want to explore a little further afield you can cycle along the towpath and meet your barge further along the canal. Most barges will have bicycles you can borrow.
In keeping with the laid back pace of life, the canal barges have a sundeck, while some manage to have a hot tub as well.
The countryside through which the Canal du Midi flows is full of hilltop villages, chateaux, markets and cities such as Narbonne, Beziers and the medieval walled city of Carcassone. The barge operators and owners will arrange excursions to many of these places as part of your experience.
Hotel barges will have a chef on board who will provide high-quality meals using local produce purchased fresh from the markets each day. Most chefs will be happy for you to come along with them to the market but you will need to be prepared for an early start.
Barging is similar to river cruising on the major rivers of Europe but, due to the size of the canal and the boats, it is much more intimate and exclusive. Also, the pace is slower and you do not travel through the night. Instead, the boat is moored up early each evening.
The alternative to the hotel barges on the Canal du Midi are self-drive boats. You can have a penichette (the French word for barge) or cruiser style boat. Much smaller than the hotel barges they are easier to manoeuvre and you do not need a licence to pilot one on the canal. A quick familiarisation tour and an explanation of the controls by the boat operator and you are the captain of your own boat.
The beauty of a self-drive boat is that you can go at your own pace as long as you do not exceed the 6kph speed limit. While there are marinas and ports with all the facilities that charge a fee you can moor free of charge just about anywhere using the iron stakes provided.
Accommodation on board is less luxurious than the hotel barges and can vary from the fairly basic to the more upmarket. Everything is compact and often serves a dual purpose – think caravanning afloat and you get the idea. All self-drive boats come with a kitchen, or galley as it’s called. You can self-cater, cooking your own meals using local produce or eat out at some of the many delightful restaurants and bistros along the canal.
There are plenty of locks along the Canal du Midi but there is little to worry about other than sailing the boat into the lock itself. The locks are all manned by a lock keeper who will do all the work; most locks though are controlled electronically now. Being France, the lock keepers, like everyone else, take a long lunch break. Take note of when the locks are not operating otherwise you can be in for a long wait.
When planning your self-drive canal holiday you will need to factor in fuel for the boat and a deposit.
If you like a bit of luxury and the assurance that everything is organised for you then opt for the hotel barge option. One operator I have used is European Waterways who operate four boats on the Canal du Midi.
If you are a little more adventurous, then hire a self-drive and explore the Canal du Midi your way. I would recommend Le Boat who have several bases along the Canal du Midi where you can hire boats.
Covering your canal boat holiday with your travel insurance
While a canal boat holiday is on the water, you wouldn’t need cruise travel insurance to cover your travel plans. Canal holidays are covered by standard travel insurance policies, but it’s worth checking with your travel insurance provider before booking your trip.
Gordon Lethbridge is an editor and travel writer who writes his own blog at www.travelunpacked.co.uk. He has travelled several times to the Canal du Midi and has travelled by hotel barge and self-drive boat on the canal.