Family traveller - Wonderful holiday on water
Sick of forking out for expensive flights, queuing at airports then basting on a beach all day, we were determined to try something different this summer.
Cruising along the rivers and canals of rural France in your own boat sounded perfect. Great weather, excellent food, beautiful scenery and easy access by road and ferry made it even more tempting. But one problem: we had never been sailing before. We contacted Nicols, the specialist French river cruising company, who said it didn't matter a jot. Their fleet of motor cruisers and custom made holiday packages are designed for both practiced sailors and beginners like us. We would be given full guidance and instruction. The number of repeat customers they attract seemed to bear witness to the success of their holidays. So we booked a 2-cabin Confort 900 to sail from Nicols base at Sablé sur Sarthe in the Anjou region of France.
The journey from Portsmouth to Caen by Brittany Ferries was a great start. Boarding took 25 minutes from arriving to stepping into our cabin, complete with sea view, comfortable beds with fresh crisp sheets and bathroom with shower. On deck there were an array of cafes, bars, and things to do like whale watching or two cinemas to visit. There is also ample provision for children, with games rooms, entertainers and cafes with well-priced kids menus.
Seven hours later we were in Caen, where we stayed overnight and discovered it is far more than just a port. It is a city steeped in history. You can visit the war memorials, the Norman castle and cathedral, where, incidentally, William the Conquer is buried. There are also lots of shops and restaurants. The next morning, refreshed, we drove the two and a half hours to Sable, where our Nicols boat was ready.
The Nicols staff gave plenty of advice on the route we might take and places of interest, then an introduction to our boat. This had two sleeping cabins, two toilets one with a hand-held shower, a mid-deck with a well quipped kitchen with fridge, gas hob, grill, oven and every utensil you would ever need. Plus two upper decks - one with a table, the other with an outdoor steering wheel and space for sunbathing. Up top was a roof where we stored two bikes.
Our rapid lesson in managing the boat included casting off and landing, negotiating locks and river etiquette. Then we were off. My wife became a deckhand, whose primary duties included leaping on and off the boat as we approached or left moorings, tying and untying us to the riverbank. Deckhands on a two-man crew are also responsible for the more onerous task of opening and shutting lock gates, which she performed admirably, though rarely with a smile. That left me with the skilled job of steering the thing.