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Sail the Camargue with the winner of the 2023 competition

Cathy and Gilles are respectively a jewellery designer and a former communications consultant who turned his life around to become an author. For years now, they have enjoyed boating holidays all across France, allowing them to take a relaxing break from the usual fast pace of life. In July 2023, Cathy and Gilles decided to take on the Camargue, a region mostly known for its white horses, black bulls, pink flamingos and orange sunsets… on board a Nicols luxury canal boat called Estivale Sixto Prestige C.


How the Camargue offered a perfect boating holiday escape

The guy who works at the Nicols Bellegarde base is bonkers. But a fun type of bonkers: from the minute you meet him, you know you’ll have a great time. We’ve supposedly hired an Estivale Duo, a small 9-metre canal boat, that’s perfect for a couple’s getaway. Clearly amused by the look on our faces upon discovering our actual canal boat, he tells us, grinning: “Due to a technical issue with the Duo, you’ve been upgraded! Shall we take a tour of your new boat?”

Boating holidays are not a new hobby of ours, whether it be on a canal, a river, between friends or with family. We are so used to chasing time constantly, that gliding on the water at a slow pace, with only the sound of our engine to break the silence, bird watching and stargazing, give us the thrill we are missing from our daily lives. Our adventure starts after less than fifteen minutes of briefing, with only a few guidelines we need to follow to share this new playing field as best as we can. In the end, there was no need to worry about getting a different boat.

“How on earth do you park this thing?” With its 13.5 metres, mooring the Sixto Prestige C requires someone in the bow, someone else in the stern, and a captain that knows how to work the helm. My wife Cathy glances at me, unsure. Our host – let’s call him Marc – puts his hand on my shoulder: “No worries! Unlike the Duo, the Sixto has a bow thruster. Everything else works exactly the same.” Say no more: for us freshwater sailors, a bow thruster is basically the Holy Grail to manoeuver the boat. It keeps you from going in circles as soon as a wave hits you. Moreover, we have to admit that with three cabins meant for six people, the Sixto will allow us to live like kings for a week. All that’s left for us to do now is park our car, figure out how much cruising time we’ll need to reach the next port before dusk, and give in to the warm torpor of this early July afternoon.

Twenty centimetres on each side. That’s how much space you’ve got to moor this boat. Up on the dock, in the port of Gallician, a tall blond 70-year-old blurts out instructions for me to back up into our spot for the night, supported by the manager of the harbour master’s office. Our boat constantly drifting from a slight-but-vicious side current, I start over for the hundredth time. As I silently thank whoever invented fenders and decided to install them all around, I manage to slide the boat in between the two concrete pillars. Cathy, wanting to spend a good night, welcomes my successful manoeuver with a warm applause. Laughing his head off, the blond giant comes over and says, with a Belgian accent: “Not bad for a first attempt! And right on time for pre-dinner drinks!” Let’s go, then!

About eight-hundred metres from the port, right in the middle of the small Camargue village, is a small bar and restaurant – very clearly a local hangout spot – with a façade that we assume was once white. A dozen big guys joyfully fill the space and welcome us with a nod; with their broad shoulders and dust on their work clothes, their life obviously revolves around the famous Camargue bulls. As we let the bartender tell us all about the region’s history, we realize our new Belgian friend wasn’t wrong. Local anise liquor from the boss’ cellar, beef stew from the boss’ farm, and red wine from the boss’ vineyard… A few hours later, pleasantly surprised that we can only count three mosquito bites on our ankles, the soothing movement of the boat and the water lapping on the hull remind us that we’ve known worse first nights than this one.


And then, time stopped

Six o’clock in the morning. As the orange fog slowly recedes, I set up the wide-angle lens on my camera. Two or three herons tease me and escort me along the sleepy riverbanks. The Scamandre reserve is so serene: here, you only share the silence with a few anglers. We shall come back to this sacred place, where nothingness is absolutely everything. We grab two freshly baked croissants from the closest bakery, start the engine, and that’s it. We slow down, almost to a stop, to pass a wild horse without scaring away the egret standing on its rump. We make sure we cruise in the middle of the canal, to avoid the fishing lines that some kids have set.  Among this peaceful universe, we are humbled to share a time and space with such majestic beings…

Aigrette posée sur un chevla blanc


There are absolutely no locks along the 65 kilometres of the Canal du Rhône à Sète. As mooring on the riverbanks is out of the question, the only obligation we have is to make sure we get to a port or a dock for our meals and overnight mooring spots. For lunch, we stop at a dock by Mauguio Lake. We make a quick salad with fresh produce from a local grocery store, set up cushions on the fly bridge and spend some time counting the many flamingoes scattered all over.

Flamants roses sur l'étang de Mauguio

The scalding sun is keeping anglers in the shade of their tiny but colorful fishing shacks. In the distance, we’re able to make out the skyline of a city we know too well, and we realize that this slice of paradise we didn’t even know existed is right outside of the Montpellier suburbs… As Cathy frantically fights a few ducks, I focus on an abandoned house with vibrant graffiti: a strange remnant of humanity right by the water, out of place and out of time in the middle of this ocean of wilderness…


We’ve planned to visit Aigues Mortes for a while, curious about its heritage but unsure about how well we would sleep while being there. As it turns out, the beginning of the week is just the right time for it.  Cathy easily steers the boat through the channel that takes us to the city centre, then lets me moor at the bottom of stunning city ramparts built by Louis IX. The spot for the night isn’t free, but considering the services provided, you will get your money’s worth. Apart from a busy ring road in the evening, it really is a remarkable place. And, strangely enough, besides a few strategically located businesses, the place doesn’t feel like a tourist trap. Once you stroll away from the main streets, the shops, restaurants, wine cellars and patios are all more charming than the others and bring a warm touch of serenity. We even find a restaurant or two where we get a taste of the local cuisine with great value for money – which, you and I both know is a non-negotiable requirement for a successful holiday. At night after 10:30pm, or in the morning before 7am, the city is yours. Our recommendation: have your breakfast in the city centre before the stores open, then wrap yourself in the overwhelming hues of the salt marshes around town…


Since we didn’t bring with us a teenager looking for trendy parties, and since we already know the more inland cities, we’ve decided to skip La Grande Motte and Palavas. As we arrive in Maguelone after a few hours of smooth sailing, we immediately know our fifty-year-old recluse selves have made the right choice. Stuck between a lake and the Mediterranean Sea and with very little daily traffic, this part of the canal offers great viewpoints of many species of local birds nesting in the nearby rocks. The fishing nets hanging from the banks almost make the landscape look like an Asian-style painting. At the Maguelone dock, we witness from afar a side current sending a rental boat into another one, causing a small clash between France and Switzerland. Thankfully, we manage to moor our boat safely, and start exploring the peninsula by foot: its volcanic landscapes, its 12th-century cathedral currently under renovation, and we end up at “Les Compagnons de Maguelone”. This bar and restaurant that employs and supports people with disabilities only strengthens the timeless aspect of the place. It’s a good thing that the tourists’ parking lot is quite far away. After 6pm, it’s the lap of luxury. With a sunset to die for, and not a soul in sight, the local nature comes out of hiding: this is undeniably the best discovery of our entire trip. Special shout out to the flying swan that reminds us that a lifetime is not enough to see it all…

Cygne au coucher de soleil

Coucher de soleil sur la Camargue


As we approach Frontignan this morning, although it is quite sunny, a strong wind is crashing the party. Even the seagulls are struggling. Thanks to the precious information in our navigation guide, we understand crossing the Etang de Thau is not a reasonable option. Instead, we go swimming at Aresquiers – a beach that should remain a hidden gem forever. Part of it is a nudist beach, while the other part is a vast and wild stretch of sand known only to a few lucky connoisseurs. It’s not much, but it’s already a lot. Back onboard, we know that Wednesday rhymes with having to turn around, but we take it with a light heart. Motivated by a gorgeous morning light and some pleasant crosswinds, another three-day trip starts, back to Bellegarde this time. The kind of trip that you set deep down in your memories, instead of in a travel journal. All that’s left for us to do now is to appreciate every little detail, to wander around local farmer’s markets, and to enjoy this little je ne sais quoi that has the ability to stop time. In short, to focus about what really matters.


Cathy and Gilles, July 2023

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