Self-skippering Canal du Midi with 3 children on board, in tow

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Senior editor Felicity Long introduced her children to the French countryside via a self-skippered Crown Blue Line boat trip. Her report follows.

PARIS -- Somewhere between white-water rafting and idly floating on a luxury hotel barge lies the experience of navigating a self-skippered cabin cruiser on the Canal du Midi in the Languedoc region of France.

I had been mentally designing my children's first trip to France for years, but the exact nature of the ideal vacation escaped me. "They are going to need something to do," my husband pointed out.

Just touring scenic villages and castles and dining out -- however appealing to us -- would clearly not be enough. But then, what would be?

Crown Blue Line vessels along the Canal du Midi in France come equipped with bicycles. At ages 6, 7 and 9, my children are not old enough for cycling trips, nor do they tolerate nature hikes without complaining of fatigue, hunger, thirst and boredom.

When the idea of taking a Crown Blue Line self-skippered boat trip presented itself, everything seemed to fall into place.

After all, we reasoned, France is at its best seen from its waterways, boats are by nature fun for kids and the French countryside is bound to be less expensive and more family-friendly than Paris.

Timing our trip to coincide with the children's spring vacation, we set off from Boston to Toulouse, where a representative from Crown Blue Line met us and drove us the two-plus hours to Port Cassafieres. The transfer was a welcome service because the port is tricky to find, particularly for the jet-lagged.

As we exited the cab at the port, we were greeted by the sight of a row of sparkling white and blue boats tethered to the bank of the peaceful Canal du Midi, as well as the Aux Rendez-Vous des Bateliers restaurant and the Crown Blue Line office.

This is France, after all, so we put everything else on hold and sat down to a midday meal before exploring our boat, the Concorde 1, while our children rode up and down the dock on bicycles provided by Crown Blue Line.

Regular bikes are available on all boats, but for smaller bikes for small children, advance requests are recommended, and travelers should bring their own helmets.

Our vessel had three bedrooms: one with two single beds, one with a double bed and one with one of each. Also on board were a generously stocked galley, two bathrooms -- one with a shower and one with a bath -- and a deck large enough to accommodate a half-dozen people.

There were two dining areas: a table adorned with fresh flowers and fruit and enough seating inside for a small party, as well as a table, chairs and an umbrella on deck.

A Crown Blue Line employee went over the workings of the motor, equipment and water supply and took us out for a trial spin. Steering turned out to be relatively simple, and I was relieved to see bumpers all around the exterior of the boat. The steering can be done from the deck or from inside.

According to our guide, the key to staying out of trouble when faced by, say, an approaching lock, barge or narrow passageway is to drop the speed from low to creeping.

He acquainted us with other features of the boat, including the fact that the engine acts as a generator to produce the heat and hot water. Simply put, you can't leave the heat on all night, or you will end up with a dead battery.

In summer, the weather in the Midi normally ranges from warm to hot. In April, temperatures usually hover in the low 60s.

We happened to hit a cool snap, however, so getting out of bed in the morning and getting the engine going was a nippy experience. Think camping, and you get the idea.

This only added to the fun, according to the children, who piled into the triple room, where they slept comfortably under puffy comforters supplied by the line. Linens, bath towels and soap also are supplied on board.

The boat comes equipped with life vests, which we made the children wear whenever they were on deck.

After a lengthy dinner at Aux Rendez-Vous des Bateliers and a good night's sleep on board, we headed out on a three-hour cruise to Beziers, the first stop in our exploration of the Midi.

Young children explore Beziers at their own pace in the Languedoc-Roussillon Region of France. We docked in the harbor and had a leisurely lunch on deck, then took a walking tour of the city.

Notable sites include the 14th century Cathedral of St.- Nazaire and a statue of Pierre-Paul Riquet, who designed the canal more than 300 years ago.

The children, who already felt a sense of ownership of the boat, enjoyed the tour of the city but asked repeatedly when they could go back to Concorde I. This behavior, which became a pattern during the trip, surprised us, since we had expected the kids to be stir-crazy during long cruising periods.

Instead, they took turns steering the boat (under supervision); took pictures from the deck, and retreated to their beds to read, snack and play cards when it was too cool to sit outside.

After our tour of Beziers, we settled back on board for a cruise to Poilhes, where we were to spend the night.

This journey included negotiating the 541-foot Tunnel de Malpas -- "Slow down, stay to the middle and don't close your eyes," our instructor said -- and the beautiful locks of Fonserannes.

The locks, seven in all, form a sort of staircase ascending 45 feet over a distance of some 900 feet. The locks take more than an hour to traverse and involve positioning the boat in tight quarters, hopping on and off to secure the ropes and hobnobbing with the large crowds of passersby who stopped to watch the spectacle. Though not overwhelming, navigating the locks is still a tricky procedure that requires patience and agility.

That evening, we arrived in Poilhes in time for cocktails and a four-course dinner at La Tour Sarrazine on the waterfront.

The next day, we took a tour of the Oppidum d'Enserunes, a hilltop village that served as a lookout for civilizations dating to 800 B.C. A museum displays archaeological discoveries from the area, including toys and weapons from the Roman, Greek and Celtic periods.

After lunch on board the boat, we set off for Algeliers, where we arrived in time for a bike ride, a stroll in town and dinner at Au Chat Qui Peche restaurant on the banks of the canal.

In summer, we also could have taken advantage of a round of minigolf just steps from where we docked the boat.

The next morning, we departed for Le Somail, the prettiest of all our destinations. The sleepy town boasts vine-covered stone restaurants, an imposing old tower and a wonderful secondhand bookstore called the Librairie Ancienne, where we bought the children a French version of "Felix the Cat."

From Le Somail, we explored nearby Carcassonne, one of the most popular tourist destinations in France. The medieval walled city, which tends to be overrun with tourists in the summer, was bustling but not packed during our afternoon visit.

We started with lunch at the Restaurant le Chateau, followed by a guided tour of the massive, double-walled ancient castle, which is impressive even in a country abundant with castles.

The tour was overly long for the kids, and some of the walkways between parapets lacked guard rails, so I was too preoccupied with watching the children to listen to much of what the guide said.

Some free time wandering the streets of the town, eating yet more ice cream and idly shopping was enjoyed by all, particularly since we had done very little of that thus far.

We spent our last evening eating dinner at tables set out along the banks of Le Somail, just steps from our boat. The hour was late, and we were just uncorking the champagne when, suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, a denizen from a neighboring boat appeared with an accordion and began playing traditional French songs to the accompaniment of raucous singing.

As our 6-year-old daughter got up to dance under the stars and the boys busied themselves hopping on and off the boat and sneaking chocolates from the galley pantry, my husband and I caught each other's eye. If our desire was to provide an introduction to la vie francaise in an unforgettable setting, mission accomplished.

Information and Prices

Crown Blue Line
Address: Le Grand Basin, 11401 Castelnaudary, Cedex, France
Phone: (011) 33 468 94 5272
Phone: (011) 33 468 94 5272
Fax: (011) 33 468 94 5273

In the U.S.: Diana Orban Associates, 25 Washington St., Morristown, N.J. 07960
Phone: (973) 605-2121
Fax: (973) 605-2330
Res: (800) 355-9394
Web: www.crown-Holidays.co.uk
Fleet: More than 470 cabin cruisers in 34 models
Destinations: France, Holland, Ireland and Germany
Season: April to October
Prices: Weekly prices range from about $660 per person for a two-person boat to about $386 for a 12-person vessel.
Family discounts include a 5% discount for one child, 10% for two.

Crown Blue Line packages also are available through Premier Selections.
Phone: (800) 234-4000 or (914) 381-8800
Fax: (914) 381-8802

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