major cruise ships are luxurious and pricey, complete with full
crew, housekeeping, tour guides and as many gourmet meals a day as
you can handle.
But if you want to
keep your clients costs down and plan them a great adventure
besides, you can rent them a private boat of their own. And they
can drive it themselves, chugging along through spectacular scenery
on centuries-old waterways at the breakneck speed of 5 or 6
Cruising aboard a
riverboat or a canal barge, I discovered, is as peaceful a means of
travel as you can find.
My husband and I
booked a cabin cruiser in France all to ourselves for a week last
fall, signing up with Crown Blue Lines, which pays 10% commission
and operates all over western Europes network of
You dont have to know
a thing about boats to be your own skipper, although it definitely
helps if you do. You cant get into too much trouble at that speed,
the water is always flat and calm, and it is almost impossible to
get lost. Once you get the procedure straight, it is pretty much
like driving a car.
On the other hand, at
least early on, youre certain to encounter harrowing moments when
youre threading your way through a narrow lock barely two feet
wider than your floating home, navigating beneath narrow bridges or
desperately trying to avoid a crash into a boat coming in the
One of the virtues of
self-driving is that you are captain of your own fate. You can stop
whenever you please, wherever you please and for as long as you
please. You can tie up at a small village for lunch, ride your bike
to a market to pick up groceries, visit a riverside city or spend
the night alongside a pasture full of sheep.
We picked up our
30-foot cabin cruiser at Crown Blues base station in the tiny
hamlet of Boofzheim on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin in the
province of Alsace, not far from Strasbourg.
A young fellow named
Jean Pierre taught us everything we needed to know about operating
the vessel in about half an hour flat, all the while assuring us
that anybody could do it, no problem.
We were given a
guidebook, a map, suggestions of what to see and do along the way
and an emergency telephone number in case of trouble. The only
requirements were that we follow a designated route and turn up at
another little village called Hesse in one week.
Then Jean Pierre bid
us adieu and left us to our own devices.
My husband, who has
had experience on the water, was chosen to be captain of our ship,
and I was assigned the role of first mate, the one who follows
orders. He was at the helm most of the time, especially during the
hairy moments, and I was in charge of tasks such as securing the
boat whenever we stopped.
If it was along a
quiet stretch of the canal, that meant jumping off the boat onto
the riverbank with the bow line in hand, driving a metal stake into
the ground with a mallet and tying the line firmly to it -- then
doing the same with the stern line.
The jumping part took
nerve, but the rest was easy once I got the hang of it. Stopping at
towns and cities meant we tied up at a dock that required no
mallets and metal stakes.
Going through the 43
locks on our route was another story.
This took some practice, and after about 10 of them, even I could
manage it, although always with trepidation. It took us three
hair-raising attempts, with much crashing into the sides of the
gates, before we managed to inch into the first one, tie up to a
stanchion, pull a green lever and then chug out the other end when
the lock filled with water.
The good news: Both
we and the boat came out of the other side of the lock
The boats come in
various sizes and configurations. Ours had three sleeping cabins,
two bathrooms, showers, linens, a galley with pots and pans and
dishes, a living-dining area, an upper sun deck and two
There were enough
beds (narrow bunks, but comfortable) for six people, but, to be
honest, Id vote for just four and then only if theyre family or
very good friends with no seriously irritating habits. These are
We ate aboard for
breakfast and sometimes for lunch, but we always had dinner ashore
-- and we found some amazingly good restaurants in the small
villages. The Crown Blue guidebook described the route in minute
detail and offered suggestions on where to stop and what to see
when we got there, and it included a list of available markets and
The first day,
speeding along at the requisite 5 mph and negotiating through five
locks, we got only as far as Plobsheim, a typical Alsatian farm
town, where we decided to tie up for the night and calm our
Heaving the bikes
over the side onto the towpath that runs beside the canal, we
pedaled into town to buy brioches and goat cheese for breakfast the
next morning and scout out a restaurant for dinner where later we
devoured a tarte flambee, the Alsatian version of pizza: paper-thin
crust topped with cheese, ham and onion.
The next day, we set
forth for Strasbourg, the glorious capital of Alsace. It took us
all day to get there, and when we arrived at about 5 p.m., we
maneuvered into the last remaining space at the marina.
A short walk across a
little bridge over the narrow Rhone River and we were in a
three-star restaurant in the heart of the ancient city, consuming
piles of sauerkraut, wursts, slabs of pork and sides of crusty
As the days passed we
loafed along, watching the scenery roll by, exploring villages and
the spectacular small city of Saverne, shopping at local markets,
biking on the towpath.
We visited a castle,
a cathedral, a manor house and a palace and watched workers in the
We even made friends
with other boaters, mostly families, from all over the world who
were going our way and often tied up at the same places we did. We
had dinner with some Israelis one night, a Danish family another
and cocktails on our boats sun deck with an American couple late
experience isnt available just in France. The rivers and canals of
England, where many miles of once-bustling canals recently were
restored, have also become popular.
And if thats not
enough, youll find boats for hire elsewhere; for example, in
Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. In the U.S., the Erie Canal is
the best-known waterway with self-skippered barges to
You can choose from a
variety of styles and sizes, chartering a boat big enough for just
the two of you or roomy enough for eight or 10 people. A family or
a small group of friends can split the costs for a a unique
The cost: About $300
to $500 per person, per week, depending on location, size of boat
and season. A boat for four, for example, ranges from $1,200 to
$2,900; a boat sleeping eight starts at $2,570.
The Europe boating
season runs between April and October. For more information, call
(888) 355-9491 or visit www.crownblueline.com.
To contact the
reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].