Canal barging in France as easy as un, deux, trois

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Most 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 mph.

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 waterways.

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 opposite direction. 

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 unscathed. 

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 bicycles.

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 close quarters. 

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 restaurants.

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 nerves.

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 potatoes.

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 fields.

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 one afternoon.

The self-sail 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 hire.

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 vacation.

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].

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