Slow boat to Cognac

Take the helm for a relaxed way to explore France


When life is often so busy, sometimes it’s nice to slow down. And when you’re travelling on a boat which is limited to less than 10 miles an hour, that’s very easy to do.

It’s also a perfect way to explore France, with a huge network of rivers and canals from the historic Canal du Midi to the Napoleonic canals of Brittany — and much more. And with Le Boat, a self-drive boat hire service providing our means of getting around, the only decision was which waterway to pick.

Around two hours’ drive from Bordeaux, the quieter stretches of the less well-known River Charente, plus plenty to discover in the area, made it the perfect choice.

Starting from Le Boat’s base in Jarnac, we prepared to set off in a Vision 4 boat, from Le Boat’s Premier class range that’s designed to sleep up to nine people. Its four cabins are small but well-designed with large windows, electric sockets and more storage space than I was expecting, not to mention en-suite wetrooms.

At the front of the boat there is a large, light-filled kitchen/dining area with a full-sized fridge freezer, oven and hob, and on the top of the boat, a large sundeck with tables, chairs, three padded sunbathing spots and an on-board gas-fired BBQ. Surprisingly fast WiFi is even available as an extra.

Following a short briefing at Jarnac about how the boat works and how to operate the locks, then provided with maps and a comprehensive information booklet (about the boat and on the local area), we were off — suddenly in charge of a 15 metre boat.

You don’t need any experience to hire a boat, however, navigating a vessel of this size is not as simple as it looks — although there are also smaller crafts to hire as well, including two-cabin boats for couples and families.

It takes a while to get used to the delay after you turn the steering wheel, as well as being tricky — for me at least — to tell when the steering wheel was centered. You also have to allow for the effects of currents and wind, however gentle.

If you’re new to boating, it’s well worth upgrading to make sure your boat has thrusters, which make manoeuvring much easier, especially when it comes to mooring.

But then the beauty of a boating holiday is that you can do as much or as little as you want. There are plenty of mooring spots along the river where you can tie up and hop off to explore pretty villages on a whim, eat in riverside restaurants and, almost essential in this part of the country, visit a Cognac distillery or two.

Distilleries in the area range from the famous brands such as Rémy Martin and Martell through to smaller boutique houses, while you can also visit some of the many winegrowers who supply the Cognac producers with the eau de vie (fruit brandy) used to make the liqueur.

We started at Rémy Martin which offers a variety of tours ranging from a two-hour introduction to Cognac and a simple tasting, through to a six-hour luxury tour that includes a gourmet lunch and a tasting featuring the Louis XIII blend, which retails for almost £3,000 per bottle.

While we didn’t get to try this particular creation, our English-speaking guide Etienne Jacoupy took us through the whole Cognac-making history and process during our own two-hour tour. Each bottle can be made up of hundreds of different eaux de vies, carefully blended so that one bottle (within a range) will taste exactly like another. And to finish, a tasting of three Cognacs accompanied by very tasty amuse bouches.

Different but equally interesting was a visit to Hine in nearby Jarnac, a much smaller Cognac house but the only one with a royal warrant, and a tour around family winery Domaine Pautier — owned and run by the same family for generations.

There are plenty of great restaurants in the area too, whether you’re searching for the simple or the gourmet. La Ribaudière is right on the river with a pretty terrace — you can either splash out in its Michelin-starred restaurant or opt for the bistro side, where an excellent two-course lunch costs around £23.

Or just a short walk (or cycle) from the river lies the village of Bassac: its restaurant L’Essille looks like a very traditional French eatery from the outside but is thoroughly modern inside, with a pretty garden and fabulous food.

But as you idle along the river, there are countless little villages to explore as the fancy takes you — the information booklet on board details the various market days and other local attractions.

In Saint Simon, a simple walking tour flags up points of interest around the village, plus there’s a museum devoted to the traditional gabarres, the flat-bottomed boats once seen on the river. To make visitors feel more welcome, there are English translations on the signs and an English version of the commentary in the museum.

As Jean Jacques Delage, the mayor who proudly showed us around his village said, you might not get the Eiffel Tower or Versailles here, but rather an appreciation of rural traditional and the French way of life.

Along the way, there are locks to be tackled. While in some regions they are automated or lock keepers will do the work for you, on the Charente it’s all down to you. While it isn’t difficult, you will probably feel it in your arms by the end of the day if you open and close more than a lock or two.

Ideally it takes four people to get the Vision 4 through the lock (one to drive, three others to open and close gates and hold the boat in place using ropes), so depending on how much ground you cover and the size of your boat, you can be kept quite busy.

However, there is an easy camaraderie between those travelling along the river and you’ll often find someone who might give you a hand with the lock while you chat about where you have been or where you’re heading to next.

With a nice mix of activity, relaxation and the opportunity to explore in the gentlest way imaginable, how better to enjoy life in the slow lane?


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