Running a hotel barge on the Nantes à Brest canal in Brittany

For Jane and Ian Slade running a luxury barge on the Nantes à Brest canal is a life that’s close to perfection, as Paul Lamarra discovers

Moving along the Nantes à Brest canal at a stately pace, the old Dutch barge, Libje, is an impressive and unusual sight. Despite being 24-metres long and more than four metres wide, the former sand and gravel barge’s black hull barely disturbs the canal’s green water. On this sleepy Napoleonic-era waterway, there are very few boats as big as the Libje.

For her owners, Jane and Ian Slade, life on the Libje, Brittany’s only luxury hotel barge, is everything they hoped for. Five years on, they have yet to grow tired of sailing down sections of perfectly straight canal flanked by lines of tall plane trees, or meandering round river bends, or tying up at any one of the picturesque market towns that sit close to the banks.

Bursting with anecdotes about lock-keepers and the personalities they now meet and comfortably chat with in French, they clearly feel at home.

“We live here on the canal all year round, so we have got to know it and the people well, and all the lock-keepers are very friendly – they are superb – and decorate their locks with flowers, and we have a chat at every lock,” say Jane and Ian.

Last season, with 14 weeks of guests, was their busiest and despite a slow start, they are now confident that having convinced initially sceptical barge holiday brokers in North America that cruising on Brittany’s canals is an appealing option, their years of preparation and the gamble of being the first on the Nantes à Brest is starting to pay off.

Sitting in the boat’s dining area, and warmed by the small wood-burning stove, award-winning cook Jane enthuses about Brittany’s ingredients.

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“Dare I say the food in Brittany is better than the south of France,” she laughs. “The vegetables are better because they grow them here, and the seafood is just so varied and can be bought fresh every day because the coast is so close, which is great on a boat where you haven’t that much storage.”

“Guests generally stay for a week, but I never plan a whole week’s menu. You have to watch and learn and adapt to what they want,” she adds.

As well as cooking most meals for a maximum of four guests, Jane has to prepare the two spacious cabins, and frequently has to leave her kitchen to clamber up on deck to act as matelot, working the ropes when the barge enters a lock.

Ian is the skipper and also acts as driver and tour guide when the boat is moored. Naturally interested in the area’s history, he has developed a must-see list of well-known sites and hidden corners.

“Everyone loves to explore Rochefort-en-Terre, Malestroit and Josselin,” says Ian, “but there are so many places such as churches with incredible frescoes and standing stones that few people seem to know about, and if guests show an interest, we make sure we’re flexible”.

Inevitably there have been times when it has been an uphill struggle, and there was a time early on when they “were hanging on by their finger tips”, but it was getting the Libje to Brittany in the first place that proved the biggest obstacle.

Moving her from the port of Hamburg, where they found her, to a shipyard at Haarlingen, in Holland, for a complete refit, and then on to Brittany, was a journey that lasted several years, involved more than 3,000 kilometres of canal, and two hazardous sections of open sea.

Before they embarked on this adventure, Jane and Ian ran a successful bed and breakfast on the west coast of the Scottish Isle of Mull, but their longing was to return to the water and to boats. When they first met, Ian led diving groups and Jane was happy to get involved and went on to become a member of the local lifeboat team. The tipping point came when Ian read a magazine article on the French canal network.

“We looked at all the canals in France and we thought Brittany looked a good bet,” said Ian. “So we came over by car twice and drove to every part of the canal you could get to, and we thought ‘yes this could work’.

“We found that the people in Brittany are friendly. It was not too hot. It’s quiet here and the centre is very unspoilt and pretty,” he added. Crucially there were no other hotel barges operating on the Nantes à Brest canal.

However, having settled on Brittany, the challenges then became apparent. Firstly, the Brittany canals, which include the Canal Ille-et-Rance, are not connected to the rest of the European canal network.

So unless a suitable craft could be found in Brittany, a voyage across the treacherous Bay of Biscay from the mouth of the Garonne at Bordeaux to the mouth of the Loire at Nantes would be necessary. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the locks on the Nantes à Brest were smaller than those in the rest of Europe.

At this point, the Slades embarked on a two-year search for a boat big enough to convert into a luxury hotel barge, and yet small enough to fit the Brittany locks. In 2007, they found the Libje, a working barge built in 1930, in Hamburg.

Immediately selling up in Scotland, they ploughed all of the proceeds from the bed and breakfast into purchasing and completely refitting the Libje.

“Jane was very trusting,” recalls Ian. “She had sold her home and her livelihood, but it was not until she arrived in Holland that she first saw Libje.”

In the meantime, Ian had completed a course in Cambrai, in the north of France, to become a qualified skipper. Despite not speaking much French, he finished top of his class.

To get to Haarlingen, Ian had to take the Libje down the River Elbe and out into the North Sea. It was a rough crossing and he was very relieved to get to sheltered waters behind the German Friesian islands.

Once in Holland, the cargo hold was cut down, the interior ripped out, and a new superstructure fitted along with a new engine, steering gear, water and fuel tanks and a new generator. The original weathered oak wheelhouse and the cosy wood cabins were left intact.

Nine months later, when most of the refit was finished, they finally set off for France. Leaving on 4 July 2008, they aimed to be in Brittany by the autumn, but a series of mechanical mishaps meant it would be August 2009 before they reached Nantes.

Connecting the Maas with the Meuse, they then followed the Canal de l’Est to the west of the Vosges before navigating the rivers Saône and Rhône to emerge into the Mediterranean. From there they sailed to Sète and into the Canal du Midi for the final leg of the journey before the dash across the Bay of Biscay. They spent the winter at Capestang, near Béziers, and a further 10 weeks in Marmande, on the Garonne, waiting for a period of suitable weather to cross the Bay of Biscay.

“Every morning, we were up checking the méteo, as basically the Libje is a flat-bottomed boat with no keel, and on the open sea it just rolls - so we had to wait until it was flat calm before we could set off,” explains Ian.

When a high-pressure weather system at last became established, Ian and two professional yacht deliverymen set off into the Bay of Biscay, and sailed around the clock to complete the 200km journey in 36 hours. The Libje remains one of only three barges to have successfully crossed the Bay of Biscay.

“When we got into Nantes and back onto a canal again, I was kissing the stone by the first lock,” says Ian. “There was a great sense of satisfaction, because for two years, we’d had people saying we’d never be able to do it. People told us we wouldn’t get further than the mouth of the Garonne.”

Having put so much effort into getting to Brittany, Jane and Ian, now both in their sixties, have no plans to retire. They enjoy the long off-season, and although there are winter jobs to be done, they also spend time relaxing, discovering new restaurants and walking their dogs Millie and Pippa along the wooded towpath.

“It is hard work when we have guests,” says Jane. “There is always something to do, and it can be an 18-hour day, but we don’t do it all year, and we try to get a day off between guests. It is a balance that suits us.”

“We just love living on the canal, and after a hard day, lying in bed at night listening to the owls makes it all worthwhile. I would rather work flat out and have the Libje as our home than work in a bank in Glasgow.”

www.libje.eu