From the wildlife of the Camargue to the bustling ports of the Étang de Thau, there is plenty to enjoy on the Canal du Rhône à Sète, even for novice sailors, says Alison Weeks
It sounded like the perfect holiday; cruising down a peaceful canal through the untamed wilderness of the Camargue in southern France while enjoying a glass of wine and admiring the wildlife. It would be a safari on water, with pink flamingos, semi-wild bulls and feral white horses all in plain sight. There was just one problem: my husband and I and our four travelling companions had never navigated a boat.
Undeterred by this minor detail, we booked our trip with boating holiday specialist Le Boat after being reassured by its website that even beginners could manage a self-navigating trip. We picked up the boat in the town of Beaucaire in the Gard département, at the eastern end of the Canal du Rhone à Sète, just a short bus ride from the Arles TGV (high-speed train) station. Upon our arrival, Bob from the Le Boat office went through the necessary paperwork and showed us to our boat. It was much bigger than I had expected: each couple had their own room and we even had a spare one to store all our bags. By the time we got there, it was too dark to sail, so we settled in for the night.
Bob came back bright and early the next morning to show us the ropes, both proverbially and literally. He carefully walked us through the safety and driving rules, before taking us out for a practice sail. Looking around at my shipmates, I was unsure whether to trust any of them to steer the boat and I certainly wasn’t going to volunteer. As Bob got ready to leave us to it, I felt a pang of panic. Maybe he could come with us? After all, we had an extra room. But before I knew it, Bob was on shore and we were pushing off with my husband at the helm. Our friends and I sat down with the map and began to chart our journey (all the while keeping a careful eye on the new skipper).
The plan was to cruise to the Étang de Thau saltwater lake and return to Beaucaire – a distance of around 200 kilometres – all in one week. As we started to get further away from civilisation, the appeal of canal boating became increasingly apparent. There was nothing around for miles, apart from our boat pulling through the peaceful water, a few birds and the occasional horses grazing on the banks of the canal. Once in a while, we would see a colourful little house decorated with the Camargue cross or the silhouette of a bull. But for the most part it was just us and the water stretching out ahead. It was idyllic and we all started to relax.
As soon as we came to our first lock it was all hands on deck. Being obedient sailors, we immediately donned our life jackets as Bob had instructed, but we quickly realised that none of the other boaters was following our example. Perhaps that is what gave us away to the German tourists who had also stopped at the lock and took it upon themselves to see these novices through safely. Once that hurdle was negotiated, there were no more locks to worry about for a while, so we pressed on at full speed towards our first port of call, Aigues-Mortes.
Located in the Petit Camargue, this medieval walled city takes its name from the Latin aquae mortuae, or dead waters, a reference to the standing waters of the surrounding marshlands. For centuries, this watery landscape has lent itself to salt production, as well as providing the perfect habitat for the area’s famous horses and bulls, which thrive on the saline pastures. Originally a simple fishing village, Aigues-Mortes was transformed into a fortified city by Louis IX, who required a new seaport for the Crusades in the 13th century.
Today part of that fortress, the Tour de Constance, is a registered historic monument and a convenient landmark for those arriving by boat. When we finally reached Aigues-Mortes after a full day’s sailing, the pretty marina was almost full, but we were able to squeeze in between two other boats. After mooring, we set out to explore the town inside the ancient walls, where we found a pleasant maze of narrow streets lined with cafés and shops.
Although our first day on the boat had shown us plenty of beautiful scenery, we were all keen to explore the nature reserve in more depth, so the next morning we joined a guide from Camargue Découverte for a safari on land. Piled into a rustic-looking 4×4, we were whisked away on an off-road adventure through the marshlands. The rough-and-tumble tour gave us a chance to get up close with pink flamingos and included a visit to a working ranch, where we rode the famous Camargue horses.
With our boat’s power supply and water topped up, we left Aigues-Mortes in the late afternoon, hoping to cover some distance before nightfall. Although we wouldn’t make it to another town for some time, our canal map showed several ‘wild mooring’ spots, where we could stop for the night. Unlike the official boating marinas, the wild moorings don’t offer any amenities, but they are free and often quieter than some of the busier ports of call.
That evening, as we feasted alfresco on gardianne de taureau (bull’s meat stew) and Camargue rice from an épicerie fine in Aigues-Mortes, we were introduced to another element of the area’s wildlife: the mosquito. The Camargue variety is known for its ferocity, particularly during the summer. Luckily, we were travelling in April and the weather was still quite mild, so we had only a couple of encounters with the little beasts.
The next day we set off bright and early so we could reach the town of Frontignan in time to pass under the road bridge, which is raised only twice a day; in the morning and in the afternoon. Having arrived ahead of schedule, we moored and explored the town on foot. Lying on the Mediterranean, between Montpellier and Sète, Frontignan is crossed by the canal, which separates the old town from the beach. The town is known for its sweet wine, made from muscat blanc à petits grains, one of the oldest grape varieties. At a caveau alongside the canal we enjoyed a free dégustation and bought a couple of bottles for our evening aperitif.
Soon after leaving Frontignan, we arrived on the beautiful Étang de Thau, the largest of the many saltwater lakes along this part of the coast and home to a variety of rare species, including pink flamingos. After navigating the narrow waters of the canal, we felt suddenly as if we were sailing on the open sea. The weather was perfect and everyone went on the top deck. Now that there was little risk of bumping into things, I was happy to take my turn at the wheel, though I quickly handed back steering duties as we approached the harbour and needed to manoeuvre around some oyster beds.
Our next stop was on the north shore of the lake at Mèze, a busy fishing port known for its oyster production. After a short walk around the town, which has wonderful beaches and great restaurants, we gathered on the boat to enjoy the sunset over a glass of chilled muscat. The next day we headed to Bouzigues, a charming village which shares its neighbour’s reputation when it comes to oysters, so it seemed only fair to treat ourselves to an evening meal on terra firma at one of the seafood restaurants near the waterfront.
The second-largest lake in France, the Étang de Thau opens out on to the Mediterranean at Sète and at times can seem as choppy as the sea. We happened to be there on a particularly rough night, but were sheltered by the harbour at Bouzigues. Some other boaters weren’t so lucky and, having arrived too late to secure a spot on the marina, had been forced to brave a night on the waves.
Though we would have happily stayed longer on the lake, we had a lot of canal to cover on our return journey. Retracing the route to Frontignan, we sailed back into the canal and on towards Aigues-Mortes and eventually Beaucaire. By the end of our journey, we were all at least competent drivers and reluctant to turn in the keys to our home from home.
Bob greeted us at journey’s end and could not believe how far we had travelled. Some boaters will want to take things more slowly, but we preferred going at a slightly quicker pace because the thrill of discovering so many new places in this beguiling part of France proved irresistible.
By rail: Alison travelled to Arles via Paris through Voyages-sncf.com (tel: 0844 848 5848, http://uk.voyages-sncf.com). A bus service runs regularly from Arles railway station to Beaucaire.
By road: Beaucaire is about nine hours from the northern ferry ports.
By air: The nearest airports are at Nîmes and Avignon.
Alison took Le Boat’s Camargue Wildlife and Sunshine Cruise and travelled in a Magnifique boat, which sleeps up to ten people. Prices start from £2,345 for one week (tel: 020 362 7447, www.leboat.co.uk).
538 Route d’Arles
Tel: (Fr) 6 85 35 10 04
The company organises visits to working Camarguais farms as well as trips in 4x4s, quad bikes and horse-drawn carriages.
WHERE TO EAT
Le Grand Bleu
13 Avenue Louis Tudesq
Tel: (Fr) 4 67 78 72 09
A popular waterfront seafood restaurant with wonderful views and an abundance of delicious oyster dishes. Menus start at €25.
Aigues-Mortes tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 4 66 53 73 00
Frontignan tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 4 67 18 31 60
Mèze tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 4 67 43 93 08