So much of France is best seen from the water, so whether it’s an exciting sea voyage, a tranquil river trip or a canoe adventure you fancy, France has everything you could possibly hope for. We’ve chosen just ten of our favourite places to float about on a boat
CASSIS AND THE CALANCHES The pretty fishing port of Cassis, east of Marseille on the Mediterranean coast, is a quintessential French harbour. Mixing the colours and simplicity of Provence with the drama of the Med, it’s a relaxing little resort that avoids the buzz of the neighbouring C�te d’Azur. Enjoy deliciously fresh seafood from one of the many harbourside restaurants, or simply watch the colourful boats coming and going.
Cassis is also the best jumping-off point for exploring the breathtaking Massif des Calanques. Only from the water can you really appreciate the impressive white cliffs plunging down into the Mediterranean and the pretty hidden beaches and clear, electric blue water that lie between them.
There are dozens of these rocky fjords and little harbours to explore. They range from the bustling and popular Port Miou, with its stylish marina and pretty church or Port Pin and its ever-present fragrance of pine forests, to the dramatic amphitheatre’ of Devenson, and the cosy Morgiou, with its tiny fishing village and bobbing local boats.
For those not wishing to take the helm of their own boat, Cassis offers lots of opportunities to join sightseeing boats touring the Calanques. One of the best is Visite des Calanques de Cassis (www.calanques-cassis.com), which offers tours of various lengths depending on how many Calanques you would like to visit. You can also enjoy a spectacular evening son et lumi�res light show from the water. For a bit of adventure, however, you can hire your own kayak or small motorboat to explore under your own steam. Visit the Loca’ Bato office in the port (tel: (Fr) 4 42 01 27 04) for more information.
If you have your own boat: Cassis has a small marina, with good, if basic, facilities. For more information, contact the Capitainerie du Port D�partemental de Cassis. Tel: (Fr) 4 42 32 91 65, email: [email protected]
THE RIVER SEINE, PARIS Cruising the River Seine must be one of France’s classic boat journeys, but it needn’t stop at a two-hour trip on the Bateaux Mouches. Join a week-long cruise between Paris and the Normandy coast and you’ll get to enjoy all the romance of Paris’ riverfront and so much more besides. Stay on the boat to enjoy the lush forests and green fields that line the Seine’s passage westwards or hop off and take easy excursions to Versailles, Giverny or Caudebec-en-Caux. Most itineraries will include a night in the wonderful cathedral city of Rouen, with its romantic medieval architecture, and finish in the pretty Normandy town of Honfleur, before heading back upstream.
There are several cruise operators that offer Seine itineraries. The British company, Blue Water Holidays, offers some of the most popular, with various lengths of trip and different stop-overs available. Its smart river cruise ships have great accommodation with beautiful views and all meals provided on board. Tel: 01756 706 500 or visit www.cruisingholidays.co.uk for more.
If you have your own boat: Taking your boat up the Seine is a popular trip for boaters who are confident enough (and equipped) to cross the Channel. There are various marinas on the river, but for a mooring close to the centre of Paris, your best bet is the Port de Paris Arsenal (www.fayollemarine.fr, tel: (Fr)1 34 28 40 40), the north end of which is next to Place de la Bastille.
BONIFACIO, CORSICA It’s hard to narrow down exactly where to best enjoy boating in Corsica as it boasts a truly spectacular coastline and some wonderful harbours. So whether you’re sailing into Calvi, Christopher Columbus’ home town with its gorgeous beaches and awe-inspiring citadel, or around the Calaches de Piana on the west coast – a Unesco World Heritage Site – you surely won’t be disappointed. Add to this the tales of pirates, sea battles and heroic derring-do, and you’ll soon tune into its seafaring history. In the far south, Bonifacio’s old town clings to the edge of the cliffs, a sight best seen from the sea. There are several pleasure boat companies offering trips around the cliffs and into the many caves and grottoes along the coast. The best of the caves is the Grotte du Sdragonatu, in which the cave walls, arches and stalactites glisten with purple, gold and blue. If you look up, the hole in its roof resembles the shape of Corsica. Not far from Bonifacio are the �les Lavezzi, an ideal place to spend the day on the beach. Boats operate a navette service to the islands. Boat trips from Rocca Croisi�res, tel: (Fr) 4 95 73 13 96 or visit www.rocca-croisieres.com for more.
If you have your own boat: The harbour offers good facilities and is very sheltered from winds. Harbour master’s office tel: (Fr) 4 95 73 10 07.
GOLFE DE MORBIHAN, BRITTANY Much of Brittany’s coastline is as challenging as it is rewarding for a sailor. However, in the Golfe de Morbihan, on Brittany’s southern coast, sailing is a little easier. Landlocked but for a narrow passage letting in water from the Atlantic, this interior ocean (mor bihan means little sea’ in Breton) is calm, beautiful and peppered with pretty small islands. For sailors who have tired of big waves and unpredictable conditions, it is heaven. It’s no coincidence that more than 30 of the hundreds of islands in the golfe are owned by international film stars. There are a number of places to hire small sailing boats and motorboats, so that you can explore at your leisure. Try Le Blan Marine in Arradon, on the golfe itself (tel: (Fr) 2 97 44 01 16, www.leblan marinelocation.com). If you would rather someone else did the hard work, there are also plenty of ferries shuttling from one island to the next. The most visited, the �le aux Moines and �le d’Arz, can become crowded in summer, so try the others if you want to relax. A boat tour around them, or a trip out to Gavrinis, can be exciting, with romantic ruins, stone circles disappearing beneath the water and hidden beaches waiting to be discovered.
If you have your own boat: The biggest and best-equipped marina on the golfe is in the lovely medieval city of Vannes. Tel: (Fr) 2 97 54 16 08, email: [email protected]
RIVER LOT, MIDI-PYR�N�ES/AUVERGNE It’s no surprise that the Lot Valley is home to one of the largest British ex-pat populations in France. The rolling hills, the wooded valley sides, the pretty hill-top villages and romantic castles and, of course, the beautiful River Lot winding its way through it all, are the stuff of idyllic summer days and fresh autumn afternoons. The river is the region’s life blood and there are plenty of ways to explore its reaches. The calm waters and southerly climes of the Lot are particularly perfect for really getting back to nature. A canoeing holiday is the best way to explore every bend of this beautiful waterway and it needn’t be as wet as it sounds! Hire a canoe from Asvolt in the lovely riverside town of Viellevie (tel: (Fr) 4 71 49 95 81, www.asvolt.com), receive a bit of tuition to hone your paddling skills and set off downstream. There are several villages to head for, all with charming and cosy B&Bs. We love Castelou Pelies (tel: (Fr) 5 65 78 49 19, www.aveyronchambre.com), a pretty B&B right on the water’s edge a few miles downstream from Viellevie, or you could really go wild and camp by the water’s edge.
If you have your own boat: You can enter the River Lot from its junction with the Garonne at Aiguillon. Only the lower Lot to Fumel is navigable from this point.
LAKE ANNECY, RH�NE-ALPES You don’t have to head for the coast to enjoy boating in France. Lovely Lake Annecy, the country’s second largest, is a glorious spot for some Swallows and Amazons-style adventures on the water. Created many thousands of years ago by waters from Alpine glaciers, the lake is crystal-clear and has stunning mountain scenery on all sides, not to mention bustling towns and pretty villages on its banks. In summer, the water can reach balmy temperatures of 24�C – great for swimming – and there are plenty of sandy beaches for a spot of sunbathing. At 14.6 kilometres long and just over three kilometres wide, the lake is perfectly suited to messing about on the water, whether you want to join one of the many mini cruises’ that take passengers from port to port (try Compagnie des Bateaux in Annecy, tel: (Fr) 4 50 51 08 40, www.annecy-croisieres.com), or hire your own boat and explore. Small motorboats can be hired without a licence at around €20 per half an hour – try Ponton Josserand in Annecy (tel: (Fr) 4 50 09 90 60, www.ponton josserand.com) or the friendly Le Bounty in Menthon-Saint-Bernard (tel: (Fr) 6 63 25 52 07, www.bounty lac.com). Those wishing to travel under their own steam can hire a row boat or pedalo from one of the many companies around the lake. To really see all of Lake Annecy’s nooks and crannies, join a kayak safari, where guides will show you some of the lake’s most beautiful hidden gems. Annecy Aventure (tel: (Fr) 4 50 45 38 46, www.annecy-aventure.com) arranges trips in their sea kayaks.
If you have your own boat: The town of Annecy has a marina with nine visitor berths suitable for small towing craft. To book a berth or for more information, contact the Port de Plaisance. Tel: (Fr) 4 50 23 86 42.
LA ROCHELLE, POITOU-CHARENTESThe central west coast is one of the best sailing and boating destinations in the world. Great stretches of exhilarating water to explore in all weathers, romantic islands to aim for, friendly and modern marinas, and a passionate boating culture that is nothing if not infectious. The city of La Rochelle is central to the boating scene, with its huge harbour and fantastic waterside restaurants and bars. It’s perfect for boat owners and wannabe yachties alike.
La Rochelle is particularly good for anyone wanting to learn to sail, with several schools offering tuition. The city’s sheltered harbour lends itself to beginners, while the huge expanse of the Atlantic is on hand for the more adventurous. Try �cole Rochelaise d’Habitables (tel: (Fr) 5 46 44 62 44, www.srr-sailing.com, ) or La Voile pour Tous (tel: (Fr) 5 46 27 07 36, www.ecolecroisiere. com, ) for fun and friendly lessons in French and English. The coast around La Rochelle is littered with islands of all sizes, from the chic �le de R� to the dramatic �le d’Aix and it’s easy to spend a day or two island hopping between them. Ferries from La Rochelle are plentiful (tel: (Fr) 8 25 13 55 00, www.inter-iles.com). For a real boating treat however, visit La Rochelle during le Grand Pavois (www.grand-pavois.com) in September – Europe’s largest on-water boat show is a real treat for fans of anything even vaguely boaty.
If you have your own boat: La Rochelle is one of Europe’s most popular stopovers for visiting yachtsmen en-route to Spain and the Mediterranean. There are always plenty of visitors’ berths available for boaters on the go. The city marina, Port des Minimes (tel: (Fr) 5 46 44 41 20, www.portla rochelle.com) is vast, with fantastic facilities.
GORGES DE L’ARD�CHE, RH�NE-ALPES For adventurous boaters, the Ard�che Gorge is the ideal destination. This 30-kilometre section of the Ard�che valley is flanked by high limestone cliffs, giving the waters below an exciting edge, perfect for canoeists and kayakers of all levels.
The gorge officially begins at the beautiful Pont d’Arc, a natural bridge over the river created by thousands of years of erosion into the limestone. From here, the river winds its way backwards and forwards, often dropping in small rapids but always moving. The sun cuts through the valley and the smell of the forests high above drifts down to the river. In summer, the high numbers of canoeists in the Ard�che can make for an interesting passage, but come in the spring or early autumn and you’ll really have a chance to appreciate the jaw-dropping surroundings.
You can hire large, self-emptying canoes in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc (tel: (Fr) 4 75 88 07 34, www.ardeche-canoe.com). You can complete the descent in one or two days, but there is only a camping option if you decide to take the overnight trip. There is also a six-kilometre mini descent if you’d rather just dip your toe in the water!
PORT GUILLAUME, NORMANDY For a boating holiday just across the Channel, the Normandy coastline is a satisfying destination. The weather may not be as predictable as further south, but the long stretches of windswept beaches and rocky headlands teamed with some of the friendliest ports in France make for an invigorating trip. Hiring your own boat to explore the coastline is a great option for experienced sea goers, but novice sailors might want to sit back, relax and let someone else do the driving. Normandy Boat Charters (tel: 07979 241666, www.normandyboatcharters.co.uk) is run by British couple Paul and Sue Bowler, who charter out their comfortable and speedy motor fishing boat from its base in Port Guillaume. Let them take the wheel as you visit Deauville or Ouistreham, try your hand at a spot of deep-sea fishing or see the D-Day beaches from the water. Port Guillaume itself is the marina for the pretty Norman town of Dives-sur-Mer, with its restaurants, bars and attractions all within ten minutes’ walk.
If you have your own boat: If you are comfortable taking your boat across the Channel, the marina at Port Guillaume has a number of visitors’ berths and all the facilities you would need for a prolonged stay. Tel: (Fr) 2 31 24 48 00, www.dives-sur-mer.com
CANALS OF ALSACE AND LORRAINE The land-locked, easterly regions of Alsace and Lorraine might be the last places in France that you would ever think of for a boating holiday. But the Marne au Rhin Canal that flows through the area is one of the prettiest and romantic in France. Hire a boat to explore the medieval villages, Alpine scenery and some of the most spectacular renaissance architecture in France – all from the water.
Crown Blue Line (tel: 0844 463 2389, www.crownblue line.co.uk) offers some of the best boats for hire from their varied bases along the Marne au Rhin and the River Moselle. For a lovely week-long round-trip, pick up your boat in the pretty village of Hesse, northeast of Strasbourg, before heading south, descending the famous Saint-Louis- Arzviller inclined plane, a magnificent example of modern canal engineering. Pass through Saverne and past the jawdropping neoclassicist fa�ade of Rohan Castle, then on through lush forest to Strasbourg. Your destination is Boofzheim, a half-timbered town just north of Colmar. Pick up a good supply of local Riesling, before turning around and heading back for a few more days of heady river travel.
If you have your own boat: The truly adventurous (with a small enough boat to fit France’s inland waterways) can reach the Marne au Rhin Canal from the Channel by travelling east along the Seine and joining the Marne east of Paris. Trail-boaters can easily join the Marne au Rhin, however. There are slipways in many of the towns along the canal, including Hesse, Saverne and Strasbourg.