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Canalling in France

Giddy with anticipation, I took the helm. Turning the steering wheel gingerly, I felt the boat respond, and when I looked up, I noticed my fellow passengers beaming at me with approval. This was my first taste of navigating the canals and inland waterways of Burgundy, France. And it was also my introduction to soft adventure travel, a phenomenon whose popularity is growing by leaps and bounds in recent years.

Canalling France Part fantasy trip, part “working” vacation, a self-skippered cruise is in many ways what family vacations are supposed to be all about. Instead of the trappings of giant cruise ships, which are designed to distance family members from one another, a boating vacation fosters togetherness. The pace is leisurely, offering families plenty of time to talk, to walk or bike along ancient towpaths, to picnic in fields of wildflowers. Time to wander the patchwork quilt of pastureland where pure white cattle graze. Time to become immersed in the fascinating history of the fairy-tale villages that lie canal-side. And then there¹s the wonderful feeling of freedom that comes with being master of your fate, captain of your destiny.

I reviewed these benefits as I sat upon the deck of “my” boat, one of 500 owned and operated by Crown Blue Line, the leader in European self-skippered boating holidays. I had signed on for a shortened version of the line¹s weeklong itinerary from Fontenoy-Le-Chateau to Gray, traveling on the relatively small Canal de l¹Est until it turns into the river Saone. The French canal system was built in Burgundy starting in the 17th century to link France¹s three main rivers
The boat itself was more than comfortable, featuring compact yet functional sleeping quarters, fully equipped kitchens and roomy dining areas. Crown Blue Line¹s bases in France, Germany, Scotland, Italy, Holland and Ireland offer boats that sleep three to 12 people, so traveling with the entire brood or even 10 of your closest friends is definitely do-able. The cost for a weeklong trip with Crown Blue is also within the reach of most families: Depending on the type of boat and time of year, a weeklong cruise can cost as little as $250 per person, roughly the same cost as renting a vacation cottage at the shore or an RV for a week.

And navigating with Crown Blue Line is simple
mealtime Meals in this part of the world have a cachet all their own, and Crown Blue makes every attempt to cater to the needs of their guests. They¹ll even stock your larder before you arrive or, if you prefer, you can do it yourself as you go along. My group was lucky enough to have someone on board who didn¹t mind going to a nearby village bakery for fresh bread, croissants and pastries each morning, so breakfasts were a particular treat. Lunches were eaten on board as well, but we opted to eat our evening meals out, choosing from among the many recommended restaurants in Crown Blue¹s Captain¹s Guide, which lists the best places to try along each particular route.

One such place, Le Chateau de Vauchoux, turned out to be a four-star restaurant situated in Louis XIV¹s former hunting lodge. A magnificent wooden staircase arched over the foyer, and the dining room was elegantly paneled and hung with colorful modern art. The meal was just as memorable. It started with the traditional Burgundian aperitif, kir, made with crème de cassis, the blackcurrant liqueur produced in nearby Dijon. Sweet and smooth, the liqueur prepares the palate for what comes next
Another highlight of the trip was a tour of the tiny town of Jussey, which ended with an impromptu wine tasting. The town elders, knowing we were Americans, offered us wine made from their very own vineyards. And as we sipped, we were treated to a firsthand history of their town, ending with an invitation to be guests in their homes should we ever return. When the last drop of wine had been finished (they wouldn¹t hear of us leaving until then) we all felt as if we¹d just had a taste of the “real” France. And that, after all, was what we¹d set sail to find.

For more information or a copy of Crown Blue Line¹s 2000 brochure, call 888-355-9491.

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