The only hotel boat cruising through the canals in a corner of southwest france, the Saint Louis barge provides a scenic journey through unspoiled countryside, with some nice surprises along the way.
The world slips by at a gentle pace. Days disappear in a haze of sunshine, tranquil scenery, good food and fine wines. Evenings see spectacular sunsets and long, relaxed dinners by flickering candlelight under starry skies. A holiday on a small hotel canal barge is unlike any other cruise. It is one of life’s special treats.
We find the Saint Louis moored alongside plane trees in a quiet spot near Sérignacsur- Garonne. With elegant lines and painted pristine navy and white, she’s a traditional Dutch canal barge, converted into a delightful floating hotel by her Francophile Scottish owners, Alasdair and Barbara Wyllie.
Actually it’s more like a travelling house party, for Saint Louis has just three en-suite double cabins and each trip is tailored to the interests and wishes of their occupants. It’s the perfect family-and-friends holiday.
From this mooring a few kilometres from Agen, we’re going upstream on the Canal de Garonne to the Saint Louis’ home port near Montauban, where the Wyllie’s have a house.
Alasdair plans the daily visits to coincide with guests’ interests – pretty villages, ancient abbeys, unusual museums, local markets and wine-tasting at vineyards are among the potentials. Barbara goes through her plans for meals, checking for her guests’ food likes and dislikes, tweaking and adapting her menus to suit.
The sun is low in the sky and a gentle breeze fans the warm air as we taste our first meal: fresh peach slices wrapped in Parma ham, oven-baked salmon, local cheeses and a Pavlova of meringue brimming with raspberries and strawberries. Alasdair introduces the wines for each course: Le Lys, a white wine from Buzet, a prize-winning red from Gaillac and a sweet white pudding wine also produced in the region.
The day is warming up and we eat out on deck. We pass through a chain of four automated locks then cross the longest masonry aqueduct in France at Agen, where hillside houses hide among trees and smart canal-side homes display well-tended gardens.
As the only hotel boat on the Canal de Garonne, we’re the centre of attention for passers-by on the towpath. Lazing on comfortably cushioned sunloungers, we watch the passing scene. Long avenues of plane trees are reflected in the still water, wildflowers bloom over banks, stone houses with shuttered windows snooze under rustic red pantiled roofs. Travelling at a sedate six kilometres an hour is very soporific.
Horse chestnut trees shade our mooring at Lamagistère. Alasdair drives us through villages where pétanque is being played in squares and fields are filled with sorghum. Our destination is Donzac and the Musée de la Vigne et du Vin. It gives us much to chat about en route to Dunes, a 13th-century bastide village of pale stone and half-timbered brick set among the vineyards of the Côtes du Brulhois.
We have the pretty little town to ourselves, wandering through the arcades of the main square – named Place des Martyrs after the people massacred there by the Gestapo in June 1944 – and admiring the old architecture in the late afternoon sunshine. Back at the barge, Barbara has created some tempting canapés to accompany pre-dinner drinks. A hilltop château and floodlit church clinging to the hillside form the backdrop to our candlelit meal under the stars.
The River Garonne was once an important trade artery between the Loire and the Spanish border. Its canal was created in 1846, originally for freight but now used purely by leisure craft. We meet some holiday hire boats, but essentially there’s so little traffic that we’re often alone. It is incredibly peaceful.
The morning is spent gliding gracefully past fields of sunflowers, farms of rich red earth and orchards heavy with fruit.
The pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela passes this way. Walkers stride by, signalling their mission with the defining scallop shell attached to their backpacks. We moor at Pommevic. Sunlight filters through their branches, bestowing dappled shade; a slight breeze rustles leaves. Luminouswinged dragonflies hover.
Popular with artists, this pretty little brickand- stone town (designated ‘one of the most beautiful villages in France’) has its original Louis XIV clock tower town gate and a cluster of enviable 17th and 18th-century townhouses surrounding the triangular-shaped main square, which has a circular grain market building at its centre. There are panoramic views over the Garonne River and across the fertile countryside to vineyards and farmed fields.
A short drive away, Lachapelle also provides grand country views. Fields, golden with harvested wheat and corn, roll across hills draped with vines and a patchwork of woods. There are swathes of rust-red sorghum, sunflowers with ripened seed heads and acres of cantaloupe melons hiding among their dark green foliage.
Alasdair leads us up to the old castle, dating from the 12th and 13th centuries and now a private home, and the adjacent church built into the walls. We can’t quite believe our eyes when we step inside little Saint-PierreÉglise. Back in 1761, the brothers Goulard, parish priest and curate, decided to give the interior a Baroque design, covering the walls with moulded woodcarvings, Corinthian columns, paintings and faux marble, a trompe l’oeil ceiling and chandeliers, adding three galleries that are reminiscent of Venetian theatre and are unique in France.
Back on the boat, as the heat of the day merges into the warmth of night, dark shapes of trees are illuminated by a bright red sunset. The smoked salmon timbale and magret d’agneau are delicious, the cheeses perfect and the puréed pears atop deep, dark chocolate prove an excellent mix of tastes. Tonight, Barbara’s choice of confectionary is Calissons from Aix en Provence. These melt-inthe- mouth, soft marzipan diamonds just happen to be an absolute favourite of mine.
A narrow swing bridge provides entry to Moissac, where the canal cuts right through town. Saint Louis slips slowly alongside houses with blue shutters and patterned lace curtains. Baskets of petunias and geraniums hang from balconies and bridges. Here we’re in for another surprise – a double lock descent on to the River Tarn.
Amazingly we have this scenic river to ourselves and spend the afternoon quietly lounging on deck under a clear blue sky. A grey heron poses on a partly submerged log and kingfishers flash by at the water’s edge.
The fierce sun is beginning its descent when Alasdair drops anchor in a tree-backed, island-dotted bay that’s a bird sanctuary. All is still and serene. We watch a flight of geese, dark shapes etched against the reddening sky. The sun sets in myriad shades of red, orange, purple and pink, a painter’s palette of colour.
I’m up on deck early to watch a pale sky striped with pink dawn. Birds rise in flocks from their sleep. There’s not a boat or human in sight for the hour or so it takes to sail towards Moissac, where we moor up alongside a square edged with plane trees.
A short stroll into town and we’re at the famed Moissac Abbey and its magnificent cloisters. The Abbey is splendid, particularly the 12th-century carvings over the south door, but the cloisters are amazing.
It’s a sunny, relaxing, cruising afternoon, heading towards Castelsarrasin, where a flotilla of ducks greets us at the leisure port. Next morning we head into town for the weekly market, a lively, typically French affair, with countless stalls lining streets and squares.
Mid-morning sees us gliding gently past trees, fields and farmhouses, en route to the Wyllie’s pretty house that looks across to fields warm with sunflowers. There’s a trip into Montauban, a buzzy 12th-century bastide town full of art, good shopping and definitely worth a longer visit.
IN THE KNOW
Three outside cabins, 127sq ft each, confi gured with twin or queen-sized double beds, en suite tiled bathroom with shower and toilet, small wardrobe and storage space, full length mirror, bathrobe, air conditioning and central heating.
A wonderfully relaxing holiday with family or friends for up to six people of all ages.
A charter for six people, €16,900 (£13,905); charter for four people, €14,900 (£12,259). bookings by a couple or individual for one cabin are possible. Contact the saint louis to discuss this option.
Transfers to and from the barge, accommodation for six nights, all meals, wine and drinks on board, all excursion.
Travel to Toulouse, tips, personal spending ashore.
Two routes along the Canal de Garonne between Toulouse and Bordeaux, with departures from April to October.
Tel: 00 33 685 952 541;