When someone mentions they’re off to France, you might be forgiven for expecting selfies at the foot of the Eiffel Tower or snaps of sun-kissed skin in Saint Tropez. But for many Francophiles tired of crowds, cameras and cliché, the real France is defined by its waterways and the land it serves. Here, the pace of life is slow, the produce premium and the vistas both panoramic and peaceful.
France boasts over 8’000 km of navigable canals and rivers, enabling travellers to enjoy the experience of being on the move whilst simultaneously kicking back. Negotiating the country at this refined, regal pace will help travellers see France at its best, and if you’re looking for 5 luxury French canal cruise ideas for 2022, then here they are.
FINE WINE TASTING ON THE CANAL DE BOURGOGNE
To traverse the canals of rural France, breathing in the scents of your surroundings and tasting the terroir first hand, has to be one of life’s greatest pleasures. And when the local wine is widely considered the world’s finest? You can’t get much more luxury than that…
The Canal de Bourgogne cuts a swathe through the Burgundy region of east-central France, a part of the world defined by the quality of its plonk. Beginning in Migennes and ending in Saint-Jean-de-Losne, there are several revered vineyards both at the start and close to the canal route’s conclusion that simply have to be seen (and tasted!) to be believed.
Towards the beginning of the Canal de Bourgogne, in the heart of Yonne, you’ll pass close to both the Chablis and Tonnerre vineyards, which cover over 4500 hectares and offer plenty of opportunities for touring and tasting.
Just a half hour’s drive from the final docking destination of Saint-Jean-de-Losne is Burgundy’s wine capital Beaune. Here, you’ll find Château de Pommard, a winery with three centuries’ worth of expertise and a strong passion for low intervention, biodynamic wine. We just love it.
Of course, you could also take a few bottles back to your luxury boat, put your feet up, and enjoy the ever changing views from on deck.
ENJOY THE HEIGHT OF FRENCH GASTRONOMY ON THE CANAL DE GARONNE
The Canal de Garonne, opened in 1856, connects two of France’s truly great gastronomic cities, Toulouse and Bordeaux (the canal actually ends in Castets-en-Dorthe, but you can follow the Garonne River the rest of the way to Bordeaux).
The culinary credentials of the canal and river route aren’t solely defined by those two cities, however; along the stretch of water there are several superb stop-offs to sample the incredible produce and restaurants of the region. On offer are Garonne eels and river pike, prunes from the ‘Capital of Prunes’ Agen, melons and cherries from the nearby Quercy hills and, of course, the famous Toulouse sausage at the final port of call.
In Toulouse, it would be rude not to disembark and dine out. The city boasts several Michelin starred restaurants (we did say this was a luxury French canal cruise, after all), but if you’re looking for an ultra modern, refined take on the food of the city and region, then we just love chef Pierre Clément’s cooking at Py-r in Toulouse’s old town. Do check it out.
LUXURIATE IN LITERATURE, HISTORY & ART ON THE CANAL D’ARLES À FOS
‘Luxury’ isn’t all about opulence and out-of-hand spending. On the Canal d’Arles à Fos in Southern France, connecting the Rhône near Arles with Fos-sur-Mer, the term has a very different context; it’s all about an appreciation of fine art, literature and history.
In fact, to cross a portion of the 31km canal, visitors must walk over the Langlois Drawbridge, which was painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1888.
This makes the city of Arles a must-visit when docking along the route; Van Gogh went through a period of artistic freedom when he lived on the banks of Rhone River in the town. Here, he painted some of his most celebrated works, including Bedroom in Arles. You can visit the Foundation Vincent Van Gogh Arles, a museum dedicated to his life and paintings.
But that’s not all there is to enjoy for culture lovers; the old town of Arles has, in fact, been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its ancient Roman sites and ruins, including Arles Amphitheatre, the Roman Theatre of Arles, the Roman Forum and the Alyscamps. Incredibly, some of these monuments date back to the 1st century B.C.
You can also find underground crypts and the Thermes de Constantine, the ruins of ancient baths with a fantastic view of the Rhone, in the city. Wow!
EXPLORE THE VENICE OF PROVINCE, L’ISLE-SUR-LA-SORGUE
We couldn’t write a guide to the great luxury canal cruises of France without mentioning a place so beautiful that it’s garnered the nickname ‘’the Venice of Provence’’. This place is L’isle-Sur-la-Sorgue, a tangle of canals and branches of the Sorgue River that boast some of the most relaxed, regal waterways in all of the country.
But that’s not all the town itself is famous for; it’s also one of the antique capitals of the world. If you love to shop, then you’ll love L’isle-Sur-la-Sorgue’s weekly antiques market and twice yearly International Antiques Fair. The next one takes place in April 2022, which is also one of the most beautiful (and least crowded) times of year in Provence. This thing writes itself!
STRADDLE BORDERS ON A RHINE RIVER CRUISE IN STRASBOURG
We couldn’t leave without traversing Europe’s longest river, the Rhine, one last time. Whilst most river cruises of the Rhine take you from Amsterdam to Basel (or vice versa) and through six countries along its waters, we’re staying in France for this one, and heading to Strasbourg.
It’s a remarkable town, straddling the French and German border and blending the two’s architectural styles to visually striking and instantly identifiable ends.
A visit here is to gain an insight into historical relations between the two countries; a relationship that has defined Europe, some might say. In fact, the city changed nationality four times between 1870 and 1945, and is symbolic of postwar European unity and the forging of intracontinental alliances. If modern history is your idea of luxury, this could be the place for you.