Cruising the Canal du Midi, France

“La vie est belle,” notes one of my companions as we sip wine and cruise a gentle waterway. He has that right – life is beautiful on France’s Canal du Midi. We’re being coddled in some of France’s best scenery, plus, aboard our self-skippered yacht, we have the adventuresome aspect of working our way through locks and sometimes cycling from lock to lock.

Credit: Thinkstock – therry

The Midi Canal meanders from the Mediterranean to Toulouse. The passing countryside is idyllic: huge, leafy plane trees drape over the water providing welcome shade, the rural countryside is a mosaic of greens and charming 13th century villages can be spotted on hillsides. The shoreline and fields are carpeted with wild iris, red pansies and daisies and, at each lock, there are the charming rustic homes of the lock-keepers. So how do you enjoy this if you are self-skippering an eight-passenger yacht?

Truth is, it’s very relaxing. We picked our boat up in Castelnaudary, a pretty town but, more importantly, it has Le Grand Bassin, a placid, protected area ideal for familiarizing yourself with your new floating home. We had lessons and took turns steering, worked at pulling into a dock and learned how to navigate arched bridges. Lessons learned, our group of six set off.

That first day there were no arguments over who would steer. Those of us who were less experienced were happy to leave it to the few who had logged some boat hours. The first lock was nerve-wracking but, on the Midi, all have lock-keepers who assist. Since the boat company provides an excellent navigational guide with great hints for each lock, we soon caught on to pulling into the oval-shaped locks.

Idling on deck, there’s time to contemplate the history of the Midi which opened in 1681 to become a busy trade route between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. For much of its 300 years, it transported commercial goods. Today the traffic is primarily cruisers.

Along with cruising, one of the sublime pleasures of the trip is pedaling. We had four bicycles on-board and the tow-path, originally used for horses to pull the barges, makes an ideal cycling path. If two locks are in close proximity, you can even walk the distance.

This is the perfect no-rush vacation. You may decide to dock for the better part of a day and stroll to a village perhaps to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables from a local market to cook up later in the boat’s galley. Or, perhaps you’ll prefer to enjoy a meal in one of countless charming cafes. It’s all about just being in the moment.

At Port Lauragais, we trekked two kilometres to see the 13th century church, white-stoned houses and luxuriant gardens of the hilltop village. Montigiscard was another uphill walk to take in red brick buildings, vine-draped walkways and an impressive belfry church tower.

Another pleasure is the unique “personality” of each lock. Some are cloaked in growth or beside a picturesque bridge, others border gardens bursting with vegies and fragrant flowers, and some places the lock-keepers sell fresh bread and tinned foie gras. You can drag out your high school French to converse and sometimes you picnic with other boaters. It’s the perfect blend of peaceful waters, fitness activities like cycling and walking, exploring lovely French villages and soaking in the inspirational ambience of this postcard-pretty region of France.

Judi Lees is a freelance travel writer who lives in British Columbia, Canada.