The Cool Canals guide describes a canal boat holiday as “the fastest way to slow down” and messing about on the inland waterways is a unique holiday experience that can offer as much relaxation or action as you choose.
Have lunch at a canalside pub; visit an art gallery; go for a hike; grab your bicycle off the roof and whiz down country lanes. Or just cruise beneath the leafy green arches of an idyllic environment that is a fascinating fusion of nature and man’s ingenuity.
I’m a big fan of canal boating so here are my pick of the best canal boat holidays in the world:
Canal boat holidays in Britain
The British Isles are crisscrossed with once-industrial canals now restored for canal boat holidays. One of the most spectacular has to be the epic Caledonian Canal that runs from Fort William to Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. The 60-mile waterway moves from canals into lochs as it takes you coast to coast.
Another favourite is the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal in Wales. High in the Brecon Beacons this waterway has wonderful views and is especially peaceful due to being landlocked from the main cruising networks.
The Llangollen canal is where you will find the extraordinary engineering marvel that is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. A canal boat holiday in the north Wales borderlands offers stunning scenery from the green fields of Cheshire to the mountains of Wales.
Further south in England, the best canal boating holiday trips include messing about on the Oxford Canal, the Stratford-upon-Avon canal and the Kennet and Avon canal.
Or relax and enjoy the peaceful Norfolk countryside from the 125 miles of navigable waterways that form the Norfolk Broads, part of the UK’s largest protected wetland. Read about my experience on a canal boat holiday in Britain here. For more ideas and information about canal boat holidays in Britain see the Cool Canals guide.
Canal du Midi, France
The very name of the Canal du Midi conjures up wonderful images of relaxed holidays in the south of France. It was built in the 17th century and 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of Pierre-Paul Riquet, the designer of this incredible 240-mile long waterway.
This magical canal in the south of France crosses rivers, tunnels through hills, and has over 100 locks. Connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and running from the city of Toulouse to the port of Sete on the Mediterranean, this famous French canal flows through the heart of the glorious Languedoc.
Highlights of a canal boat holiday here include the fortress church of Agde, Beziers with its bullfights and flower market, the medieval castle and city of Carcassone and Toulouse with its exuberant nightlife.
A canal boat holiday in the Pays de la Loire, France
Still in France, the Pays de la Loire region is just the place for messing about in a boat. The unspoiled countryside can be explored from the 250 miles of waterways, including clean, flowing rivers and the historic Nantes to Brest Canal.
Houseboats are available for rent, with beds and showers, kitchen and sitting room. They are easy to steer and no licence is required.
Pick up your cruiser at the marina in Sablé-sur-Sarthe, a classic small French town. Load up with baguettes, pâté and cheese, not forgetting the wine and the town’s famous sables – shortbread-like biscuits. Then tootle off along the 82-mile long Sarthe, one of France’s prettiest rivers.
Get tips on where to eat and what to see from lock keepers along the way and tie up wherever you wish. Rent bikes so that you can make mini-excursions into the country lanes.
Attractions include Solesmes, the Benedictine abbey that is a world centre for Gregorian chant, and Malicorne-sur-Sarthe, famous for its faience, decorative pottery.
As well as Sarthe, other recommended starting points for canal boat holidays in the Pays de la Loire region include Nantes and Mayenne.
The Göta Canal in Sweden
Cruising along the Göta Canal, one of the world’s most remarkable waterways, gives you nothing but peace and a long-lasting, enchanting impression of Sweden. Built between 1810 and 1832, the canal was originally created to aid the country’s transport links during its industrial revolution.
Now, in the summer especially, a journey that follows it through some of the most spectacular countryside, is one of Sweden’s greatest treats. For sedate journeys through achingly scenic countryside, fascinating guided cultural excursions to some of Sweden’s foremost sights, fine food and accommodation aboard historical white steamships, see the Göta Canal Steamship Company.
Photo by Maria Eklind via Flickr
Stay in a canal boat in Amsterdam
There are over 100 kilometres of canals in the Netherlands’ beautiful capital city, mostly formed during the 17th century along with many beautiful buildings of the Dutch Golden Age. The canal network of Amsterdam is one of the most famous in the world and deservedly the area around the main canals – the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht and Herengracht canals and the Jordaan district – has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Canada’s Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal is arguably the most scenic waterway in North America and a Unesco World Heritage site as well. Connecting a series of beautiful lakes and rivers, it stretches 125 miles from Kingston, at the foot of Lake Ontario, to Ottawa, Canada’s capital.
Opened in 1832, this is the oldest continuously operated canal in North America and the locks are operated in the traditional way. Lock staff are on hand to offer assistance to boaters and tourists, and at each lock you will usually find overnight mooring, picnic facilities, barbecue grills and washrooms.
Image by Douglas J O’Brien via Flickr
Canal boat fun in London
Perhaps you don’ t have time to go on a canal boat holiday or would like a taster of what the world of canals is like?
A community boating project in Camden The Pirate Club – runs memorable canal boat trips for half days, full days, evenings and even longer trips. Passengers get the chance to work the locks, steer the boat or just watch the world go by.
Or how about a canal walk along some of London’s fascinating and historic canal paths? The four-mile walk along the Regent’s Canal from Islington to Limehouse feels a million miles away from the busy streets of the nearby city.
Completed in 1820, the Regent’s Canal was built to create a trading link between the industrial Midlands and the Thames.
The walk passes through the green spaces of Victoria and Mile End Parks and on into the historic Limehouse Basin. Look out for evidence of a bygone age where grooves have been worn on the bridges from the towline of the horsedrawn boats.
If you’re still feeling energetic you can continue from Limehouse to Three Mills along the Limehouse Cut to see Britain’s oldest standing mill, which was mentioned in the Domesday book.
History, nature, and a whole world of peace and tranquillity – that’s what’s waiting for you on a canal boat holiday: the most relaxing ‘active holiday’ ever!
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been on a canal boat holiday? Where would you recommend?
If you are interested in a canal boat holiday there’s a website called www.bookahouseboat.com that has lots of great options.
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