I’m hoping it’s not a sign of age, but as we contemplated a barge holiday in France on a Canal du Midi cruise, I couldn’t help but consider this. Was cruising on canals or barging something that only appeals when you reach a certain age (whatever that age might be)?
Would being on a slow-moving barge compromise our reputation as independent travellers who hate being told what to do and where to go? Travelling on someone else’s timeline does not appeal to us as a general rule.
Barge holidays in France – A comprehensive guide to a Canal du Midi cruise
All these thoughts and so many more were constant visitors to my mind the minute we agreed to take a ride on the luxury barge Savannah on the Canal du Midi in the south of France. Such thoughts never truly left my head until I was aboard with a glass of French champagne in my hand.
Having been able to spend some one-on-one time with Adrian Bramoullé, owner and captain of the Savannah at the time of our pickup had started to allay any concerns I might have.
Over the course of the week, I realised that by opening up my mind and letting in a different experience, we had found something we truly loved, and I knew we would be up for doing it again.
Let’s answer some of these questions about French barge holidays now because I know there are many others like us. Let’s face it, no one wants to consider themselves to be getting old and doing things that are expected of a certain age group. At the same time, I’m sure no one wants to shell out a bucketload of cash and not enjoy the experience just to say they’ve “given it a go”.
The Savannah is one of many luxury barges operating on the French canals. Several other barges on the Canal du Midi also operate, including the European-Waterways-operated Enchante´, which we have also cruised on.
You can read all about our week aboard the Enchante´ here.
This is a detailed Canal du Midi cruise review compiled by experienced barge travellers. Our guides allow potential guests to get some authentic insight before spending a lot of money.
- Barge holidays in France – A comprehensive guide to a Canal du Midi cruise
- How many people will be on the luxury canal barge?
- Are barge cruises for old people?
- Is there much room on board a luxury barge on a French canal?
- What are the cabins like on a luxury French canal barge?
- Other areas on the French canal barge
- Where does the barge go on the Canal du Midi?
- What do you do all day on the barge?
- Luxury barge day trips and onshore excursions
- Activities onboard the Canal du Midi luxury barge
- Life on the Canal du Midi
- Will I get seasick or motion sick?
- What’s the food like on the barge?
- What clothing do you need onboard a luxury barge on the Canal du Midi?
- Does the canal barge have wifi?
- There’s an open bar? What does this mean?
- How much does a week onboard a luxury barge cost?
- Are there any extra costs?
- Where do I book the luxury barge?
- How do I get there?
- Where can I stay before the French barge cruise starts?
- More reading barge cruises in France and Europe
How many people will be on the luxury canal barge?
This isn’t a party boat, nor anything like the European riverboat cruises that travel the major rivers of Europe. Despite the Savannah being 30 metres long and weighing 180 tonnes, it’s not packed with people.
The Savannah is a luxury barge catering to people who like to travel slowly and enjoy the scenery as it passes by. It’s also a place where guests can unwind and enjoy the serenity of the canals.
There are four cabins (three double and one single) for up to seven guests. In addition, there are three crew members; the captain, a host and a chef.
Even for those people who consider themselves introverted, you’ll never have a huge throng of people thrust upon you at any time.
Are barge cruises for old people?
Absolutely not! Despite my initial thoughts, anyone can have a good time on this type of barge holiday. Old or young, single or couples, families and groups of friends, there is plenty for everyone of all ages to do. In fact, if you plan on getting a group together and booking out the entire boat, talk to Adrien as he just loves trying to personalise things for you.
For example, a group of biking enthusiasts booked this barge, and onshore activities included riding Tour-de-France-type bikes. In 2018, the Tour de France ran through Carcassonne, so special trips were planned to make the most of this occasion.
The itinerary can be adapted for certain themes like wine tasting or with a gastronomy focus. On the Savannah, children can be catered for with such things as fishing trips cooking lessons and other activities.
If you have the cash, helicopter, balloon rides, and other adrenaline activities can be considered.
Is there much room on board a luxury barge on a French canal?
There’s plenty of room to move around! Most of the upper deck is able to be used. Tiled in beautiful terracotta by the captain, a perfectionist in every way when it comes to the appearance of his boat, the upper deck is a delightful place to spend your time on board.
Apart from being the best spot to watch the world go by, there’s a place to dine and various other seating arrangements to ensure your relaxation. You can sit with the other guests or find a quiet spot away from everyone.
There’s also lots of room downstairs too. You will be surprised by the amount of space.
What are the cabins like on a luxury French canal barge?
Considering you are on a barge they are amazing! Named after areas in the southwest of France, the cabins are cosy but considering you spend most of your time above deck, it’s not a big issue. At the front of the barge, the ‘Lauragais’ is the largest of them all at 160 square feet. It has a private entry from the upper deck.
Accessed from the lower deck, the 130 square-foot ‘Minervois’ and ‘Corbieres’ cabins sit side by side, just off the salon. With solid iron walls in between, they are your private sanctuaries whilst you cruise. The single cabin, ‘Malapere’ is located off the salon and is much smaller at 60 square feet.
A small hanging cupboard and shelf are in the double cabins and a bedside table. There is one powerpoint in the room and another in the bathroom. If you travel with plenty of devices and gadgets like us, I recommend taking either a power board or a double adaptor.
The beds are extremely comfortable, and all linen and towels are of very good quality.
All cabins are air-conditioned, and have skylights and portholes which can be opened. Personally, I don’t think anyone would be displeased with any of the double cabins. If you do believe you want private access and a touch more space in your cabin, the ‘Lauragais’ is the one to request, but seriously, I don’t believe there is any real difference.
They also have stand-alone ensuites with full-standing-height showers and flushing toilets. The water is of excellent pressure and heat, two of the things I love.
In a nod to Savannah’s former life as part of the L’Occitane business, toiletries from this well-known French company are also included.
Just like in a hotel, your rooms are serviced every day.
There isn’t a lot of storage for your luggage onboard, so if you can limit this, you’ll be all the better for it. If you have lots of luggage, like we always do, it’s no issue either. It just means you need to manage it in your cabin.
Other areas on the French canal barge
One of the most beautiful areas on the Savannah is without a doubt the salon. If there is one part of this barge that speaks directly to the owner’s attention to detail, then this is it. Personally sourced material, decorated in vivid butterflies from designer Christian Lacroix was used to make the armchairs.
Like those upstairs, Terracotta tiles have been laid in a circular pattern and offset by a plush rug underfoot. Sleek, shiny mahogany cabinetry surrounds the room and ties it all together.
Nothing is out of place. Every detail, right down to the Lindt chocolates, the wide range of alcohol in the open bar that caters to everyone’s tastes, the books, the music and the fresh flowers all come together to make this a perfect place to spend some time.
The dining room
Just outside the salon and at the bottom of the main set of steps leading downstairs from the upper deck are the dining room and kitchen. The kitchen, though small, is capable of producing some incredible food.
The table is set beautifully for each meal that is eaten here. When the weather is accommodating, meals can also be taken upstairs.
Where does the barge go on the Canal du Midi?
The Savannah takes you on a journey either up or down the Canal du Midi, a 240km waterway between Toulouse and Sète. The six-day cruise takes in about 60 kilometres of the canal, beginning at the Aiguille Lock and passing through Marseillette, Villedubert, Ladouce, Villeseque and Beteille until it finishes near Bram. (or the reverse if heading in the other direction).
What do you do all day on the barge?
Included as part of your luxury barge cruise on the Savannah is a range of day trips. All are fully guided, and private transport is arranged to look after you. There is no need to plan anything for yourself; all activities and excursions are included in the price.
Adrien will usually always accompany you, and sometimes one of his team will too. If you aren’t interested in one of the trips or just need time out, staying on the barge whilst everyone else heads out is also an option.
The trips start after breakfast or after lunch, depending on the cruising schedule, and usually last for around half a day. This means there is a nice blend of time on and off the barge.
Luxury barge day trips and onshore excursions
Highlights include visits to one of the most beautiful villages in France, Minerve. A trip to Carcassone’s fully walled, medieval city is also amazing.
The wine region of this area is unknown when compared to the other well-known areas of France. I like to think of it now as our little secret, having been able to experience a thriving area without the fuss of tourists by the hundreds. Great wine and great people make up the vineyards of this region, and it was wonderful to be able to visit generations-old wineries and sample their produce.
Drive a vintage Citroen 2CV
We couldn’t believe we could drive these classic French cars ourselves. Winding our way through the countryside, wind in our hair was the perfect experience. Stopping at chateaux along the way was the icing on top.
Go to the markets with the chef
I’m sure you can imagine how much we loved this. Even if you aren’t interested in food and markets like we are, hanging out with your private chef, watching them select the food for your next meal, and even helping to choose ingredients yourself is a special event not to be missed.
It’s France, so there are bound to be a chateau or two in your path. We got to explore the inside of Chateau de Pennautier, an historical gem still owned by descendants of the same family of the original owners.
The Savannah carries enough bikes on board for every guest. Riding a bike is easy along the canals. The towpath is generally flat and easy to ride on. The bikes are simply taken off the barge at a lock and we later re-joined the barge at a lock designated by the captain.
If you are interested in riding, a quick chat to Adrien will work out the appropriate locks to get on and off at, according to your fitness level. Some locks are relatively close together whilst others can be kilometres apart.
If riding isn’t your thing, you can also elect to walk along the paths.
Activities onboard the Canal du Midi luxury barge
We returned one evening to find musicians on our barge. Adrien was not only a great captain, but his thoughtfulness and care for his guests were obvious at every turn. In this instance, he invited two local musicians he befriended many years ago to entertain us as we sipped more French champagne.
As the sun ended its job for the day and sunk below the horizon, we all reflected on what an incredible experience this was. The great thing was we were only a few days into the trip.
Following dinner, the music continued well into the night downstairs in the salon.
Keen to showcase more of the region’s local wines, we also had personal visits by the winemaker, who came aboard to guide us through the various offerings.
Life on the Canal du Midi
Cruising along the Canal du Midi is slow and peaceful. There are other watercraft on the canal, and in the peak season, you will see a greater number than we saw in September.
The main “issue” in peak times would simply be the time taken to get through the locks, as the barges all queue up. This is where the Savannah comes into her fore though.
As a commercial operating hotel barge, the Savannah gets right of way through the locks as they are “booked in”. It also helps, no doubt, that Adrien has built up wonderful relationships with all of the lockkeepers. The odd croissant and cup of coffee we saw the chef take to the keepers wouldn’t hurt either!
Unless you have also cruised on canals regularly, the whole theatre of the opening and closing of the locks and watching the barge go from the bottom of the canal to the top is really interesting. As a guest and not a driver, there’s no pressure during what can be a tricky process to manoeuvre. We can simply sit back, drink, and watch it unfold.
The Savannah is moored every night at a country location along the canal, not in the main ports usually frequented by the rental barges. The Savannah has a water supply capable of lasting the entire week and generators for electricity, meaning Adrien is not forced to use the facilities in the towns.
This means that every night is quiet. The only sounds you will hear will be the sounds of nature.
Will I get seasick or motion sick?
I’d like to say it’s not possible, but nothing is 100% guaranteed. However, I can be 99.9% sure that even if you are someone who gets seasick normally on a boat, you will not be on the Savannah. I’ve been known to be seasick before, but this barge doesn’t move fast enough to be a problem.
At 4 km/hour, it’s not going to win any speed records. The waters are smooth, calm and tranquil and apart from the moving scenery, you’ll never know you are on a boat.
What’s the food like on the barge?
With a fully trained chef in charge, and access to the freshest of ingredients, sourced locally where possible, the food is one of the highlights of the barge cruise. You’ll hear comments of “How can we possibly eat any more?” and “I think I might miss breakfast today,” such is the quantity of food you’ll be faced with.
What I never heard, however, was “I’m hungry” or “I feel like a snack”. Three meals a day served in style and always at a fully dressed dining table was something we looked forward to.
It’s all about embracing French cooking and eating their food. There’s no tourist menu here, although I’m sure if you wanted something specific, the chef would do their best to help you.
Of course, if you have a dietary issue or don’t like certain foods (sorry everyone I just can’t do foie gras!), this will be accommodated easily.
There was so much food to choose from that each and every meal was a veritable buffet. Check out the slideshow below to see what I mean (and this was only some of it!)
What clothing do you need onboard a luxury barge on the Canal du Midi?
If you haven’t been on this type of cruise before it’s often hard to get simple yet accurate information on the type of clothing that is required. If you are trying to pack lightly, it’s great to have an idea of what you will need to wear.
The great thing about the Savannah is that there is no need whatsoever for pomp and ceremony. The Savanah is a place to chill out and relax. The first point to note is that no specific dress code is required for the barge or the day trips.
Wear comfortable clothes that you can lounge around in or sit at a dining table. For day trips, it’s best to have comfortable walking shoes. Most of the time, all guests remain in the same clothes all day.
What we took (for a September cruise)
- several pairs of shorts and a pair of long pants for the days when it was a little cooler
- pair of jeans each
- several short sleeved and long sleeved shirts (again weather dependent)
- hat and sunglasses
- flat comfortable shoes (boots, runners, ballet flats) for day trips
- jacket – recommended even if going in summer
- sleeping clothes
- exercise clothes – although not essential as it’s reasonable to walk or ride the bikes in normal day wear.
What we took and didn’t need
We took extra clothes for the evening, as we thought that we would be expected to change for dinner. Most of the time we were either just returning from our excursions or just too relaxed to bother changing. With only a few guests on board, there really is no need.
We also took a set of more formal clothes for the final dinner. Whilst it was nice to get a little more dressed up, again, there really is no need nor expectation.
You also won’t need umbrellas as they are available to use on the boat.
Does the canal barge have wifi?
Access to the internet rules my life so even when I’m meant to be relaxing, I need to know I can access data. Free wifi is provided on board but it is patchy and should not be relied on. If you are on a digital detox or just don’t care whether you are connected or not, then this won’t bother you one bit.
Alternatively, if you are travelling, we recommend and use Maya Mobile. They have great eSims that you can buy online and activate immediately.
There’s an open bar? What does this mean?
I’m sure you’ve seen this one before too. Promises of an open bar often mean that the drinks are free-flowing for the period of meal times. (lunch and dinner). Maybe it might include an afternoon drink or aperitif.
When you are on the Savannah, open means open. The bar is open 24 hours a day. If drinking French champagne is your thing at breakfast, or a sneaky cognac just before you go to bed is the perfect elixir, then you can have it. Drinks on the deck at 3pm? A mid-morning Campari? No one makes any rules, head to the bar whenever you wish.
How much does a week onboard a luxury barge cost?
It’s not an inexpensive trip, but it’s worthwhile if having a barging holiday in France is your thing. For many guests, taking a barge cruise on a French canal is a once-in-a-lifetime or bucket list event. For the most accurate costs, it’s always best to go straight to the source.
The barge may be booked out for groups or as individual cabin bookings.
Are there any extra costs?
How often do you pay a lot of money for a tour or a cruise, only to find out there are so many hidden extras? When you pay to travel on the Savannah, all inclusions and any exclusions are made very clear upfront. That being said, there are very few exclusions, the key one being travel insurance.
If you arrange for a different pick-up and drop-off point outside the usual locations, expect to pay an additional fee. Currently, the pickup/drop-off point is in the town of Narbonne, in southwest France.
Tips are also not included, nor are they obligatory.
There are supplements for single bookings.
Unless you negotiate other activities or special requests are made, then expect there will be no other additions. Specifically, your price is all-inclusive if you book a cabin and don’t change anything.
All-inclusive means the following are covered:
- transfers to and from the barge from the agreed meeting/drop off point.
- six nights on board the Savannah
- all off-barge excursions and visits to all attractions including any relevant entrance fees.
- wine tastings off-site
- meals/drinks at off-site restaurants that are attended as part of the excursions
- all wines, champagne, other alcohol, water etc. on board
- all meals on board
- use of bicycles, library, CD/DVD collection
- wifi (although limited).
Where do I book the luxury barge?
To book a canal holiday in France, you can contact Adrien directly via the Savannah barge website or you can use one of several agents like Barge Lady Cruises who specialise in luxury barge cruises on the French canals.
Related reading: Read about our experience on another luxury barge cruise in France aboard the Renaissance
How do I get there?
Narbonne is the city where pick up and drop off occurs. Located in the south-west of France, it is serviced by several airports and a train station. For quick access into Narbonne, we would recommend flying or taking the train.
The nearest airport is Béziers Cap d’Agde and is 47 kilometres from Narbonne. Both domestic and international flights are possible here.
Gare de Narbonne is the central train station and provides excellent access to most major French cities as part of the SNCF network. We caught a train from Barcelona to Narbonne (two hours direct) and also to Paris (about six hours).
We use Omio to buy our tickets online. The tickets can be accessed via their app on your smartphone.
Where can I stay before the French barge cruise starts?
Narbonne has a number of good hotels in the centre of town.
The premier hotel here is Hotel La Residence, located on the corner of a quiet street in the centre of the city, a short walk from Canal de la Robine and the main square and cathedral. If you are looking for a central spot, this is the hotel to stay in.
Narbonne is a beautiful city we might never have found if not for our trip on the Savannah. It is well worth spending a few extra days in Narbonne either before or after the barge cruise ends.
More reading: to help you plan for your stay in Narbonne, read our comprehensive guide on the top 14 things to do in Narbonne
The La Residence Hotel is also the current pickup location for the Savannah.
We stayed at Zenitude Hotel-Residences Narbonne, a short walk out of the centre but very close to the main promenade area of the Canal de la Robine. These apartments are self-contained and a little bigger than the standard hotel room.
In April 2023, prior to going on another barge cruise on the Enchante, we stayed at the Hotel l’Alsace across the road from the Narbonne Train Station as we came in late at night. It was quiet, comfortable, and more spacious than we thought it would be, and it allowed a very late check-in.
You can check reviews, availability and pricing for all Narbonne hotels on Trip Advisor, then book directly here as well.
More reading barge cruises in France and Europe
We are experienced barge travellers. What began as our first luxury barge cruise on the Canal du Midi in 2017 has now become a way of travel that we adore. Since travelling on the Savannah, we have enjoyed three more cruises along French canals and one in Scotland.
There is not much we don’t know about the way of life on the canals and what is required to book a barge vacation. We recommend reading more of our detailed guides below on what the barges are like, what travelling on French canals is like and whether the upfront commitment you pay to book a luxury barge is worth it.
We have also written guides in more detail on the Savannah and the Renaissance for The Fit Traveller and Barge Lady Cruises websites.
Beer and Croissants was a guest of Barge Lady Cruises. We truly had a fantastic time on board, and as always all opinions, editorial and images are always our own.