It is our mission to make life on-board for our guests as relaxed, comfortable and enjoyable as possible. We want to welcome our guests again (and again!) and so we strive to offer an inland waterways cruising experience second to none, tailored exactly to our guests’ wishes and interests. Naturally, we do have an underlying route plan (travelling from A to B within a span of days); we do have a portfolio of great places to moor up and to visit; and we do have a basic pattern for each day (see below).
However – and very importantly – this is most decidedly not a floating ‘coach tour’ with a rigid agenda, or a timetable set in stone. We are unique in the scope we offer you to make variations, planned in advance or on the spur of the moment.
In fact, just like it would be if our luxury hotel barge, the Saint Louis, was your own private small ship, voyaging through the sunflower fields and vineyards of south-west France!
We will have moored up the afternoon or evening before, securely tied to the quayside under skipper Alasdair Wyllie’s experienced eagle eye.
At 30m in length and 127 tons weight, the Saint Louis stays firmly and dependably level in all circumstances; not that the inland waterways of South-West France offer anything by way of waves or other watery conditions that might upset her lady-like equilibrium in the first place! She moves gracefully through the languid green waters as quietly, calmly and smoothly as a luxury automobile negotiating the driveway of a stately home.
So it’s quite possible that you will sleep late, with no sounds from the outside world beyond your bedroom window to disturb your slumbers. Get up, relax, take breakfast exactly as the mood takes you. Alternatively, maybe your sleep will be so satisfying that you’ll actually wake up with the birds, emerging on deck to glimpse an electric blue kingfisher perched on the guard rail or a grey heron stalking the shallows.
You have the option of breakfasting in our hardwood panelled saloon or, more usually, to enjoy the morning sun and your croissants, freshly squeezed juice and coffee, on the sun deck. During or after breakfast the Saint Louis will probably let slip her mooring and set off along the canal.
Working the barge is a fascinating operation, and you’ll have the ringside seat (but you won’t be ‘pressed’ into service – all that’s expected of you, is to sit back and watch the professionals – the skipper and the crew – at work!). Casting-off or tying-up is a delicate process, the skipper combining a hand on the wheel, a touch on the throttle, and an experienced eye to bring the barge slowly and accurately alongside the mooring, or away from it. You’ll notice – or perhaps you won’t! – that no urgent shouted instructions take place between the skipper in the wheelhouse and the crew on the deck or on-shore; it’s all done quietly and professionally (using just the merest small hand-signal or raise of an eyebrow) by people who know what they’re doing – and enjoy doing it.
During the morning you are free to enjoy Saint Louis’ progress through the countryside towards the lunchtime destination. Outside, on the sun deck, your cushioned solid teak sun-lounger provides the perfect elevated canal-side view of the villages and the countryside, the locks and the bridges, as they gently slide past. Relax, chat, read a book – or do absolutely nothing except day-dream to the sound of bird-song.
Barbara and Alasdair know the region well and will point out items of interest along the way. For example the many gorgeous little pigeonniers – pigeon loft buildings – that sprinkle the landscape, forming small ingredients in France’s heritage. Each conforms to a basic, practical theme but each is architecturally different, each builder contributing individual ideas and details to make each one unique. There must be thousands in South-West France – how many will you spot?
The crew are always at hand to fix you a mid-morning drink or rustle up a delicious snack!
After lunch (often taken al fresco under the parasols on the sun deck) there might be an excursion in the car, maybe to a mediaeval village or a wine tasting at a local vineyard – or both! The barge cruises through a number of wine areas, all part of the official South West wine region – these include Fronton, St Sardos, Cotes de Brulhois, Buzet, and Cotes de Marnande. In addition, we are able to do excursions to wine areas that are a little further from the canal, such as Gaillac, Cahors and Cote de Duras. Alasdair and Barbara have researched a very wide range of visits, and the excursions each week are very much tailored to the interests and tastes of the guests on board. You will find all the places we visit to be un-crowded and unspoilt, with no pressure of mass tourism.
Sometimes the boat cruises during the afternoon. At any time you have the chance to examine how the Saint Louis is put through the various locks along the Canal de Garonne. Maybe you choose to watch this from the sun deck, with a glass in one hand and a book in the other, or maybe you decide to join the Skipper in the wheelhouse and observe from this “control centre” the finesse required in manoeuvring the boat.
How does Saint Louis go through the locks?
Many of the locks on the Canal Garonne are automatic, meaning that all the lock controls are activated by the Skipper and crew, without the help of a lock-keeper. Briefly explained, the passage through a lock is as follows. On approaching a lock, the Skipper positions the boat so that he can twist a “perch” – a flexible pole hanging over the water some distance back from the lock. Lights beside the lock indicate to the Skipper that his request has been received and is being actioned. After the lock is prepared for the boat, the lock-gates open and the signal lights indicate that it is safe to enter the lock. Once the boat is safely tied-up inside the lock further controls are activated and the lock is emptied or filled (depending on whether the boat is going upstream or downstream) and the boat is floated to the level of the next stretch of canal. The process is simple enough in concept – but in practice it is greatly complicated by all sorts of cross-currents experienced on the approach to the lock.
Whatever the afternoon’s programme, once again the crew are at your disposal, to ensure your experience aboard Saint Louis is complete and thoroughly enjoyable.
At the end of the day’s cruise, Alasdair and the crew will moor Saint Louis. Sometimes we moor in a small port or historic town, sometimes near a little village, sometimes alongside the canal bank in open countryside. You’ll then have plenty of time to do few things before supper. Perhaps you’d like to borrow one of our excellent bikes and go for a ride along the (surfaced) canalside path – canals have level towpaths, no hills! Or a stroll into the town or village to explore, shop, meet the (friendly) locals and try out your French. Maybe the afternoon’s ‘exertions’ (well, visiting a vineyard and tasting the produce can be hard work . . . ) mean that all that’s necessary is a comfortable deck-chair and a sun-downer.
Dining aboard the Saint Louis is a relaxed and delicious experience, whether taken on the sun-deck as the sun sets, or whether taken below in the panelled saloon. After drinks and aperitifs, you will enjoy a delicious meal planned and prepared by our chef, and accompanied of course by quality wines of the region. The pace of the meal, and of the rest of the evening, is entirely up to you. You may like to linger over coffee and malt whisky or Armagnac, or you may all decide to play a game of Scrabble or cards. Perhaps you choose to curl up with a book, or maybe your group takes on the task of putting the world to rights! Or you could just decide to get an early night, to relax in the private luxury of your own cabin.