France — Plying the French waterways by kayak and canoe


On our first visit to France’s Pont du Gard, the famous 2,000-year-old aqueduct near Nîmes, in 1996, we stood in envy as we looked down on the river below dotted with canoes and kayaks, promising ourselves that someday we, too, would be among them. It was a long time before that anticipated day arrived; in fact, not until my 80th birthday in June ’05 did we return.

On the river
We were in a rented house nearby with our daughter and her husband when the day was right for a ride on the river — comfortably warm with little wind. We packed sun cream, water bottles, hats and windbreakers and drove to the Canoës Collias rental center, just upstream from the Pont du Gard, where we were outfitted with life jackets and two canoes with large plastic containers to carry whatever gear we might want to keep dry.

We made arrangements at the rental office for the time and place to be picked up and taken back to our car following our journey, figuring a half day would be adequate for first-timers. We were traveling with the current, and, with little spring rain and runoff, the water level was rather low, making it necessary to steer around a few rocks and fallen trees. Occasionally we’d come upon places of fast water that sluiced us along, and once or twice we ran aground.

Several schoolchildren, perhaps on holiday, were part of our armada that day, they in colorful kayaks, maneuvering like water bugs, the boys playing dodge ’em to the girls’ squeals. Families pulled up at beaches to spread blankets and have lunch or a swim.

All too soon, as we rounded a bend, that glorious sight — the Pont du Gard — came into view, and we paddled right under it, waving to the gawkers high above as we had waved back so many years ago.
There at the next turn was our shuttle pickup to take us back. What a delightful way to spend a birthday!

Choosing a waterway
Soft-adventure travel has appeal to more visitors to France than ever, and not just to young backpackers. Families and agile seniors like me have discovered the fun and mild adventure of strapping on a life jacket, packing a picnic and taking off for a few hours or more in a canoe or kayak.

From the water, castles and châteaux that are hidden from the road appear, small villages line the banks, and sandy shores beg travelers to stop to bathe and rest.

With 8,500 kilometers of interconnected waterways in France, the hardest decision is choosing which rivers to explore and where to put in. The choices are so numerous that one would be hard put to recommend any particular one over another.

In addition to rivers, there are canals with locks, built over the centuries to facilitate transportation of produce to market, but the locks are not available to simple pleasure craft such as canoes or kayaks.

Perhaps the most paddled waters are found in the southwest of France, in the area bordered by the Pyrénées to the south and the lesser slopes of central France. Less popular is the Ill River in Alsace and the Mayenne in southern Brittany.

About four miles above Colmar in Alsace, you can put in at Illhausen and float with the current of the Ill through Strasbourg to Illebersmunster. The Mayenne River is more placid, running along peaceful farmland and quiet villages.

Other popular rivers include the Cèze, Dordogne, Drôme, Hérault, Orb, Sorgue, Tarn and Vézère; all have boat rental facilities.

Be prepared
Whatever area you choose, there are some important caveats to take note of, mostly of the practical nature. You’re advised to…

    • wear a life jacket
    • pack water
    • bring sun protection — sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses
    • bring a sweater or windbreaker for changes in weather
    • arrange for return transportation
    • wear a swimsuit if you plan to take a plunge

Visitor centers and river towns have lots of information about canoe rental stations in their areas, and you can get all your questions answered there regarding costs, length of journey, where to get picnic supplies and camping equipment and the return pickup.

Most places will supply you with the canoe, paddles, a life jacket and a large waterproof container to hold your jacket, wallet, picnic supplies, etc. Then you can tell them how far you intend to paddle and when you would like to be picked up. There’ll be a map there showing highlights along the river, including sights to visit and sandy beaches to stop at, and, most important of all, indicating the conditions of the river, which vary depending on the season and the amount of rainfall.

If you’re an experienced water traveler, you may want to seek active currents with extended rates of rapids early in the season, when snowmelt increases the water volume. You can find these in sections of the Ardèche River and in the waterways of the French Alps, but ask before you go on any waterway to be certain.

Day trips and family fun
Except for periods of peak interest in summer, it usually isn’t necessary to reserve a boat rental. Just go prepared to hop aboard and make your arrangements with any rental agent along the river or at the tourist bureau in a town with a river nearby. Going in the direction of the flow will mean an easier paddle, so you’ll want to check that out too.

Toddlers and nonswimmers excluded, children who can swim short distances and who are accompanied by adults take to river excursions with great enthusiasm. One-person kayaks are generally the most popular with children, although canoes for one or two persons are available, too. Picnic spots abound, as do delightful sandbars for bathing.

On a slow-flowing river, you can expect young children and older people to cover a realistic estimate of about two kilometers an hour, less with stops.

Vacations on the water
Extended-length canoe trips can be done independently, of course, but there are tour groups that organize them as well, and one generally signs up from home ahead of time. Several different rivers and many days are often involved and overnight and meal accommodations are provided. Inn-to-inn trips and those with streamside camping are among other available choices.

BattenKill Canoe, Ltd. (800/421-5268, www.battenkill.com), based in Arlington, Vermont, offers 12-day lodge-based trips from mid-May to the end of October, exploring the castles, caves and four rivers of southwest France for $2,575.

River Runners (phone +33 4 79 04 11 22, www.coureurs-rivieres.com) specializes in white-water canoeing, rafting and kayaking from mid-April to mid-July in the southern and northern French Alps for intermediate and advanced paddlers. For five days, the rate including lodging is 380 (near $488).

Sunrise Expeditions International (800/748-3730, www.sunrise-exp.com/france.html) in Simsbury, Connecticut, has 7-day inn-to-inn touring on the rivers Tarn and Lot, north of the Pyrénées foothills, on continuous-current and easy to moderate white water (class I-II), with no portages, for $3,650.

Headwater (www.headwater.com or call their U.S. agent, Breakaway Adventures, at 800/567-6286) offers canoeing holidays of varying lengths and difficulty as well as walking, cycling, cooking, painting and skiing trips. They note that all members of the party must be able to swim at least 50 meters clothed.

These are just a few tour companies to contact to get you started on your discovery. Many others can be found online by searching for “canoe adventures.” Whatever you decide, take it from this octogenarian: paddling down a French river on a bright spring or summer day can be the highlight of your France vacation.