The Grand Union Canal leaves the Thames at Brentford in west London, and heads north to link up with the Midlands' network of waterways. En route, it provides a comprehensive guide to modern England. Skimming past such contrasting sites as London Zoo, the Chiltern hills and the pomp of Warwick Castle, the canal once played a significant part in the Industrial revolution, and is now an attractive tourist prospect. Canalboat Holidays (01327 340739, www.canalboat-holidays.co.uk) rents out narrowboats from its base in Weedon, Northamptonshire. A four-berth boat for one week costs between £525 and £889. Weltonfield's comparable vessels come in at between £512 and £1,024 (01327 842282, www.weltonfield.co.uk).
The Royal Canal was once a 90-mile gullet between the capital and the River Shannon, carrying 100,000 tons of goods (mainly whiskey) per year. It fell into disuse and was closed in 1960. Most of it is in the early stages of restoration, but a few of its limbs are now navigable – particularly the stretch between Dublin and Mullingar. It provides a unique waterway through some of Ireland's most picturesque countryside. Celtic Canal Cruises (00 353 506 21861, www.celticcanalcruisers.com), based in Tullamore, County Offaly, offers barge trips along the Grand Canal flowing into the River Shannon. A week costs from £548 for a barge accommodating four.
Cutting through the torso of the southern French landscape is the glorious Canal du Midi. This 225-mile network of navigable waterway manages to be both a civil engineering coup and a sun-soaked, wine-drenched route through some of the most diverse countryside in France. Built between 1667 and 1694 by the master engineer Paul Riquet, the canal provides an aquatic path between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It threads through the Pyrenees, the city of Carcassonne, and numerous wine regions.
Boating Holidays (01756 701200, www.boatingeurope. com) offers a one-week structured tour at around £1,000 in August, aboard a traditional French vessel, a Penichette, sleeping four to five people.
The Corinth Canal also offers a cruise with an exotic flavour, slicing through towering red rock. What is now an international naval passage took over 2,400 years to build from its first conception by Periander, tyrant of Corinth, in 602BC, until its construction in 1869. It is now the shortest and safest sea lane from the Ionian sea, the Adriatic and southern Italy en route to the eastern Med.
Exadas Travel ( www.bwnow. com/axis/corinthcanal, 00 30 741 080028) runs daily three-hour cruises from the city of Corinth into the canal for €20 (£12).
The Suez Canal opened in 1869, as work on the Corinth began. It was named for the city of Suez, which first opened as a commercial port in the seventh century. Its proximity to the Red Sea and the Sinai, as well as the fact that it constitutes an important part of many a Nile cruise, make it popular tourist territory – usually. Unfortunately, Swan Hellenic Cruises (0845 355 5111, www.swanhellenic.com) has cancelled all its cruises through Suez this year.
It is possible, though, to go under the Suez Canal, through the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel, seven miles north of the city of Suez. This is the two-mile-long subterranean link connecting Africa and Asia. The vehicle toll is 2.50 Egyptian pounds (£1.50).
The "Rideau Canal Waterway" (as it is officially known) links Ottawa and Kingston through the province of Ontario. It has remained largely unchanged since it was created by a British colonel 170 years ago. Only 10 per cent of the 125-mile corridor through woodland and farming country is actually man-made. Most of the locks are hand-operated.
Renting a canal boat is relatively easy in summer; in winter, the canal transforms into an ice-skating trail. Ayling's Boatyard in Merrickville (001 613 269 4969, www.aylingsboatyard. com) will rent large boats for C$1,135 (£460) per week, and Bay View Yacht Harbour in Portland (001 613 272 2787, www.bayviewyachtharbour.com) has two platoons, each accommodating nine people, available for C$800 (£320) or C$975 (£390) per week.Reuse content