Canal boat holidays: The towpath to enlightenment

Whether you fancy a city break abroad or a wildlife-watching trip in Scotland, canals are the perfect places to find peace and pleasure, says Lucy Gillmore

For real relaxation and appreciation of the good things in life, slow down. And what could be more relaxing than chugging gently along a canal on a narrowboat?

Britain is laced with a network of watery highways that are part of our industrial heritage. The boats that once carted coal are now enjoying a new lease of life as old-fashioned pleasure cruisers. Further afield, cities such as Venice and Amsterdam are famously laced with picturesque canals. Plenty of specialists will help you on your way, including Viking Afloat (0330 333 0590; viking-afloat.com), Waterways Holidays (01252 796400; waterwaysholidays.com), Drifters (0844 984 0322; drifters.co.uk) and Blakes (0844 856 7060; blakes.co.uk).

Celtic connection

The jaunty Fingal of Caledonia (01397 772167; fingal-cruising.co.uk) is an old Belgian barge and a regular sight on the Caledonian Canal, connecting a string of lochs across northwest Scotland from Fort William in the west to Inverness in the east. This floating activity centre offers walking, wildlifewatching, canoeing and cycling. There is still space on a Highland Hillwalking cruise departing Inverness this Saturday, 1 September, price £715 per person based on two sharing, including all meals. She will be joined next year by a sister barge, the Ros Crana. Her first voyage on 4 May 2013 is already full, but there is still availability for the rest of the season.

Going nowhere fast

HomeAway.co.uk (0208 827 1971; holidayrentals.co.uk) has a couple of stationary houseboats in Amsterdam. The one-bedroom Medicijnman (Medicine Man) is more than 100 years old and was transformed into an elegant houseboat in the 1950s (sleeps four, £203 per night). The Santa Cruz, meanwhile, is a bijou bolthole for two on the historic and beautiful Brouwersgracht (£141 a night). In west London, meanwhile, you can escape the city’s busy streets on Mallards (holidaylettings.co.uk), a wooden houseboat on a private mooring in Little Venice. Lolling on deck you can feed the swans, geese, coots, mallards and cormorants on the water. From £850 per week, sleeps four.

Gourmet odyssey

European Waterways (01753 598555; gobarging.com) has a fleet of 21 luxury hotel barges plying the inland waterways of Europe. The television chef Rick Stein travelled aboard two of the firm’s prettiest hotel barges, the Anjodi and Rosa, for his series French Odyssey. They ply the Canal des Deux Mers and the Canal du Midi, connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

To follow in his wake, jump aboard the eight-passenger Anjodi, a classic Dutch barge with traditional wooden panelling, shiny brass and a sun deck with sunken Jacuzzi. Charter the whole boat on a Canal du Midi wine-appreciation cruise for £2,569 per person per week, based on eight guests sharing.

Go green

Castle Narrowboats (01873 830001; castlenarrowboats.co.uk) in Wales is the only company in the UK to offer electric narrowboats for its holidays on the “Mon and Brec”, the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, which for 200 years has been wending its way through the Brecon Beacons National Park. This environmentally friendly option is also quieter than diesel-powered boats. The barges can cover 18 miles on a single charge so you don’t have to recharge every night.

The moorings for the charging points are reserved for electric boats and are conveniently located close to local amenities. A week on the four-berth Beaumaris Castle in September costs £895.

Water babies

Hoseasons’ (0844 847 1100; hoseasons.co.uk) family-friendly narrowboat on the Oxford and Grand Union canals is based on the children’s book series Muddy Waters.The hand-painted and newly refurbished Muddy Waters boat has been decked out with a play den for children complete with soft beanbag chairs, TV and DVD which can accommodate Xbox/ PlayStation/Wii. Adults can chill out at the other end of the boat. A week’s stay starts from £1,006, for up to eight guests. Boat departure from Lower Heyford near Oxford.

On your bike

One joy of a canal holiday is exploring the surroundings by bicycle. Utracks (0845 241 7599; utracks.com) has a self-guided eight-day boat trip through north-east Italy. Veneto Bike & Boat involves travelling by, and sleeping on, the barge and cycling through the day. The holiday starts in Venice before moving on to Lombardia and Emilia- Romagna taking in the Renaissance town of Mantova and the walled city of Ferrara, with time to explore the nature reserve of the Po Delta. Departures until the end of October; from £850 per person full board.

And for landlubbers...

The Vivat Trust (0845 0900194; vivat-trust.org) has restored seven lock-keeper’s cottages as holiday lets, beside the Caledonian Canal and the Crinan Canal in Argyll. A three-night break in Bannatyne cottage in Argyll, sleeping four, costs from £502.

The elegant 19th-century Chateau de la Prade (00 33 4 68 78 03 99; chateaulaprade.fr) in Languedoc-Rousillon lounges beside the sultry Canal du Midi and is surrounded by a large garden. Doubles from €95, B&B.

Splash out on a damask-strewn bed in the decadent Ca Maria Adele in Venice which comes with its own private landing stage on the canal. Sumptuous Baroque design and Murano chandeliers as standard. Double rooms from €260, B&B (00 39 041 52 03078; camariaadele.it).

Amsterdam’s Canal House (00 31 20 622 5182; canalhouse.nl) stands on the banks of the Kaizersgracht in a row of 17th-century merchant’s houses. Doubles from €260, B&B. The True Heart (01452 740504; thetrueheart.co.uk) in the Cotswold village of Frampton-on-Severn, was once the village pub but is now a charming B&B with views of the Gloucester/Sharpness Canal. Doubles from £80, B&B.

Who said that?

“I have only to close my eyes, cross the iron footbridge to the tow-path, take the barge through the short brick tunnel and there I stand in Eden again." From Horae Canonicae V, by W. H. Auden

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” From Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

“Of all the creatures of commercial enterprise, a canal barge is by far the most delightful to consider.” From An Inland Voyage by Robert Louis Stevenson

Insider information

Black Prince provided the narrowboat for Pleasance Theatre Trust’s Tall Tales from the Riverbanks tour from London to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. A crew of comedians skippered the boat along the UK waterways.

“They were like 21st-century minstrels. They helped to spread the message that it’s a brilliant way to discover gorgeous countryside.”

John Lucas, Black Prince Holidays (01527 575115; black-prince.com).

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