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Years ago, I lazed on England’s Thames River for a week with three friends onboard a self-drive riverboat, one of the most memorable and relaxing trips of our lives. After getting over the worry of how to manage the boat (seeing a 12-year-old novice driving his family day after day certainly helped), we took everything at our own pace, tying up when we wanted, lingering in village pubs as long as we liked, reading, sleeping, strolling, watching the banks drift by, chatting with other boaters and bicycling into countryside that could easily have figured in the pastoral parts of “Lord of the Rings.”
Traveling by self-drive boat, you feel you’re a part of the towns and villages along your route — not a mere visitor — and there are so many possible docking points that you can choose an itinerary to suit your interests. The only downside is tearing yourself away at the end from a boat that has become home.
With more than 40 years of making people as happy and relaxed as we were, U.K.-based Le Boat operates pretty much the way a car rental company does, except that clients don’t even need a driver’s license to rent its boats. The company offers instruction to first-timers and provides suggested itineraries with loads of information. But the choice of itinerary and destination is ultimately left to the boaters.
Le Boat is the biggest company of its kind in Europe, with a fleet of some 900 boats (check out the various deck plans online) and a network of more than 37 departure bases across eight European countries. Travelers can arrange any number of cruises, from a three-day sailing to a three-week voyage, cruising one-way or roundtrip.
For those who would prefer to travel with others, Le Boat offers a boating flotilla program in Italy, where groups of vacationers in separate boats can get together and follow a professional guide through various ports.
The company just put out a new Canal Du Midi guide, a wine lover’s dream and a UNESCO-listed waterway. Client can take a self-skippered tour through the coastal region of Languedoc-Roussillon — which produces a third of France’s wines — sightseeing in the medieval town of Carcassonne, biking along the canal from the village of Villepinte and exploring the charm of Capestang while enjoying the region’s habit-forming honey-almond pastries. Le Boat’s brochure provides information on waterside attractions, restaurants, local markets and vineyards; it’s free and available for download from the company’s website.