Be the captain of your own ship

DEBBIE McKINSTRY explores the waterways of Alsace in a self-drive boat.

Choosing a suitable holiday the whole family will enjoy can sometimes be a hit-and-miss experience. The decision to go on a self-drive boating holiday was easy, with everyone excited about the prospect of cruising the waterways of France.

The idea of being the captain of our own boat, unpacking once and living on the boat was very appealing. To top it off, you don’t need a licence or experience—you just need to know how to hold a straight line. With so many interesting and beautiful canals to cruise on, the most difficult part of the whole trip was choosing the itinerary we were most interested in.

There are many cruise operators but we decided on a holiday with Le Boat, Europe’s largest operator of self-drive boating holidays with a huge range of itineraries.

The route that caught our eye was a seven-day, one-way Alsace experience from Hesse to Boofzheim on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin. With Germany being France’s closest neighbour in this region, we thought this would be a good way to experience both cultures.



Pre-cruise arrangements
Choosing a boat suitable for a family of three was made easy with the expert guidance of the Le Boat team who also assisted with all the necessary pre-cruise arrangements including insurance and taxi transfers to and from our departure and arrival ports.

“Racing alongside the boat is an unforgettable experience.”

For our cruise we chose the sleek, modern 39-foot Caprice. The boat came with all the amenities needed to make our trip as comfortable as possible. Everything you could possibly need is provided and you can choose and pre-order from a range of food, snack and wine options to help with the initial set-up of the boat. Extras like kayaks, bikes, a barbecue, and umbrellas for the upper deck are also available for rent. I would highly recommend hiring bikes.



Hesse to Niderviller
Our trip starts in Strasbourg where the team at Le Boat have arranged a taxi to collect us and transport us to the harbour in Hesse. After attending a safety briefing on the rules and regulations of the French waterways, we take possession of our home for the next seven days. With 104 kilometres and 43 écluses (locks) to navigate, we can’t wait to be on our way. We leave the harbour and head for Niderviller where we spend our first night. On arrival, we moor in the harbour, which has showers and washing facilities. We take to the streets on our bikes and explore. On the way we meet a few friendly cows and their calves and discover the Faïencerie de Niderviller, one of the most famous French earthenware manufacturers, which has been located in the area since 1735.

WHAT TO DO AND SEE
Visit Faïencerie de Niderviller, 2 rue de le Faïencerie. Have a meal at Auberge du Tannenheim, next to the harbour at 3 rue de Lorraine, and experience true Alsatian cuisine.




Niderviller to Saverne
Heading out of Niderviller towards the Moselle Valley we approach the Niderviller and Arzviller tunnels. Going through the one-way tunnels is an amazing experience. With the yellow lights inside and the searchlight of the boat, there is something magical about these tunnels; if only they could tell us all their history. The Niderviller Tunnel is 475 metres long and the Arzviller Tunnel is 2.3 kilometres long with a depth of 2.7 metres.

Leaving the Moselle Valley and still on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, we start going down towards the Rhine and towards Arzviller and the Saint-Louis-Arzviller inclined plane (boat lift). The inclined plane opened in 1969 and replaced 17 écluses that stretched a distance of four kilometres and took eight hours to navigate. Boats travel up and down the slope in a 41 metre-long water-filled steel caisson, giving a level change of 44.5 metres. You stay in your boat while descending in fewer than 20 minutes. Once we reach the bottom of the lift, we move out of the container and continue down the canal towards Saverne. Now it is time to face the firsté cluse of the cruise. It is with nervous excitement that we wait for the traffic light to turn green, allowing us to enter the écluse. Remembering the rules of operation—pull the blue rod up to close and open the écluse, and the red one is the emergency alarm—my son navigates the system like a professional.

With the first écluse done, we pass through the picturesque village of Lutzelbourg with its quayside moorings and cliff-top castle ruins. A few more écluses follow and the scenery as we head towards Saverne is just beautiful. Cruising down the canal is peaceful with the occasional interruption of swans and cygnets going past.

The entrance to Saverne is superb as the canal curves around the Château de Rohan allowing you to admire it from every angle. Before you can go past the chateau to get to the moorings, you have to navigate the écluse entering the town. It is extremely deep, and navigating it is fascinating for both locals and tourists.

Saverne is known as the city of roses and has a magnificent rose garden with no less than 1300 different varieties. A rose festival takes place in June.

After mooring in front of the Château de Rohan we take to the road with our bikes to explore the town. The German influence in the area is evident in the buildings and surrounding architecture. The streets are lined with picturesque buildings and flowerboxes. Many different restaurants are recommended by various locals and we decide to dine at Caveau de l’Escale (escale-saverne.fr). With yet another sensational meal under our belts and an introduction to tarte flambée, better known as Alsatian pizza, we go to bed happy.

“...my son navigates the system like a professional.” (left)
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
Lutzelbourg: Visit local glassmaker Serge Würm and see how he makes beautiful Bohemian cut glass wine goblets, vases and chandeliers (cristal-wurm. com). Have a meal at the local watering hole, Bierstub d’Eselbahn, 2 rue de Phalsbourg. Saverne: Go and see the Carabin crystal maker (52 Grand Rue) or the Récollets Cloister (rue Poincaré). Before leaving town, visit the Château du Haut Barr, better known as The Eye of Alsace, which overlooks the whole Alsace plain. For more information on things to do and see in Saverne, visit the tourist office in the centre of town (tourisme-saverne.fr).

Saverne to Hochfelden
From Saverne we head towards Hochfelden. The cruise from here is breathtakingly beautiful as you travel through forest. The area is lush and there are swans with cygnets everywhere. We are very surprised to be greeted by the sound of cuckoos throughout the forest. As there is a bike path all the way along the canal, my son and I decide to cycle down the path towards Hochfelden and the next écluse while my husband cruises down the canal. Racing alongside the boat is an unforgettable experience. Being out in the fresh air and taking in the sights is so rewarding.

Along the canal there are many natural moorings and we choose one just outside Hochfelden. The town is famous for its brewery that has been there since 870 AD. The brewery, still on the original site, is owned by the eighth generation of the Haag family.

Hochfelden to Strasbourg
From Hochfelden we continue our journey towards the jewel in the crown, Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace. Still on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, we cross over the mighty Rhine River. As we enter Strasbourg the scenery changes from natural beauty to beauty of a different kind: architecture. The city is not only famous for its gastronomy and Alsatian wines, it is also the home of the European Parliament; its impressive building can be seen from the canal. It is a lively city with myriad things to do and visit, from the finest restaurants and museums to concert halls and churches.

Like many major European cities, Strasbourg is home to many world-renowned heritage sites, the most famous of these being the Petite France district with its picturesque buildings with flowerboxes and the Notre-Dame Cathedral. The cathedral is an absolute masterpiece of Gothic art. The 142-metre-high spire towers up into the sky and the cathedral was the highest edifice in Christianity until the 19th century. The cathedral still cuts an impressive figure in the city skyline. It is as impressive inside as it is outside; the astronomical clock, built in the Renaissance period and with a mechanism dating back to 1842, is a masterpiece in itself. The procession of the Apostles can be admired daily from 12.30pm. It is worth taking a guided tour of the cathedral as there is so much to see and nothing should be missed.

There are several mooring areas and harbours in and around Strasbourg that are accessible to self-drive boaters. It is forbidden to enter the Petite France area and its immediate surrounds unless you are on an organised, approved boat tour. When in Strasbourg take time to fill up your water tank and recharge the boat batteries for the final leg of the cruise.

“The German influence in the area is evident in the buildings and surrounding architecture.”


THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Take a guided tour of Notre-Dame Cathedral (cathedrale-strasbourg.fr). Go on a boat tour of La Petite France and the tanners quarter. For more information on what to see and do in Strasbourg, visit tourisme-alsace.com.








Strasbourg to Boofzheim
It’s with a heavy heart that we leave Strasbourg on the final leg of our incredible boating holiday. As we head towards Boofzheim we cruise past Obenheim and then Plobsheim, known for its impressive Notre-Dame du Chêne chapel built in 1454. We finish our cruise with the last écluse to navigate through before entering Boofzheim’s unassuming harbour. Boofzheim is a typical Alsatian village with timbered houses dating back to the eighteenth century and a church in the middle of town.

Now the realisation sets in that we have come to the end of our amazing boating holiday. With the bags packed and ready for our departure the next morning, it’s time for our last dinner in Alsace. There are only two restaurants in Boofzheim and we choose Auberge de la Treille (14 route de Rhinau). The town is a few kilometres from the harbour and theMeteorowners of the restaurant inform us that they’ll collect us from the boat and return us after the meal. Now that’s service!

With 104 kilometres travelled and 43 écluses opened and closed, the consensus amongst the travellers is, come rain or shine, a self-drive boating holiday is a must for any couple’s or family’s bucket list. It was an unforgettable, relaxing experience and we loved every minute of it. For more information on self-drive boating holidays and the various itineraries, visit leboat.com.au



A FEW THINGS TO NOTE
• Number one rule: Do not overpack! Space on the boat is limited and you do not want to feel cramped
• Plan your trip to get most out of the area
• Washing and drying facilities are available at most villages or moorings
• Do hire bikes; they are great to get around on and also to do the morning boulangerie run
• Do not buy too many groceries at once as there are many fresh food markets and excellent restaurants along the way
• Most importantly, sit back, relax and enjoy being the captain of your own ship!


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Author
Debbie McKinstry is the Publishing Editor of Provincial Living Magazine. Debbie loves European culture and is especially passionate about France and the provincial way of life.