It’s not exactly adrenaline-junky stuff but the “slow boat” vacation is in fact the perfect way to relax while still going somewhere, even if the top speed is rather gentle. If you like the idyllic sound of splashing water and quiet moments there’s plenty of those. And it can be tailored to suit groups of any size from the solo traveler, to couples, families and even large groups. It also takes you places. The picturesque, quaint canals of Europe offer new perspectives to over-satiated locations while in Africa and Asia you can rub shoulders with local cultures that use the rivers as a form of transport where roads are either hideous or non-existent. Sit back and watch the ever-changing countryside slide by or utilize the many opportunities to go ashore and explore.
Canal and River Cruising Basics
Canal and river trips do differ. While they both operate on inland waterways, canal journeys are more leisurely and the distance covered can be small with frequent stops for walking, cycling, village rambles and the odd pint. River cruises cover more distance, move faster and focus on itineraries away from the boat. Of course if you are self-motoring the vacations can be as long and unplanned as you like.
Whatever your choice, both canals and rivers follow the contours of the land so the scenery is always varied. And both kinds of boating are far from uneventful. On canals it’s surprising how much exercise you get operating locks or moveable bridges. This breaks up the journey and usually involves meeting and helping people from other boats and being helped in return. On river cruises you’ll be plied with food and wine plus make port at least once daily to allow you to explore.
Canal and River Cruising - Beginners
Most beginners will probably prefer to take a cruise than drive themselves. A river cruise is akin to a floating hotel with meals provided, and you are neither expected nor permitted to help. Although some are more luxurious than others – for example in South America accommodation is a BYO hammock you sling on the deck and there may or may not be toilets.
Canal boats also have skippered options where an expert crew does everything from cook meals to negotiating those tricky locks if you are a little wary. If you do want to be independent there are calmer waterways where there are fewer locks or where they are operated electrically or by staff. In any case most canal hire firms give instructions to beginners; who after a short demonstration can usually handle even a large boat. You do not need formal qualifications or even boating experience. River boating is different depending on the size of the vessel.
For your first outing as a self-driving entity consider an “out and back” route so there is no commitment to a schedule - do the distance or number of locks that suit then turn back. Also select waterways with plenty of waterside pubs and towns to break up the boating hours, or do a 1-2 day journey before attempting week long or longer trips. If you are looking at cruises stick closer to home first before venturing onto the Mekong or the Amazon.
Canal and River Cruising - Advanced
Individuals with more experience or a desire for complete freedom will feel more comfortable hiring, skippering or even purchasing their own boat. It is also possible to buy a timeshare in a boat. This way you can be more flexible about where and when you travel and where to stop.
Experienced canal boaters usually prefer hilly routes with more locks as they see the activity and skill as an attraction. They can also manage with far less crew - couples can easily navigate and work the locks themselves and individuals could consider going it alone - although some companies do not hire to solo travelers.
Those who’ve spent a bit of time at the helm are probably more prepared to do so and select one-way trips that require more boating hours per day or a cruising ring that takes in several canals or rivers and thus covers new ground. If you’ve done some ‘easy’ boat trips in Europe consider a pearler next time around like the Yangtze in China or a bash at North America’s Great – and long - Loop.