Friday 30 September 2011
High-speed getaway. We’re up early (the sun rises later here than in Chicago) to catch our cab to the train station and our 8:10 a.m. TGV to Toulouse, where we change from the high-speed rail to a standard train for our final leg of the journey. Our destination is Castelnaudary, a town on the Canal du Midi where our boat charter, Le Boat, has a base. After a bit of confusion, we climb aboard our 2nd-class train car and take our seats. For most of the ride, we have the entire front section of the car to ourselves and enjoy a relaxing five-hour journey through the French countryside, rolling corn fields, and vineyards dotted with windmills.
During our layover in Toulouse, we grab lunch from the Paul counter (ham and Camembert sandwiches on baguettes). Then a final hour on the train to Castelnaudary. They don’t always announce the stops, so when we reach our stop sooner than expected, we make a mad dash to get off the train.
We walk from the station to the Le Boat mooring at the Great Basin (about an eight-minute hike along the road) and after a quick check-in, we’re aboard our Vision 3 houseboat, setting up housekeeping for the next week.
Home floating home. The boat is amazing, and amazingly spacious compared to what we’re used to from our sailboat charters in the BVIs. This canal cruiser has three large staterooms, each with plenty of storage space, sleeping room for three, and a separate spacious bathroom, complete with a full shower! The beds are large (for a boat) and comfortable with plenty of blankets and there’s a flatscreen TV in every room, including the galley.
Up front is an incredibly well-appointed kitchen, with everything you need–from carving knives to egg cups and a salad-spinner–to comfortably cook and entertain for ten. The boat’s state-of-the-art controls include small screens displaying the battery charge, water tank levels etc. It’s equipped with a camera in front and back for maneuvering and “parking” the boat. The craft can be driven from inside (from a captain’s station near the galley) and outside from the upper deck. Upper steering can even be performed with a joystick!
And then there are the bathrooms. In my humble boat-chartering experience, I would simply describe them as palatial. Chances are, if you’ve ever been on a sailboat and had to use “the head,” you’ll understand. And if you’ve had to shower on a sailboat, you’ll really appreciate the upgrade we experienced on the canal. When we were cruising the British Virgin Islands, the bathroom situation involved a standard marine pump toilet–always a fragrant joy–and because the waste tanks are dumped at sea, paper products had to be discarded in the trash. Enough said. On top of all that, the shower is the entire bathroom itself. An efficient use of space but not the most pleasant set-up. The houseboat bathrooms, on the other hand, have electronic toilets–no pumping!–and the showers are separated by a shower door. Except for the size, you’d almost swear you were in a hotel. And with three bathrooms between the six of us, it was an ideal set-up–when it worked. (More on that to come.)
Our first French test. After a quick unpacking, a Le Boat representative comes aboard to give us the boat run-through. Ordinarily, learning the ins-and-outs, do’s-and-dont’s of a new charter boat is challenging enough; now we factor in a language barrier between the Le Boat staff and our captain. Karen earns the first glass of wine by acting as an extraordinary translator. (For weeks leading up to the trip, she’s been practicing with language tapes and conversing in French with anyone who will listen, and in this two-hour session it all pays off.) This is the first–but not the last–time when we call upon her French skills to get us out of a tricky situation.
The charter company surprises us with a wonderful gift basket filled with champagne, wine and canned cassoulet, as a thank you for renting one of their brand-spanking-new 1500-series boats. As the week goes on, and we experience a few issues that go hand-in-hand with breaking in a new boat, the good will of the gift basket becomes clear.
Once the boat run-through is complete, we take a test drive in the basin so Captain Rick can try his hand at the controls with the staff member standing by to answer questions. After we return to the dock, we break out bread and cheese before taking the 20-minute walk around the harbor and into town for dinner.
Our first meal in the South of France. Everyone has a terrific meal at La Belle Epoque, a family restaurant recommended by Le Boat. We dine on outstanding duck confit cassoulet (brimming with complex flavors), quiche with the creamy consistency of custard, grilled salmon, and steak. So near Minervois wine country, we enjoy the first of many bottles of a fantastic wine from the region.
Clicking on any of the photos above will take you to my Flickr site where you can see more photos from the trip.
Also, today is the last day for this month’s Le Boat photo contest. I’ve entered a few photos from this trip. The contest is through Facebook, so if you’re so inclined, I’d really appreciate your voting for my photos. The contest page is here; scroll to the bottom and you’ll currently find my photos around page 11. The grand prize is a boat charter in France. Thanks!