Quaint villages pass you by, one after the other. Rolling fields of vineyards seem to flow endlessly, row after row leading away from the water’s edge. You pass under yet another medieval stone bridge and wait for the water to rise, or fall, so that you may continue your journey.
This is the world of canal cruising, and in France, it has become an increasingly popular way to travel. Each summer, in particular, the canals come alive with floating hotels and hired boats, all making their way slowly along the narrow waterways. As frequent travelers to France over the past 20 years, a cruise on a canal was something we still hadn’t done but was in our plans. When an opportunity arose to do a canal cruise on the Canal du Midi in southern France, we couldn’t resist. When we realized we would be on board the Savannah, the excitement quickly escalated.
What is the Savannah?
The Savannah is a 180 ton hotel barge who began her seafaring life as a purpose-built cargo ship, designed specifically to fit the Canal du Midi. Following many years of varied ownership and condition, current owner and captain, Adrien Bramoullé has lovingly restored her.
Captain Bramoullé’s voice is filled with pride when he talks about the restoration he has undertaken. Mirroring the dark mahogany and ceramic tiles that were used on the barge when she was a showroom for well known brand l’Occitane de Provence, the barge has a modern, luxurious feel, whilst remaining visually sympathetic to its history.
The trip commenced and concluded in Narbonne, France where we were picked up from our hotel and transported to the Savannah mooring on the Canal du Midi. Depending on where the boat has completed her journey from the previous trip will determine whether you cruise up or down the canal. Whilst I am quite sure this would make no difference at all to most people (if they even knew), I loved that we went up the canal, allowing us to see the full beauty of the locks and their impressive gates.
Travelling at 4km per hour, the cruise is a slow and steady one. Each evening, Captain Bramoullé moored the Savannah at country locations, preferring the quieter and more picturesque aspects rather than the busier, more commercial ports. Our overnight locations along the route were the locks Aiguille, Marseillette, Villedubert, Ladouce, Villeseque, and Beteille.
The seven day/six night cruise aboard the Savannah includes all meals (including any meals that form part of onshore activities), drinks, activities, and transport to and from your pickup address in Narbonne. Personal costs and gratuities are additional.
Onboard the Savannah
The Savannah barge is a standout on the Canal du Midi. A quick glance at her bright red exterior draws you in. There is no mistaking that this 100 year old barge looks impressive. Onboard, the experience is amplified. With bright shiny brass and dark mahogany fit-out, her tangible impact is immediate. Fresh flowers on the terracotta tiled upper deck add a personal touch, and tealight candles sit ready to twinkle as the sun sets each evening.
As we boarded the Savannah for the first time, there was an air of magic. June, one of the wonderful crew members, flashed us a cheeky smile that remained present for the entire trip. With a dry wit, she’s quick to get involved with the guests and quickly adapted to everyone’s style, constantly throwing out one liners.. “Everything on here is good for you”, she says. Before we knew it, she had an ice cold glass of French champagne in our hands. I knew we were going to get along just fine!
The afternoon of the first day was spent meeting the other guests. For us, we were all strangers, coming together from various parts of the USA and Australia. Often, this cruise is taken by groups of friends and family, who see it as a great opportunity to spend some quality time together.
Stepping below the upper deck brought fresh gasps. This was our secret paradise, a world that is hidden from everyone else. French designer furniture, an open bar filled with premium liquor, more fresh flowers, and beautifully appointed cabins transformed us to another world. At this point, it’s reasonable to question whether you are really in a dream. I took a peek outside through the original round brass portholes, just to be sure I wasn’t.
Perhaps the most telling sign of her beauty and uniqueness on this waterway came from those who aren’t privy to her inner sanctum. We saw the longing looks coming from those who have hired boats for their own self-guided cruise along the canal. To those who came to watch the boats pass through the locks, she was a rose amongst the thorns.
Pure envy was etched on the faces of those who could only wish they had the same opportunity as us. They shouted out, “Tough life” and “Have a drink for me”. There were always shouts of “What a beautiful boat”. As guests, we were instantly and acutely aware of just how special this boat was. It sounds pretentious, but for just a moment, I was happy to be feeling that way.
The Savannah crew
With only six guests on board the Savannah, a permanent crew of three provides for an exceptional level of service and attention. With so much luxury around on this boat, it’s hard to think that it could increase. When you are not used to having people look after your every move, it can either be overwhelming or at worst, irritating. This wasn’t the case here, however, with all crew willing to take their lead from individuals, offering as much (or as little) service and attention as is required.
The Savannah is 30 metres long and 5 metres wide, with a design that allows for as much space as possible in all the important areas, especially the cabins. There are three double cabins and a single occupancy cabin available.
One cabin, with access only from the top deck of the barge, is located at the front of the barge. Two other cabins are accessed from the inside via the salon. All are beautifully appointed, with king size beds and an array of fluffy cushions and pillows that make having a cup of tea or reading in bed the perfect thing to do.
A small cupboard and shelves assisted with storing the contents of our luggage. Soft, plush carpet underfoot gives the room a feeling of warmth. Each cabin has its own bathroom, complete with full height shower offering excellent water pressure and heat, two of my favorite things. In another nod to the Savannah’s past, his and hers l’Occitane toiletries are also provided. For those hot times of the year, all cabins are also air conditioned.
Other Savannah facilities
Whilst I happily spent as much time as possible on the upper deck of the Savannah, the layout and design of the barge caters for guests in many other ways. The cabins are spacious enough to spend time there during the day if resting or reading is of interest.
The upper deck has deck chairs, cushions and plenty of general seating areas. This allows for meals to be eaten here, computers to be used, card games to be played, and papers to be read. Or, if you simply want to watch the world go by, then there are plenty of spaces to accommodate you.
Downstairs, a dining room offsets the open plan kitchen. Here you can also spend time with Valérie and learn more about where the food comes from, or how you might cook it yourself.
My favourite room of all was the salon, a large, open and inviting space, in the centre of the boat. It’s like a library merged hip cafe, with its great selection of books and the classical music that can be heard playing gently in the background.
Equally, it feels like an incredibly upmarket, swanky bar where you could ask the barman for any top shelf liquor and you’d almost be certain of finding it here. If not, Captain Bramoullé will surely come to the rescue and source it for you. With Christian Lacroix furniture, surrounded by more mahogany cabinetry, it’s easy to get lost in your thoughts here. As I lounged on a leather sofa, sipping on a glass of French champagne, I thought I was the luckiest person in the world at that moment.
When cruising aboard the Savannah, the overuse of descriptive words can become common. It feels as though we thought everything is amazing, incredible, beautiful and stunning. It’s honestly hard not to use these types of words however when describing the food. Delicious is another one that springs to mind.
Chef Valérie Jarlet is the chief conspirator when the subject turns to food, creating wonderful meals each and every day. With a daily ritual of sourcing fresh bread and pastries from local artisan boulangeries through to finding only the best and freshest local produce, going hungry was never going to be an option. In fact, on most days, we could be individually and collectively heard saying “not more food” or “remember, we’ve still got dessert coming!”Each day, the meals were carefully designed and prepared, offering a chance to eat traditional French cuisine and exploring much of what the local region had to offer. Despite Valérie proudly advising us at the final meal of the cruise that we had collectively eaten 5 kilograms of butter and 6 litres of cream, the food was overall healthy, with organic fresh fruits, vegetables, and proteins part of their food philosophy.
Lazing the day away on a barge such as this would be easy for many to do. Personally, I’d go a little crazy if I had to sit around all day. With daily cruise time complemented by planned onshore activities, it provided just the right balance between relaxation and adventure. Of course, all of this is optional, so if you need to reduce the pace, the choice is all yours.
During our week aboard, we were exposed to a variety of excursions. Rather than attend large, heavily populated destinations, the locations and types of activity provided for more personal attention, further complementing the special attention we were already receiving onboard. From family owned wineries and chateaux to a chef-lead visit to a market to buy our dinner ingredients, we were spoilt for choice. In addition, private guided tours of cathedrals and other important historical cities and monuments added to our cultural learning.Private transfers are provided to and from all activities.
The only change to this program was perhaps one of my favorite activities during the week. On one of the days, we were able to drive vintage Citroen 2CVs. What an absolute treat and so much fun. If there was ever an image of France in my mind, it would be of driving a Citroen 2CV through a vineyard. We got to do this and more, driving country roads with the wind in our hair, up and down hills topped with fairytale villages and driving through the gates of a French chateau.
The pace at which the barge travels means that you can take advantage of walking or cycling alongside the canals on the towpaths. Depending on your level of fitness, exercise can be planned according to the the distance between locks as this is where access on and off the barge is easiest. The locks can be only a few hundred metres apart or several kilometres, allowing guests to choose how much, or how little exercise they get. It’s definitely worth doing as there are some cute villages to explore and the countryside surrounding the canals is beautiful.
Why is the Savannah different?
Traveling on the Savannah is different to other mainstream barges in so many ways. There are hardly any barges as old as the Savannah that are left on these waterways. Also, the superficial (yet still important) aspects of the Savannah are not the only things that set her apart.
When it comes to the Savannah, Captain Bramoullé offers an exceptional experience, underpinned by the most discerning customer service I’ve seen for some time. He and his crew truly care about the experience they are providing, constantly seeking affirmation through various ways that they are hitting the mark with each and every guest. There is no “collective we” and no unilaterally applied process or decision made that affects all passengers, without ensuring, one by one that everyone is happy.
Minor adjustments and tweaks are made to itineraries, menus, and timelines where necessary. Conversations are had with guests to get to know them better, and in doing so, they understand why the guests are on board, what they are expecting and then in turn, how to deliver the ultimate experience. All crew members are multi-skilled, ensuring that all processes not only run smoothly, but they are all able to deliver the same, consistent experience.
They embody everything about local community and it doesn’t just extend to buying from the same local providers. In Carcassone, we were treated to some samples of nougat by a local sweet maker. Whilst everyone was eating, I watched the Captain go back into the store to purchase some of his product. He later told me that he took it back to his chef to get her to experiment with this new ingredient.
I watched one morning as Valérie took cups of coffee to the canal lock-masters, and another time where they were treated to some croissants. This might seem normal behaviour to them, but I can assure you, it is not widespread. It was heartwarming to say the least.
It’s different because it is an authentic experience. Guests book this boat for many reasons. Some, because it continues the luxurious way of living they are used to. For many, however, it’s the trip of a lifetime, a special time in their lives to be a part of something that is anything but normal or common in their lives. It is this point that underpins one of the critically different aspects of coming on board this barge. Captain Bramoullé is flexible, truly flexible, in his thinking and his delivery of his service. This is no “one size fits all” offer.
Armed with as much information as he can get in advance of a guests’ trip, he tailors whole trips, or part thereof, according to their requirements. From having professional Tour de France bicycles for bike loving guests, to helicopter rides, an impromptu concert, fishing expeditions and food themes, there appears to be almost no limit to what he will do and the lengths he will go to satisfy his customers.
With a strong eye for detail, and an obsession with perfection, he delivers his experience in a precise, well co-ordinated, professional manner, but in a way that never feels overpowering.
The overall Savannah experience
Our experience onboard the Savannah will stay with us for quite some time, for all the right reasons. I will admit to talking about and reliving the week long cruise still, some four weeks after we sadly had to depart. In the week immediately after our trip, we found ourselves every day saying “This time last week we were doing x”.
We’ve been asked since by many people, “Would we go again?”. The answer is a resounding yes, if we had the chance.
It was excellent to get to know more about a part of France that is relatively unknown and underrated. Here, in this region, there aren’t the hordes of visitors that much of France experiences. As a result, experiences can be more personal, more genuine and certainly less expensive.
Whilst the wines of the Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire, and Champagne regions attract all the attention, winemakers in this area are producing amazing wines at a fraction of the cost. It’s a catch 22 when I recommend trips such as this. I feel so happy to support them but know that one day, everyone else might catch on to our little secret.
The trip exceeded every expectation on every level and I am happy to give it my strongest possible recommendation. This feeling, I know, was also supported by our fellow guests. All of us came from different parts of the world and arrived with our own reasons for being there. We’re not “bucket list” kind of people, but with the experience of a week aboard the Savannah, cruising along the Canal du Midi, I can honestly say that whatever your preferred terms that you use for future travel destinations, be sure to add a trip aboard the Savannah to it.
Kerri McConnel is a travel writer and photographer for The Fit Traveller.