High spirits for a first-time boater on the River Charente, France

Like my seven companions, I arrived at the Le Boat base feeling excited but slightly out of my depth. None of us had any boating experience and I had only recently got my head around the concept of port and starboard. It was springtime and we had arrived in southwestern France to embark on a long weekend of cruising, traversing the beautiful River Charente.

We were immediately put at ease by Le Boat’s friendly team at their base in picturesque Jarnac. They introduced us to the two boats we would be calling home for the next few days, before taking us through everything we needed to know to make the most of our time on the river. I was assigned to the impressive Salsa A, a modern, comfortable craft, with double bedrooms, hot showers, and a spacious integrated kitchen with lounge and dining area.

After literally learning the ropes, we were ‘buoyed up’ and ready to begin our adventure. My crewmates and I took the lead out into open water, with our fellow travellers following us aboard their high-end Vision 4 craft. I found our steering wheel easy to handle and an engine lever, which controlled forwards and reverse, was something even the most spatially challenged amongst us could master.

Setting off, we found cruising this part of France to be simply delightful. The river water was incredibly clear, and the peaceful banks were lined with pretty pines, vineyards, and meadows. We were soon navigating our way through our first locks, which have been in use in the region since the early 19th Century. Here, there are no lock keepers, so that means working with your crewmates to activate the gate mechanisms. It was great fun watching my friends putting their newfound nautical skills into action, and by the end of the first day we all felt like confident boaters.

That afternoon we cruised into Saint Brice, where we would be spending our first night on board. From here, we made the short trip by car to Hotel de l’Yeuse, a stunning gothic style chateau-come-hotel in the traditional village of Châteaubernard-Cognac. With original features and ornate furnishing throughout, we experienced fine dining at its best, with authentic local dishes paired with regional wines.

The next morning, we were back on the water, with each of us taking turns behind the wheel, and by now tackling locks like seasoned pros. Our destination was the medieval town of Cognac, with its spectacular architecture, eclectic shopping, and renowned brandy distilleries. After a guided tour and a fascinating couple of hours at the arts museum, it was time to check out the home of Rémy Martin, the best-known brand of Cognac on earth. Here, our knowledgeable guide took us on a whirlwind history of the drink, which is as popular with the great and good now as it was in the late 18th Century. One too many samples of the good stuff later and we headed back to our boats to cook an onboard BBQ of great-tasting local meats and fish.

The next day involved more fine-cruising conditions, with my crewmates having now perfected the art of parallel parking our 15-metre-long floating home. With our inbuilt sound system piping out our favorite feel-good tunes, our next port of call was the charming village of Bourg Charente. Here we picked up bikes and took a lovely cycle ride through the heart of the Grande Champagne countryside, arriving at the Domaine Pautier, a wine growers and distillers. Owners Patrick and Nadine provided us with a tour of their wonderful property, before treating us to a delicious wine-tasting experience and rustic lunch.

Continuing our cruise, we arrived in the fairytale village of Saint-Simon, where we were introduced to its charismatic mayor, Jean Jacques Delage. Passionate about local history, he explained to us how the Charente River was once a major trading route, with traditional flat-bottomed boats carrying men, paper, cannon, spices, and brandy all over the region. That evening, Jean joined us on our boat’s sundeck, telling us his personal tales of the area, while we ate excellent local cheeses and charcuterie.

Our long weekend concluded with a gentle cruise back to the base at Jarnac, with anglers, cyclists, and walkers waving and smiling at us en route. In the short time we had spent on board, each of us had learned more about boating than we could possibly have imagined. I for one loved the sense of freedom and now feel confident that I could captain my own craft in any one of Le Boat’s 17 regions.