Cruising the Canal du Midi, France
For a perfect balance of culture and relaxation, little beats a cruise along France’s Canal du Midi. Built in 1681, the 240km-long canal starts in Toulouse and meanders through the beautiful green Languedoc-Roussillon region to meet the Mediterranean Sea near Agde, where an exchange of goods would once have taken place between barge and seafaring ship. Today, no longer vital as a trading route, the canal’s architectural brilliance has been recognised with UNESCO heritage status, and it has become popular for pleasure cruising on everything from self-drive boats (available for hire via several companies) to floating hotels.
It would take significantly longer than your average leave allocation to cover the entire canal, so you need to choose a segment that appeals – we would recommend the strip between the picturesque cathedral town of Castelnaudary and Pont Cassatieres (doable in a week), largely because this takes in Carcassonne, a famed medieval town of fairytale turrets and winding streets.
A delight to explore, it was by no means the journey’s highlight. What made this a memorable holiday was the opportunity to visit out-of-the-way villages reached by untying the bicycles strapped to the boat’s roof and cycling through vineyards and fields of flowers; buying baguette and breakfast croissants from small bakeries and fresh produce from canal-side markets. We generally lunched on traditional specialities such as cassoulet (a stew of beans, duck confit and pork) at cafés along the way, while at night we’d tie up on a quiet stretch of the canal and cook something up with food from the market. A good break to have with a group of family or friends.
Fly: Gulf Air flies direct to Paris, then take a train to Toulouse. Arrange meeting point from there with the tour company.
Stay: Le Boat offers a range of self-drive boats and has its head office in England, so no language barrier when booking (+44 23 9222 4252, www.leboat.co.uk). Price varies depending on size of boat and duration.
The monsoon season might have hit India, but the temperate climate and warm rainfall makes for a delightful contrast to a parched Bahrain summer – especially if you happen to be cruising through the water ways of Kerala on a traditional rice barge, converted into a houseboat. Choose a boat with or without air conditioning (reflected in the price) and several routes, including a two-day backwater trip. As you wind through miles of thick tropical jungle, ice clinking in a glass of something chilled, you can take in villages, churches temples, and local fishermen who might sell your resident chef his catch of the day.
This will find its way onto your dinner plate in the form a delicious fish curry along with Kerala’s famed red rice. Candlelight flickers in the warm breeze and background music comes care of cicadas and the water lapping against the boat, which gently rocks you into a state of calm and later, in your cabin, to sleep.
Back on dry land there are several other options to explore in this verdant part of India before heading back to the heat of home. Top of our list is the Lake Palace Thekaddy Hotel, perched on a peninsula in Periyar Lake. Built in the early 19th century as a royal retreat, the hotel is now run by the Kerala Tourist Development Corporation, whose mission it is to preserve the area’s natural heritage.
Thus, instead of a high-rise hotel, it remains a six-bedroom lodge, with all its old-world charm and grace intact, while the surrounding sanctuary is packed with protected wildlife such as elephants, which you can watch from a safe distance on game-viewing boat trips.
It’s a great place for walking – on a guided trek through the thick evergreen forest, you’ll encounter chattering black macak monkeys and flying squirrels and, over afternoon tea on the veranda, you might hear the reverberating flap of heavy wings and look up to see a magnificent Great Hornbill, which is in its natural habitat here. You’ll soon be feeling like you are too.
Fly: Etihad Airways flies to Thiruvananthapuram via Abu Dhabi.
Stay: House Boats Kerala (www.keralahouseboat.org) organise trips from BD63 per day for two people on a one-bedroom boat. Lake Palace Thekkady Hotel (email email@example.com, www.ktdc.com). From Rs15,000 to Rs25,000 per person for two nights and three days – around BD120 and BD200 respectively.
On the water
Still not inspired? Give these water breaks a try.
A gulet trip in Turkey
Cruising the Turkish coastline on a traditional wooden boat is a relaxing and scenic way to spend a week, and you can make it an educational one too. As well as offering private gulet charters, Peter Sommer Travels (www.petersommer.com) offers accompanied historical tours out of Bodrum, taking in some of Turkey’s ancient sites, with an archaeologist on board as your guide.
Rome to Venice on a tall ship
Even if cruises generally leave you cold, the chance to sail on one of the largest working sailing ships in operation today, featuring 42 sails on five towering masts, will ignite your interest. Especially as the timeworn mode of transport comes with modern luxuries such as a swimming pool and spa, and the 11-day journey takes in places like Capri, Mount Etna (hike to the top optional) and several Croatian islands. Talk to Star Clipper Cruisers (+ 377 9797 8400, www.starclippercruisers.co.uk).