Earlier this month, Tom, my in-laws, Dagny, and I spent a week on a boat cruising along the Charente River in southwest France. It’s our third self-drive boating vacation with Nicols and is a relaxing, fun way to spend time with friends and family. A boating trip like this shows you France’s smaller towns from a unique vantage point you wouldn’t get from staying in a hotel or apartment. The best part is no special boating license or experience is required. Let me explain why we love this type of trip and tell you all about what to expect. Be sure to check out my videos of the experience which I’ve included at the end of this post.
NOTE: We’ve done two canal boating trips like this before so please check out the detailed content about canal cruising in Alsace and the Canal du Midi I’ve already written all linked here.
If you’re curious about what a Charente River cruising trip is like, you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to give you a bit of an overview of our trip in this post, but I recommend that you watch my travel vlog at the end to show you exactly what it’s like on the river.
There are several companies that offer self-drive boating vacations around France and other parts of Europe that don’t require a boating permit or any boating experience. The company we’ve cruised with all three times is Nicols. They’re fab and the staff at the Sireuil base was especially welcoming and helpful.
All of the boats are 100% made in France (near where I live actually), and depending on the size can accommodate 2-12 people. Nicols has 27 bases in France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Germany providing a variety of Europe canal/river cruise experiences depending on what you’re after.
The concept is simple. You rent a canal/river boat for a couple of days all the way up to a week or more if you so choose, arrive at the base with your friends and family, learn all you need to know from the Nicols staff, stock up on good food and wine before you leave, and then you’re off. You then make your way down the waterway at your leisure so it’s a 100% DIY kind of trip. Simply put, the boat is your hotel and car for the week.
You can stop when and wherever you please for however long you’d like. Stop to play tourist, go for a walk, eat (on the boat or at a restaurant), or just relax. You have the option of docking for the evening in one of the ports along the way or in nature on the side of the waterway. It’s completely up to you how you spend your time.
Some days, we spent the entire morning cruising so we could make it to a specific town by the afternoon and other days we took time to visit a particular town in more depth for the entire day (like Cognac).
What we love about this type of trip is that you have the freedom to do what you want. If you want to walk around in nature the whole day, you can do it. Sunbathe on the front of the boat? Yup. Spend the entire afternoon on the water while taking in the scenery? Sure. Tie up the boat and play tourist in town? Heck yes. If you want to dress up and go into town to a fancy dinner, you can do that too. Or moor up in nature and read a book out on the deck with birds chirping around you. There’s no rush and no pressure.
Nicols does a training session with you adapted to your level so you feel confident as the captain. They speak English and I believe German as well at many French bases, so you don’t need to speak French to do this type of trip. We ran into other cruisers who were Belgian, German, and Swiss on this particular trip.
You’ll also get a detailed guide of the waterway that has information on the locks, ports, buoy locations, and anything you need to be aware of along with info on the towns you’ll pass along the way. Having a guide is extremely useful as you cruise so you know what’s ahead and what to watch out for as you make your way down the river. It also lets you know where the supermarkets are so you can stock up on the essentials.
The river (and canals) are incredibly calm, so since there are no waves, you don’t have to worry about seasickness. While the Charente River does flow into the Atlantic in the west, the part that we cruised on is more like a flat canal with locks to regulate the flow. When docked, you barely feel like you’re on a boat until someone passes by on the river.
Here’s a look at our boat which was the Sixto. It has three cabins and two bathrooms (full bathroom with standup shower cabin, and one half bath with just a toilet and sink), accommodating six people. We were a family of four with a small dog and had more than enough space.
If you have a full house, I’d recommend the Octo Fly. When my parents come next time, they’ve already decided that’s the boat we’ll book. 😉 It’s fully equipped with a dishwasher and microwave too, can accommodate eight adults comfortably, has two bow thrusters which can help you maneuver, as well as a fantastic upper deck area (flybridge) with a canopy.
Basics about our Charente River cruise with Nicols
–Our trip was 7 days long and round trip from the Nicols base in Sireuil in September 2020. Pricing depends on how big of a boat you book, dates, and what part of France you choose. Nicols operates from April through October. You can check pricing here.
–The boat is furnished with a nicely equipped kitchen including a refrigerator and freezer, stove and oven. There was no dishwasher or microwave on our boat but some boats do have both. All dishes, cutlery, pans, bowls, utensils, etc. are provided as well as sheets and towels.
–Dogs are allowed. We paid a 40 euro supplement to have Dagny along for the week. I hate leaving my dog when we travel, so if you’re like me in that respect and obsessed with your dog, this is a great way to include your pup in the fun.
–Gas is an additional fee beyond the boat rental and is based on the number of hours you spend cruising. Our route averages about 30 hours of cruising and we ended up doing a little less than that and spent 219 euros on fuel total.
–You do not need to empty the toilet tanks. Also, replenishing your water tanks is super easy and something you don’t really need to do more than once or twice total with a 4-person crew on this type of boat.
–Someone from the Nicols base is available 24/7 if you run into any trouble along the way. You’re never on your own without help. On our first trip, some debris in the canal got stuck in our props and an employee was there to get us back on the canal within an hour.
-There are towns along the way where you can dock to go to the grocery store, bakery, bank, restaurant, etc. It’s not rural along the Charente by any means so you’re always nearby commerce and civilization.
Where we went on the Charente River
We started at Sireuil and headed west. If you cruised all the way from Angouleme to the Atlantic, you’d cover 171 kilometers and pass through 21 locks. Here’s a map below of what this section of the Charente looks like. The plan was to end up in Saint Savinien mid-week and then head back east to arrive in Sireuil one week later. Because of a late start the first day and the fact that we spent a full day in Cognac mid-week, we didn’t quite make it to Saint Savinien. But everything worked out and we thoroughly enjoyed everything we did see.
We stopped in Chateauneuf-sur-Charente, Jarnac, Cognac, and Saintes.
Keep in mind the boat moves very slowly so you have to plan out what you want to see when and make sure you have enough time to do everything you’d like. Also, all the locks on the Charente are manual, so unlike the Canal du Midi and Alsace, there’s no remote control, button, or lock keeper to assist you in opening and closing the locks. You and your arms do all the work, and trust me, even if you lift weights and are fit, your arms will be feeling it at the end of the day.
The rule along the Charente River is to close each lock behind you as you pass through so in total, you have 16 wheels to open/close each time you pass through a lock. There are 4 on each side of the lock (2 big and 2 small that you open and close each time), and it’s definitely a 2-person job (great if you have more people) because your arms will get tired! The good thing is, there’s no rush so there’s no need to open and close the locks super fast.
Locks also take time to get through which you need to account for. Docking your boat before and after the lock each time to allow people in your party to hop off, open the gates, let the water level rise or fall, then bring the boat in, do more opening and closing and then continue on once done, that is after closing the gate behind you and picking up your party at the dock after the lock. If you’re slow turning the wheels and/or have other boats in the lock or have to wait for boats ahead of you, locks can add more time onto getting from point A to B, especially in the summer months. So just be aware.
Now for my Charente River boating trip video where I show you around our boat, take you on the river with us, visit Hennessy Cognac, and more, including a funny language misunderstanding. 😉
This next one is a short 2-minute video of some of my best drone shots of the week. Depending on the lighting and part of the Charente, the water can look clear and turquoise or dark and moody. Absolutely gorgeous and we lucked out with no rain all week!:
Lastly, many of you DM’d me on Instagram to let me know you enjoyed following along on our trip and I SO appreciate that. Thank you! I never know if people will like a particular post or type of content so I always find it so helpful if you reach out to tell me. If this type of cruise is of interest, please do get in touch and I’d be happy to answer any questions for you if you’re considering it. I know it may seem daunting if you don’t have much boating experience but you can do it!
Also, maybe you’d find it helpful if I did a post on the similarities and differences between cruising in Alsace, the Canal du Midi, and the Charente River? Talk to me!
Hope you enjoyed this look at what a DIY boating trip is like on the Charente River in France!