I usually don’t take a relaxed approach to travel. Whether I’m embarking on a cross-country road trip or hopping from one country to the next by train, I’m usually attempting to cram in as many sights and activities into the day as possible. This trip is completely opposite to my usual jaunts, and I’m now convinced that I need to slow down when I travel. Cruising the Canal du Midi aboard a luxury barge is a stress-free, worry free journey from start to finish. You quickly learn to embrace the leisurely pace that defines slow travel. It’s a chance to relax, rest, and reflect. And it’s exactly what I needed.
European Barge Cruises: Athos du Midi
What’s it like sailing on the Athos du Midi? Think of it as a luxurious, first class hotel that floats down the river. Each day, you’ll spend your mornings exploring a nearby medieval village. In the afternoon, you’ll slowly drift on the Canal du Midi, whether you’re enjoying lunch on the deck or simply taking in the pastoral views. Once you dock, you might choose to wander around another charming village or borrow a bicycle to ride along the canal. Top it all off with another delectable dinner, and it will be time to call it a day.
The best part? You can unpack your luggage and make yourself at home from the moment you arrive. It’s a very easy way to see many places in one trip without feeling rushed or stressed. Unwind and unplug from your daily life as you admire the scenery of the South of France. Cruising the Canal du Midi is all about slowly seeing the sights at your own leisure.
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The Athos du Midi has five staterooms with the capacity of a maximum of 10 passengers at a time. There are four crew members on board, meaning that you’ll have lots of personal care. There’s a captain, a hostess, a tour guide, and a chef.
Barge holidays in France means all-inclusive luxury. From the moment I arrived in Béziers, everything was included! You don’t have to worry about anything on this six night barge cruise. Here’s what’s included:
- Transfers to and from Beziers in an air conditioned van
- All meals prepared on board by a master chef (breakfast, lunch, and dinner)
- All wine throughout the cruise, served with each meal
- An open bar of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, including liquor and beer
- All excursions and admittance fees to the places noted on the itinerary
- Barge facilities and use of the bicycles
There are only a few things not included in the price of your barge cruise: any travel insurance, air transportation to France, train transportation to Béziers and gratuities.
About the Athos du Midi
Athos was originally a commercial grain, sand, and wine barge, converted to a luxury hotel barge in 1982. You’d never be able to tell that this barge wasn’t always a first class floating hotel. Perhaps the only remaining connection to Athos’ origins is the association with wine. Rather than transporting barrels of wine, Athos drifts past the vineyards of the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. The wine on board comes from dozens of local vineyards, perfectly paired with our food. While we tasted white, red, and dessert wines in the evening, lunch was made for enjoying fragrant, light pink rosés.
Athos is a traditional hotel barge with charming and elegant decor. There’s air conditioning throughout the hotel barge so you’ll always feel comfortable, even during the hot, summer months.
My favorite area of the Athos du Midi is the spacious sundeck. There’s a large canopy over the wooden dining table, so you can stay in the shade and read a good book. However, if it’s a sunny day (we only had sunny days without rain!), it’s best to pull your chair into the sunshine, lean back, and marvel at the view.
Boating holidays in France are meant to be leisurely. We meandered along at a slow speed of about 3mph. I admired the picturesque, rolling hills and vibrant fields of poppies and wildflowers from my temporary floating home. Cruising the Canal du Midi was even more beautiful than I imagined.
As it was a little breezy and chilly at night in late May, we mostly dined indoors. The saloon is also a fantastic place to curl up on the couch on lazy afternoons. The bar is always open, as is the fancy espresso machine. I always looked forward to my morning and afternoon cups of coffee. There’s always fresh flowers to brighten up the room, as well as a bowl of fresh fruit. A large bookshelf lines one wall if you’d like to learn more about the region (or if you forgot to bring a book from home).
There are five cabins in total on the Athos barge, each with their own en-suite bathroom. My stateroom was just large enough to fit a queen bed, a small table, and shelves that wrapped around the room. While you won’t have any large windows or balconies like on a larger ocean cruiser, you’ll have two little windows in the bedroom to take a peek at the scenery.
It’s easy to unpack and store all of your belongings in the cabin. There’s a pretty big closet with lots of hangers, as well as two giant drawers that pull out from the bed. There’s enough room to store your suitcase or backpack in the drawers that tuck beneath the bed.
The bathroom is bright and has everything you need to stay refreshed. There’s organic shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and soap. There’s also a hair dryer, so there’s no need to bring your own.
Cruising the Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it has a truly fascinating history. It’s a 360 km network of waterways linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic through 328 structures, including locks, bridges, and tunnels. Its creator, Pierre-Paul Riquet, designed the Canal du Midi and it was built between 1667 and 1694. It’s a technical marvel and a work of art.
There are paths on either side of the entire canal. Back in the day, the barges were pulled by horses on both sides of the water. Nowadays, canal holidays in France are popular, and one of the prime destinations is the Canal du Midi. While you can rent your own vessel for memorable boating holidays in France, I’d much rather leave the navigating up to the experts.
Cruising on the Canal du Midi is a relaxing and restorative holiday from start to finish. While our pick up and drop off point was in Béziers, our trip started in Marseillan and ended in Argeliers. The driving distance between Marseillan and Argeliers is 55 minutes. We spent six days and nights drifting from point A to point B. You can see why it’s a “slow travel” kind of voyage!
While cruising the Canal du Midi, we came across dozens of locks. Many of these were singular locks. The Athos barge motors into the lock, the lock fills with water, and we continue on our way. The most interesting set of locks on our journey were the Fonserannes Locks in Beziers. It’s a set of six staircase locks (there used to be nine locks in total) that’s a feat of modern engineering.
Many people gather by the side of the locks to watch the boats, and quite a crowd gathered when our barge traveled through the locks. We had the option of staying on board or hopping off to watch from the sidelines. I stayed on board for the first lock or two, and then watched this incredible sight from the shore. I really didn’t know much about locks before this barge cruise, but I have a whole new appreciation and fascination for them.
It was amazing to watch the sheer amount of rushing water fill each lock to raise Athos up to the proper level to allow her to enter the next lock. Sometimes it seemed as though our barge just barely fit inside each lock! I was in awe of the navigation skills of our captain as he entered and departed each lock with ease. There were merely inches on each side of the boat, yet he didn’t manage to bump into the concrete edges at any time. I’ve created a short video showing the Athos barge sailing through the locks.
Sailing and Docking
After our afternoon sailings, we’d dock at various locations on the Canal du Midi. Sometimes we’d be right alongside a town, and sometimes we’d seemingly be in the middle of nowhere. While it was nice to hop off the barge and wander right into town, it was also lovely to explore “the middle of nowhere”. With paths by the canal, you can always go for a walk or a bike ride before or after dinner.
One day, I hopped on one of the bicycles with a couple of the other guests and explored the area. First, we rode past a marshy region that was home to many birds, including flamingos! We glided past neighborhoods and seaside towns until we reached the Mediterranean Sea. I loved that we could ride from the barge right to the beach. While it was a little too cold to go for a swim in late May, I soaked up the stunning views of the deep blue waters. It also felt great to have the wind in my hair and the freedom of going cycling without a care in the world.
The Athos barge docked every evening, and we’d wake up every day in a new place. This meant a new excursion to a nearby attraction or village. The staff on board took care of every detail. There were always two vans by the ship where our guides transported us to our destination.
Our primary guide, Mathieu, toured us around each town and attraction. He is so knowledgeable, sharing numerous facts and tidbits about the history of each place. At the end of our tour, we were always allowed to have at least an hour of free time to explore on our own. It’s the best of both worlds because you can learn about each spot from a local guide and have time to wander at your own pace.
Our cruise started in the seaside village of Marseillan, the starting point of the Canal du Midi. After arriving in the afternoon, I had time to explore Marseillan on my own. The next morning, we woke up to check out the Noilly Prat vermouth distillery. After our visit to Noilly Prat, we played a few rounds of pétanque, a French game similar to bocce. This was a great way to break the ice and get to know our fellow passengers even better.
It’s hard to choose which town was my favorite of the whole trip, but it’s quite possible that it was Pézenas. Mathieu toured us around this historic town where we visited “hotel particuliers”, or mansions with very striking architecture. We also walked through the Jewish ghetto neighborhood and learned about the history of Pézanas on the way. I quickly fell in love with the narrow, cobblestone streets that were very quiet early in the morning. As the morning went on, a few tourists started to emerge as the tiny shops opened, but it never got crowded or busy. This is a great spot to shop for locally made and handcrafted souvenirs.
Narbonne is best known for its traditional French market, open almost every day of the year. While a trip to the market is mandatory, there are a few other intriguing areas of Narbonne. First, you can see remnant of the ancient Romans in Narbonne; there’s an excavated area of an ancient Roman road exposed below the modern day street. There’s also a shopping street lined with pink marble, and the spectacular (yet unfinished) St Just and St Pasteur Cathedral.
Before our day trip to Minerve, we stopped at L’Oulibo for an olive and olive oil tasting. We sampled fresh olives and olive oils that were very delicious. Next, we explored the medieval village of Minerve. It’s strategically built up on the escarpment and has a truly fascinating history of being under siege.
After an afternoon on the Canal du Midi, we docked right in Capestang. It was possible to walk from Athos right into town. It was optional to walk with Mathieu into Capestang for a brief tour of a couple of local attractions. Then, I had the chance to wander around the quiet streets on my own.
Carcassonne was the most famous (and busy) place that we visited, and for good reason. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a fabulous example of a medieval fortified town. There’s the double fortifications, a brilliant cathedral, and a fairy tale castle. Stroll around the cobblestone streets of the village, poking your head into a few shops. I really loved how there was enough time to see everything on our trips into town.
The Food on the Athos Barge
Now, I’ll tell you all about the food on the Athos. Chef Lee skillfully prepared all of our meals on board, and I was so grateful that he managed to make 100% vegan meals for me! While he admitted that he hadn’t made an entirely plant-based menu before, he was up for the challenge.
I loved how he was able to adapt the regular omnivore meals to produce a vegan version. It’s always nice to receive a similar meal to everyone else because I really didn’t ever feel left out. He even attempted (and succeeded!) to make vegan ice cream using coconut milk. Some of his vegan dessert creations were served to all of the passengers on board, and I doubt they were able to tell that they were vegan. Everything was absolutely delicious.
If you have an allergy, dietary restriction or preference, don’t hesitate to book your Canal du Midi cruise. Even though I wasn’t able to partake in the cheese course at dinner, there were other fruit or nuts that I could enjoy. Plus, I was always so full from the starter course and main course (not to mention the numerous slices of fresh bread that I indulged in) that it didn’t matter to me. And dessert was soon on its way!
Our incredible hostess, Marianna, took care of us in so many ways on board. She artfully decorated our table with flowers and decor before each meal. She cleaned our cabins and the barge daily. Marianna has a masterful knowledge of wine and local wineries, knowing precisely which bottle to pair with each meal.
We received a short lesson about each winery before our tastings, and I was so impressed by how much she knew about each wine. Anytime there was a question, she always had the answers. While I know very little about wine, there was a wide variety of white, red, dessert, and rosé to taste throughout the week. You could enjoy as much or as little as you liked.
The Crew and the Passengers
On my Canal du Midi cruise, there were six other passengers: two couples from Australia and one couple from the USA. We all got to know each other so well as we went on excursions and bonded over meals. We also had enough alone time where we could explore on our own or relax on deck by ourselves. I thoroughly enjoyed the company of everyone on board while we were cruising the Canal du Midi. We met as strangers and left as friends.
While most people sail as couples or even within a small group aboard the Athos du Midi, I sailed by myself this time around. Justin wasn’t able to accompany me on this trip unfortunately. However, the Athos barge is a great vacation for solo travelers. You’ll have enough time to yourself, but you’ll meet a fabulous group of like-minded people. It’s the perfect holiday for those who are even a bit introverted. It’s a small group sailing and you’ll instantly have a group of friends for your travels.
I can’t say enough good things about our crew. We received the best care and comfort throughout our entire trip. I didn’t have to plan anything for this trip. The staff was so friendly and welcoming, and I really enjoyed chatting to them. I especially enjoyed bonding with Marianna over our love for cats. It was also lovely to meet one of the barge owners on our trip to Carcassonne, Dannielle. Her and her husband, Julian met aboard the Athos many years ago. Nowadays, they own the barge and work on shore to ensure that you have the best vacation ever.
Booking Your Canal Holidays in France
You can book your barge holidays in France aboard the Athos through France Cruises or European Waterways. Both offer a vast array of hotel barge cruises sailing all over France, whether you’re discovering the Canal du Midi, Burgundy, Provence, or other destinations. You can book a room as a solo traveler or a couple, or you can even book out the entire barge as a private charter with a group. I highly recommend cruising on the Canal du Midi for all of the reasons I mentioned above.
This particular canal cruise sails from Sunday to Saturday. Spend some time browsing the websites to get an idea for the sorts of hotel barge cruises you can take. Whether you’re booking through France Cruises in the USA or European Waterways in Europe, you’ll receive professional and expert services from leaders in the canal and river cruising industry. Feel free to contact them directly with any questions that you might have. Also, feel free to ask me any questions about my experiences aboard the Athos in the comments section below!
I traveled from Toronto to Paris on a direct Air Canada flight. After a night in Paris, I traveled from Paris to Béziers by high speed train. Transportation was very easy to figure out, but the experts at France Cruises, European Waterways, and Athos du Midi are there to help you with any transportation questions that might arise.
If you’re craving the concept of slow travel and you’re interested in exploring the South of France, cruising the Canal du Midi on a luxury barge is the trip for you. It’s perfect for those wanting a more personalized, intimate vacation where you don’t need to plan anything at all. Barge holidays are fantastic for people of all ages (it’s not just for seniors!). I’m in my mid-thirties and I absolutely adored my Canal du Midi cruise on the Athos barge. Definitely add European barge cruises to your bucket list. It’s the journey of a lifetime.
Thank you so much to France Cruises and European Waterways for hosting my cruise aboard the Athos du Midi. This post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.