With all the hoops you have to jump through to rent a car, you might be surprised at how easy it is to rent a private houseboat in Europe. You don’t need a boating license, experience, or even sea legs to become the captain of a rented houseboat professionally managed by Wyndham Vacation Rentals. These boats, available on rivers across Europe, sleep between four and 12 people and start at $1,320 for a week’s self-catering rental.
I recently chartered the Calypso, which sleeps eight people and starts at $2,632 for a week on France’s Lot River. After a brief instruction in “Franglish” (a combination of French and English) on how to power up, steer, tie up, and maneuver the boat through the locks, the keys were handed over and suddenly I had full run of a private boat in the southwest of France.
Reaching my houseboat reminded me of the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I flew from Boston to London Heathrow, and from there, I took a taxi to Stansted Airport, a smaller airport outside of London. Then I hopped on a Ryanair flight to Bergerac, an airport so tiny that it has one customs line and a baggage claim that looks fit for no more than a few medium-sized suitcases at a time. On the bright side, I was through the airport and to my rental car quickly. A winding drive through the bucolic countryside later and there I was at the boat dock.
Here’s what I learned during my travels on the Lot River:
- The houseboats come equipped with full-sized beds, a kitchen/dining room, and bathrooms (or “heads” in sailor-speak). There’s running water and electricity, although be warned that outlets for charging your electronics are limited. (A tip: The boats are stocked with plates/utensils/glasses in the kitchens and linens/towels in the bedrooms, but you’ll need to bring everything else, like dish soap and toilet paper.)
- You’ll be hard-pressed to get the boat to go faster than 30 MPH, which makes for a relaxing journey. You won’t have to worry about seasickness. Cliff-top castles and fishermen wading into the river searching for a catch provide the requisite scenery as you float by.
- You’ll face three tests in the form of locks along the way. Locks are used to allow boats to pass through sections of the river that aren’t level—think the Panama Canal, but on a much smaller scale. You’ll have to operate the locks by hand, which can get a little tricky. Suffice it to say it involves tying and untying your boat, cranking open and closed a series of gates using hand levers, steering, scrambling up and down ladders, and then repeating the whole process again.
It’s worth it, though. Just a day into the voyage, I reached the classic French town of Cahors, known for its famous Pont Valentre bridge. Nearby Villa Malbec provided a great backdrop for a guided wine tasting of the regional drink, Malbec. (There’s no better way to enjoy a houseboat than returning to your vessel in the evening and sipping wine on the upper deck as the sun goes down.)
At the Cahors open-air market, which I visited the following morning, I mingled among locals, picking out delicacies ranging from fresh fruit to cheese to pastries. (In early October, the in-season strawberries taste like pure sugar.) The brick-and-mortar shops around the market are full of tres chic clothing at affordable prices, and there’s plenty of fromage to sample all day long.
As the captain of your own private houseboat, you can charter the boat for as many days as your budget allows, floating from town to town and tying up at any dock that catches your fancy. There will be no shortage of wine, cheese, and charm along the way.
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(Photos: Caroline Morse)