Shortly before my nineteenth birthday, I joined my then-boyfriend and his family on an eight-day vacation boating through Burgundy. The boat coasted the winding waterways at less than five miles per hour, cruising the contours of the countryside and providing an ever-changing panorama of the French landscape. We stopped at small villages to eat lunch, collected wildflowers and picnicked alongside the canal, visited abandoned castles, played pétanque and giggled at baby ducklings and grazing cows (okay, that was just me). On warmer days, we tied an inner tube to the back of the boat. One person would float lazily along while the others dipped their toes in the water, satisfied by the sunlight bronzing their cheeks. At night we rested on the boat decks, marveling at a sky unbothered by light pollution.
Boating reminded me of an elevated form of camping. We enjoyed all aspects of nature while still having access to comfortable amenities and the landscape was always refreshed. Similar to a road trip as well, though not nearly as cramped and certainly more relaxing. Drifting down the canals is great for anyone who needs a calming vacation but still wants to indulge in the culture of a foreign region or country.
Available countries: France, England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Germany
Benefits: no experience or license required; the rental companies provide all necessary training and maps.
Restrictions: operating the locks and bridges requires moderate strength and mobility.
Cost: the research I’ve done suggests that a ten-person boat averages about 2500€ a week for the rental, fuel and lock fees. A fully equipped kitchen and linen is generally provided as well.
Every Sunday since my arrival in France, my host family forgoes church and conducts their own spiritual liberation and communion: a family meal that usually lasts for the entire afternoon. This particular Sunday I have the pleasure of sitting next to Jean-Marc, a Normandy native who possibly enjoys food even more than I do.
When the main course arrives—an entire fried flounder shiny with lemon juice—time stops. The French understand the importance of savoring and appreciating each bite. Jean-Marc cuts a generous portion and slides it onto my plate, topping it with a few spoonfuls of fish eggs. A bowl of salted, boiled potatoes is passed around the table along with a dish of sautéed leeks. All the food is fresh, purchased at the market the previous morning. The simplicity aids in its deliciousness: each morsel allowed its own flavor without being masked in overpowering spices. A water jug sits at the far end of the table, ignored until he switches from white wine to red and needs to clean his glass.
The cheese plate makes an appearance after every meal, but I still get giddy whenever I see it. The selection changes from week to week, but today Roquefort, a mild Camembert, Gruyere de Comte and homemade goat cheeses present themselves. I reach for the goat cheese, eager to get started.
Jean-Marc stops me. “That goes better with red wine.” I look between my half-full glass of white wine and the cheese, conflicted. “The Gruyere goes better with white,” he says, gesturing towards the more intense, hard cheese.
“How do you know which wine goes with which cheese?” I ask, assuming he’s long since memorized some sort of Periodic Table of Wine and Cheese.
“By tasting,” he replies. He spreads some sea salt-infused butter onto a warm baguette and smears the goat cheese on top. Then he takes an empty glass, fills it with red wine and pushes it towards me. “Bring the glass to your nose so you can smell it. While the aroma still lingers, eat the cheese. Then take a sip.”
I take a bite and realize why smoking is so popular in France: the food is so good you practically need to smoke a cigarette afterwards. The bread is crisp and soft; the goat cheese is especially rich and earthy and blends beautifully with the butter. And the fruity notes of the red wine do indeed help tie everything together.
Jean-Marc opts out of dessert and finishes the afternoon with a short nap on the couch. I however still have two glasses of wine, a few more cheeses to experiment with and dessert waiting in the kitchen. Time will have to stay paused a little longer.