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Loire Valley cruising

Lured by the promise of plain sailing and Sancerre, Kendall Hill takes the wheel of a canal boat on a luxe cruise through the bucolic Loire Valley.

There is a moment, several hours after making acquaintance with our lavish floating home, when I toy with the idea of not steering it down a French canal as planned, but staying put right here - in the pretty, sun-drenched village of Châtillon-sur-Loire.

That moment occurs while sprawled on a padded bench on the deck of the Vision 57, gazing up at a sky of sweetest blue dappled with puffs of cotton cloud.

On one bank is a line of stone houses with tiled roofs, chimney pots and painted shutters against a forested slope of myriad greens; on the other, a grassy verge falls away to golden wheatfields. Fishermen angle by the edge of the canal. An extended family of speckled ducks floats by. Gay little flags flutter on boats and buildings in the cooling breeze of a hot summer's day.

It is La Fête Nationale, Bastille Day, and all is quiet save for the chirruping of swallows. The excitement happened earlier when scarlet-blazered musicians drummed and trumpeted down the main street of this 15th-century village, playing doughty standards such as "Scotland the Brave" and "Loch Lomond" (presumably a tribute to the auld, medieval alliance between Scotland and France against England).

There followed a frenzied raid on the boulangerie, the traîteur and the supermarché for supplies, after which we retired to the boat for a DIY lunch of hams, potted terrines and cheeses - including a slab of head cheese, which is not cheese at all - garden tomatoes and just-baked baguettes, with a glass of crisp Pouilly-Fumé, made just south of here.

It is such a perfect day it seems a shame to break the spell by revving up the engine and driving this thing. Especially after the briefing by Le Boat's instructor Peter Clarke, which is breezy and informative, but leaves me faintly terrified at the prospect of navigating a $430,000 vessel along a canal beside the Loire River.

The pleasure of being on the water, for me, has always been having someone else do the navigating while I do the daydreaming. Self-drive boating is a rather daunting new development.

Clarke meticulously runs through the essentials, from how to turn on the engine and steer to what to do in case of fire ("I suggest getting off. Quickly. Boats are made of plastic and wood.")

I take copious notes in case anything goes wrong en route from point A (Châtillon-sur-Loire) to point B (Decize), a distance of about 130 kilometres. That's about two-thirds the length of this 19th-century canal, originally built to provide a reliable alternative course to the notoriously fickle Loire River, which was - and still is - prone to droughts and floods. Today the canal is used mostly by pleasure boats, drawn to this little-known slice of central France by the promise of plain sailing and Sancerre.

Remember to drive on the right, Clarke continues. Slow down in ports and when you're passing other craft. Fill the water tank every three days; empty greywater and toilet waste directly into the canal by pushing these buttons.

I don't automatically grasp the significance of the joystick, nor understand exactly how it works, but it turns out to be an essential aid to safe cruising. It's a magic wand that helps me master masterful lock approaches, glide smoothly beneath very narrow and very low bridges (mind your heads), and bust fancy moves including sideway thrusts and pirouettes.

Once I get accustomed to its precision and versatility, I completely understand why they call it a joystick.

Regarded as a beginner's run suitable for novice cruisers, this section of the Canal Latéral à la Loire - which we will tackle over seven days - involves 26 locks, three of them automatic (quite simple once you get used to them), two aqueducts suspended across the Loire and mercifully little traffic.

For our first, tentative outing we do as Clarke urges and take the boat for a 12-kilometre spin to Briare and back, via the 1894 aqueduct that was, until recently, the longest navigable aqueduct in the world. The 662-metre steel span, with supports built by the Eiffel company, is lined with Art Nouveau street lamps and bookended by obelisks guarded by dragons. It is, as Clarke suggested, a stunning piece of engineering.

We become a tourist attraction as people stop to stare at our palace gliding by. "Wow!" a young girl cries as we edge, very carefully, along the length of the aqueduct, the Loire sparkling many metres below, to arrive at the mirrored waters of Briare's marina.

The virgin crossing concludes without incident thanks to Captain Leo and first-mate Nick, Melbourne friends who cruised the Canal du Midi last year so (a) they know roughly what they're doing, and (b) they can, hopefully, share their expertise with the rest of us.

We are five in total, comfortably accommodated in three cabins with simple bedding and comparatively flash ensuites with walk-in showers - the nicest bathrooms of any I've seen on a charter.

The well-equipped kitchen has a smart gas stove, full-sized refrigerator and a dining table that could seat nine. (But, rather oddly, no kettle and no condiments or cleaning products.) Up on deck, a barbecue, bar fridge and canvas shade encourage us to entertain outdoors. Not that we need much encouragement.

That first evening, moored back in Châtillon-sur-Loire, we graze on a simple buffet of local produce and wines and then, about 10 o'clock when the long twilight begins, we walk to nearby Mantelot Basin for Bastille Day fireworks.

A festival is in full swing. The Pascal Rabigot band has everyone from old-timers to toddlers waltzing to country standards and exotic imports such as "Roll Out the Barrel" and "I Go to Rio". Villagers congregate at long communal tables for the dîner champêtre, a country feast of barbecued meats, bottles of beer and Sancerre rosés. Children run amok through the happy crowds, detonating crackers at the waterfront.

The real fireworks begin with a few fizzing columns on the far bank and the odd rocket exploding in neon showers against the night sky. It's hardly New Year's Eve on Sydney Harbour, but there's a lovely moment when gold and purple stars fall from the heavens to sparkle on the water's surface, and an earth-shaking crescendo of flares and fountains, crossettes and chrysanthemums that leaves everyone delighted but slightly deafened.

It's quite a send-off. Our voyage begins in earnest next morning. We have 35 kilometres to cover and five locks to conquer on a seven-hour journey to a town called Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre.

The route is beautiful, bucolic, postcard rural France. Occasionally, we glimpse the glossy black ardoise roofs and thrusting turrets of minor châteaux, but mostly this section of the Loire is farmland - cereal crops flanked by woods and forests with evocative names such as Bois du Beau-Frère and Forêt d'Aubigny.

The driving goes well. There are a couple of hairy moments when the joystick thrusters lose power, and the steering takes some getting used to given the size of the thing we're manoeuvring, but the locks prove to be an unexpected pleasure.

They must be approached with care, naturally, but once inside these narrow chambers, it's quite relaxing watching the water drain and fill while you're chatting to lock-keepers or fellow boaters, and admiring the simple mechanics of the mitre gates, conceived by Leonardo da Vinci more than 500 years ago.

At Belleville lock the helpful lock-keeper calls ahead to Houards lock to let them know we're on our way. It's 11am and, this being France, even lock-keepers break promptly for lunch at noon.

I'm driving when we reach Houards 40 minutes later and, with the aid of the magical joystick, manage to slide in smoothly behind two other boats, including a handsome timber barge I could have crushed to smithereens if the panic hadn't risen like sick in my throat and forced me to enter the chamber so gingerly.

It's a defining moment in canal confidence. My initial terror of the boat has eased to a respectful fear. Eventually, I even learn to enjoy myself.

The lock-keeper at Houards is a man after our own hearts. He moonlights as a wine merchant and ushers us into his cellar so we can stock up on regional specialties - Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and rosé. Thirteen bottles for €100, about $11 each. Happy days.

We are so fortunate with the weather. At Châtillon we met Lynn from Australia. Her gang of six had just finished 10 days tootling down the canal to Decize and back. I ask if they had a nice time. One of her friends pipes up: "It rained every day except one - today."

The scenery is mostly greenery, with the occasional herd of creamy Charolais cows, cyclists and hikers, and, of course, friendly locals who wave and call 'Bonjour!" as we pass. Pompom mistletoes dangle from plane trees lining the waterway.

Further south, close-cropped vines stripe sloping banks along the Côteaux du Giennois, known for its pinot noir and gamay wines. Soon afterwards the chalky citadel of Sancerre looms into view. We leave the boat at Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre for a full-day tour with Laure Juvet, a vivacious Swiss transplant who takes her grapes very seriously and is, remarkably, the only person running dedicated wine tours of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.

We learn everything we need to know about the wines from Juvet. Both Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are produced from sauvignon blanc grapes, but hail from opposite banks of the Loire - Sancerre from the west, Pouilly-Fumé from the east, where flinty soils lend the wine its distinctive smoky, or fumé characters. There is a local saying that reflects the region's split personality: "The water is dividing us, but the wine is uniting us."

En route to Pouilly-sur-Loire we stop by Les Loges, an old village of vignerons known for its maisons biscornues, crooked houses with one staircase leading to the living areas and another down to the cellar.

A road sign declares inhabitants here have made wine "with fervour" for the past 2000 years. It is still possible to find Roman paths meandering through the vines of ancient Pauliacum.

We make a fleeting visit to gaze upon the fairytale folly of Château du Nozet, owned by the very wealthy winemaker Baron de Ladoucette, before motoring through the d'Arcy woods to the Renaissance-style Château de Tracy.

The castle itself is off limits to outsiders but its resident winemaker, the bow-tied Count Henry d'Estutt d'Assay, is waiting for us at the cellar door.

"I am going to try and convince you that we make good wine," he says, by way of introduction. Vines have been cultivated on this estate since the Middle Ages; the count has a parchment in his safe that records winemaking here as early as 1396.

We taste four vintages, all sauvignons, but from different soils and vine stock. All are delicious - especially the creamy, elegant Château de Tracy. "We want to sell only wine we love," the count explains, "and which are good quality."

For lunch we cross back over the Loire and climb up to Sancerre, where Juvet has organised a meal at Les Fossiles, a new bistro and wine bar run by South African expat David Malan. His cellar is a treat, stocked with 15 great local drops and 60 other vintages from France and Spain. To eat, we have an intensely flavoured gazpacho - just the thing on a blazing summer's day - paired with a zesty 2012 La Tour Saint-Martin from neighbouring Menetou-Salon.

Seated beneath umbrellas in this medieval village, snacking on terrines and hams (including the town specialty, smoked over vine cuttings), with a chilled sauvignon in hand and surrounded by friends old and new - well, this is why we travel, isn't it?

By the time Malan treats us to his home-made Coulommiers Brie stuffed with truffles, and a lavender and honey ice-cream laced with Pedro Ximenez sherry, I don't want this summer's day to end.

The afternoon stretches into evening with a stroll through the streets of Sancerre, a tasting of the Loire Valley's famous crottin goat's cheese at the 18th-century Fromagerie Dubois-Boulay in Chavignol, and a mini-pilgrimage to Les Monts Damnés, the sheer hillside renowned for the exceptional calibre of its grapes. The views from up here, across a patchwork of vines and rolling hills to Chavignol, Sancerre and beyond, are just gorgeous.

Then to the Raimbault family's Domaine du Pré Semelé in the hamlet of Maimbray, where son Julien hosts a dégustation of their whites, reds and rosé. We buy several bottles of the last; it has a sunny rose-gold glow and tastes like boiled lollies.

These bucolic detours are a highlight of our boating holiday. At the monastic city of La Charité-sur-Loire, reached via an impressively buttressed 1535 stone bridge over the Loire, we wander the World Heritage remains of the 12th-century abbey and find a butcher who cleaves our lamb chops while we wait.

Juvet rejoins us that night for dinner at Auberge de la Poule Noire with a surprise package - a box of wines from the Côtes de La Charité, a non-AOC region that cultivates eight grape varieties including a very palatable sparkling chardonnay called Domaine du Puits de Compostelle. It's best enjoyed in situ, on the restaurant's terrace beside La Charité's timeworn priory.

In Nevers, two days later, we pay our respects to Saint Bernadette in her glass case at the Sisters of Charity convent before joining the throng at the Saturday market to admire traditional foods such as griaude, a specialty bread of Burgundy packed with pork crackling (it smells amazing). And then to Au Négus, the circa 1879 confectionery palace famed for its cooked toffees filled with soft caramel and chocolate.

Back on the water, life is more laid-back but never dull. We cross our second aqueduct, Le Pont-Canal du Guétin, on a 35-degree day and wave to beach-goers far below on the Loire's sandy shores. A russet deer disturbs cocktail hour one evening, bounding through the long grass. We meet Swiss, American, Kiwi, French and English boaties, and characters such as Muffin the chocolate Labrador and a very old, very ugly pet tortoise at Nevers port.

At Décize, there's a final moment of loveliness - floating down an avenue of 300-year-old plane trees as we approach Le Boat's marina.

I take a taxi to Nevers next morning for the train to Paris. The drive takes 35 minutes and mostly retraces the exact route we covered by boat the day before on our eight-hour, five-lock odyssey.

Every bridge we went under, the taxi flies over. Every lock, cornfield, oak forest and field of flaxen hay flashes past for a second time.

Driving is less stressful and far swifter but, ultimately, a car is just a means of transport. Travelling by boat along a French canal in the summertime is to live life at a much more human pace. With plenty of time to stop and smell the rosés.


GETTING THERE
Cathay Pacific operates more than 70 flights each week from six Australian cities to Hong Kong, and two daily flights from Hong Kong to Paris during the peak summer season. Transit times can be as little as 90 minutes in Hong Kong, offering one of the swiftest routes to Europe. 

CRUISING THERE
Le Boat operates in nine European countries, including the UK and Ireland. France has about 100 canals; Le Boat operates in popular regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Lot River and the Camargue. Week-long hire of the 10-berth Vision 57 costs about $6000 in July, but prices fall dramatically off-season and for smaller vessels. Cruisers must pay a damage waiver (which was about $300 for us) and a fuel deposit ($360 for a week). No experience or boat licence is necessary. 1800 118 940

PORTS OF CALL
Laure Juvet's wine tours, +33 6 11 67 30 03

Crottin de Chavignol, Fromagerie Dubois-Boulay

Les Fossiles, 11 Place St André, Sancerre; +33 6615 3948

Château de Tracy, 58150 Tracy-Sur-Loire; +33 3 86 26 15 12

Château du Nozet, Pouilly-sur-Loire, +33 3 86 39 18 33

Domaine du Pré Semelé, Maimbray, Sury-En-Vaux; +33 2 48 79 33 50; rjc.raimbault@orange.fr.

For more information on the region, see bourgogne-tourisme.com.

GETTING THERE
Cathay Pacific operates more than 70 flights each week from six Australian cities to Hong Kong, and two daily flights from Hong Kong to Paris during the peak summer season. Transit times can be as little as 90 minutes in Hong Kong, offering one of the swiftest routes to Europe. 

CRUISING THERE
Le Boat operates in nine European countries, including the UK and Ireland. France has about 100 canals; Le Boat operates in popular regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Lot River and the Camargue. Week-long hire of the 10-berth Vision 57 costs about $6000 in July, but prices fall dramatically off-season and for smaller vessels. Cruisers must pay a damage waiver (which was about $300 for us) and a fuel deposit ($360 for a week). No experience or boat licence is necessary. 1800 118 940

PORTS OF CALL
Laure Juvet's wine tours, +33 6 11 67 30 03

Crottin de Chavignol, Fromagerie Dubois-Boulay

Les Fossiles, 11 Place St André, Sancerre; +33 6615 3948

Château de Tracy, 58150 Tracy-Sur-Loire; +33 3 86 26 15 12

Château du Nozet, Pouilly-sur-Loire, +33 3 86 39 18 33

Domaine du Pré Semelé, Maimbray, Sury-En-Vaux; +33 2 48 79 33 50; rjc.raimbault@orange.fr.

For more information on the region, see bourgogne-tourisme.com.

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