Mediaeval cities, spectacular scenery, five-star dining experiences and being treated like royalty come as standard to guests staying aboard the famous hotel barge Anjodi, as Susan Welsh discovered when she cruised along the Canal du Midi in France
As soon as we hit the button confirming our booking for a six-night cruise aboard the hotel barge Anjodi, we knew we were in for an exceptional holiday.
Within minutes, we received a welcoming e-mail and a few days later received by post a stylish leather-bound folder for keeping paperwork relating to our trip along with an excellent ship’s log courtesy of operator European Waterways.
But this was no ordinary log as it was packed with menus, recipes, well-written details about the area in the south of France we were to visit along with details of produce from the area and tasting notes. In the run-up to our break, which turned out to be the holiday of a lifetime, it helped build excitement.
We flew from Edinburgh to Bordeaux, staying overnight before catching a train to Narbonne. The train whizzed through the lush countryside that makes up Languedoc-Roussillon, an area sometimes called the “real south of France”, and the wine-producing capital of the world.
Stepping out into wall-to-wall sunshine at Narbonne, we were met by Anjodi captain Laurent Charbonnier, a charming gent with great hospitality and boating skills, who then whisked us to Port du Somail, where we saw, for the first time, the Anjodi.
And what a thing of beauty she is…
This beautiful old boat, a classic Dutch design originally built for a wealthy family, has been rebuilt to allow it to negotiate the 330-year-old UNESCO heritage canal, Canal du Midi, which was built to link the Med and Atlantic.
It took 40 years to complete and was considered to be one of the great construction works of the 17th century. It cuts through spectacular countryside, fringed by the Corbierre mountains, and filled with acres of vineyards and elegant villages.
It’s the driest and windiest region in France, which makes it ideal for grape growing, while many of the tall, elegant trees which line the roads and canal date back to Napoleonic times when he had them planted to shade his troops.
The best way to view the area is via the Anjodi which has been completely refurbished. Awash with gleaming wood and brasses, it has a large lounge/dining area with well-stocked bar, air-conditioned en-suite twin and double bedrooms.
It’s classically beautiful and luxurious and European Waterways has thought of everything to make your stay joyous.
Free wi-fi, board games and books, a free bar that’s open 24 hours a day, a sunny decked area with loungers and a sunken hot tub; bikes and an accompanying air-conditioned minibus for organised trips.
Our first night began with a walk around the pretty village of Le Somail, home to the fabulous world-famous Le Trouve Tout du Livre bookshop and worth visiting.
On board, we met our fellow passengers at a Champagne-fuelled welcome meeting, a lovely couple from Istanbul who spoke perfect English and who proved to be perfect, entertaining companions.
While Anjodi can accommodate eight, on this voyage there was to be just the four guests, plus four friendly and professional members of staff who literally waited on us hand and foot.
Nothing was too much trouble for them which took a bit of getting used to, as the was experience of having people wave at us constantly. We’re not famous, but the boat is, having starred in celebrity chef Rick Stein’s French Odyssey series.
Over the next six days, a lovely pattern emerged. After tucking into breakfasts of fresh fruit, yoghurt, hams, cheese, croissants, freshly squeezed juice and coffee, we’d set off in the mini-bus to visit a place of interest.
There was no obligation to go, but we quickly discovered that our guide Steve, a fellow Scot we nicknamed Wiki (Wikipedia) because of his extensive knowledge of geography, history, geology and general knowledge, was fantastic at his job. He’d provide entertaining and informative commentaries during our days out, but also ensured that, as Anjodi passengers, we never had to queue at busy attractions, which let us waltz to the front of the queues like royalty.
We’d return to the boat for lunch and enjoy a delicious two-course meal prepared by Tom, washed down with what felt like unlimited amounts of good quality wines.
Afternoons would be spent cruising to the next destination and you could either stay on board and relax while the world sailed by or walk/cycle along the canal banks, meeting up with the Anjodi later.
During our stay, we’d do all three. In the evening, the four guests would always dine together, tucking into fresh and flavoursome dishes prepared by chef Tom.
Dinner always began with cocktails or an aperitif and canapes, and always included a fabulous cheese course and wines, carefully matched to the menu.
Oh my, we could easily get used to this lifestyle.
While this was a very relaxing holiday, we also packed a lot in thanks to the great organisational skills of the team which meant that every day brought new horizons and opportunities.
On day two, we cruised from Le Somail to Piagasse and enjoyed a superb visit to the city of Carcassone, a mediaeval walled city dating back to the Gallo Roman era.
Steve gave us a fact-packed talk about its fascinating history before we explored it ourselves. After lunch, we cycled to the town of Capestang and as it was open to celebrate Ascension Day, joined a tour climbing to the top of the local church.
After climbing some slightly dangerous twisty staircases, we emerged at the top and were immediately handed a glass of wine to celebrate. Another special moment for the memory box.
Another day and another excursion, this time to Minerve, a village that looked like a set from Game of Thrones. Built on a hilltop and surrounded by deep gorges, it’s home to an ancient church with a table dated from 461BC and a museum housing dinosaur bones.
We then sailed to Malpass, mooring just beyond the world’s first canal tunnel. As we set out for a pre-dinner stroll, we were asked to be back in plenty of time for a pre-dinner surprise – a superb three-piece jazz band playing exclusively for us and creating more magical memories.
From Malpass, we cruised to Beziers, visiting Narbonne en-route. Once the Roman Mediterranean capital city, this impressive city has everything from narrow, cobbled streets to broad plazas and has numerous historic landmarks worth visiting, such as the ancient Gothic cathedral.
Our favourite venue was the local indoor food market which had stalls laden with delicacies ranging from snails and oysters to pungent cheeses and mouth-watering cakes. It’s the perfect place to chill out with a glass of vino and watch the locals go about their lives. Instead of dining on-board that night, we ate in a Michelin star restaurant, L’Ambassade.
If you’re going, try the cheese trolley which has dozens of varieties.
The next day, following a cycle run, we found a superb seafood buffet lunch awaiting us. The table groaned under the weight of the oysters, langoustines, mussels and enormous prawns and I have to say we enjoyed this more than the previous night’s five-star dinner.
We then cruised to Portigranges which is only 20 minutes away from a beach by bike. We cycled there and despite the sea being a tad chilly, my partner Andy enjoyed a refreshing dip before we set off once more, this time to visit 14th-century Chateau de Perdiguier.
The chateau is famous for its frescoes, which were recently discovered, and for its cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay wines, all of which we sampled following a great tour with our guide who even sang for us.
Our last full day was spent cruising through the nature reserve of Bagnas before we sailed into inland saltwater lake Thau, where we spotted lots of wildlife and numerous oyster beds.
The lake is so large it feels like you’re at sea, while the area has a very Italian vibe to it. We moored for the last time in the postcard-pretty fishing village of Marseillan, jam-packed with lovely yachts and home of Noilly Prat vermouth.
Our final outing with the wonderful “Wiki” was to the town of Pezenas, another pretty city steeped in history – this region seems to have an endless number of interesting towns and villages which makes a return visit a must, while the holiday was rounded off in grand style with a glamorous captain’s farewell dinner when our four crewmates joined us for another fabulous wine and dining experience courtesy of Tom.
As I said at the start, this was the holiday of a lifetime and it has already established itself in our memories as one of fabulous experiences, a break we’ll never tire of speaking about and look back fondly on for years to come.
Prices for a six-night cruise aboard hotel barge Anjodi are from £2,950pp in a twin/double cabin, including all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers.
Full barge charters are also available for families and groups.
Contact: European Waterways on 01753 598555 or visit www.gobarging.com