Cruising the Camargue on a Yacht Charter Vacation
The black pearl of the Med
Aug. 12, 2006 10:00 AM
Cruising the canals of the Camargue in the South of France is to sample a vacation experience like no other, as you enjoy the local food and wine together with the flexibility, freedom and fun that only a self- catering yacht vacation can offer.
The Camargue is one of the most remarkable regions in Southern France, combining untamed countryside with traditional villages, walled crusader towns, modern resorts, delightful fishing ports and the medieval walled city of Agde, often called the ‘black pearl of the Mediterranean.’ At Sete stands the entrance to the spectacular Great Sea Lake of Etang du Thau; the many fishing ports here make it impossible not to stop and sample some seafood delicacies.
The Canal du Rhone a Sete provides effortless cruising between Beaucaire and Sete, then into the Great Lake. Chartering a yacht here is an unhurried affair, where crews spend a few hours sunbathing on a nearby Mediterranean beach, or visiting one of the bustling fishing ports to taste the local delicacies.
The Camargue is a triangular delta in the south of France covering 140,000 hectares. It’s made up of wetlands, pastures, dunes and salt marshes ,which are a major centre for salt production, producing up to 15,000 tons a day at harvest-time. The area provides a home for a unique collection of flora, including Tamarisk and Narcissi. The fauna includes egrets and ibises so it is no wonder it is the most important wetlands site in the Mediterranean as such and attracts over one million visitors a year. Many come to see the famous white horses and the pink flamingos, which have become the symbol of the area which, in 1970, was granted National Park status. People visit the Reserve between April and November to enjoy the beach, go bird watching or attend some of the cultural events specific to the area, such as the gypsy pilgrimage. Tourists can rent horses, go on ‘safari’ in a four-wheel drive vehicle, and use the beaches at Arles, Beauduc and Les Saintes or; like us, take a boat trip through the area at a leisurely pace.
Traveling the canals of the south of France by yacht is a cross between caravanning and walking in the countryside. That said, I do not think I have enjoyed my days afloat recently quite as much as I did when motoring the canals of the Camargue aboard a 42 foot Magnifique chartered through Connoisseur Afloat. We boarded our craft at the company’s base in Beaucaire not so very far from Nimes. Well-informed and happy-to-please shore-based crews quickly and efficiently went through the ropes and asked if I had any yacht handling experience. Once I understood that there was only one propeller, grasped the fact that there was no need for a compass, or a speed log, I was well away, and after a concerted effort by my crew to empty the shelves of the nearby supermarket, we set off on what was our very first canal experience. The boat is surprisingly well equipped with air conditioning, two steering positions, and a useful bow thruster and my only significant observation would be that it would have been nice to have a small generator or an inverter for charging the batteries of computers and cameras for those stupid enough to work rather than enjoy the cruising experience.
Our trip was a one-way journey from Beaucaire to Marseillan, sailing along; first the Canal du Rhône à Sète that meanders through the Camargue then, across the Etang de Thau a large shallow salt lake, before entering the Canal du Midi the historic 17th century waterway which links the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. Each of these areas would offer spectacularly different scenery and experiences, so we planned meticulously beforehand to enjoy them all to the full during trip.
Our boat was clean and both comfortable and well maintained. How crowded she would be if she carried her full complement of ten, I dread to think, but several passing yachts clearly proved us wrong and I can only suggest that their crews ate ashore a good deal and showered in facilities provided at marinas. Our reduced complement found the yacht very comfortable and my feeling is that a crew of between four and eight on board is, perhaps, the ideal number. Her spacious sun deck is great for eating al fresco and she comes with all the equipment you might need including ample refrigeration space.
Our first stop was Saint Gilles, a town known as the gateway to the Camargue, famous for its bulls and white horses. The town is named after a nobleman that became a hermit and took refuge here in the 8th century. His exemplary life has since inspired generations of Catholics who built an abbey here in the 12th century in his honor. The Lonely Planet Guide suggests, rather quaintly, that shortly after that the towns candle went out, and perhaps they are right! Even so, there are snatches of culture dating back to Roman times and a house where Pope Clement IV is said to have been born.
Moving on we passed through low wetlands the banks of our canal stacked high with cut phragmite reeds or sagno drying in the sunshine as they wait their turn to become thatched roofs of the future. Less than twenty local men, Sagneurs, now retain the hereditary right to harvest these reeds and do so traditionally, cutting and turning them all by hand. Swallows and egrets dive bomb the canal; as we motor on turtles cling to waterside tree roots, basking in the sunshine, and we were even lucky enough to spot small water rats called Coipu. Marshes have been turned into rice paddy fields in a traditional checkerboard pattern. Fields on slightly more solid ground are the grazing homes to the Camargue bulls, whose narrow foreheads and dark grey horns sit above alert eyes that watch as canal boats cruise on by. Cowboy like horsemen, sitting on special saddles astride white stallions, charge about through shallow water as they round them up and move them to pastures new. In the evenings, the sky can turn almost pink, as flocks of pretty flamingos seek out their roosts for their night-time resting.