by Joanna Booth, The Telegraph, April 16, 2018
Our expert guide to the best Spring canal holidays this year, from a tour through the Scottish Highland lochs to waterways further afield in Sweden and Canada...
1. A highland fling afloat
Twelve years overdue when it opened in 1822, Thomas Telford’s Caledonian Canal was already industrially redundant – and what a blessing that was, because the epic natural beauty of the Great Glen remains unblemished to this day. Passengers on the barge Fingal of Caledonia experience warm Highland hospitality as they cruise from tree-lined canals to beautiful, expansive waters – Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy – hopping off for hikes or some cycling, or staying on board to spot cormorants, herons and maybe a fabled monster or two.
- From £495 per person for a four-night, full-board cruise departing May 1 (01397 772167; caledonian-discovery.co.uk).
2. The Canals of Canada
See the contrasts of eastern Canada under your own steam aboard a roomy cruiser with a rooftop sundeck as it negotiates the Rideau Canal. North America’s oldest canal flows through the heart of cosmopolitan Ottawa and winds its way through the countryside – passing Canada’s prettiest village – to Smith Falls, famed for its fishing.
- From £1,438 for seven nights’ hire of a four-passenger cruiser to or from Smith Falls (023 9280 1370; leboat.co.uk).
3. From Bard to Bullring
See those darling buds bloom this May along the rural Stratford-upon-Avon Canal. Take a traditional narrowboat from Shakespeare’s birthplace past half-timbered houses and barrel-vaulted lock keepers’ cottages, along England’s longest aqueduct and through the model village of Bourneville before cruising into Birmingham itself. The city has more canals than Venice (35 miles as opposed to 26) and you can moor up in its industrial heart at Gas Street Basin, where the towpaths are lined with tempting cafés and bars.
- From £1,045 for seven nights’ hire of a two-berth narrowboat from Stratford in May (024 7639 3333; valleycruises.co.uk).
4. Sky-high in Wales
You will definitely need a head for heights on the Llangollen Canal’s “stream in the sky”. As you cross the impressively lofty Pontcysyllte aqueduct, designed by Thomas Telford, your narrowboat will soar high above the river Dee in a steel trough, with no barrier between you and the ground 126ft below. A long weekend is enough to explore the Welsh border country, bookended by the historic market towns of Llangollen in north-east Wales and Ellesmere in Shropshire. With just four locks en route, this is a great option for first-timers on the canals.
- From £775 for three nights’ hire of a two-berth narrowboat from Chirk, in April or May (01527 575115; black-prince.com).
5. Break for the border
The Shannon-Erne Waterway connects the Republic of Ireland’s river Shannon to the river Erne in Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. Cruise from the canal – stopping at village pubs for Ireland’s famed hospitality – into Upper Lough Erne, where you can moor up on tiny, uninhabited islands. And go steady with the black stuff – drink-driving rules apply on the water, too.
- From £706 for seven nights’ hire of a two-berth cruiser in May (01756 701200; boatingholidays.com).
6. Languid Languedoc
Let a luxury hotel barge dictate the pace on the Canal du Midi, which bisects the sun-dappled medieval villages and vineyards of the Languedoc region in southern France. On the eight-passenger Anjodi, the crew will cater to your every need, from freshly warmed morning baguettes to an evening cognac. Lazy afternoons on the sun deck, with its heated spa pool, are interspersed with some leisurely sightseeing, including a wine-tasting and a visit to the hilltop fortress town of Carcassone.
- From £2,520 per person for a six-night cruise departing from Marseillan on April 1, including meals, wine, an open bar and excursions (01756 706512; hotelbarges.co.uk).
7. Scandi Sleek
In Sweden, the Gota Canal is called the “divorce ditch” because of the marital spats inspired by its 66 locks. Cruise in historic splendour on board the MS Juno – named after the goddess of marriage – and it will prove to be a lovers’ lane instead, as you can leave all that palaver to the crew. Built in 1874, the world’s oldest registered cruise ship makes the journey between Stockholm and Gothenburg through idyllic countryside dotted with stately castles and palaces.
- From £1,795 per person including flights, transfers, excursions, a night in a hotel and three nights’ full-board on the ship (020 3131 5251; vjv.com).
8. Quiet on the Western Front
Mark the centenary of the Great War’s end by sailing through Flanders Fields from Bruges to Pont-l’Évêque on the smart 12-passenger hotel barge Panache. On this special First World War commemorative cruise, you will visit battlefields, memorials and museums along the Canal du Nord, taking in the Somme, Arras and Ypres and arriving at the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony.
- From £3,590 per person for six nights including all meals, wine, an open bar and excursions (01753 598555; europeanwaterways.com).
9. London calling
Take a city break with a difference and sail through the heart of the capital on the fully crewed, two-cabin Hotel Boat Kailani. Setting off down Regent’s Canal from Little Venice, you’ll cruise through London Zoo – you might see hyena feeding time from the deck – and putter through Camden Lock before mooring up in King’s Cross for the night. Then watch the urban sprawl transition to quiet pastures beyond the Olympic Park as you cruise the river Lee to the Hertfordshire town of Ware.
- From £890 per person for a five-night, full-board cruise from Little Venice on May 3 (07447 051558; hotelboatkailani.com).
10. Lock-free in Lancashire
If even the word locks brings you out in a rash, consider the Lancaster Canal, with 43 lock-free, peaceful miles to explore. Once upon a time, coal travelled north and limestone south on the “black and white” canal; now it is only pleasure craft, swans, otters and giant pike that ply the clean waters between Preston and Tewitfield. North of Lancaster, the canal hugs Morecambe Bay, giving splendid views across the estuary to the Lake District fells.
- From £440 for three nights’ hire of a four-berth narrowboat from Forton in spring (07453 366221; water-babies.co.uk).