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November 12-14, 2014: Gulfapalooza in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Ala.
Shelly Gaulin won the Spring Contest and recieved a Bahama Chartkit and Embassy Guide form Richardson's Maptech!
The scenic Canal du Midi in southern France is a must for boaters! Cruising this 300-year-old waterway, you will savor the slow easy French pace, passing medieval villages, country farms and vineyards in the heart of the Languedoc wine region. Le Boat, the largest charter boat operation in Europe, offers surprisingly affordable, entry- level charters to this canal (and hundreds of other waterways). This historic passage is easy to navigate, scenic, fun and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Boating at a mellow 5 kilometers an hour aboard your vessel of 30-45 feet, the big excitement is passing through the lock system every few kilometers and arriving in ancient villages as your daily destination on your personal private cruise ship.
Don’t expect a luxury yacht holiday, however, because you are the crew and captain, you will be driving the boat or donning gloves to handle the dock lines in each “écluse” (lock). But it’s entertaining and affords a sense of freedom by chartering your own boat and navigating these centuries-old canals. Le Boat provides itineraries of how far you should voyage each day, but it’s truly up to you.
Our weeklong voyage started in Castelnaudary, a small, pretty village. Le Boat’s base in Castelnaudary is in the Grand Basin with a lovely view of the cathedral and village across the waterway, just a short walk over an old stone bridge to town. We could also see the majestic Pyrenees Mountains to our southwest along the French-Spanish border.
Our first night, after our swift check in and orientation aboard our 40’ Horizon, we strolled to town, enjoyed local Languedoc wine and dinner at the Maison du Cassoulet sampling the specialty dish of slow-cooked white beans, tender pork and duck. Traditional “cassoulet” was a staple historically, especially in meager winters. Wow is it yummy and filling!
While returning over the old stone bridge back to our boat within the fleet, twinkling lights of the village reflected in the canal. We were excited to embark the next morning after a quiet comfy night’s sleep in the berth of our Horizon — Le Boat’s most modern vessel, equipped with a head, shower and full galley kitchen.
Before bed, I read about the fascinating history of the Canal du Midi. It was initially commissioned in 1516 by King Francis who hired Leonardo DaVinci to survey and create the route. Canal construction didn’t commence until 1667 and was completed in 1694, connecting 240 kilometers from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean with aqueducts, bridges and 91 locks to overcome the 620 feet height change in water level.
Designed as a trade route to shorten the otherwise long passage around the Iberian Peninsula, it’s also called the “Canal des Deux Mers” or canal of two seas. This vital trade route for two centuries is now a meandering waterway for pleasure boaters as well as bicyclists riding the tow paths paralleling the canal.
On the first morning, our first lock was the most dramatic, departing Castelnaudary via a series of four locks that descend 9.5 meters in consecutive rushes of water. Captain Greg (my husband) and I established our duties: he’d drive into the narrow stone chamber (thankful for bow thrusters) while I secured lines to the lock shore, ready to adjust as the water floods out.
We traveled in tandem with two other boats, a Swiss family and a German couple. All were experienced boaters, so we developed an efficient rhythm of entering the locks sequentially, tying up, descending and exiting in order.
We cruised 15 locks by noon, then tied to a canal bank for the daily lunchtime lock closure of 12-1:00 p.m. We’d provisioned in Castelnaudary for the perfect picnic of flaky croissants, local ham and cheese, and a glass of Languedoc rosé on our boat’s top sun deck.
When the “Eclusier” (lock operator) returned to open the lock for us, we cruised the canal again with the occasional excitement of encountering oncoming boats in the narrow canal. Some boat captains were better at steering than others.
Our first day, we clocked 19 locks, 26 kilometers from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. We chose to stay overnight in Villesèque, a lovely anchorage with a few other boats tied to the shores. There was no marina, but we could walk to the tiny village over a charming stone bridge to see the church and the Sully elm tree planted in the square, among the last elms still alive in France.
We toasted to our first boat day with wine and cheese on our top deck, and invited over our boat neighbors, a delightful South African couple who proved Le Boat’s international appeal. He’d never boated before, but Le Boat states that you need no prior boating experience.
On Day 2 we cruised under sunny early October skies, loving the canopy of iconic Plane trees that drape some of the river. Unfortunately, much of the 40,000 Plane trees along the 240- kilometer stretch are diseased. Over 25% have the blight and are systematically being cut and burned, a huge undertaking. In parts of the river, trees are being removed, and replanting different species is underway, but it will take time to reestablish the majestic trees.
We arrived midday at the marina of Carcassonne and docked our boat well-positioned for exploring the city, with views of the waterfront park and tour boats coming and going across the Aude River.
Carcassonne exceeded my expectations, and I know now why it’s the second most visited tourist attraction in France (#1 is the Eiffel Tower). La Cité is a massive, fortified castle with 52 spiraling turrets and imposing double walls of rampart circling 3 kilometers perched above a medieval village.
We immediately rode our bikes, provided by our Le Boat charter, up to the fairytale citadel. You can also ride le Petite Train for 7 Euro. Crossing the castle drawbridge, we stepped in to La Cité and the 13th century. Be sure to pay to enter and appreciate the scale of the ramparts and the view of Carcassonne’s lower city and the Pyrenees to the west. Then stroll the maze of medieval cobblestone streets filled with shops and cafés. Lunch at Comte Roger was a chic culinary treat. A real luxury would be to stay at the five-star Hôtel de la Cité for an elegant evening in the illuminated castle.
Back in Carcassonne’s village, we found the grand pedestrian plazas marked by statues and fountains, boutiques, bakeries and casual bistros. It’s a fun city to explore on foot, with provisions aplenty for boaters.
The next morning, after fresh pain au chocolat, we hopped on our bikes to cycle to wineries. Greg guided us with his iPhone’s Komoot app, which maps out recommended hiking and biking routes. Château Auzais (est. 1872) was a wonderful tour and tasting. Our guide described the Occitanie wine’s bouquet as the convergence of Atlantic winds melding with the Mediterranean, as we sipped our favorite wine aptly named “La Cité des Ventes.”
Château de Pennautier was another fantastic estate. The gorgeous 1620 castle was home to the financier of the Canal du Midi construction — the same architect who designed Versailles. The château’s authentic furniture is gorgeous. Reserve an interior castle tour or just stroll the beautiful gardens. From here, we visited the sister winery and restaurant for a lovely lunch and wine tasting of Pennautier’s whites, rosés and reds.
We planned to boat the next day to Trèbes from Carcassonne but biked instead. The tow paths along the canal are ideal, in fact you can cycle faster than you can boat. We waved to fellow charter boats as we breezed by vineyards, farms, locks and bridges. Our return into Carcassonne provided stunning views of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites at once — La Cité Castle and Canal du Midi.
Our return trip from Carcassonne to Castelnaudary only took a day through 24 locks and 30 kilometers with our now well-orchestrated rhythm of navigating locks. Our timing was good for the opening of most locks, and we traveled solo, as mid-October is end of the season the lock keeper told me. Summer is very busy on the canal, with boats in a queue for their turn in locks, and busier marinas.
As for the voyage, I recommend you plan one-way (for an upcharge) for the adventure of all new places along your voyage. The round trip had us retracing our passage, viewing previous scenery. We prefer the excitement of not knowing what’s around the next river bend and discovering new villages.
Also ascending the locks, going upriver, is more difficult. Captain Greg would let me off on a dock before the lock, I’d walk ahead and retrieve his tossed lines to secure the boat, we’d adjust during the rush of cascading water, then I’d board our boat when it came to the top of the full lock.
We felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment, having completed our week with success (i.e. no one fell in, no damage to boat). Our final day was leisurely aboard the boat, walking Castelnaudary’s village to a delightful bakery, to the cathedral and up the hill to the windmill, a wonderful 17th century Moulin with splendid views of Black Mountain and the French countryside. We biked along the canal, then relaxed on our boat’s sun deck viewing the Spanish peaks where we planned to ski in winter.
Our check out was quick but thorough. Le Boat’s fleet varies in age, so I was happy we’d opted for the newer spacious Horizon model. Funny, other couples posed for selfies by our boat preferring our more sophisticated-looking vessel for their posts. Some of the older boats are a bit banged up from lock passages, a testament to the “no license or experience required” policy of Le Boat.
We’re already browsing Le Boat’s itineraries: Italy, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, England, the Netherlands or Canada for our next charter adventure.
PHOTOS BY GREG BURKE
“WOW!” WAS ALL I COULD COME UP WITH when my neighbor asked, “So, how was Croatia?” I simply ran out of adjectives to express the beauty and allure of this country. With its unique combination of history, culture, cuisine, friendly locals, rugged mountains, long coastline and crystalline blue waters, not to mention hosting a world-class boating scene, it’s easy to see how Croatia is becoming a popular destination with something to excite everyone.
If you are looking for history, then exploring one of the many Croatian UNESCO World Heritage Sites will quench your passion for the past. Transport yourself back to the 4th century AD with a stroll through the remnants of a Roman emperor’s palace. Wander through one of the best-preserved Roman coliseums in the world, and you can almost hear gladiators’ swords clashing against wooden shields.
Croatia’s story is woven together with charming medieval hill towns where regal bell towers seem to pierce the heavens. Climb the ancient tower’s stone steps spiraling to the top and be rewarded with breathtaking vistas. Look straight down past the windows with a line of colorful laundry fluttering in the breeze and on to the delightfully twisty cobblestone streets just wide enough for a donkey cart to pass. Now, centuries later these lanes are lined with enticing artisan shops, gelato stands, and tucked into every bend, a little sidewalk café begging to be discovered.
Ruins of castles and fortresses dot not only the coastline but many of the islands. Standing guard, their thick limestone walls once provided safe haven to the residents within, and now only serve as a testament of a more turbulent time. Walk along the massive stone fortifications and peer down into the moat, and one can almost feel the thunder of horse hooves as knights ride across the drawbridge.
Surround yourself in the art of the ages by stepping inside Croatia’s sacred churches and splendid cathedrals, the architecture spanning the Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque periods.
Although it is possible to stay in a Hilton-style hotel or rent a Mediterranean villa by the sea, you have other options. We chose to immerse ourselves in the medieval world by staying in the heart of the old town centers in family-run studio apartments. Sleeping under a roof that dated back 600 years enriched our Croatia experience while also supporting a local family business. These cozy apartments are refurbished to modern standards and are as comfortable as any four-star hotel.
If you’re a nature lover, Croatia boasts eight national parks. One can hike a lake rim and descent onto a series of wooden boardwalks meandering among turquoise waterfalls giving a unique on-the-water view of Mother Nature’s power or try backpacking through an island forest. However, you do not have to go to a national park to be enveloped in nature, as Croatia is a wonderland anywhere you turn.
If you’re into adrenaline sports, Croatia can provide all you need from bungee jumping to zip lining. For those leaning toward adventure with less heart stopping action, cycling, paddleboarding, sea kayaking or snorkeling are popular choices. My favorite jaunt was an all-day off-road dune buggy ride with a final stop at a local winery for a tour and tasting.
Croatia has a long history in winemaking, and wine tourism is becoming increasingly popular. Croatia cuisine reflects the flavors of central Europe, Italy and the Mediterranean. The coast of the Adriatic Sea is famous for its fish and seafood dishes while the inland menu features hearty meat platters. Sharing a border with Italy, it’s not unusual to be enticed with handmade pasta or even pizza.
Wrapped around all these sensory experiences is the Croatian people. Perhaps it’s due to the mild Mediterranean climate that the locals exude, a version of a “malo po malo” or “little by little” attitude that entices us fast-paced city dwellers to slow down and take in life. Pausing for a wine spritzer or cappuccino at a sidewalk café could last hours, and it’s not only quite all right...it’s expected. As a local told us; “There’s no such thing as coffee to-go in Croatia.”
This small country is touted as the number one sailing destination in Europe, and with good reason. Rivaling the West Coast of the United States in length, Croatia’s shores are lined with protected ports and marinas that support a wide range of options for visiting the more than 1,200 islands. So, it’s no wonder that each year many visitors opt to explore Croatia by water.
If your taste leans toward a traditional cruise line, you will find an ample supply of lavish cruise ships capable of hosting more than 3,000 guests making overnight stops at the most popular ports of call.
For those seeking a more intimate experience, it’s increasingly popular to book a cabin on a 20 to 40 passenger luxury yacht. Croatia specializes in these small ship cruise lines, because they can explore tiny islands with hidden coves and access regions of the coast larger ships can’t navigate. Becoming your mobile boutique hotel, these opulent yachts boast the finest service, cuisine, spacious teak sundecks and even jacuzzis to enjoy your final nightcap.
Looking to be captured by the romance of exploring the Adriatic under sail? Then your hot ticket may be booking a cabin on one of the smaller eight to 16 passenger schooners known as gulets. Handcrafted of mahogany, pine and teak, these motor-sailing gulets offer a marvelous blend of modern-day comforts with charms of tradition. Potentially a little more laidback, swimming, sunbathing and just plain relaxing become a favorite pastime of the guests.
If you’re a bit more on the adventurous side, contact one of the many charter boat companies servicing Croatia to reserve your own sailboat or powerboat. Both are available as bareboat or skippered charters. Many choose a local captain to handle the boat and play guide, allowing you to kickback and gain a sense of the culture, all the while discovering his favorite anchorages, villages and local restaurants you would have missed along the way. You just might end the cruise with a new best friend.
If you’re land trekking and want a quick taste of boating life in the Adriatic, wander down to the harbor and book a day cruise from a variety of island tours or dinner cruises offered on small excursion boats.
After a full day of exploring, we often found ourselves joining the locals sitting on the rocky shoreline and hoisting our drinks to yet another magnificent Adriatic sunset.
Ever tasted Grk wine? If not, don’t feel bad. Most people, including wine connoisseurs, have never heard of, much less tasted, Grk “Gerk” wine. This Holy Grail of wines is one of the more elusive vinos in the world that ironically enjoys an almost cult-like following in Croatia.
Among wine specialists, there is no consensus whether this peculiar three letter name comes from the wine’s taste (to locals, Grk translates to bitter) or the origins of the first grapes brought to this area by the Greeks, which is also Grk in Croatian.
Around the 3rd century BC, ancient Greeks settled just off the coast of what is now mainland Croatia to a small island called Korčula bringing their precious vines. The southern slopes provided what Grk likes the most: excellent sandy soil and temperature stability under the influence of the surrounding sea. Vines enjoy sunny days, and locals swear that the grapes also benefit from the added reflection of the sun both off the water and the rocky hillsides behind.
These factors seem to be the sweet spot for cultivating this rare variety; however, the precious microclimate only exists in less than 100 acres of coastal land, which is the entirety of all the Grk planted in the world. Cultivation on other islands or in other parts of the country and the world have failed for the most part, making this one of the rarest grapes and categorized as “almost endangered” by the State Institute for Nature Protection.
To make matters worse, Grk is among the 1% of grape varieties in the world that cannot self-pollinate. Because Grk has only female flowers, it is always planted with the male grape vine nearby to enable pollination. This additional complication also hampers the desire to upscale commercial production.
Limited in production, it’s rare to see Grk wine served or sold outside Korčula. So, the best chance to savor this wine is to visit the handful of family wineries producing Grk. During summer when Korčula welcomes a massive influx of tourists, almost the entire production of Grk wine can be consumed within a season.
Time to start my Grk quest. I took the two-hour ferry ride to the island of Korčula, and a short bus ride left me within walking distance of three family wineries. Confession: I had planned to visit all three wineries, but after I got settled into my wine sampling accompanied by a delectable charcuterie board, I began easing into island time and whiling away the afternoon at just one winery.
A tour of the production was accomplished practically from my seat overlooking the vineyards. I did walk over to view the wine cellar, which had enough room to house only eight wine barrels. These are tiny boutique wineries, and the labor of love that goes into making this wine is evident. I asked the owner if they bottled their wine to sell or import off the island. Looking at me quizzically, he replied that it was for sale only for individuals that came to visit the winery, and they sold out each year.
But was it good? As more of a full-bodied red wine lover, I didn’t know what to expect when he poured this pale golden wine. It was fabulous. It displayed an astounding depth and complexity I usually do not associate with white wine. The taste and texture were dry with hints of pine, citrus and saltiness leaving a subtle touch of tartness or bitterness at the finish.
I left the winery feeling my quest was accomplished. I smiled knowing that the bottle of Grk swaying in my backpack wasn’t going to make it back to the United States in my carry-on luggage, so I’d just have to enjoy it here. Now I have one more reason to return.
Only accessible by boat, Bitter End Yacht Club’s family-owned destination has been in business for 50 years. As you cruise Virgin Gorda’s gorgeous coastal stretch along the British Virgin Islands, the yacht club is situated on a secluded island and feels like a tiny nautical town.
The property was decimated by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and took four years to rebuild, finally reopening in 2021. With help from the community, the marina worked meticulously to maintain the legacy and history of the yacht club. By chance, some signage and maritime artifacts were salvaged from the storm and now appear in art galleries in the property’s clubhouse.
The full-service facility offers deep-draft dockage for up to 26 vessels, accommodating yachts up to 240’. The marina also offers 72 mooring balls and catamaran slips to accommodate wide beams. A few charming cottages are available on-site for lodging, with plans to build more in the future.
Amenities include a fuel dock, complimentary Wi-Fi, free launch service from all shoreside activities and a second floor mariner’s lounge and library where guests can play cards, read books and enjoy family friendly activities. Recently opened this winter, The Quarterdeck lounge boasts a selection of curated rums from across the globe and a 180-degree view of the Caribbean.
Sailors can be found socializing at The Buoy Room, the on-site restaurant offering cocktails and shared small plates of Caribbean cuisine. The Reef Sampler beach bar, a sunken vessel that was the workforce of the club fleet for many years, is now transformed into a bar perched on Marina Beach. Recently revived this winter, the formal yacht club dining room, The Clubhouse, was founded in 1969 and was the first restaurant bar in the BVI’s North Sound.
The marina provides any provision or dry good you could imagine from fresh oven-baked pizzas to The Market’s pastas, produce and fish straight off the boat. For on-site retail, The Reeftique has become a premier BVI destination and fashion boutique with unique apparel, accessories, jewelry and gifts.
In tandem with Reeftique and help from the community, the marina launched Bitter End Foundation right after the hurricane, hosting fundraisers, events, auctions and environmental initiatives over the years. A percentage of retail profits continue to fund the foundation to help the community.
Watersports are the heart and soul of the marina, which offers everything from sailing and windsurfing lessons to regattas and other activities. The outdoor space along Marina Beach is a lively hub for games such as cornhole and giant Jenga, as well as Boston Whaler boat rentals.
Many guests feel that Bitter End is their home away from home. “We feel less like a resort hotel and more like a global community of kindred spirits with people who love and are called to the sea, are active and have a sense of adventure,” says President Kerri Jaffe.
The marina hosts activities such as party games, tug-of-war, hermit crab races and live local Caribbean music. Many regattas are held through the year, along with other events during the festive season, such as the lighted boat parade and exclusive dining experiences.
The third generation of the Hokin family currently owns the marina and maintains the longtime spirit and dedication to the community with what they now call “Bitter End 2.0.”
“It was a commitment to our global maritime community, many who are multi-generational,” says Jaffe. “Something really unique and special about Bitter End is the families — the grandfathers, the fathers and the grandchildren who have been introduced over the last 50 years and come back every year, and some even return more than once a year.”
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