Slow-boating in style with Nicols on the River Saône in France

Nicols' Quattro S boat was like a luxury apartment afloat The kingfisher catapulted across the river like an azure ball-bearing, landed on an overhanging branch then ricocheted back across to the other bank again.

It was one of many sightings of birds and wildlife that reminded us we were on slow-time now, driving ourselves down-river at a little over walking pace. And aboard our Nicols boat, we were enjoying not only the luxury of time but also of space aboard a beautifully designed and equipped home-from-home.

It was the quality of the Nicols boat that really made the trip for us. We saw other vessels that we wouldn’t have wanted to spend a week aboard. Our immaculate Quattro S had a full-size fridge-freezer, a proper shower with glass doors (no waltzing with a sticky shower curtain here, or worse, having to sit on the loo as you hose yourself down), a master cabin that could have come straight off a cruise ship with full ceiling-height, hanging space and plenty of storage. Plus, two bikes for exploring, safely stowed on the top-deck. 

The master cabin was spacious airy and full of storage nooks and crannies

For two people, this was ideal, with the smaller second cabin serving as an overspill area, though there were so many nooks and crannies for storage in the kitchen/dining area that we were still finding new hidey-holes after 7 days on board. But if you were bringing the grand-kids along too, it would all work equally well – the boat is so well thought-out. 

Driving at 8mph gives a new perspective on the river We were roaming the River Saône in the Franche Comte region of Eastern France, and what a quiet joy the whole area proved to be. In mid-September, the Parisians and schoolkids had all gone home, leaving the river uncrowded even though the weather still felt like summer. Off the main tourist-trails, the pretty riverside villages, mini-chateaux and towns welcome visitors with open, flower-filled arms – in Gray every roundabout, bridge and cobbled street seemed to be spilling with blooms. Many places have short walking trails marked where you can stretch your legs, and there is a flat canal path that’s perfect for cycling, virtually the whole way.

The locals were friendly and tolerant of our laughable French, listening intently and answering slowly in French, not patronising us with their much-better pronounced English (which many of them spoke). Everyone, from tractor-drivers to teenagers, from bikers to fellow boaters went past with a cheery ‘Bonjour’. Slow-lane life is wonderfully friendly!

Negotiating the locks was easier than it initially looked The river is a lazy beast, so slow-moving that Julius Caesar allegedly said it was barely a river at all. Semi-canalised now, it has a series of 25 locks along the 150 km route between Porte sur Saône and delightful Dole, as well as two rather exhilarating tunnel sections, where an optical illusion reflects the tunnel lights in the water making it feel like you are levitating in a sort of space tube. Weird but lovely at the same time!

I had some trepidation about the locks, but Nicols’ publicity is clear – ‘no experience needed’. They take you through how everything on the boat works and how to negotiate the locks before you set off (and escort you through the first lock to make sure you’re comfortable with what to do). And if some of it is bit of a mix of franglais and sign-charades, then there are also very clear, illustrated written instructions in English to ensure you keep safe on the water. 

Giving the 'bell pull' a twist opended the automatic locks The locks are automatic, triggered by what looks like a long bell-pull suspended over the river as you approach each one. Give it a twist and, following an easy sequence of traffic lights, the lock will open up for you. You glide into the chamber – the boat has fenders all the way round as well as a rubber rubbing strip, so you can’t do any damage – loosely tie-up, give the lock gate mechanism a tug, and Bob’s your uncle, it all happens for you. After one or two locks, we relaxed: we could do this – and so, I’m sure, could you!

The navigational chart book that Nicols supplied became our guide for the week – as well as showing where the locks are, it has snippets about the many places of interest en route and indicates where the supermarkets are. The marinas for overnight stays with water and electricity are clearly shown (about €13 a night depending on boat length) but we choose to fly-camp at ‘nature moorings’ most evenings, simply tying up at the side of the river and enjoying the splendour of such an unspoilt setting. 

There are herons at every bend in the river With our roomy fridge-freezer topped up with French regional goodies, oven-cooking dinner was fast and easy. And watching the sun go down as the last boats of the evening pottered past was a daily highlight. One night, two flat-nosed coypus, looking like beavers that have run into a wall, snowploughed their way across the river before having a rummage among the lily-pads.

The birdlife surprised us – it seemed like there was a heron at every bend in the river and a pair of swans hustling for bread on every straight. But very few ducks. Were they all in cans in the local supermarkets? Grebe and egrets, bats and buzzards, dragonflies and damselflies all thrive here though – and the river is jumping with fish. No wonder that like us, the kingfishers love it!

More information

Gill travelled onboard a two cabin Quattro S from the Nicols base at Port sur Saône to Dole in the Franche Comte region of France. Boat hire prices for the Quattro S, which sleeps four people, start from 903 Euros for a 2 night short break or 1,805 Euros for a one-week trip.

Dole is a charming flower-filled historic town Nicols offers river and canal holidays onboard a range of self-drive cruisers suitable for parties of between 2-12 people and no previous boating experience is required. Boat hire prices start from 342 Euros for a 2-night short break or 683 Euros for a one week trip.

In addition to Franche Comte, Nicols offers boating holidays from 18 different bases in popular regions such as Alsace, Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Brittany, the Canal du Midi and Camargue plus bases in Germany and Portugal.

For more information visit or call 02392 401320.

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Gill Haynes

Traveller, writer & Associate at Silver Travel Advisor

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