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Special Interest Vacations

Cruise England's Canals

Boat 2,000 Miles of Restored Waterways

England has restored over 2,000 miles of navigable waterways on its 250-year-old canal system since the 1950s and canal cruising has become a favorite British holiday. About 25,000 "narrowboats" (private and rentals) ply the inland waterways.

The fully-equipped 7-foot wide boats, like stretch American RVs on the inside, are available in all levels of luxury. They range in length from 45 to 70 feet and are configured for sleeping up to 12 people.

A 50-to 60-foot boat, a most manageable size, is large enough for two families with children. No prior boating experience is needed, and few people have any problem learning to handle the slow-moving boat. The rental companies provide a 1-hour orientation, along with a safety course.

All you need to bring is clothing and toiletries. You do your own food shopping. Water is free along the canals, but there is a small charge for weekly septic service. Generally, moorings are free.

Life at 4 mph is both relaxing and stimulating. Pam Godfrey of Alvechurch Boat Centres' says, "A narrowboat holiday is the fastest way of slowing down." There's an adventure around every bend. The canals offer eye-level vistas of pastoral countryside and classic thatched-roofed and half-timbered buildings.

The typical cost for a 60-foot boat hired during a peak time, such as August Bank Holiday Weekend, is about £1,000 (roughly $1,500) per week. For two families of four a week on the canals costs less than $200 per person, plus food. The craft serves as hotel, transportation, and restaurant. Most cruisers enjoy breakfast and lunch on board. Dinner options depend upon one's budget and the proximity of a noteworthy pub or restaurant.

Even the most jaded teenagers usually take to canal life with enthusiasm. They happily assume responsibility for operating the locks and draw bridges, racing ahead along the towpath to "set" the lock for the boat's arrival.

You tend to travel with the same boats each day, and all hands work together to speed everyone's progress through each lock. It's not unusual for two or three crews to plan on a get-together for dinner or drinks.

Most cruisers elect to navigate a "ring," or series of linked canals that place you back at your starting point without doubling back. There are 1- and 2-week rings, as well as longer cruises. Your rental company will be happy to assist in determining what circuit would be appropriate.

The canals frequently intersect with England's medieval-era public footpaths. You'll rely on them to get to towns, castles, and other sights.

A good starting point for a narrowboat vacation is the consortium of hire-boat companies known as Drifters: P.O. Box 232, Worcester WR1 2SD, U.K.; 011-44-195-721300, www.drifters.co.uk. Their catalogs for a group of companies (including Black Prince and Alvechurch) use a standard rating system, allowing you to compare rates, luxury level, and sleeping accommodations.

Since the hire companies depend on repeat business, they go out of their way to be helpful. They want you to return annually, as British families do. As a repeat cruiser I can attest: canal cruising is addictive.

U.K. Canal Cruising Info

Go to these sites to learn more about canal cruising:

U.K. Waterways Network at www.europeafloat.com/uk.htm contains information and links.

British Waterways, home page www.britishwaterways.co.uk is the official government site, with links and background.

Canal Junction, www.canaljunction.com. A comprehensive canal guide and leisure directory.

George's U.K. Canals and Waterways, www.canals.com. Another enthusiast page full of information and links.

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