Natalie Marsh sets sail on the smaller waterways of northern France.
There’s something quite satisfying knowing that we’re the only boat on this part of the river right now. We’re drifting slowly along the River Somme, through a rural and picturesque part of northern France, barely overtaking the locals strolling along the riverbank.
I’m on board Natalia for a taster day with Backwaters Cruising, the new kid on the block of river cruises. Our three-and-a-half-hour journey takes us from Amiens to Corbie, a distance that would take less than half an hour by car – but taking the road (or river) less travelled is much more appealing.
Natalia, Backwaters Cruising’s first boat, operated its debut season last summer. Aimed at mature travellers, customers don’t stay on board, but rather disembark to stay in local accommodation. Spearheaded by the desire of Backwaters chief executive Lynn Woods to explore the lesser-cruised waterways of France, Natalia was custom-built to do just that.
There are more than 6,000 miles of navigable waterways in France and Belgium, many of which are too narrow for existing river cruise vessels. Natalia’s dimensions were therefore dictated by the width of the rivers and the length of the locks, and couldn’t exceed 38m by 5m.
But the boat feels far bigger in reality. It might be because it’s really a ‘floating lounge’, with no separate rooms except the crew quarters and the bathrooms; because it has huge windows that fill the boat with natural light; or because the number of people onboard is capped at 40, even though it can hold 55.
“We fancily call ourselves Backwaters, but it’s a good name because it’s what we’re doing,” says Woods. “We’re offering people the chance to see and experience places they can’t get to on the water unless they hire a boat or buy one.”
Standing outside on the back of the boat with the crew, we approach the first of the three locks we’ll tackle today. I must admit it’s a squeeze, but as per its precise dimensions, expertly guided in, we fit.
Things move at a slower pace on the river. With a delicious locally sourced lunch, a glass of wine in hand and the beautiful scenery ahead, it’s hard to imagine being any more relaxed. Sometimes Natalia’s speed is even leisurely enough for guests to walk along the path next to the boat.
A typical day on a Backwaters tour consists of a morning or afternoon onboard, and a half-day excursion to a local attraction or place of interest. Guests are transported by coach company Buzzlines across the Channel, to and from the boat, the accommodation and the attractions each day. Lunch is taken onboard, but guests eat dinner at local restaurants.
“We are bringing jobs and business into the local economies we visit rather than capturing it and keeping it all ourselves,” says Woods. “That makes us very different and it makes us much more welcome in these communities that we work with.”
Sitting inside, watching the countryside float by, the boat is almost completely silent. Natalia runs on hybrid electric engines, creating little noise and pollution, and can travel for up to six hours on electric propulsion alone.
Having been awarded Best European Tourism Project by the British Guild of Travel Writers last year, Backwaters places sustainability and responsible tourism at the forefront of its strategy. The boat’s design means it produces hardly any wash, so that it doesn’t contribute to the erosion of the riverbanks, and the company is committed to recycling and avoiding disposable plastics onboard.
“It’s against our personal philosophy and against our business interests to do anything else,” says Woods.
With two more boats on order, Backwaters will have a three-strong fleet touring the lesser-cruised waterways of France in 2020.
Book it: A seven-night Rivers of Wine itinerary on the River Yonne costs
from £1,199 per person, departing July 27, including six half-day cruises and excursions, seven nights in a hotel, all meals, coach travel from Folkestone and transfers.