The best way to discover the Loire River is to get out on the water. Here are two ways you can explore France’s beautiful waterway.
I grew up next to the water. The Atlantic Ocean was in my backyard and I spent plenty of time with my family on the shore, swimming, or in boats. I have many fond memories of the sea and it was one of the few things I missed about Canada when living in Belgium.
Watch the video of our day Boating on the Loire River.
Nova Scotia is also home to countless lakes and rivers. Although I took canoe lessons, I wasn’t the most balanced individual, as my poor father knows all too well. Let’s just say, I have earned my title as ‘Sir Flips-a-lot’.
All of this came back to me, as I stood on the bank of the Loire River, in the Centre region of France, and looked down at the morning’s mode of transportation: a canoe. But not really a canoe.
To me, a canoe would have sides, maybe a couple of seats, and, unless I tipped it, it would be dry. Not this canoe. It was more like a kayak crossed with a surfboard: low to the water, no sides, and a couple of indents for your butt and legs. I could see my future -and it was wet.
Alison, knowing my history, bravely decided to get in first. She clambered on board like a pro and got herself seated, ready to push off. Meanwhile, I was at the back wondering how on earth I was going to launch this wobbly kayak-surfboard thing and get on top of it without sinking both of us. The last time I tried this, my father and I both went for a swim.
Oh well, at least it is a sunny day, I thought.
I gathered myself together, pushed the “canoe” out onto the river and jumped aboard. Keeping myself as low as possible, I managed to keep us from tipping. I made it. I was sitting wrong, but I was on. Another couple minutes of mild terror while I got myself seated properly and we were off. Whew!
The Loire is a peaceful river. Unlike the Rhine or the Seine, there are no ships on the Loire, because the water level is too low. At one time, the river was dredged to provide narrow shipping channels. However, when steam trains arrived, the high-maintenance river channels were abandoned and the river returned to a more wild state. Today there are some parts the Loire deep enough for larger, flat bottom boats, but most of the river is only navigable by small personal crafts like ours.
Our canoe came from Absolument Canoe, a small company, based at a campground in Saint-Ay, just outside Orleans. The couple running the campground and canoe business is lovely. They left careers in northern France, to take on the challenge of resurrecting an abandoned municipal campground. I love meeting people undertaking new challenges like this.
We parked Amelia at the Saint-Ay Campground and jumped into a van hauling a trailer of canoes. The owner drove us back upriver to a launch point beneath one of the bridges in Orleans. The trip downriver would take around 3-4 hours, depending on the current and our paddling. Neither of us had any experience with kayak paddles (the ones with a flat bit at both ends) so we relied on the river to get us back.
We spent a fabulous sunny morning paddling in circles and floating inexorably downstream. Where the river got narrow, or shallower, the water sped up, but generally, it was calm and placid. We didn’t really need to paddle much, just enough to keep us facing the right way, avoid the bigger rocks, and stay off the banks.
Despite the beautiful weather, we were the only people on the river. Nature surrounded us, though. We saw numerous birds, including a whole mess of swans floating mid-river. We’re not sure why they were there, but we suspected some kind of food source. We also saw a mother ragondin, (river rat or coypu) with at least three babies, enjoying the sun on a thick tree branch over the water. They dove in and swam off into the underbrush as we got closer.
By the time we arrived back at the campground, we were happy but soaked. No, I didn’t dump us in the water. The canoe featured numerous drainage holes that let water in while we were paddling. Plus, the water on the paddles soaked us every time we alternated sides. We were happy to have a change of clothes ready in the motorhome!
But our day on the Loire was not yet finished. We dried off, changed, and hit the road. We drove upriver, to the other side of Orleans, where the river gets deeper (if you call a bit more than 1m, deep). After a tight turn, we squeezed Amelia into a shaded parking spot just behind the river embankment. I don’t think they anticipated a lot of motorhomes making the trek out to this wharf.
Walking down to the wharf, we were greeted by Jean-Philippe, our captain for the afternoon. Jean-Philippe invited us onboard his sturdy (and dry) wooden boat, called a Toue. Unlike barges on the rivers in northern Europe, which are deep and long, traditional boats on the Loire were wider and flat-bottomed, meaning they could navigate shallower waters. A Toue could carry sheep, a cow, or a horse, or equivalent merchandise, and would have been the main mode of hauling cargo up the river, back in the early 19th century.
Jean-Philippe and his partner, Bruno, are passionate about the Loire, nature, and sharing this natural beauty with others. Shipbuilders by trade, they built their own Toue, and, in 2007, started offering tours along the river as the Passeurs de Loire. Today they have three boats and have also launched a small-scale, sustainable fishing business on the Loire.
Before we knew it, we were on our way upstream, the afternoon sun warm on our faces. At this point, the river is quite wide and makes a couple of large, sweeping turns. Even though the river is relatively deep here, it is important to have an experienced captain, intimately familiar with this section of the waterway. The sand and rocks shift constantly, silting up channels that may have been accessible even a week earlier. During our trip, Jean-Philippe was able to get us further up the river than usual, by inching his way over a sandbank. If we’d been more than three people in the boat, or even a day later, we probably wouldn’t have made it.
Throughout our three hour journey, Jean-Philippe shared his knowledge of the Loire, his boats, and the history of navigation on the river. He is a fountain of knowledge and is obviously passionate about the Loire.
As we were floating back downriver, enjoying a bit of lunch, he told us about the wildlife on the river. Sometimes, they see deer and other animals on the shore, but this day we were unlucky. We saw numerous beaver lodges, but no one was home. Apparently, the beavers have summer and winter lodges, due to the change in water levels throughout the year. A lodge’s security lies in the entrance being underwater, so they need to move house when the water level drops.
Tying up at the wharf, our day on the water was complete. I enjoyed our tour with Jean-Philippe. As a boatbuilder, he has a unique perspective on the Loire and the traditional boats. Many people can tell you about the history of these boats, but few have the experience to say what it was like to build one and sail it. I highly recommend joining Jean-Philippe for a trip on the river. Passeurs de Loire offer various tours, from a 1.5-hour discovery tour up to a day and a half overnight experience.
After two very different experiences of the Loire River, it is hard to say which I preferred. If you have the time and budget, I suggest doing a tour with Passeurs de Loire first, to learn about the river. Then go rent a kayak-meets-surfboard, for a half day, from Absolument Canoe, and get up close to the river and nature. Doing both makes the Loire River experience more fulfilling.
Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.
– A. A. Milne
We’d like to thank the Région Centre-Val de Loire Tourism office for hosting us in the area. As always, all opinions are our own.