Imagine gliding down a clean, clear river, the water sparkling alternately turquoise and emerald as it reflects the sky and the steep green banks of a gorge. Your skin shines as the sun heats you through and you watch large fish drift by or look up to see great towers of rock and circling birds-of-prey. Imagine, too, the thrill as rocks and faster water appear up ahead, the rattle of paddles on the sides of canoes, the delighted squeals and cheers of triumph.
In a luscious, vibrant landscape so exceptional that even an 11-year old who is intent on being the fastest pauses to look around and breathe the word ‘Beautiful’, canoeing on the Hérault in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France will delight any kid aged six and up – and please you as much as it pleases them. A reasonable level of fitness is required and you must be able to swim; you must also bring water shoes or old trainers.
Canoë Le Moulin (canoelemoulin.fr) at St Bauzille-de-Putois near Ganges is one of a handful of canoe companies on this part of the Hérault river. We pick up our gear at 10.30am, and wearing life-jackets (and helmets in the case of under-12s) and carrying paddles plus three waterproof plastic containers holding our picnic (a must – there are only a couple of snack bars en route), towels, suncream, water, cameras, wallets and watches, we make our way to the water’s edge, where our three two-person canoes await (single and three-person canoes are also available).
For all of us but especially for youngsters, the whole mythology of water exploration comes into play when canoeing: pirates and Indians, treasure and islands, walking the plank and secret underwater worlds. You can stake your claim on an island and stop to picnic, pull up on a river beach by the rapids to watch others negotiate white-water and plan your route down, or flop out on a beach with flat rocks heated by the sun. You can swim or paddle when you get too hot, or just stop off and relax in a shady spot. Our group of two adults, two teenage girls and two 11-year-old boys, happily raced, fought, swam, jumped from rocks of varying heights, and took in the sights as we made our way lazily down river.
Some of our favourite sights were other people capsizing (yes, it does happen occasionally!), a dog in a canoe going down the rapids (and its dawning realisation that total trust in its two human companions may not have been such a good idea), and a man on a rock playing a trumpet. The rapids were always rapid enough to satisfy the children but never so hazardous they worried the adults (well, not much anyway…). It took our party five-and-a-half hours to travel the prescribed nine kilometres, but we had such a good time it seemed to be over in the blink of an eye.
Sitting on a tree stump waiting for the mini-bus (included in the price and departing every hour throughout the day) to take us back to our car, we listened to the cicadas sawing and all agreed that had been the best day out ever. Boarding the bus, we gazed longingly back at the river.
Read more about family holidays in Languedoc-Roussillon, including hand-picked places to stay and things to see and do with kids.