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ROLLING DOWN THE RIVER <br> A DO-IT-YOURSELF CRUISE THROUGH LAZY, LOVELY BRITTANY

This is the tranquil Vilaine River, a shimmering ribbon of water flowing through central Brittany and flanked by farmlands, big willows, bike paths and ancient stone villages.

We are flowing with the river, motoring along in our shiny white canal boat as bicyclists wave, grazing cows look up lazily, and swans glide gracefully alongside us -- France's pastoral version of dolphins greeting ships at sea.

We are screaming at each other at the tops of our voices.

The cyclists stare in alarm, the swans swoosh quickly away, the cows moo a reproach, and the kindly lock-keeper who has been patiently guiding us through our first chain of multilevel waters shakes her head in dismay.

Four nouveau navigators, we are not the most harmonious of boat-mates this first morning out on a one-week self-drive cruise through a slice of the French canal system. But then, every crew is entitled to a shakedown day, and we are just getting out all the kinks at once.

My husband, David, designated captain because he has some "experience" (a 12-foot skiff on Lake Erie), is struggling -- loudly -- to master the simple gears that make our 39-foot-long cabin cruiser about as easy to drive as my Toyota Camry back home -- forward, neutral, reverse.

He is also barking orders at Joanne and Paul, friends from New York who apparently thought we were kidding when we said we were the only crew and are balking -- loudly -- at actually handling the ropes. I am finding Captain David a tad Captain Bligh-ish and am urging him -- loudly -- to back off.

We are, of course, having a wonderful time.

The idea of a do-it-yourself cruise in western France had seemed an ideal vacation for two couples who were fast friends, and, indeed, it proved to be a fine way to spend quality time together once we got over the initial clashes of ego and expectation.

With few pressures other than provisioning, navigating easy stretches of calm waters, and deciding which canal-side villages to explore each day and when to call it quits each night, we could concentrate on savoring the passing view and catching up on each other's lives -- with time to spare for good novels in private nooks.

We could have signed on with one of the big traditional canal barges that haul dozens of passengers at a time through France's most popular cruising regions -- such as Burgundy or the Loire Valley. Or we could have chartered one of the small, elegant yachts that come complete with a captain, maids and a gourmet chef.

But we wanted a more private adventure, less ado about meals and activities and a less congested introduction to the countryside that inspired Gauguin and Matisse.

We found the weekly rate -- about $3,500 for our 39-foot, six-berth boat on a September cruise -- more than reasonable. We could have spent even less apiece had we brought along a third couple to split the cost, chosen a smaller four-berth vessel or gone off-season, April or October.

Our leisurely seven-day, 130-mile round trip through Brittany's woodsy midriff took us from the tiny port of Messac (about a three hour drive southwest of Paris) south along the Vilaine River through dense green forests, past stately manors, stone churches and minuscule villages with half-timbered houses.

At the bustling university town of Redon, we switched to the Nantes a Brest canal, and headed northwest to Josselin, famous for its dramatic, many-turreted canal-side castle.

There we turned around and headed back to Messac, detouring for a day up a thin tributary to the artist community of Gacilly, where dozens of craftspeople working out of tiny stone workshops on narrow, cobbled streets sold pottery, brassware, blown glass, hand-painted clothing and jewelry.

Our Crusader cabin cruiser, the newest in a fleet of sleek canal boats rented out by the 29-year-old Crown Blue Line, was everything we could have wanted in a floating hotel.

Inside sliding glass doors were three decent-size cabins (two aft and a larger one fore), each with numerous windows and its own small bathroom, a roomy indoor lounge/dining area, a kitchen nook with a counter-top refrigerator/freezer, gas stove, oven burners, all the dishes, glassware, pots and flatware we would need, and a large sun roof that slid open to admit rays and breezes.

A spacious, open-air top deck had a large plastic table (with a wide umbrella for shade) for dining al fresco. We also were outfitted with four lightweight mini-bicycles that allowed us to pedal along the canal paths or explore country roads and villages not directly on the water.

Steering wheels were located both above deck -- the ideal place from which to navigate in fine weather -- and below -- for inclement days, of which we had none. Our boat had a maximum speed of about 10 mph, not exactly hot rod material but perfectly in sync with the unhurried pace of canal life.

A detailed nautical guide to our route had maps showing each lock and how to approach it, where to shift position to remain in the deepest part of the channel and how to decipher the colored buoys and other water signposts that indicated slightly tricky passages. The manual also provided a short synopsis of each village, pointed out historical tidbits and suggested restaurants and moorings along the route.

Setting off could not have been simpler. Motoring into Messac late on a Saturday afternoon, we checked in at the small canal-side office of Crown Blue Line, where a patient engineer in blue overalls named Laurent escorted us to our boat and helped us heave aboard our luggage.

Laurent showed us how to start the engine, check the water level and operate the toilets, showers and stove, then sent us off to a nearby market to load up on crusty baguettes of French bread, fresh cheeses and pates, and other staples we could reprovision at villages along our route. (We came prepared with several cases of fabulous wines we had collected the previous week while driving through the Loire Valley, but these too could have been purchased in port.)

Laurent accompanied us through our first set of locks, just a few minutes downriver from Messac, showing us how to maneuver slowly into the narrow holding area, tie up loosely at the mooring spot, letting out or pulling in rope as the water level rose or fell, then move on when the gates were opened at the other end of the lock.

Then he hopped off the boat, bade us bon voyage and walked back to the base to shepherd another group of nautical neophytes. (About 80 percent of Crown Blue Line's customers are beginners.)

While 130 miles in a week may sound like a lot of time for a little bit of progress, the 17 locks each way made the going a lot slower than we had expected.

Experiencing lock life is a key attraction of any canal cruise, and we relished our friendly interaction with the lock-keepers and their omnipresent little dogs, whichbarked an ahoy at our arrival, then ambled over for a pat on the head or a quick belly rub.

But the process ate up huge chunks of time as we beeped our approach, waited for the lock-keeper to manually or electronically open the flood gates, maneuvered into a space just a few inches wider than our boat's 13-foot-wide width, tied up loosely to a stone mooring, then waited for the floodgates to close and the water to slowly raise or lower us to the level of the next stretch of canal -- as much as 12 1/2 feet.

Because the locks held only one or two boats at a time, the wait could be substantial at busy times of the day. And once we waited nearly an hour for the lock-keeper to appear -- she was out in the fields milking her cows.

Our days soon fell into an easy routine. Each morning we arose about 8 a.m. to forage fresh-baked baguettes and chocolate croissants from the nearest patisserie. (One Sunday morning, walking to a village far up the road from our canal berth, we encountered a jovial young man selling breads and cakes out of a truck -- a mobile bakery that made house calls.)

Back at the boat we made hot coffee in time for Joanne and Paul's 9 a.m. wake-up honk, then left it to them to wash the dishes, while David and I lazed on deck mopping up the last drops of cafe au lait with the last bits of croissant crusts.

Eventually we would head off. Paul's long legs made him the natural candidate to untie the ropes from the mooring, then jump onto the boat to push off, while David steered us into open water and Joanne and I secured the various doodads around our vessel.

Then we all gathered in plastic chairs on the top deck as Captain David drove and we co-piloted with the nautical guidebook.

The narrow waterways made for easy interaction with others on land and water. We exchanged good tidings with passing boats and waved at canal-side cyclists, mothers pushing baby carriages, and old men fishing from the river bank. At some junctures fishing boats cast giant nets into the water, groups of kayakers paddled by, and we watched rock climbers mounting a steep promontory in the late afternoon sun.

Local folks often watched our progress from atop bridges bedecked with flower pots. One little boy and his grandmother waved from their bikes atop a small bridge as we passed under, then pedaled beside us along the bank for several miles before waving goodbye and zipping ahead.

We tried to time our lunches with lock-closings. Sitting on the sunny top deck, we munched cheese, bread and pate while overlooking a country manor or town harbor -- where schoolchildren marching to or from their own lunch at home giggled at us and showed off their English with a chorus of "ello."

Dinner usually was in village cafes; a favorite was a feast of garlicky mussels, fresh lamb and chocolate torte high above the village of Josselin overlooking the canal and our little boat. A simpler repast was the buckwheat pancakes and local cider at the 1,000-year-old village of Malestroit, where the houses were carved with whimsical figures of acrobats, dragons and rabbits playing bagpipes.

Most nights we moored at village piers, but if these were fully occupied or we were in an area without a dock, we had to perform a "wild mooring," maneuvering in close to a grassy bank so two of us could leap ashore with ropes and pegs.

Our first wild mooring was fraught with pegs that came unearthed, slipping ropes and a wayward boat, until a passing yachtsman came to our rescue, showed us the ropes, so to speak, then sped off with a wave like some nautical Lone Ranger.

We had a few mishaps during our trip -- as befits any nautical adventure. Our second day out, David stripped the gears on the top-deck steering column and had to navigate from below to the evening's mooring. We called the base in Messac early the next morning, and our friendly engineer Laurent arrived within an hour to fix the gears good as new.

At some point we also stuffed up two of the three toilets and flooded one of the bedrooms because we forgot the shower drain was activated by a switch -- but again, Laurent came quickly (the base, after all, was never more than a few hours' drive), chastising us good-naturedly and accepting a chocolate croissant and a cafe au lait as penance.

We had the time of our lives, even though, for the most part, our stretch of Brittany did not provide the knock-'em-dead chateaux, sumptuous restaurants or historic landmarks of France's more popular boating regions.

Our trip was more a cruising than touring experience, but then maybe that was part of the charm. With little to distract us from our lazy loll along the canal, we could surrender to the passing view, a ripe brie, a vintage Bordeaux and a few fine friends to share the delicious down time.

Travel information

Crown Blue Line rents self-skippered boats accommodating two to eight passengers in 10 regions of France. Weekly rates range from $1,320 for a two-person boat to $4,620 for an eight-person vessel. Rates are least expensive April and October. July and August are high season. Bike rental and parking cost extra.

The company also rents boats in Holland, Ireland and on the Erie Canal at Frankfort, near Utica. The rate for a six-person cabin cruiser on the Erie Canal is $3,120 per week in May, June and October, $3,670 per week in July, August and September.

For information, contact a travel agent or Crown Blue Line, c/o Travel Resources Ltd., 11 Burkewood Road, Mount Vernon, N.Y. 10552, or call (800) 355-9394.

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