Amelia Romanos moors her self-drive canal boat in the smallest villages along Canal du Midi and mingles with the locals.

It's perhaps the most quintessential of New Zealand summer experiences — a holiday bach in a small community by the beach.

Just the one fish and chip shop, which doubles as the convenience store, jandals, Frujus, and the nearest mall or movie theatre more than an hour's drive away.

To find that level of authenticity in a foreign country, on the other side of the world, is challenging.

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Without the local and generational knowledge, avoiding tourist traps and finding the genuine culture can be impossible.

But a Locaboat cruise down France's Canal du Midi delivered just that.

For five days on a self-drive canal boat, we moored in the smallest of French towns, and saw the boulangeries, the vineyards, and the countryside away from the glitz of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Versailles.

We travelled about 50km from our starting point at Argens Minervois to Beziers and back, discovering Southern France in a truly different way.

People who spoke English were rare, but our efforts at French were welcomed warmly, although perhaps with a few smiles at our less-than-successful attempts.

With bikes on board, our days involved riding a couple of kilometres inland to sleepy towns on food missions — often buying whatever we could find, at whatever shop was open.

One night we arrived in a tiny village, Paraza, having exhausted all baguette and fromage supplies on board, and having put very little thought into what might be for dinner.

With no shops to be seen, let alone open, we stumbled across what must have been the only restaurant in town. It wasn't technically open, but the sole waiter told us it was hosting a tapas evening for people in the village and there was room for us to join in.

So we did. We spent the evening mingling with the locals, sampling whatever food was brought to us, and drinking wine made in the neighbouring village.

With not a chain store in sight, nothing in these villages was recognisable, emphasising their special character and how far away we felt from the rest of the world.

The Pont Vieux, Old Bridge, and St Nazaire Cathedral overlook the River Orb at Beziers. Photo / Getty Images
The Pont Vieux, Old Bridge, and St Nazaire Cathedral overlook the River Orb at Beziers. Photo / Getty Images

In another canal-side hamlet, Le Somail, we pulled up alongside a permanently docked boat selling fresh bread and other groceries.

We scrambled on to land to see an artist surrounded by a flock of ducks, painting just metres from the water outside his studio.

After wandering around his gallery, we crossed a stone bridge to find a massive, two-storey second-hand and antique bookstore that appeared more like a library from the
Middle Ages.

Le Trouve Tout du Livre, it turns out, is world famous, and for anyone wanting to visit, please note: there is an English section.

The canal is not somewhere you would take a dip voluntarily, but we were determined to find a spot for a swim on this holiday.

Our persistent efforts in the local tongue eventually paid off when a local shopkeeper pointed us in the direction of a swimming hole, running below the canal.

Leaving the boat tied up above, we wandered down a bank, struggled past the waist-high "Oh God, that's quite a bit colder than I thought" moment, before taking the plunge, then spending the afternoon in the river.

Our trip coincided with the end of summer, and though the canal remained popular, it was surprisingly uncrowded.

While we squeezed past boats at some points along the journey, there were stretches with not a boat in sight, just us cruising along beneath overhanging trees and past empty landscapes.

Locks in townships were often full to capacity, but some 50m down the canal, we would find ourselves entirely alone.

Perhaps, bizarrely, it was on a night when we were moored in such a spot, sitting on the deck as the sun dropped away and listening to the nothing, that I felt most immersed in French culture.

The smell of barbecues, sea swims, and the other children I met are a big part of my childhood memories of Kiwi beach bach holidays, but late sun and the quietness of night is what I remember most.

Our night on the Canal du Midi seemed to be the French edition of that.

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Locaboat

's self-drive canal boat holidays range from three to 18 days, and cover locations in France, Italy, Holland, Poland, Germany and Ireland. Prices for a three-day hire start from $783.