We're in remote south-west France, piloting a boat along The Lot River.
Beneath the Dordogne – famed for its foie gras and truffles – this rural region is far from the tourist trail. A sinuous waterway skirts chocolate-box villages through gorges, vineyards and orchards.
On the muddy banks a coffee-coloured beaver, the size of a large dog, is teaching its kit to dive. The little one bobs, cork-like, atop the jade waters. A paddling of ducks skims by, while a golden eagle hovers overhead.
Instantly, I regret spending hours loading films onto the children's computers, to avoid the boredom I thought would accompany a week on-river. I mean, European river cruising is for retirees, right? Well, it turns out I was wrong. There's more than enough to entertain kids, from around the age of six.
Taj, our almost-teen, marvels at the 11½-metre Horizon 2-S as we arrive at Le Boat's base in the town of Douelle. "Wow, this is luxe!" he says, spinning the downstairs steering wheel.
The boat is brand new, with a spacious triangular-shaped bedroom and en suite towards the stern, and a smaller room with two beds and another toilet for the kids, Taj and Grace (11). Two bottles of "black wine" – the famed Cahors malbec – adorn the dining table, part of a kitchen brimming with every accoutrement for the modern day masterchef. Waterproof folders bulge with details about the tiniest of towns – what's open each day, who sells the best produce, and where to enjoy a free aperitif.
On the deck upstairs are another dining table, barbecue, shower, and two sun beds, with strategically-placed wineglass holders. There is a second steering wheel beneath an enormous canopy.
Before Taj tears upriver we spend an hour in the safe hands of the river equivalent of an old sea dog. Alain takes us through the simple steerage – a couple of degrees left or right, and don't over-correct – before the more complicated matter of the locks.
Full disclosure: I had no idea what a lock actually was until we went on this trip. For other ignorant fools, a lock is an ingenious invention allowing boats to move safely past weirs and rapids.
Hubby and I use the wheel and thrusters to "rope up" at a small platform before the first lock. The kids follow Alain to the edge of a deep chamber, in which the water level can be varied. Then comes the hard work: winding twin sets of handles at each end of the lock, to allow the boat into the chamber then out the other side. (It's a good thing we have child labour on this trip …)
The whole process takes about half an hour. Expecting resistance in the form of "but my arms are sore and I don't want to do it!" we're pleasantly surprised that the children consider this an adventure. Soon we hear cries of, "I want to do the winding AND the ropes next time! Pleeeeeeeeeease?"
In typically direct French fashion, Alain warns us of the dangers of climbing the rickety metal ladders inside the locks. "This is how most people get hurt," he says. "It is stupid. Wait until you raft up on the other side, and get back on the boat alive."
We head west past Chateau de Cayx, the summer home of the Danish Royals, Prince Frederick and Princess Mary. The riverbank is decorated with chateaux and vineyards, some housing Michelin-starred restaurants. This late in the day many of the moorings are already occupied, so we head to Luzech – the last Gallic town to hold out against Caesar.
On our first attempt at reversing, which is one of the more difficult manoeuvres, we're assisted by a lovely local fella. We're the only ones anchoring up here tonight. We play eucha on deck, snacking on saucisson sec de chevreil – air-dried salami of venison – and stonefruit bought from the store in Douelle.
The following day, I walk into town to stock up on fresh baguettes from the boulangerie, fillet steak from the boucherie, and cabecou, a local goat's cheese, from the Petit Casino. It's best to shop locally and seasonally in rural France, to save money and ensure the produce is fresh. Ditto the wine: only the local varietals are served in the restaurants. The black wine is chilled on hot summer days.
Our destination today is Vers, a picture-book town with a bubbling brook and 11th-century chapel. Unfortunately a large party boat has taken up much of the mooring space, but they turn out to be friendly, helping to guide us alongside.
The kids play hide-and-seek on the lush riverbank, while I glide along its surface on a blow-up paddleboard, hired from the good folks at Le Boat. You can also rent bikes to ride through the vineyards and villages, or fishing rods to catch perch, pike or black bass.
That night, the gentle lapping of the water has a soporific effect, and we sleep deeply. The boat is air-conditioned but we leave the windows open instead, to feel the breeze.
After a languid lunch at La Truite Doree, a family-run restaurant for five generations serving homemade terrine in an enormous pottery bowl, we take turns at the steering wheel on the upper deck to reach a town that sounds like a lolly. St-Cirq Lapopie is routinely voted the prettiest village in France, and the view from the top – after a 20-minute walk up a scrabbly rock path – is nothing short of majestic: medieval castles on steep cliffs overlooking a patchwork of farmland.
This seventhcentury village is a gaggle of shops and restaurants, hidden down cobblestone laneways. We arrive on market day to find fresh berries, zucchini and saffron for barely a handful of euros. But the highlight is Le Musee Du Vin, a cave packed with unusual regional produce, featuring an informative wine tasting. I stock up on wine, while the kids taste violet-flavoured mustard.
Our bodies are weary on the return journey, so imagine our delight when players in the local soccer team race over to wind the locks as part of their training regime. In what can only be described as Franglish, we ask about attractions at our last stop, Cahors. It turns out there is a blues festival on to celebrate Bastille Day.
We want to tie up next to the famed Valentre Bridge, a brilliant example of Gothic architecture with six huge arches and three medieval towers. Legend has it the architect did a deal with the devil to complete the structure on time in the mid 14th century. But this turns out to be the launching pad for fireworks, so we choose the other side of town overlooking parts of the original ramparts.
After helping several other boats through, we're gifted tiny bottles of Croatian rocket fuel by a set of newly-weds, and soft baguettes by another French couple. There's a communal atmosphere on these moorings, with travellers sharing advice, power cords and food. That night, we dine on Quercy lamb – rich and gamey – while watching blues bands play in the historic town centre.
Returning the boat to Douelle our only regret is our reticence to swim, due to the inclement weather. Despite the height of summer, it's still not warm enough to take advantage of the makeshift "beaches" along the Lot. That regret dissipates as we spot a grass snake slithering across the surface of the water.
Still, this remains the most relaxing holiday we've ever had. The kids are off their devices, steering the boat, turning the locks and exploring the villages. River cruising isn't only for octogenarians. It's ideal for families, especially those with tweens or teens.
Fly Singapore Airlines from Australia to Paris then hop on a train for the five-hour journey south to Cahors. The train is fast and comfortable, with some seats similar to business class on an airline. The sight of fields of sunflowers is simply stunning. Once you arrive in Cahors, take a taxi ride to Douelle. See www.singaporeair.com and www.raileurope.com.au
The brand new Horizon 2-S is like a floating five-star hotel room, big enough for two couples or a small family. Each bedroom has an en suite with hot shower, and there's a full kitchen downstairs and barbecue upstairs. Seven nights on board is from $2567, depending on the time of year. There are discounts of up to 20 per cent in the low season. See www.leboat.com.au
Tracey Spicer and family travelled through The Lot courtesy of Le Boat.