I am balancing on a floating jetty in the dark trying to unlock the door to the boat that has become my home this week. If only I had a torch, but needless to say, it was the one thing I never even thought to pack. If a kind Frenchman in a nearby boat had not come to rescue me and my family, our trip might have come to a sorry - as in wet - end. Instead, it was the start of a fabulously relaxing holiday, one where we literally watched the world go by as we cruised from town to village, tying up as and when the fancy took us.

If a week messing about on rivers appeals, there are two kinds of boating holidays to pick from; which you choose depends on how adventurous you are feeling.

There are self-drive boats, like I was on, where you are given a quick lesson in operation and navigationand then sent off to explore the local rivers and canals, or luxurious hotel barges where all you have to do is relax and enjoy.

These pretty little boats have mostly been built using the hulls of barges that used to carry goods on Europe's waterways. You'll have seen one if you watched Rick Stein's French Odyssey on BBC2, when he cooked his way along the Canal du Midi on European Waterway's Rosa and Anjodi. That's the life!

Self-drive boating holidays
Self-drive boats are brilliant for friends and families who like the freedom of the open river and are happy catering for  hemselves. They come in all sizes, sleeping from two to 12 people and have various levels of comfort, for instance some have en-suite bathrooms and electric flush toilets - believe me, much more preferable than the usual pump-action loos.

Being in charge of your own boat sounds daunting, but it's easy, especially as you amble along at a sedate 6-7km an hour. Most rivers have locks, but many are manned and others are automatic so you just push a few buttons and hey presto. Navigational channels are clearly marked in the rivers and on the maps supplied so you can't even get lost or end up in a river bank.

The only slightly tricky thing is docking, which requires team work between the captain and rope man (or woman), who needs to be agile enough to leap off as the boat comes towards the bank. It sounds scary but you soon get the hang of it.

Galleys are small but equipped with the basics, such as a gas hob, oven and kettles. It's fun to mix and match - self-cater one evening, moor up outside a riverside restaurant another and have a break from the washing up.

Hotel barges
If you prefer a more luxurious holiday, with someone to captain the boat, do the cooking and plan excursions, a hotel barge holiday has your name on it.

Barges usually hold between four and 12 people. You can book a cabin as an individual or couple, but they are also perfect for anniversaries - such as a milestone birthday or wedding celebration - as you can charter the boat and bring along family and friends. In this case, you will be able to make changes to the schedule, staying longer here maybe, or missing going there.

Hotel barges are all about luxury and personal service. There's a chef to conjure up gourmet meals, fine wines are served with meals and there is an open bar, so no charge for drinks.

What to do?
On a hotel barge or self-drive boating holiday you can be as active or as lazy as you wish.

Most hotel barge operators lay on daily excursions to chateaux, vineyards, private gardens or museums, and you can go or not as the mood takes you. They also carry bicycles so you can get off and pedal to the next lock, or just have a walk if you prefer.

On your DIY boating holiday, you can moor up and go exploring or have a lazy few days sunbathing on the vessel. You can carry bikes on the boats; most companies have them for hire or bring your own. Or maybe go horse riding, play golf and visit local markets. It is the ultimate in a freedom holiday.

Who goes where?
France has 10,000km of navigable waterways - both rivers and canals - and is the most popular spot for DIY boating in Europe.You can enjoy gastronomy cruising the Canal du Midi, take in seaside resorts in the Carmargue, play golf in the Charente, and discover French/German culture in Alsace Lorraine. Belgium, Holland, Italy and Germany are less popular but all have their fair share of waterways if you want something different.

Le Boat, part of TUI Travel, has DIY boating holidays in all these places, mostly one week, cruising one way, but you can add seven days and return to the original base. Short-break boating holidays were launched in 2009 and are a great way to get a taste for this type of holiday.

Boating Europe has both DIY cruisers and Penichette barges, which are small self-drive barges, and also hotel barges in France, Holland and Italy. For something different, Hoseasons has DIY boating holidays on the Mazurian Lakes in Poland, sailing along canals and rivers, and through forests, as well as the favourite places inWestern Europe.

France is also the leading destination for hotel barge holidays. EuropeanWaterways has barges in several regions (but Burgundy and the Canal du Midi are the most popular) and also in Holland, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. New this year are cruises fromVenice along the Bianca Canal to Mantua, visiting Verona on the way, on new barge La Bella Vita.

Afloat in France is part of Orient-Express and, as the name suggests, is only in France – in Burgundy, Franche-Comté, the Rhône Valley and Provence. For the ultimate in exclusive, check out Saint Louis Barge – literally one barge with room for six passengers and four crew that sails six-night cruises on the Gironde, between Toulouse and Bordeaux. Great for charters but individuals can book it as well.

european canal and river holiday facts

When to go
The boating season generally runs from March to November. Obviously, summer months will be the warmest, especially in the South of France.

What to pack
Hotel barges are informal so pack what you feel comfortable in. If you’re going on a self-drive boating holiday, a pair of non-slip shoes will be useful. You might like to bring some food from home, but it’s easy to pick up provisions as you cruise. A small torch to fit in the handbag is also highly recommended! Small suitcases are easiest to store on the boats.

Sample holidays

  • Le Boat (0844 463 3594; www.leboat.co.uk) has cruises on a sixperson Caprice boat on the Canal du Midi in France in June from £547 per person based on four sharing, excluding travel from the UK.
  •  EuropeanWaterways (01784 482439; www.gobarging.com) offers six nights in a junior suite on L’Impressionniste in Burgundy from £2,490 in May and June.
  • A six-person charter on the Saint Louis Barge (+ 33 685 95 25 41; www.saintlouisbarge.com) costs €16,900 (about £15,250), which works out at €2,817 (£2,540) per person.

Other boat and barge holiday operators

Boating Europe: 01756 701200 www.boatingeurope.com or
Hoseasons: 0844 847 1356 www.hoseasons.co.uk
Afloat in France: 0845 077 2222 www.afloatinfrance.com
Minervois Cruisers: 01926 811842 www.minervoiscruisers.com

All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you visit Europe's rivers & canals.