The canals of France are open for tourist barges from April through October. There are canals in Brittany, Anjou, Alsace, Franche-Comte', Charente and the south of France as well as in Burgundy.

To decide whether you prefer a hotel barge, a self-drive barge or a canal cruiser, compare the sizes, costs and services offered. Consult a travel agent for the names of tour operators or contact the French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020-2452, (212) 757-1125, and the British Tourist Authority, 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019, (212) 581-4700.

We booked our self-drive barge through Hoseasons Holidays Abroad Ltd., Sunway House, Lowestoft, United Kingdom, NR32 3LT, phone 0502-66622. The cost was about $510 for one week or about $125 per person. All linens, blankets and kitchen equipment were provided. Diesel fuel was extra and averaged about 20 gallons for one week of cruising, costing about $30. Bicycles can be rented from $10 to $12 per cycle per week. GETTING THERE: The Canal du Nivernais is about a four-hour drive southeast of Paris. Or you can take a train to Cercy-la-Tour. Most of the tour operators will make all travel arrangements from London to any canal you choose by whichever means you wish to travel. WHEN TO GO: Spring is beautiful but has the risk of rain. Summer and fall are ideal times for sunny days and pleasant nights in Burgundy. WHAT TO TAKE: Rubber-soled nonslip shoes are a must. Garden gloves protect uncallused hands from rope burn. Since we planned not to cook anything but the simplest meal on board, we limited our predeparture grocery shopping to essentials such as butter, jam, tea and coffee. Then we bought what we needed fresh each day; string bags came in handy for this daily shopping.