Days of wine and Roses
A luxury cruise along the Seine reveals some of France’s most memorable highlights from a unique point of view,
BEAUTIFUL Paris, that most magnificently romantic of all cities, is always a visual feast. The Eiffel Tower, dazzling at midnight, ducks on the pond in Luxembourg Gardens, the imposing grandeur of Notre-dame cathedral, a colourful display of cakes in the window of a patisserie in Le Marais.
I thought I knew well the sights of Paris, until I saw them from a river cruise. What a pleasant surprise to see the city’s iconic landmarks through fresh eyes as I sailed along the Seine River aboard Tapestry II, one of Avalon Waterways’ Suite Ships.
Travelling on Avalon’s eight-day Paris to Normandy’s Landing Beaches cruise, we spent the first and last day in France’s magnificent capital, with an included city sightseeing package and plenty of free time for shopping and patisserie-hopping.
Tapestry II’S journey along the Seine covers some charming French village landscapes and landmark destinations. Guests are well-advised to have smartphones and video cameras at the ready to capture the rural idyll of centuries-old stone farmhouses, grazing cows and village churches where generations of life events have been pondered.
Monet’s gardens at Giverny are visited, as well as the historic footsteps of Joan of Arc in Rouen, the capital of Upper Normandy. In Conflans, cruisers have the choice of following the trail of Van Gogh’s last days to Auvers-sur-oise or marvelling at the lavishly restored luxe of Napoleon and Josephine’s Chateau de Malmaison.
Certainly one of the unforgettable highlights of the cruise itinerary is the day spent discovering Normandy’s Landing Beaches.
Standing on the windswept sands of Omaha Beach, we listened wide-eyed and rapt as our guide described the events of 6 June 1944: D-day, the largest seaborne invasion in history. An unstoppable flotilla of 5,000 warships charging towards the Germans who had been occupying Normandy. The landing of 24,000 airborne troops in the dead of night. At least 10,000 Allied casualties in one day. A battle that would last 80 days, claim 425,000 lives and ultimately give France its freedom.
At the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, more than 9,000 American soldiers are buried. The simple, striking design of rows and rows and rows of white crosses and Stars of David on the lawns heading down to the ocean is sobering and dignified. Local staff handed out roses for us to place on graves.
Expertly handled shore excursions are one of the hallmarks of Avalon river cruises, whether in France, Germany, Cambodia or beyond. Avalon employs the services of multilingual guides, carefully selected for their expert local knowledge. The Local Favourites
program dishes up authentic experiences in each destination that go beyond what is normally available to independent tourists. Forget a standard group outing to the Louvre: on a day trip to Chateau de Bizy near Giverny, we were personally welcomed by the nonagenarian lady of the manor, a direct descendant of the Bonapartes. In preparation for our day at the Normandy beaches, we were lectured by one of the foremost WWII scholars living in France.
Another notable selling point of Avalon Waterways’ cruises is their Panorama Suites. The unique design of the suites gives cruisers the option of turning their entire cabin into an open-air balcony by opening wide the wall-to-wall glass doors. It also gives them the option not to do that - remember, the weather in northern France and other parts of Europe during the shoulder seasons of March and September is often not warm enough to let the outside in, and balconies often sit empty during those times.
On the Tapestry II ship, launched last year, the beds face the view, instead of the wall. So simple, yet such a big change for the holidaymaker’s vantage point.
Travellers more accustomed to ocean cruising will notice other differences when taking to the rivers. With fewer than 200 passengers, there’s a relaxed ease to getting on and off the ship, a manageable line at the breakfast buffet and never a crowd on the sun deck. Personalised, attentive service from the cruise director and operations staff makes every guest feel like a VIP, while the luxury inclusions of the ship and the spacious cabins are a pleasant indulgence. On-board casinos? Forget about it.
Meandering along Europe’s waterways, close enough to practically peek into the windows of riverfront homes, is a delightful way to get up close and memorable with historic villages and delightful waterfront cities. Vive la France!
Photos courtesy of Avalon Waterways