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Rivers of Europe

A seasoned cruise passenger discovers river cruising as the best travel option for a European vacation.
By Jim Prueter

I love cruising, yet have often been dissatisfied by a cruise world dominated by even larger, more opulent ships with the latest gimmicks. Shore excursions can be an equally massive hassle, allowing only few hours for touring because the ships generally leave well before dinner. That eliminates any possibility of experiencing local dining or nightlife of the destination.

ship

Above: A Viking River Cruises ship in Paris. Viking River Cruises photo

Viewing graves at the American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, can be be an awe-inspiring experience. Fotolia.com photo

graves

However, on a river cruise through Paris and the heart of Normandy, my wife and I explored the historic beaches of D-Day, the French countryside, Monet's exquisite gardens at Giverny, and the splendor of the world’s most romantic city, Paris.

Our weeklong cruise was on the Viking Seine, a luxurious three-deck river cruise ship operated by Viking River Cruises. It was our first experience with river cruising and it didn’t take us long to appreciate it as the most comfortable and convenient way to enjoy a European vacation.

Experiencing a river cruise ship

After our non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Paris, we were met at the airport and, after a three-hour drive, we arrived in Le Havre. We caught the first glimpse of our moored ship and were soon greeted warmly by several uniformed staff who grabbed our luggage and handed us a glass of French wine as we crossed the short gangway.

The 365-foot Viking Seine with 76 cabins is considerably smaller and more intimate than the large oceangoing vessels we’ve sailed in the past. There’s room for 154 passengers and a crew of 40. Our cabin was much nicer and larger than I had anticipated, decorated in light blue and mauve. We found adequate closet and drawer space for our belongings. The shower-only bathroom, however, was tight with precious little room for toiletries and cosmetics.

Our 151-square-foot category-B cabin was located on the middle deck. A large, sliding window offered great views of the passing landscape.

The beautifully decorated public rooms are all located on middle deck, with the reception area at the center of the ship. There’s a refreshment area with hot or iced tea and coffee available at all times. Immediately behind the reception area is a gift shop and small library. The ship’s lounge is just beyond the library and was used more for cruise manager’s announcements and port talks than evening entertainment.

Up top is a large sundeck with lounge chairs and a wheelhouse that is lowered when passing under low bridges. There isn’t a pool, spa, hot tub or entertainment and if you want a beverage, you’ll have to bring one with you. We did find it a wonderful place to sit and watch the passing French countryside.

As is the case with any cruise, food plays a major role in the overall enjoyment of the experience. Because we were in France, dining took on even more importance.

The one-sitting dining on the Viking Seine is a leisurely four- or five-course meal that includes an appetizer, salad, soup, main course, dessert and–if you still have room–a plate of assorted French cheeses. An assortment of beverages is always available. You can choose from the ship’s selection of wine or bring your own for a nominal corking fee.

Dress code is mostly casual. We did see an occasional jacket and tie but never shorts at dinner. Service was attentive and well rehearsed.

Our fellow passengers were largely American with some Canadian and a handful of delightful British. Most were retired or near retirement age with a small number of passengers in their 40s. There were two or three 20- and 30-somethings but this is definitely not a cruise where kids and baby strollers are abundant.

Generally on a river cruises, most of the traveling is done at night while passengers are dining, lounging or sleeping. There is little if any sensation of movement.

While, out of necessity, we did some cruising during the day, it was enjoyable. We passed through some beautiful scenery: postcard villages, rolling hillsides with farms, churches and elements of life in rural France. The overall pace was slow and relaxing.

Impressive Itinerary

What is cruising without an interesting itinerary? We chose this particular cruise primarily to see the beaches of Normandy and Paris.

We first visited Normandy from the port of Le Havre via motor coach. Our guide provided many facts about D-Day, and what the invasion meant to the French. She also gave us a flavor of daily life in the Normandy region.

We spent our day at the American Cemetery and the beaches of Omaha, Juno, Gold and Utah. The cemetery overlooks the steep Omaha beach with a beautiful view of the English Channel. We walked in awe, pride and with an ache in our hearts and a lump in our throats at seeing so many young men’s graves, most dated from the summer of 1944 when thousands of Americans died on the bloody Omaha Beach alone. I have seen movies and film clips, but nothing could match the experience of walking those same grounds where soldiers gave their lives to preserve freedom.

The following day we traveled by motorcoach a short distance to Honfleur, a most beautiful port village on the left bank of the Seine. We considered Honfleur to be the prettiest place we visited during our entire cruise.

After cruising through the night, the following morning found us docked in the middle of historic Rouen and Caudebec. Rouen, the capital of Normandy, is the city where Joan of Arc was imprisoned, tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. Our ship was but a few blocks from the center of town and Market Square where she was martyred. For dinner, we dined in town, sampling fabulous local cuisine.

The next morning, we arrived at the delightful riverside village of Les Andelys, home of Chateau Gaillard, the most beautiful castle ruin in the Seine Valley. A most impressive sight, the fortress was built by Richard the Lionhearted, King of England and Duke of Normandy, as a defense against Philippe Auguste. It was thought to be invincible.

Following lunch, we departed for the riverside village of Giverny, immortalized by the famous painter Claude Monet. Monet lived and worked in a charming stone farmhouse at Giverny from 1883 until his death in 1926. We took endless photos of his water garden with its Japanese bridge, water lilies, wisteria and azaleas.

The following day we arrived in Conflans, where we left the ship for a stroll around the cobblestone streets and open market. We found a quaint sidewalk cafe for lunch before returning to the Viking Seine and continuing on to the charming provincial town of Vernon.

After breakfast, we cast off for Paris, but first stopped at Auvers-sur-Oise for a Van Gogh-themed walking tour.

Our cruise disembarked in Paris, but not before we enjoyed the Viking Seine for two more days as our source for lodging and excursions. We took a coach tour of the famous Eiffel tower, Orsay Museum, Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Louvre, Opera House and the famous Champs Elysees. We concluded by passing through the Latin Quarter and the Ecole Militaire and touring the artists' district of Montmartre.

We thoroughly enjoyed our river cruise from Le Havre to Paris and the atmosphere of sailing with a small group. We also liked having a cruise that was all-inclusive: once the itinerary is chosen the hard work is done. Viking Cruise Line includes all transportation, accommodations, sightseeing, shore excursions and meals in their fare.

Shore excursions on big ships can be very expensive and crowded. The small number of passengers on a river cruise is a definite advantage, especially on shore excursions.

Having said all that, river cruising may not be for everyone. You won’t find a casino, balcony cabins, art auctions in the lounge, stage production shows after dinner or ubiquitous sales of gold, watches and clothing onboard.

If you prefer a more intimate experience, more independence and don’t care to see Europe via a motorcoach continuously unpacking and repacking your bags, checking in and out of hotels or driving yourself around in a rented car, then river cruising is the most comfortable and convenient way to enjoy Europe.

Jim Prueter is a contributor for Arizona Highroads magazine in Phoenix.

Mar/Apr 2010 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Uniworld, a prefered travel partner for AAA, offers luxurious European river cruises including a nine-day Paris & Normandy river cruise from about $2,200 per person, cruise only. Ask your AAA Travel agent about member discounts.

Tauck River Cruising, another AAA travel partner, also offers European cruises. New this year, the Musical Magic Along the Blue Danube itinerary that walks in the footsteps of great composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Bartók, Wagner, Liszt, Strauss and Haydn. This 12-day Budapest to Prague will visit homes where these musical giants lived and composed, concert halls and palaces where they performed and more.

Visit your local AAA Travel office, see our Web site, www.AAA.com/Travel, or call (888) 366-4222 for more information.

For information about Viking River Cruises, visit www.vikingrivercruises.com.


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