CRUISING DOWN THE SEINE
After 35 years of full-time travel writing, it was only last year that I discovered the delights of river cruising.Now I’m hooked. I have just finished my third one, this time down the Seine, with the family-run American tour operator Tauck.Our recently renovated vessel, MS Sapphire, accommodates 98 guests in luxurious cabins with marble bathrooms and in comfortable public areas.
Although Tauck is trying to break into the British market, we were the only non-American passengers — with the North Americans natural gregariousness, soon and the atmosphere was akin to a floating house party.
This trip started with two nights in Paris, from where we sailed to Calvados in Normandy and then to Claude Monet’s Giverny.
It’s the little extras that make Tauck stand out from the rest. The operator offers private transfers, uses comfortable hotels (ours was the Pullman Eiffel Tower) and has multilingual tour directors who are experienced and professional.
Nearly everything is included in the overall price: gratuities, taxes, meals and drinks — champagne is on tap. Tauck also employs high-quality local guides for the daily excursions.
The trip to Versailles was well organised, but the August crowds would put me off visiting the palace again in peak season.
The highlight of our visit to Paris, however, was dinner on our “free night” at the three Michelin-starred restaurant Le Cinq (restaurant-lecinq.com/en) in the Four Seasons Hotel Georges V. The tasting menu is fabulous and the staff, attention to detail and innovative working of traditional French cuisine make it worth every euro.
Christian Le Squer is the restaurant’s Three Michelin Star Chef
We joined the ship on day three and it took me about 20 minutes to realise we had set sail — that’s how smooth it is. The following day we docked in Rouen, Victor Hugo’s “city of a hundred spires” which, despite the ravages of war, still retains some magnificent gothic buildings.In the evening we were introduced to the concept of a “Tauck experience”; in this case a private reception and dinner with classical music at a picturesque Normandy chateau.
Etretat, best known for its chalk cliffs, and the charming seaside port of Honfleur were on our itinerary the next day.Beloved by artists, Honfleur has a wealth of Renaissance architecture and halftimbered houses along its cobbled streets.
Back on board, a lecture about D-Day prepped us for the rigours of the visit to its beaches along the Côte de Nacre. I appreciated learning more from a local historian about the operation of June 6, 1944, when troops and more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft converged on the heavily fortified coastline to fight Nazi Germany.
With guests being mostly from the US, it was no surprise that we visited Omaha beach and the American cemetery, the resting place for 9,300 US servicemen. It was incredibly moving. As there had been some early starts to board the coaches, it was good to spend the next morning sailing before a trip to Jumièges Abbey, once one of the great Benedictine abbeys of France, dating back to AD654.
Day eight of the itinerary takes you to Château Gaillard to learn about Richard the Lionheart. Overlooking the river, this castle is the crowning centrepiece of the beautiful town of Les Andelys. Following that, it’s off to an organic farm to sample cider and calvados apple brandy, before cruising on to Vernon and Monet’s beautiful home at the chocolat ebox- perfect Giverny, where the artist lived for 43 years.
This is another time when you’ll bless having chosen Tauck, as you get to visit the house and garden before it opens to the public at 10am. When you see the length of the queue as you exit, enjoy a moment of schadenfreude. Monet’s pink stucco house gives the impression that the painter’s family of 10 still live there. The trinkets, half-finished paintings, the artist’s beloved collection of Japanese prints — they’re all there. The house also has replicas of the immense water lily paintings that hang at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. And, of course, here are the gardens that inspired Monet, including the oft-painted Japanese bridge.
After lunch in a local restaurant, we headed back along the Seine, bound for Paris. The captain’s farewell reception and dinner is the occasion to put on that dress and suit, but only if you wish. The tour is a packed 10 days but not one of the 90 or so passengers I spoke to had anything but praise for every part of it. I thoroughly recommend it.
If you’re worried about the main gripes people have about cruising, seasickness and boredom — concerns that are generally made by those who have never cruised) — remember that it’s almost impossible to get motion sickness on a river boat. And you’ll be lucky to get through more than a chapter of your book.
Prices for Tauck’s Rendezvous on the Seine start at £3,670pp and include round-trip flights from Glasgow/Edinburgh to and from Paris, cruise fare, most meals, port charges, shore excursions and gratuities;
Tel 0800 810 8020, https://www.tauck.co.uk