Overall Rating: Excellent
|Departed From:||Paris (Le Pecq)|
|# of Nights:||7 Nights|
|Overall Value:||Very Good|
We are avid ocean cruisers (28 +/- one or two...) but this was our first river cruise. We chose the Paris/Normandy itinerary because we have never been to Paris, and we are both interested in the history of WWII. We chose just one week because we were not sure how well we would like river cruising as compared to our love for ocean cruising. So here is our experience on the Viking Rinda, a river ship that holds approximately 200 passengers.
We flew into Charles De Gaulle airport direct from Chicago O'Hare, an 8.5 hour flight, arriving at 9:30 on Wednesday, August 29th. We had not booked our air through Viking but did purchase transfers so we gathered our luggage and headed outside the baggage area where we were supposed to meet up with a Viking representative. And there she was, as promised! She introduced the six of us (three couples) to our driver who whisked us away in a transit van to our ship, which was docked about an hour's drive from the airport, and about an hour outside of Paris proper. The Viking longships are too long to dock right in the heart of Paris, so they await along the Seine in the small town of Le Pecq. The boarding information had told us not to expect to have access to our staterooms until 3:00 pm, but when we arrived at about 11:00 am our veranda stateroom was indeed ready - hooray! We were delighted to be able to drop our carry-ons and freshen up a bit after our overnight flight. Barely 10 minutes later, our luggage arrived - a benefit of boarding such a small ship! Staterooms are a bit smaller than on a typical cruise ship, but we never felt cramped due to the perfect layout and use of space. Viking has a sleek, modern, simple decor that I liked very much. Storage space was ample and the room held all the right amenities. Plugs were both German and American with both voltages and outlets were abundant. The bathroom was small, but had a roomy walk-in shower (and good water pressure!) We had a small balcony but I am not sure that we would get that again. We were on the middle deck, which I definitely recommend; one side of the deck had balconies and the other side had French balconies, which I think would be sufficient. There were days we could not use our balcony because another ship was tethered to us - railing to railing - in port, and other days when we were up against a concrete wall in port. A French balcony would have the same issues, but is a bit cheaper; it would still allow for fresh air and would still get you a middle deck location.
They were serving lunch in the dining room, so after a quick "comb through" we headed to a lovely buffet and the first of many many glasses of wine (white and red) that were included with lunch and dinner. This first buffet was simple but bountiful and delicious, with good soups, meats, cheeses, breads and hot dishes as well. That was also the first meal where we began to meet our fellow cruisers; seating at all meals is open and arranged with 6-12 seats at round and rectangle tables. There are no tables for two (or four) in the dining room, but were available in the Aquavit Terrace Lounge, which offered lunch and dinner on the terrace.
After lunch we went back to our stateroom to unpack and look over the schedule for the day; we had the option of a guided walking tour of Le Pecq or we could take a shuttle bus into Paris to tour on our own, but we were going on about 28 hours with not much sleep, so we chose to check out the ship and then take a short nap before getting ready for the evening. This first day their was a mandatory safety briefing at 5:45 which was much quicker and easier than on a large cruise ship!
Every evening onboard had a similar routine: Cocktail hour began at 5:30 with the ship's pianist providing background music. At about 6 (or later, depending on the time dinner began,) the Program Director (Ken) gave his briefing: the head chef came out and told us his recommendations for dinner and then Ken let us know what was going on the rest of the evening, and explained the itinerary for the next day. On this first evening dinner was seated at 7:00 p.m. Whereas breakfast and lunch were served as buffets with a time range such as 7-9 am for breakfast and 12 - 2 for lunch, dinner was seated at a specific time and served with a menu showing the chef's recommended appetizer/entree/dessert and 3-4 additional choices of each. There was also a menu of "standards" which could be ordered any night. You could mix and match any which way you chose, and could even order more than one of each category if you desired. The food was a mix of French specialties (escargot, frog legs...) and American cuisine, but everything was quite rich (and quite delicious) and the wine just kept flowing... After dinner there was some form of entertainment or enrichment each evening. This first night they had some vocalists from the Paris Opera onboard to give us a "Spirit of France" performance - they were delightful!
Were were docked in Le Pecq through the night and all the next day, allowing for a day of touring Paris on Thursday. The ship then left to head toward the Normandy coast that evening. At each port there was a selection of shore excursions offered. One excursion was included at each stop with several others offered at additional cost. Descriptions included the level of activity (walking, climbing, etc.) that the tour entailed, as well as the included sights and stops. In our stateroom were two sets of QuietVox audio receivers and earpieces for our use throughout the cruise. We took them with on every excursion so that we could clearly hear our guides; they worked very well! Each night we returned them to the charging station so they would be ready for the next day's tour. Here is the sailing/touring itinerary we followed:
Thursday, 8/30 in Paris: After a lovely breakfast buffet we started off on the included tour: Panoramic Paris, a 7-hour excursion that took us by motorcoach past most of the well-known sites; we did a guided tour through the famed Notre Dame cathedral, after which we had free time to explore the neighborhood and have lunch. The guide pointed out several good cafe options and also shopping opportunities. We chose a lovely cafe with outdoor seating just across the bridge from the cathedral. We also were able to walk the grounds of the Eiffel Tower. Other passengers took an optional excursion that included a visit to the Louvre Museum and lunch at a French restaurant, or a second optional excursion that went to the artsy district of Montmartre. And as the day before, a shuttle service was offered into/out of Paris for those who wanted to sightsee on their own. We were all back on board by 6:00 and the ship set sail from Le Pecq shortly thereafter. I must say....setting sail on a river cruise is "not a big deal"...much like casting off in a pontoon boat or pleasure cruiser. We sailed through the night, but you wouldn't have known it...there was no sense of movement at all. Cocktail hour and dinner as usual, and the evening entertainment was joining Ken (our Program Director) to learn a little French, and to learn about AND sample French cheeses! Off to bed and the hope that our jet lag would subside so that we were not wide-eyed and bushytailed at 3:30 am!
Friday, 8/31 in Vernon/Giverney: We had arrived to the dock in Vernon at about 6:00 a.m., but again, no indication by movement or noise that we had "landed". After another wonderful breakfast (did I mention the pastries and croissants?) we were off on our included excursion of the Impressionist painter Claude Monet's house and gardens in Giverney. Our guide was very informative and talked us through the house, which included Monet's extensive collection of Japanese art, along with his own paintings, as well as the furnishings and lavish kitchen setup. But the gardens were the real draw - so beautiful and so recognizable from his famous paintings such as Water Lilies. We had time to browse the wonderful museum gift shop and have a coffee and treat at one of the cafes on the property. We were back on board for lunch, after which was another included tour, a walking tour of the town of Vernon. Others stayed on board for the optional painting class. We were all able to attend the late afternoon lecture about Painters along the Seine, given by a guest lecturer who came onboard from Giverney. Cocktail hour and dinner....then a dancing game in the lounge, which we skipped to enjoy a little quiet time in our stateroom before sleep (and no, our jet lag was not gone yet...join us for coffee at 3:30 a.m. anyone?)
Saturday, 9/1 We cast off from Vernon at 5:30 a.m. and sailed through the morning. This was our first chance to spend time up on the sun deck and watch the scenery as we sailed passed by. It was delightful!! The sun deck has plenty of seating in loungers, or chairs at tables. There is a small putting green and shuffleboard game, as well as an herb garden, which provided fresh herbs for the dishes they served us. There was a small smoking section in the back of the open deck. No pool or hot tubs, though..... The bridge was accessible with a "knock" on the door, and if they were not "crucially" busy, they were happy to let you in to watch. There was also a set time later in the week where you could visit with an explanation of "how things work" in the bridge. By lunchtime we were docked in Rouen, the third largest city in France, and the gateway to the Normandy region. After lunch we embarked on our included excursion, a Rouen guided walking tour that lasted for about 2 hours and left us in the heart of Rouen, but within walking distance of our ship. We were then free to shop or explore on our own and then make our way back at our leisure. During our tour we saw the building where Joan of Arc was sentenced to death, and the location where she was burned at the stake. In that square they have since erected a church in her honor. As usual, the guide was extremely knowledgeable, and interesting to listen to. Other passengers took a variety of optional excursions; on offer was: A Rouen Farm & Countryside tour that included a visit to a working Normandy farm and homestead; Picturesque Honfleur on Foot, or Jumieges Countryside and Bike Ride. Jumieges is an Abbey in the French countryside. During the cocktail hour our Program Director did a presentation of other itineraries that Viking offers, with an incentive, of course, to book a future cruise. No hard sell, though, for another cruise, or for anything else at all! After dinner the Captain held a Q&A session in the lounge.
Sunday, 9/2, was the "big day" - the 11-hour tour to the Normandy beaches. The group split into those wanting to concentrate on the American landings and those interested in the Commonwealth history (Canada/Britain.) As we were still docked in Rouen, the drive to the coast was about 2.5 hours. Our first stop was to the small town of Arromanches, which was famous as the site where the floating harbor was constructed, which was needed to supply all the troops that would be arriving on the beaches and working their way inland to liberate the towns and villages. We toured the small museum and viewed a short film on the construction and transport of this floating highway and harbor. Portions of the harbor are still visible in the water. We had a lovely lunch in a local restaurant and then went on to the American Cemetery, passing Juno and Gold beaches along the way. The land that the American Cemetery is on was actually deeded to the United States, so we were in essence standing on "home soil" when we were there. Over 9,000 American soldiers are buried there, among rows and rows of stark white crosses. In the memorial circle they held a tribute ceremony, which was quite moving. The cemetery overlooks "Bloody" Omaha beach, which added another layer to the significance of this location. You could just "feel" that something monumental happened. Afterward we drove down to Omaha Beach and were able to walk along the sand and form a mental picture of the events that took place here. We arrived back about 6:00 pm and quickly "cleaned up" for dinner and that evening's entertainment provided by a jazz ensemble. We literally fell into bed, half asleep already - no let lag here.....
Monday, 9/3 We were again sailing through the morning to the small town of Les Andelys, arriving just after lunch. So we had another leisurely morning of reading on the sun deck and watching the scenery. We did have to attend the Disembarkation talk at 10:00 am, which let us know how the whole process was going to work. Afterward you could stay in the lounge and learn about cooking Tarte au Citron with the head chef. The day's excursion began about 1:45, a walk up a steep hill to the ruins of Chateau Guillard, which was built by Richard the Lionheart in the 12th Century. By this time we were tired; we could see the ruins from the ship, along with the steep long hill to get there, and we decided to stay aboard and continue reading and relaxing through the afternoon. Some did go on the included excursion, others joined an optional tour to La Roche Guyon, a castle and gardens, and some joined a less strenuous walk through the small town of Les Andelys. I thoroughly enjoyed my "quiet day", especially because we had two busy days coming up! After dinner, the entertainment was a music quiz, followed by music and dancing...
Tuesday 9/4 - Back in Paris after sailing through the night. After breakfast we embarked on an optional excursion to the Palace of Versailles - well worth the cost! As was the case throughout our visited attractions, we were able to tour the palace before the huge crowds of people arrived. Upon arrival we walked right in as a group; as we were returning to the motor coaches, the line to get in was 3.5 hours long! Versailles is massive so we concentrated mainly on the private chambers of Louis the XV and Marie Antionette, the Hall of MIrrors where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, and of course, the gardens. An added touch: they play beautiful classical French music over the speakers as you stroll through the gardens. We came back to the ship for lunch, and then had free time to get packed up and ready for our departure early the next morning. We joined another optional excursion that departed around 9:00 p.m. and toured Paris at Night. We saw many of the same sites that we had seen the first day on tour, but now everything was lit up, and the city was alive. Even at 11:00 at night, the sidewalk cafes were full of diners and the shops were just starting to close. We arrived at the Eiffel Tower to see the lights start to twinkle - an hourly spectacle that lasts for 5 minutes. We all thought it was a fitting end to our time in this beautiful City of Light.
Wednesday 9/5 - Up at 5:00 am and on to our transfer back to Charles De Gaulle airport shortly thereafter. Once we arrived, they didn't just drop us off, though, a representative actually walked in with us and told everyone where they needed to go, based on their airline, etc. He made sure we all got in the right lines before finally bidding us farewell. A nice, stress-free way to get started on our journey home.
SO.........overall.......we learned that you cannot try to compare a river cruise to an ocean cruise; it wouldn't be fair to either one. We have done so many ocean cruises that we have a set routine: we know what we want to do upon boarding, we know how to spend our free time and our time in ports, etc. This was a brand new experience, and hence, a bit disorienting, but if we do more of them, we will begin to establish our routines for this type of cruising as well. And we will do more of them. We took advantage of the incentive offer, and purchased two future cruise credits. They were $100 each and will be worth $200 each when we book again. Jan had some great questions about a river cruise and I can only speak for my experience on Viking: Yes, there are a mix of bus tours and walking tours (and even bike tours if you are so inclined.) Viking is very good about making sure everyone can participate in both the bus and walking tours. Several times they had a "leisurely group" that took a less strenuous route of a walking tour, usually with the Program Director himself. No, there are no pools, no casinos, no late-night venues...it is all about the destinations. So there are lectures and guest entertainers that focus on the locations, hence the Paris Opera performers, the cheese tasting, the historical lecture on Joan of Arc... And to be honest, if you participate in the tours and other offerings, you are too tired to worry about a casino or a dance venue (although I did miss the pool, I must admit.) And I missed the sea days that we love so much on ocean voyages. That's why we did carve out some down-time for ourselves, which I encourage everyone to do if they are feeling a bit harried. The ages of the passengers: mostly 60+ but a few 30s, 40s and 50s, up to 90 years of age. But all were fairly active and all were definitely well-traveled. River ships are not handicap-accessible for the most part. There was an elevator that went between the three stateroom decks, which also included the dining room and lounge, but did not reach the sun deck. We had one person with a walker and quite a few with canes, but you do need a modicum of mobility in order to get around. One of the advantages of a small river ship is the opportunities to meet and socialize with other passengers, in the lounge and during meals, which are all open seating. We met lovely people from all across the US and Australia on this cruise and learned about their travels and experiences. No, food and drinks are not available 24 hours a day, although there is a coffee/tea/water station that is always available. But the food that is served at meals and some special events such as an afternoon tea, is wonderful! We were never disappointed in the quality of the food (especially the desserts!) Beer and wine were included at lunch and dinner (and they are not stingy on the pours...they kept our wine glasses full!); a full bar was available during cocktail hour and meals as well, at additional cost. I did order different wines at cocktail hour, and Ed ordered several mixed drinks, and the prices were extremely reasonable ($4.50-$7 for a glass of wine; $8 for a gin and tonic, for ex.)
Overall we were extremely pleased with Viking: they are very organized and attentive from start to finish; the staff and crew were very friendly; staterooms were perfectly maintained. The attention to detail and time is evident. The overall atmosphere onboard is quite relaxed, yet you are kept quite busy. I would urge everyone who loves cruising to take a look at a river cruise; it is a whole new perspective, sailing on a different type of waterway, and giving access to places not easily toured by cruise ship. To be sure, there are many differences between the two types of cruising; just know that and enjoy each for what it has to offer.
I am happy to answer any questions...if you haven't fallen asleep by now - I know this is a long review!