I had this destination on my wish list for several years. I had looked into various river cruises and read evaluations of their performance. Alas, the most popular ones sell out almost a year before departure and I am not into planning that far ahead. I waited until January to book a river cruise in mid May, and Grand Circle, Tauck, and other options were sold out. Viking River had room in a deluxe cabin with a steep single supplement, but it was worth it to me given the late booking. Couples would find the price per person far more agreeable but almost all cruise lines soak singles.
From JFK to Paris (CDG) Delta and Air France had similar flights. I had never flown Air France and I could get Delta miles for that booking. Business class began in the Air France VIP lounge where I found the best food and drink of any previous lounge experience, including a buffet with dishes like a fabulous shrimp salad and a self-service top-shelf bar.
Fri. May 15: The night flight left JFK May 14 at 5:30 PM and arrived in Paris seven hours later, 8 am local time. Business class always allows me a rapid exit from the plane so I can be one of the first in line at immigration which went very quickly. But CDG is a daunting airport and I was surprised I had to take a train several stops to baggage retrieval. While waiting I had time for the rest room and an ATM to withdraw euros. The exchange has been up and down of late but I was content with 1.14 dls per euro.
Exiting to the lobby with my baggage, it was easy to find a well-staffed Viking River desk and a representative led me to a waiting area. Since the other Viking-scheduled flights were delayed they pleased me by waiving the wait and sent me to the Viking Spirit by private car with a loquacious English-speaking driver. (I had spent many hours with a private tutor improving my French but hardly had a chance to use it since all personnel from start to finish were English speakers).
I was aboard the Viking Spirt before 10 am and expected a long wait for my cabin to be ready. Many passengers from the previous week’s voyage were still debarking with hugs for their new-found friends. While enjoying a coffee and pastry, I was able to access the internet, and within half an hour my cabin was ready. Many cabins were not ready until after lunch so I was really lucky. Perhaps that cabin had been vacant on the previous voyage. The cabin was spacious with a sparkling-clean bath and a welcome shower. An hour’s nap put me in a good mood for a buffet lunch. In the afternoon we were treated to a walking tour of the area near the ship’s port, led by a Swede with perfect English, and one of the few guides on this trip who really earned his salary. He even showed us how to use the subway and got maps for us. Some lingered longer to shop but by then it was happy hour aboard and the weather was overcast and chilly so I hastened back to the ship. Many people needed an ATM indicating their negligence in using the convenient one in the baggage area at CDG.
With two fingers of single malt scotch at 8 euros, I decided it was worth it to buy the drink package: unlimited top shelf liquors and premium wines for 150 euros. Viking is still an exception to the trend on many cruise lines of including all beverages and tips. Of course, the package meant that I drank too much on this voyage to get my money’s worth, but it was a vacation after all. The Bulgarian bartender Ilyan spoke excellent English and was an interesting conversationalist at slack times. He gave a nice pour of Glenfiddich whenever he saw me arriving, and there were no bills to sign which those without the package had to do for each order. During peak hours he was kept busy making fancy drinks that the waitress carried to tables of four, making it hard for a single to penetrate the usual coupling. The dining room however featured mostly tables of eight and I always found a warm welcome from those already seated. There were very few singles among the 144 passengers and no effort was made for them to meet, a gesture I appreciate on Azamara cruises.
Another short-coming compared to other ships I have boarded, the happy hours featured mediocre snacks and only at the Captain’s reception were hot hors d’oeuvre included. American Cruise Line’s U.S. river cruises always had a nice spread of hot and cold treats at happy hour. Each night at happy hour the chef explained the menu options and the program director outlined the next-day’s schedule.The program director, Felix, is a Belgian-born young woman with perfect English and a cheerful, enthusiastic manner that was lacking in many of the shore guides.
The dinner that night was quite pleasant with good wines included, though I upgraded to premium thanks to my spirits package. I tried to sit with different people every night and wrote their names on a note pad so I could greet them by name when I saw them again. I can’t say that worked all the time since there were so many new acquaintances.
Sat.May 16: Breakfast was always the best meal, with a continental breakfast table in the lounge for early risers (just juice, coffee, and pastries, no protein) and a generous full waiter service in the dining room with both buffet, including eggs-to-order, and excellent menu choices like eggs benedict. There was a large selection of breads, including whole grains which I have found lacking on many ships, and unfortunately delectable home-made pastries which required great will power to avoid. Luckily it’s not an addiction for me any more thanks to Dr. Atkins and I succumbed rarely.
The day began with a Paris city tour by motor coach with a decent if unenthusiastic guide. There were stops for photographs near places like the Eiffel Tower, and a walking visit to Notre Dame. Despite the mobs we were inside the cathedral within twenty minutes. Like most European cities toilets are scarce so having one on the bus was merciful. At Notre Dame there was a choice of a kiosk-style street toilet with ten or more people waiting, or taking an expresso in one of the nearby cafés in order to use the restroom.
We were back aboard in time for a 12:30 lunch, and I unfortunately chose overcooked farfalle with a sprinkling of seafood. The lunch menu was never special but certainly adequate with a salad bar and huge desserts for those who wanted them. It would have been nice to have a few always-available choices like a hamburger or club sandwich.
There was an optional albeit expensive afternoon tour of the Louvre which I skipped having been there four times and knowing I had two days extra in Paris at the end of the voyage. Those who took it seemed quite happy with the experience. Others went ashore to shop since the ship didn’t depart until evening. I was happy to use the free internet, though most of the time the signal was too weak in the cabin. The quiet lounge off the reception area had a good signal most of the time so I was able to read mail and keep up with the New York Times, Washington Post, and my Mexican papers.
Dinner was fine as usual but not outstanding. With only 144 passengers one can’t expect an enormous selection, and the choices always included a meat, a fish, and a pasta or vegetarian dish, and if you didn’t like the choices you could always have a rib eye or salmon. The fact that I chose ribeye three times doesn’t speak well I suppose but I am a foody who has been spoiled often. There were two exemplary meals, a rack of lamb and a fillet with reduction sauce, and the appetizers were always tasty.
Sun. May 17. We arrived at our first port,Vernon, before breakfast, and boarded buses for Giverny at 8:45. This was the first sunny day since arrival, with pleasant temperatures in the high 60s. (Normandy temperatures all week were mostly ten degrees below the normal high of 65. I really needed the leather jacket I brought and sometimes a sweater underneath. I had no choice but I would recommend this tour in June, though those sailings would sell out earlier). Monet’s gardens were lush with a huge variety of flowers, one of the main reasons I took this trip. We were divided into small groups with many guides and I was lucky to have a young woman named Marie who did an excellent job. Many others I talked to were quite unhappy with their guides who, surprisingly, didn’t know the names of the flowers despite doing this tour hundreds of times. It would be nice if the docents at the gardens gave the guides a workshop on that or if the agency that contracts them gave them written materials. We all had excellent quality ear phones so we could wander quite far from the guide and still hear. The house was less interesting to me than the gardens and lily-ponds. The line for toilets was long but, of course, went quite quickly for men.
(Alas, my camera battery chose to fail the day before and I was sad not to be able to boast my own pics of this delightful garden. I had recharged faithfully and didn’t know digital camera batteries could fail within two years. And nowhere could I buy one for my Nikon, even in the largest electronic shop in Rouen. Returning later to where I bought the camera in Brockport NY, I discovered almost all batteries have to be ordered online for delivery to the shop or your home. Hence I have only photos borrowed from public websites for this trip, but I now have a new battery and a backup).
We had about 90 minutes free time in the gardens or in the nearby Impressionist Museum that I chose to visit with a discount for Viking passengers and a temporary exhibit of Degas’ lesser works. We met at the museum at noon to reboard the bus to the ship. Four lost passengers delayed our departure until 12:30. After lunch we broke into small groups again for a walking tour of Vernon, a pretty but unexceptional village.The rest of the day for me featured the internet, a long nap, a pleasant time at the bar, and a decent dinner. There was no entertainment as such until the last night, but always an excellent pianist in the lounge.
Mon. May 18. We could sleep in a bit because the ship was not scheduled to arrive in Rouen until noon.Program director Felix gave a nice lecture on Joan of Arc and some of the controversies surrounding her life and death We didn’t begin our walking tour of the Rouen and the site where where Joan of Arc was burned until 1:45. Alas, it was overcast and chilly the whole day. In dividing us among guides I drew a clunker, a male for the first time, allegedy British but with a strong accent that appeared to have come from elsewhere, and a boring monotone totally lacking in enthusiasm. One woman was in absolute agony for a restroom but he kept her waiting 20 minutes before delivering us to the public restroom. We had free time in the city center and I delayed my return to the ship seeking a shop selling camera batteries without luck. It began to rain hard before I made it back to my cabin to change and head for the bar before dinner.
Tues. May 19. An earlier than usual breakfast today due to 8 am departure from Rouen to the Normandy D-Day landing beaches and the American cemetery. The guide Ana Maria was much more chatty than most and squeezed in the entire history of World Wars I and II during the two-hour bus ride. We passed several beaches before arriving at Arromanches Debarkment D-Day museum. On the 50 meter walk from the bus to the museum we were pelted by sleet and a stiff wind but it was warm inside. The film on the landing preparations was excellent though dated and the exhibits were interesting since I had often read about many weapons like the Browning Machine Gun but had never seem one. From the museum we walked to a nearby restaurant and enjoyed a nice lunch with wine. Then we reboarded the motor coach for a drive to the American Cemetery. The guide warned us it was an emotional experience but that was an understatement.
Just looking out at ten thousand crosses and thinking of all the young people who died in one battle that one day was sorrowful enough. Then the French woman in charge of the cemetery gave a moving talk thanking the Americans, Canadians, Brits, and others for saving France. When that was followed by taps there wasn’t a dry eye in the group. We were each given a rose to place on whatever cross we wished and I honored a young man from New York City.
We had over 90 minutes free time to go to the excellent cemetery museum that had a sensational video of the preparations for the landings, and several short videos on different aspects of the momentous day. A final stop at Omaha Beach allowed us to visit some of the Nazi bunkers and see how incredibly thick they were and how their placement allowed German troops to rake the beaches with devastating firepower that took such a high toll of lives. The airstrikes had failed to knock them out and gunfire from the ships in the channel overshot them. Of course all this inspired me to want to reread The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan, see that film again, and see again the shocking scenes of the landing in the film Saving Private Ryan.
We were back at the ship in time to catch up on the web news and email, enjoy the bar and a leisurely dinner. A few stalwarts braved the chilly weather to go back into town and the few young people aboard went out and reported later an excellent night life in Rouen.
Wed. May 20. We had a leisurely morning aboard ship as we made our way toward Les Andelys where we enjoyed a walking tour after lunch led by Felix and featuring the Chateau Gaillard, the castle built above the town by Richard the Lionheart in 1196.
The views of the Seine and the town from on high are really spectacular. The shops in town were mostly art studios, pretty paintings but not convenient for travelers to take home. The rest of the day at leisure allowed time for a siesta, internet, bar, and dinner. During happy hour Felix explained the routine for our ship departures Friday and our choices for the next day, the riverside town of Conflans or the optional tour of Versailles palace for those who had pre-booked.
Thurs. May 21. I had an early breakfast because I was in the Versailles tour group that departed at 8 am. I had been to the imposing palace of Louis XIV many years ago without a guide but this time we were divided into three groups with ear phones led by decent if not stellar guides. We were lucky to be among the first to enter but within a short time every room was packed with tourists and the mobs destroyed the ambience. I have been in many castles and palaces in Italy and Spain that have far more rooms open to the public, and I can’t really recommend this tour due to the crowds fed not only by half a dozen river boats, Western Mediterranean cruise excursions, and day trippers from nearby Paris. When we exited at noon the line for tickets was over 300 yards long. The gardens were also disappointing since they were just beginning to plant geraniums and nothing was in bloom. The boxwood hedges in formal arrangements are well done but the fountains were not turned on this day. In all, a real disappointment for my 80 euros and a tip for the guide. At least the day was finally sunny though only about 60 degrees.
During lunch the ship embarked for its return to Paris, arriving in time for anyone wanting to go ashore in “the city of light.” The restful afternoon gave me time to fill out the lengthy evaluation and fill the tip envelopes before happy hour. The farewell dinner was not as exemplary as I had expected. But after dinner we returned to the lounge for an entertaining hour with three singers and a pianist performing a diverse repertoire. This was the only entertainment aboard other than the nightly pianist, and I think there ought to have been at least one more show, especially since we had two nights in Rouen.
Fri. May 22. There was plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and farewells to our new acquaintances. Some departed for the train station for an extension trip to London, others left for the airport at different times, and a dozen or so had a bus ride to a city hotel for a four-day extension tour of Paris. I chose not to take that since I had been to the city several times and the program included two days entirely at leisure which one doesn’t need a package to do. I did, however, find out the name of the hotel they used and assumed it would be a good one if Viking was using it. I left a half hour before the group bus by private taxi to arrive before the group when check-in might be slow. But I had to wait until almost 1 pm to get into my room so I left my luggage and walked around the area and stopped at a Monoprix grocery store for a bag lunch and souvenirs like lavender soap and fois gras. The Hotel Ampere was advertised as “centrally located,” but it was a 20 minute walk the other side of Etoile (the Arc de Triomphe) where the Champs Elysee begins, hardly central. It is only a block from a metro stop but not walkable to any place other than Etoile. The room was fine, booked online for 187 euros plus a small tax, and the staff were all friendly, helpful, English-speaking (even the friendly porter born in Russia). There are decent restaurants nearby in different price ranges. I didn’t do much during my two-day stay there due to a foot problem, but Paris is always a delight to return to.
Flying business class with Air France I had a special area for check-in with no wait whatsoever and admission to the VIP lounge where I had breakfast and used the internet while waiting to board. The return flight was in daylight and the food was superb, including fois gras. I had a long wait for my connection to Rochester in JFK, but Delta allows American Express platinum card holders free access to the Sky Club where I had food, drink, and internet before my 5 pm flight to Rochester.
So, how did I like the Viking River Cruise? I would rate it a 7 out of 10. I’m glad I went and have no regrets. Given all their publicity, I guess my expectations were a bit high. Here are some quibbles:
I would have liked more cultural programs, at least one more musical event, and better guides. With at least half a dozen cruise lines offering this itinerary plus western Mediterranean cruise excursions and day trippers from Paris, the demand for guides is overwhelming, and perhaps it is the luck of the draw. Most are quite competent but they lack enthusiasm. Having led 150 tour groups to 20 destinations I know a good guide from a mediocre one. I know it is boring to lead a group to the same place over and over. I took over 100 groups on walking tours of Cuernavaca and the ruins of Xochicalco, for example, but I always psyched myself up before hand since this was the clients’ first time and they deserved all the enthusiasm I could muster. I’m not sure this is an easy thing for Viking to improve or that it is a high priority.
My research on river cruises left me with the impression that all of the ships on this itinerary do a great job and you can’t go wrong with any booking. Grand Circle offers the most cultural programs and Tauck offers the most deluxe and inclusive cruises with after-hours private events. Neither had an opening when I booked. If your travel plans involve a river cruise you will be happy with Viking, and repeat travelers told me their long ships are more deluxe. The Spirit is not a long ship but it was very comfortable and I liked all the physical spaces.
The roof-top deck is spacious with nice lounge chairs but the weather was not amenable to enjoy it most days. But there is a covered area similar to that on roof-decks of American Cruise Line vessels. ACL has two stationery bikes and two elliptical machines under the roof. Viking Spirit has no place to work out and their promise to have access to gyms in different ports is not very convenient. They could easily add some work-out equipment in that space.
Given the huge profits Viking must make from the bar business, they could provide more elaborate hot snacks during the happy hour. I wish they would follow the trend of many cruise lines in becoming more inclusive. The internet was free however, and many ships charge exhorbitant rates per minute for that service. The signal wasn’t good in all cabins but it was almost always fine in the reception lounge where coffee and snacks were available at all times.
I am not a big fan of ocean cruises but I really like river cruises. The best part is they come into a city almost every day and one can walk to many cultural and touristic attractions. You don’t need to unpack every day, nor worry about where you are going to eat. Like ocean cruises, the single supplements are pricey. There is an industry trend to add more single cabins but so far that is true only on ships of 3000 or more passengers which I detest. ACL does have a few single cabins on its US cruises and Tauck offers no single supplement on the lowest category cabin on some cruises.
The Seine was a more beautiful river than I had expected and Viking Spirit had lots of big windows from which to view it. It would have been much better to see it from the roof deck but the weather didn’t cooperate. In all, despite my quibbles, this was a relaxing and delightful voyage and I recommend it highly.