SPECTACULAR PARIS & NORMANDIE AMAWATERWAYS CRUISE
Ever since I saw the incomparable Audrey Hepburn remark that “Paris is always a good idea” in the original version of the movie Sabrina, I have been a believer. I have lived twice in France, traveled there regularly on business, and then returned many times for pleasure … and I do mean pleasure. From their fabulous food and wine to their fascinating cultural and historical monuments to their savoir-faire in the art of dressing, entertaining, conversation, and so on, the French know how to enjoy life, … and for me their joie de vivre has always been contagious.
So when we recently had the opportunity to cruise down the Seine river from Paris to Normandie and back to Paris on AmaWaterways, we were truly delighted. Have you ever considered touring on France’s waterways? If you are looking to tour a province or region and don’t want the hassle of changing hotels and driving from town to town, river cruising can be the ideal solution. Why? Because so many of the towns and cities established along or close to rivers, have fascinating historical and cultural value and offer a host of options to visit and explore, many of which you will enjoy visiting time and time again. Plus, when you are on a river cruise, you can easily hop off the boat and go in and explore the local town or city on foot. Or, on some cruise lines like AmaWaterways, you can hop on one of the cruise line’s bikes for your exploration.
If I’ve piqued your curiosity, let me give you an idea of the major highlights of our seven-day cruise up and down the Seine from Paris to Normandie and back on AmaWaterways …
Our first day was devoted to arrival on board our ship and settling in. As soon as we exited from the arrivals section of Charles de Gaulle airport, we were greeted by our AmaWaterways guide who welcomed us and ushered us into a large comfortable car which was waiting to take us – and us alone -around the Parisian peripherique to our ship which was docked just down from the Eiffel Tower. Not a bad location.
When we arrived around 9am at our ship, the AmaLegro, we were warmly greeted by our French Captain and quite a few other crew members, and ushered into the large and luminous Lounge where hot and cold drinks were available along with patisserie. Around 10:30am, just as we were thinking of taking a walk outside, a crew member told us that our room was ready. By 11:30am, we had unpacked.
Although the AmaLegro is the oldest ship in the AmaWaterways fleet and will be retired at the end of 2016, we were pleased to find that our room was very comfortable and offered everything we needed, including TV internet with access to the ship’s printer which we used to print out tickets and boarding passes during our cruise. Plus, even though we had a fair amount of clothes with us as we had packed for the significant temperature range predicted for the season — or as I prefer to describe it … we packed to dress like onions, with layers to peel off – our clothes all fit easily into the closet and shelves.
After heading back down to the Lounge and enjoying an assortment of sandwiches with hot soup, fresh fruit and a few irresistible sweet treats, we headed out for a long walk along the Seine and into some of the charming side streets as well. Following a refreshing late afternoon nap, we attended the Captain’s Champagne reception in the Lounge and then had our first meal in the Dining Room aboard our ship. From this meal on, service was simply awesome as was the food. Plus, the wines flowed freely and many of them were French varietals that we knew and loved.
AmaWaterways accommodates all their ship’s guests in one sitting, but you can arrive and depart when you like and you can enjoy a romantic tête-a-tête, or you can sit with one or more other couples and make new friends. If you are traveling by yourself, AmaWaterways will invite you to a special Welcome reception and introduce you to your fellow “solo” passengers … an ideal feature, along with the cruise line’s standard policy of waiving the “solo supplement” in the basic cabin category for passengers traveling on their own.
That first evening, as the AmaLegro began its departure from Paris, it took a short detour to see the Eiffel Tower and the “Parisian” Statue of Liberty up close and personal. This smaller sister to the one in NYC was gifted in 1889 to France by U.S. citizens residing in Paris to celebrate the French Revolution just three years after the much larger original version constructed by Gustav Eiffel, La Liberté éclairant le monde, was gifted by the people of France to the citizens of the U.S.
We were among the many passengers who headed up to the open-air top deck to experience this heady moment and to take some photos while enjoying the renowned Calvados liqueur from Normandie being served as well as the opportunity to meet some of our fellow passengers. Our captain aimed the ship’s lights directly at the Statue of Liberty to facilitate our photos, and then at 10pm – a magical moment. The Eiffel Tower began to sparkle and shine as its 20,000 lights flashed on and off for a five-minute light show, and we toasted Paris along with M. Eiffel’s magnificent architectural feat as we thought about his memorable statue in the NYC harbor. The sail away had officially begun and the mood was set for a trip that was going to surprise with attention to detail and offer many unforgettable moments.
Day 2 ~ We were introduced to the fabulous breakfast buffet on board the AmaLegro. While I enjoyed the omelette station and the opportunity to order a variety of hot items directly from our waiter, I was partial to the fresh fruit and juice selection along with the offerings of smoked fish and accoutrements along with the fresh bagels and breads. For the breakfast finale every morning, I selected one of the freshly baked pastries to enjoy along with the double espresso which my waiter would bring. Following breakfast, our charming French Cruise Manager, Annie, presented an overview of the week’s tours in the ship’s lounge. Then we headed off ship for a brisk walk around the town of Vernon where we had docked in the early am.
After a light lunch, we went on the Giverny Tour to visit Monet’s House & Garden along with the local Impressionist Musée in the village. Although Denis and I had been to Giverny three previous times, from the 1970’s through 1990’s, we had never been there in the late fall. The gardens were resplendent with fall color, and I experienced another unforgettable visit with indisputably the best tour of Monet’s beloved gardens I have ever had.
That evening, we were invited along with members of the press to experience an elegant food and wine pairing dinner at the AmaLegro’s Chef’s Table Restaurant. Situated on Deck 3 with a glorious view from the ship’s stern, the Chef’s Table produces a most impressive six-course gourmet meal for up to approximately 30 people. From the Foie Gras de Canard to the Sautéed Escargot, the Normande Ox Short Rib, and the Lavender Crème Brûlée — it was divine to be back in France.
Day 3 ~ After breakfast we arrived and docked in Caudebec-en-Caux, one of the many places in Normandie whose name reflects its Viking heritage and our home base for two days of touring. Our tour this afternoon was to the very picturesque old port of Honfleur, renowned for its charm thanks to the works of artists such as Courbet, Monet and Seurat.
In fact, Honfleur’s pastel-colored houses, cobblestone streets and magnificent setting helped inspire the Impressionist movement, perhaps with a little encouragement from the painter and art dealer, Eugene Boudin. A native of Honfleur and one of the first French painters to paint outdoors, Boudin befriended Monet when the latter was only 18 and inspired the young artist to become a landscape painter. Of course, the beauty of Honfleur shimmering in reflected coastal light, must have been very inspiring to the young Monet who began a lifelong fascination with painting the effects of light and atmosphere on his subjects.
As Denis and I love to do, following our tour we wandered around the town, window-shopped, and indulged in some of the city’s famous treats — this time it was caramels. Then we sat for a while overlooking the port and enjoyed a hot cup of tea as we pursued one of the national sports of France — people-watching.
Dinner that evening was a delicious Chaine des Rotisseurs meal orchestrated by AmaLegro‘s Chef Eric who is a member of that elite culinary organization.
Day 4 ~ We had the option of three very interesting major tours … the Normandie U.S. beaches tour, the Normandie Great Britain and Canada beaches tour, and the Pays d’Auge. Because Denis’ family originates from the province of Normandie, we chose the tour of Pays d’Auge, considered to be the quintessential region of the province with its beautiful landscapes peppered with houses with traditional thatched roofs and half-timbered homes.
This tour took us around the Normandie countryside with stops at interesting villages and towns, including the Calvados distillery in the Château du Breuil. An impressive tour of a magnificent distillery which concluded with a delicious tasting of both the Estate Pommeau, an alcoholic drink slightly more potent than wine made from combining apple juice with apple brandy, and their top of the line Calvados apple brandy, the 2016 Gold Medal award-winning Reserve des Seigneurs aged for a minimum of 20 years in oak barrels.
Although The New York Times has cheekily referred to Calvados as “an apple orchard in a glass” while extolling the virtues of French Cognac and Armagnac, both of which are produced from grapes, not apples, I prefer to think of Calvados as an awesome alternative. All three are very French and they each certainly do the trick of relaxing and warming me as I smell, sip and savor them. Plus, Calvados is the additional “je ne sais quoi” to the apricot glaze of a French apple tart! Later, we walked around the charming archetypal Normandie village of Beuvron-en-Auge with its half-timbered homes lovingly restored, admired the hand-crafted pottery, enjoyed a picnic lunch in the park, and then toured the beautiful Château de Saint Germain de Livet.
Dinner that night — October 31– was an awesome spectacle with a full-fledged tribute to Halloween. The crew and dining room staff, costumed and made up, were a superb site to behold and put us in the mood for the Halloween party that evening.
Day 5 ~ We awoke to the sight of the magnificent city of Rouen, which Victor Hugo famously described as “the city of 100 spires”. While a large group of our fellow passengers left early for a bike tour of the city, we chose to do a slower, but more intense 2-1/2 hour guided walking tour of the city, one which permitted us to wonder through some of Rouen’s Medieval passageways and offered a fascinating visit to the glorious Cathedral of Rouen which became world famous thanks to Claude Monet’s fascination in painting its magnificent soaring Gothic facade at different times of the day and in different seasons of the year.
Rouen’s official history dates back to the fifth century when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Rouen was created. Its narrow winding streets have seen many an event since that time, from a siege by the Vikings in the 9th century, to the death of William the Conqueror in 1087 and the execution of Jeanne d’Arc in 1431.
In the 20th century, Rouen had the distinction of having been the first city in France where Julia Child came to eat after arriving by ship at Le Havre with her husband, Paul. They dined at La Couronne located in the city’s beautiful market square, now home to the very contemporary museum dedicated to the memory of Jeanne d’Arc. La Couronne has entertained dignitaries and luminaries for centuries, and is reputed to be the oldest Auberge in France (dating back to 1345), and I doubt very much that the maître d’ realized the importance of the arrival of the tall American and her distinguished husband on that chilly November day in 1948. But as Julia notes in her 2006 autobiography, My Life in France, “it was the most exciting meal of my life”. It provided her with the ah-hah, so this is how fish is cooked! experience which led to her lifelong love affair with French cuisine that inspired her to co-author her ground-breaking cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and launch a career focused on teaching the basics of French cuisine to American housewives. Et voilà, we go from lunch at La Couronne to revolutionizing the American food scene!
One of the joys for Denis and me while traveling by river cruise is to take some time to enjoy the local cuisine in the towns where we can easily walk back to the ship. So when we finished our fascinating walking tour of Rouen, we made our way over to the Market Square and to La Couronne where we had a reservation for lunch. Lunch for us and for some new friends of ours from the AmaLegro was most definitely inspired by Julia. In fact, if you specially ask for it, La Couronne will offer you the menu which Julia enjoyed while eating there. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that is exactly what I did. The fresh oysters sung of the sea and were indisputably the best I’ve ever had. And I can so see why Julia fell in love with her Belle Sole Meuniere! Plus, the cheese tray was most impressive. After all, we were in Normandie, home to the famous Camembert, Pont l’Évêque, Neufchâtel and aromatic Livarot.
Thankfully, we had a walking tour scheduled for the afternoon as we definitely needed to walk off our glorious lunch. This was a Jewish Heritage Tour, one of the special themed tours that AmaWaterways proudly offers their guests. It was very tastefully orchestrated and informative and attracted passengers of all faiths to attend.
That evening, Captain Claude invited the passengers to a special champagne toast in the AmaLegro‘s Lounge and then onto the Dining Room for a Gala Dinner. Our best attire was requested. Somehow, we managed to find the appetite after our copious lunch to enjoy this superb dinner and then we moved back to the Lounge for an evening of French Chansons.
Day 6 ~ We enjoyed a relaxing breakfast and a picturesque sailing along the banks of the Seine river to the truly magnificent region of Les Andelys. We made sure to eat a light breakfast since lunch heralded a special tribute to the cuisine of Normandie. From Champagne and fresh oysters to a host of regional delicacies, including the top four regional cheeses – the awesome foursome of Camembert, Pont-l’Évêque, Neufchâtel and Livarot — I indulged without giving a thought to calorie counting.
Once again, a bike tour was offered that afternoon, but we opted to take the excursion to the 12th century Château Gaillard, the awesome fortress constructed by Richard I of England, feudal Duke of Normandie – better known as Richard the Lionheart. While our tour guide was fabulous and regaled us with stories of construction, sieges and conquest, as well as anecdotes including spicy infidelities, what I enjoyed most about the visit was the extraordinary view from the fortress over the great meander in the Seine below and the charming town of Les Andelys nestled on its banks. Denis and I also appreciated the walk down from the ruins of the Château to the town and the opportunity to visit some of the churches and walk through the town.
That evening following dinner, we were treated to a dynamic musical tribute to the unforgettable Edith Piaf. Along with many of the other guests, I couldn’t help but clap my hands or sing along.
Day 7 ~ During the night, the AmaLegro arrived in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a dormitory town of Paris famous for its barge houses, both traditional and bohemian. Two very interesting excursions were offered on this last day of touring, a trip to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh lived out his last days and alternatively, a trip to the 18th century Palace of Malmaison which Josephine Bonaparte purchased from a noble French family the year following her marriage to Napoleon in 1796. We chose to visit Auvers-sur-Oise to complete our walk in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh which we had taken during a month-long stay in Provence five years ago.
Most famous for the many artists who have lived and worked there, including Paul Cézanne, Charles-François Daubigny, Camille Pissarro, and of course, Vincent Van Gogh, Auvers-sur-Oise is a northwest suburb of Paris where Van Gogh lived from May 20, 1890 until his death on July 29, 1890. A very short period but also a very prolific one. Vincent’s brother, Theo, had chosen this town for his brother because Paul Gachet, a doctor, artist and collector, was living there and had agreed to watch over Vincent. Dr. Gachet was the subject of two Van Gogh portraits, one of which sold at auction in 1990 for over $80 million.
I love walking in the footsteps of an artist, stopping to see the world through his eyes, and studying the scene that caught his attention and inspired him to produce a magnificent work of art. This tour was no exception. We started our visit at the Auberge Ravoux, now a French historic landmark, where Van Gogh lived out his 70 days in Auvers. We saw the tiny room in which he slept along with his bed and also viewed the restaurant below where he often took his meals.
Then we took a walk to see the sights that inspired Van Gogh’s art while living there. From the Church of Auvers-sur-Oise to the Wheat Field of Crows, when you stand in the very spot where Van Gogh would have been inspired to compose his painting and look at the replica of Van Gogh’s actual painting situated in front of the subject, you can truly sense the emotion, and perhaps the angst, that soared through Van Gogh as he produced these masterpieces. We ended our tour with a visit to the tombstones of Vincent and his brother, Theo, who died six months following Vincent’s death. A sad and premature ending to both their lives, but how lovely to see that they now rest in peace together.
That evening was the Farewell Cocktail when we bid a fond farewell to the crew onboard the AmaLegro and then enjoyed a delicious Farewell Dinner.
Day 8 ~ We finished packing our luggage, enjoyed another delicious breakfast, said our good-byes, and disembarked to spend several fascinating days in the City of Lights.
What did I enjoy most about cruising with AmaWaterways? The joie de vivre that I love so much about France and the French people which permeated the program for the week, the excellent quality of the tour guides, the emphasis on art, especially Monet, Van Gogh and the Impressionists, the variety and quality of the excursions which cater to a range of age and interest groups, the variety in excursion time with some in the afternoon and others more traditionally in the morning, the friendliness and warm customer service of the crew and entire staff from the Reception Desk to the Dining Room to Housekeeping – most everywhere I turned, there was someone offering to be of service whenever I needed assistance –, the very enjoyable events and talks on board ship, especially the entertainment for guests after dinner in the evening, the quality of the menus with the range of offerings designed to satisfy every palette and dietary need, from gluten-free to vegan and from the opportunity to eat your main meal at midday or in the evening, to supplement with afternoon tea or not, and the one thing we did not try — the offer of a nightly snack at 10:30pm.
My compliments once again to Chef Eric Plaisier for his Croque-en-Bouche (“crunch in your mouth”), a very elegant and irresistible French dessert consisting of choux pastry balls filled with crème pâtissière, piled into a cone and bound with threads of caramel … both professionally displayed and as good as it gets!
Lastly, but far from least, l truly enjoyed the opportunity to meet and begin to get to know one of the three owners of AmaWaterways, Kristin Karst. This is an employer who radiates love and devotion for her guests, her staff and her work. Kristin has set the tone for her staff that no request is too small or too challenging to try to accommodate, and she models the philosophy that there is much joy in satisfying each passenger.
If you have not been to Paris lately and traveled in the provinces to experience the glory of the French countryside, then it just might be time for a return trip. Or, if you have never been to France, then perhaps it’s time to discover the country which infatuated and inspired Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Whether cruising the Seine from Paris to Normandie and back, or cruising La Gironne in southwest France from Bordeaux to St. Emilion and back, you will be captivated by the fascinating culture and history, the superb food and wine, and bien sure, the joie de vivre.