My DH and I (early 40's) disembarked from the Viking Spirit last Sunday from our Paris to Normandy cruise. I expected it to be good, but it really was great. I had read every single comment and review that I could get my hands on prior to this trip so I knew there were some things that people had complaints about. But I've also traveled enough to know that some people aren't happy doing anything so I took it all with a grain of salt. As it turned out, we had a fabulous vacation. Here are my thoughts on the ship and crew and also some notes about the trip in general.
Sunday (and first impressions) We had arrived in Paris a few days early on our own so we gave the address of the ship to the Taxi driver and he took us there with no issues. The moment we stepped out of the taxi our bags were whisked away and we were greeted by Markus (the hotel manager) and Clara (the concierge). We arrived around 1:30 pm and our cabin (225) was ready so Markus took us there and made us feel welcome. On a side note, others who arrived earlier from the airport had their cabins available and were able to freshen up pretty quickly. We found the housekeeping crew to be very efficient so that’s not surprising.
They had a light lunch available in the lounge so we had a nice lunch and then unpacked. We found our room very comfortable and the storage more than enough. The bed was great. The window is much bigger than I thought it would be so I was really happy about that. I picked this particular cabin level because the window opened and that was very important to me. True, when someone is seated at the vanity table, the other person can’t get by to the window side of the bed. We solved this issue by putting my clothes in the drawers on the window side of the bed so that when I was at the vanity, my husband could access the closet, the bathroom and his clothes without issue.
The bathroom is compact, but that’s to be expected on a ship. The space was manageable and it had a small clothes line and a medicine cabinet with more than enough room for our toiletries. There was a shelf under the sink that offered more storage, but we didn't need it. They had L’Occitane products (shampoo, conditioner, lotion, bar soap and shower gel) that I loved.
There is a hair dryer in the dresser drawer, but it’s a 1200 watt. Americans are used to an 1800 watt so if that’s a big deal for you, bring your own. It did take a little longer to dry my hair, but I knew that ahead of time and the slight inconvenience certainly isn't worth lugging your own hair dryer about. We did stay in 3 other hotels in France with the same hair dryer so it must be a standard. And if memory serves, there is one 110 outlet and two 240 outlets at the vanity. Our apple products and my curling iron didn't require a converter so we just had two small adapters and made it through fine.
Also in the room is a very large bottle of water that they replenish whenever you need it. There is also bottled water available on tables when you leave for tours and of course it’s always available in the lounge. There is a coffee/tea bar on one side of reception with a magical coffee machine that makes every kind of coffee drink I could ever want. And I did notice they had cookies and other goodies out on that table at various times. Wine, beer and soft drinks are free with meals and then normal bar prices during off times. The bar staff is very good. They remembered my husband’s beer and scotch brands immediately.
After dressing for dinner, we went into the lounge for the Captain’s welcome reception and then the introduction of the Program Director, Anika, and the Maître D, Joey. Anika then gave a port talk for the next morning (her first of many). Now, I had read a review that said that there wasn't enough seating for all of the guests. That’s just not true. There is ample seating. What happens is that people sit toward the back of the room to be the first to leave for dinner. So the seating at the very front (bow of the ship) is vacant. If you get there right when it starts it looks like there is nowhere to sit. So get there a little early. And I do recommend going to all of them. Anika is engaging and funny and when you leave you have a clue about what’s going on the next day.
For tours, you give your room keys to reception and they give you a card that has your group number on it and also a card that is essentially a “boarding pass” for the ship. It has contact information for the ship should you run into trouble anywhere. You board the bus that has your group number and that is also your guide. When you return from the tour, you hand both the pass and the group card back into reception and they give you back your room keys. It’s very organized and the best way for them to know who is on and off the ship. I did read some complaints that there were huge backups to get back on the ship but never did we experience this. We might have waited a couple of minutes, but nothing major. It seemed a very organized way to get people into groups and also make sure everyone is accounted for on the ship.
Now we come to dinner. If you've been on an ocean cruise, you need to throw your expectations out the window. This isn't a feeding frenzy where there are multiple venues for multiple times. There is ONE seating for dinner. Everyone goes in together and finds a table. There were tables for 4, tables for 6 and I think a few tables for 8. One of the things DH and I don’t particularly like is having to sit with different people for each meal. Luckily, we met one couple at the onset (Bob and Ann) and ended up sitting with them each evening. We sat near the back on the right and Zoran was our server with Filip assisting. Both were exceptional. Also we had during the course of the week Lukas and Bernadette for lunches and both of them were exceptional.
The dinners themselves were really, really good. True, there were a couple of things that weren't quite to my taste during the week (one soup and one dessert), but the rest were quite good. There was always something on the menu that appealed to me. There were 3 options on the right side of the menu that were staples (steak, chicken and something else) in case the offerings for that day didn't sound appealing to you, but I never ordered from that side. In fact, only once did one of our 4 go to that side of the menu. And my DH and I aren't foodies, but Bob and Ann are very well traveled and knowledgeable about food and they agreed that everything was excellent.
The portions were not huge, but then not small either. After a starter, a main and a dessert (plus cheese plate for DH), we left dinners full but not stuffed. And they would bring you more if you wanted it, but we never did. A couple of times they brought around a platter of one of the mains that I guess they had extra left over in case you wanted an additional portion.
Everyone seemed to be served around the same time but the meals did take a couple of hours. Honestly, we enjoyed our company so much that we couldn't believe that it would be 9-9:30 when we got up from dinner. But I don’t recall ever having to wait. It was just a nice leisurely pace and to us that didn't seem too slow or too rushed.
I know they had some entertainment in the lounge on some nights but I can’t comment as we didn't go. This trip was about the daytime tours for us and after dinner we went to our cabin each night to prepare for the next day and relax before bed.
Monday morning - bus tour around Paris with stops at the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. We had been in Paris for a few days and had been to the Eiffel Tower and to Notre Dame so weren't planning to do this, but then decided to go ahead to get an overview. I’m really glad we did. Our guide, Thierry, was incredibly funny. He is one of the Rick Steve’s guides in Paris and did a great job. We stopped for a great view of the Eiffel Tower in which to take pictures and then DH and I got to see some of the areas we hadn't had time for that we will plan to stop at on our next visit.
The last stop was Notre Dame and since we had done that already, we broke from the group and did a little shopping and then had coffee at a nearby café waiting for group and the bus to arrive. The group had the tour of Notre Dame and then some free time.
Monday afternoon – optional tour of the Louvre. Since we did the Louvre earlier, we skipped this tour. I can’t remember how much it was (maybe 49 euros?). After speaking to other passengers, it seems like they did pretty much the route that we did, hitting the highlights of Mona Lisa, Venus DeMilo, etc. But here’s my thing with the Louvre. I don’t think it should be done that way. The Louvre is MASSIVE, crowded and there are stairs everywhere. To get to each main piece it’s up the stairs, down the stairs, up the stairs, down the stairs, passing artwork that deserves attention in its own right. If I remember correctly, Thierry told us that if you spent 1 minute in front of each piece it would take 3 years to see everything. In the future, I believe we’ll take one wing and slowly make our way through. But I completely understand why they do the tour the way they do because it’s exactly what WE did. But just note that you’re in for an exhausting 4 hours.
Tuesday - Giverny and Monet’s house and gardens. I must admit, this was the part that I was looking forward to and it didn't disappoint. We started early and our guide was Christophe. He was kind of like a nutty professor, but very knowledgeable and we liked him a lot. The water garden and the main gardens were beautiful. The house was interesting but I could have skipped it and been fine. One lady in our group got yelled at in the kitchen for taking photos. I’m not sure what was unclear about that. There are signs entering the house and then the person taking your ticket looks you straight in the eye and says, “No photos in the house.” Yet a man and woman in our group took pictures in every single room, which irritated me to no end. Please obey the instructions!
Afterward, we went to the little café in Giverny and went into some of the small shops, but you also have the option of visiting the museum or walking to the church where Monet and his family are buried. On the bus, people remarked that they were happy with whichever option they had chosen.
After lunch, we had free time to walk around the town of Vernon. I believe there was a painting lecture back on the ship and then a class to do your own impressionist painting for 10 euros. Even though I can’t even draw stick figures, I kind of regret not doing that.
Vernon has some shops and we visited the grocery store to get a couple of sodas and to look at the different products. Everyone was really friendly, but of course we are very conscious of following the French etiquette rules of greeting the people you are to interact with using “bonjour” when arriving and then saying “merci” and “au revoir” when leaving. I noticed some others from the ship who didn’t do this and they didn't have the same friendly encounters that we did.
Wednesday – Rouen. We spent the morning cruising down the Seine toward Rouen. The countryside was very pretty and it was a relaxing cruise. There was a lecture about Joan of Arc in the lounge. I didn't go, but my DH said it was good. They did also have some of the same information in the daily paper for this day and I was able to read up on that.
We arrived in Rouen after lunch and there was a walking tour around the town. I had twisted my knee before the trip and the Louvre (up the stairs, down the stairs) had aggravated it so I decided to stay aboard an ice it because I knew after the tour I wanted to go into the town and visit a pottery shop that I had seen on the Rick Steve’s France DVD.
My DH did the tour and the tour guide was Christophe (from the day before). He really enjoyed it. They were unable to go into the cathedral because there was a service inside, but they did get to hear the bells ring and see the outside.
After DH returned from the tour, he and I walked around the town and the cobblestones made me extra glad I had stayed aboard and missed the tour. I found the pottery shop, but actually ended up buying from one around the corner 2 small handpainted dishes. I also bought a purse from the Longchamps store and some chocolates from the cholatier. There are a lot of shopping opportunities here in Rouen. We overnighted here so you could have had dinner off the ship, but we liked the dinners aboard so came back to dress for dinner.
Thursday – Normandy Beaches. This is the day my DH was anticipating. When they had the welcome briefing at the beginning of the tour Anika said that if anyone was interesting in doing a tour that focused on the British Commonwealth instead of the American one to sign up. And since we were coming back to Normandy the following week and hiring a personal guide for the American sector, we eagerly signed up for the Commonwealth one. As it turned out, there were 10 of us for the British Commonwealth tour and we had a very nice touring bus for just the 10 of us.
As part of the Commonwealth tour (and since there’s not as many British/Canadian stops), the first stop is in Bayeux to view the Bayeux Tapestry, which is 950 years old and depicts the story of William the Conquerer.
After that, we met up with the whole group for lunch in Arromanches and here is where we lost most of our 10. 2 split off to take a taxi to Utah beach, as they had family connections. 3 split off to join the American tours (they wanted to visit the Tapestry and then the American Cemetery). 1 had mobility issues and only wanted to visited the tapestry so just stayed on the bus the rest of the time. So basically we ended up with 4 of us doing the rest of the tour. We went to the British/Canadian cemetery, Juno beach and then Pegasus Bridge. We had Christophe again and he and my DH got on famously so they talked war the whole 2 hour ride back to the ship.
Friday – Les Andeles. We spent the morning cruising back down the Seine toward Paris and stopped just after lunch in Les Andeles. It’s a very small village with 2 shops and the remains of the castle of Richard the Lionhart perches on the bluff. The walking tour was through the little town and then UP to the castle remains. There was no way my knee was going to allow me to do that climb (and it IS a climb) so I peeled off the walking tour to visit the shops. One is a lovely store with home goods (pillow and candles and decorative items). There were a LOT of things I could have bought but in the end just bought a magnet. The other store is a small clothing/accessory store with scarves and jewelry, some purses and vintage lace items.
Our stay in Les Andeles was short. We left at 3:00 to continue our journey. My DH really enjoyed the walking tour but did say that unless you’re reasonably fit, you shouldn’t attempt it. However, if you do and it gets to be too much, you can simply turn around and go back down.
Friday afternoon debarkation talk. I must say, Viking has this down to a science. Anika gave a talk about how the debarkation would work for Sunday. They had people doing transfers to the airport, transfers to a hotel for the 3 day extension, transfers to the Vikings southern France cruise and then people like us who needed a taxi to go to the next step of our trip. They have different color tags that correspond to what time you need to leave the ship for your circumstance. Then, there is a sticker for the tag that tells what airport terminal you are going to. So if you left at 7:30 for CDG Terminal 2, you had a red tag with a Terminal 2 sticker. This allowed the people moving and loading the luggage to know where to send your luggage and at what time. It really was very organized. You just had to look up your cabin number on the form to find the color tag to get and the correct sticker. But if you don’t understand (and a few of the older guests didn’t), just go to Anika after the talk and she’ll help you.
Saturday– Conflans and Versailles. There were several options here. You could stay and visit Conflans on your own. You could stay and take a walking tour of Conflans (which highlights the pretty house boats). You could take a ½ day trip to Versailles. You could do the full day trip to Versailles. With the full trip, you do the ½ day trip with everyone then you have several more hours in the gardens while the ship is sailing back to Paris. After Versailles, you get on a bus, drive to Paris and then have 2 hours in Paris before the ship docks and the bus brings you back.
We did the ½ day tour of Versailles and I believe of the 2, that is the best option for the weather we had in May. Since spring is VERY late to Paris this year, it was around 50 degrees. The tulips had gone and there really was nothing else in bloom. So even though the gardens are massive, I believe we had more than enough time to get an overview. Plus, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend a whole day walking around Versailles then another 2 hours shopping in Paris before I could rejoin the ship.
We loved Versailles and had the same guide as on our City tour of Paris (Thierry). We actually knew he was going to be the guide because he had mentioned it before so we asked specifically to be in our group and Anika arranged it for us. One thing about Versailles is that it’s incredibly crowded but since we were one of the first groups scheduled we got to go in and have a reasonably uncrowded experience. By the time we left, the line to get in was crazy. I would hate to see it when it’s sunny and warm!
Sunday – Anika had arranged for a taxi to take us to the train station for our train to Bayeux to continue our journey. It went off without a hitch. We had an early breakfast then went back our room to gather our things. We had to have our luggage out into the hallway 45 minutes before our departure time. We then vacated our room to sit in the lounge until time for us to go to allow Maria (our room attendant) to get in and clean for the next guest.
Either way, though, they ask you to vacate your room by 9am to give them a chance to do their work. But we were out by 7:15 and sat in the lounge talking until our taxi pulled up right on time at 8am.
Overall: This was a great cruise. We did have some rain and it was colder than we would have liked, but we had clear skies for the main things so we were lucky in that regard. Here are just some other observations:
Breakfast: served in the dining room every morning. There is an extensive breakfast buffet, plus some items you can order off the menu (or you can do a combination of both). Very good. Especially loved the oatmeal with lots of toppings.
Lunch – usually served in the lounge for sandwiches and salads and then in the dining room for a salad bar and made to order items. We always ate in the dining room and were very happy with the meals.
Internet – was very slow at times in our cabin, better earlier in the mornings. The lounge seems to be the best place for internet so if I were downloading something or attaching pictures to emails I would go to the lounge. Not a big inconvenience since we were in the lounge a lot. We took our ipad and it was fine. They do have a couple of laptops available to borrow if you just want to check in.
Daytime Attire - for the daytime, whatever you were comfortable in for touring. We wore jeans mostly and our rain coats because of the weather. Wear comfortable, broken-in shoes that are appropriate for gravel and cobblestones. Some people wore t-shirts and shorts to breakfast and lunch, which was perfectly fine.
Dinner Attire – mostly golf shirts or long sleeved collared shirts for the men with casual slacks. Several men wore nice jeans with their nice shirts and after seeing that, my DH wore his nice, dark jeans a couple of times without feeling at all out of place. At the Captain’s farewell dinner, there were 3 men in sport coats and 1 man with a tie. Everyone else dressed the same as any other dinner. For the women, it was mostly slacks and blouses. I brought a black pair of trousers, a black pair of dress crepe pants and then blouses and scarves that took up almost no room in the suitcase. I did see a few dresses.
Information: Viking has a whole website section entitled YOUR TRIP. Ready it. Read every section in it. It’s the best way to know what to expect. For example: Tipping the Guides: Yes, the Viking people get gratuities (and they earn every penny), but you also have to tip the guides and the bus drivers after every encounter because they do not get part of the Viking staff tips. Some people didn’t read this and just totally stiffed the tour guides and bus drivers. Also, TIP IN EUROS, just as the Viking instructions ask you to! When you land at the airport, head to the ATM and get Euros. On every tour, we saw people tipping in dollars. You are in a foreign country and you should tip in the currency that is local to that country. I can’t imagine showing your appreciation in a currency that the guide/bus driver then has to take the currency exchange to get changed into money they can actually use.
Laundry: We were in France for 2 weeks so we had to think about packing light vs. laundry. Yes, the laundry on the ship is comparable to what you pay at a hotel, but it’s a very expensive vacation so up front we budgeted some money for laundry and were happy we did. Other people were talking about doing laundry in their cabins and having it hanging all over the room to dry but this was a vacation for us so we let the ship take care of it and they did a great job. So whatever you’re comfortable with.
Well, I think that’s it. The only (and I mean ONLY) suggestion that I had that I put on the survey was not a reflection of Viking, but more of some of the passengers. As Americans, I think sometimes we think that all cultures are the like ours when they aren't. I think it would be REALLY helpful for Viking to give just a short cultural talk on the first day for those people who don't really research the culture where they are going. I knew from research that the French aren't rude at all, they are FORMAL. If the person speaks even any English, they are more apt to help you if you approach them by saying "Bonjour, Parlez vous Anglais, sil-vous-plait?" rather than just saying, "Do you speak English?" Also, as I mentioned before, the formal rules of greeting and thanking people in shops. We had kind encounters and help where ever we went by following these rules and other people who didn't know these rules, well, didn't. And they were left with a bad impression of the French.
We thought this would be our only river cruise but we were so impressed with the experience and the organization that we are looking forward to doing more and will definitely go with Viking. The food was great, the crew and guides were exceptional and the whole experience was completely organized and professional. It really did exceed our expectations.