After forty-something ocean cruises, and a continuing disappointment of the direction our favorite lines were taking, we decided to try a river cruise with Avalon Waterways. In a word, the trip was perfection, a term not used lightly but quite appropriate in this case.
We chose the Paris to Normandy itinerary as it gave us the chance to visit Paris for a few days prior to the start of the cruise. We did our own arrangements and stayed at the Hotel 7 Eiffel for three nights (separate review on Trip Advisor). On our departure day, we taxied to the meeting place and were whisked away to the ship.
Not really knowing what to expect, we were immediately enchanted with the Creativity. Gone were the hoards of people shoving to get to the first buffet, the hawking of drink packages and yards of gold chains. Instead we gathered in the comfortable main lounge, given a drink, and politely shown to our cabin.
Cabins on these ships are quiet nice with plenty of storage space, a comfy bed, great bathroom, etc. No balcony of course, but the windows open allowing fresh air to circulate.
Our cruise director, Tony Williamson, gathered the group to give a briefing on how things would work. Throw away your past experience with ocean cruise directors who you may see once or twice and only hear on the public address system. On a river cruise the cruise director is an integral part of the trip who guides you through your experience. Tony was not only extremely knowledgeable, his cordial personality and ability to relate to everyone was such a huge bonus.
Our first dinner onboard spoiled us for life. We were a bit concerned about the open seating concept but it works like a charm. You may sit where ever you like and there is no "saving seats." Folks did gravitate towards certain waiters (as did we) but there really is no bad option. One of our major disappointments with ocean cruises is the push towards specialty restaurants with extra charges. If you go to the main dining room, we found the quality of food way down even on higher end lines (Holland America). On Avalon be prepared for 5-star food with something for everyone. It is served with a smile, it is hot (or cold if it should be), and delicious. Good wine was poured generously with each dinner. Every meal was a standout including the afternoon cake and coffee hour!
The ports we visited were charming and, in each, shore excursions were included with optional extra excursions available. Or, you were able to do your own thing and Tony was more than happy to provide maps and suggestions (unlike our last European cruise on HAL). Highlights for us were Vernon (Giverny), Les Andelys, and Auvers-Sur-Oise. The only visit we did not enjoy was the Palace of Versailles due to the huge crowds pushing and shoving you through the experience. We were warned by Tony beforehand, and he was absolutely correct.
We also enjoyed a few hours of just cruising the river, and sat in the hot tub on deck watching the scenery go by. Passengers were mostly American but a good showing of Brits and Aussies whose company we loved.
Disembarkation was painless but getting on a plane out of CDG left us already missing the Parisian lifestyle and perfection of Avalon Waterways. We will still take ocean cruises as we do love lazy days at sea, but this trip opened our eyes to a whole new way of travel. If you're thinking about it, go before the word gets too far out.