This is our second river cruise and I think we are hooked. This was an excellent cruise: great boat, great excursions, and good food. Only the disembarkation marred the trip.
Pickup at the Airport
We had Vantage provide the air fare and they picked us up at the airport. Had to wait for an hour which was a bit of a bummer. Got to the ship, grabbed lunch, and then walked about our docking area. It was in the Citroen area, about a mile from the Effiel Tower, and a half mile from a Metro station. It's a commercial area with ship docks and a cement factory. Seems pretty safe and with Metro access, you can get anywhere in Paris.
New in 2013, the River Venture spent its first year in German rivers to be close to component manufacturers - a shake down year. Now, it's pretty much running back and forth on the Seine.
This is a very good example of what a small footprint boat can be. The rooms are relatively spacious, tastefully done in wood and high quality fabrics, enormous amount of storage, a shower you can fit in, comfortable bed, two 110v outlets, and storage under the bed for your luggage. Great A/C with excellent adjustments. Hair dryer. No irons on boats. In-room safe, but instructions are incorrect. TV had a bunch of movies and international channels, many in English. A note about the 110V outlets: the one in the bathroom won't run a curling iron and it won't fit a night light; the one on the desk is also shaped funny and wouldn't fit a night light. I always carry a small extension cord and this proved helpful for our electronics.
Did I mention that they have high-quality WIFI? Nice!
Rooms are on the 200, 300, and 400 levels. 400 level also has suites.
There is a central area in the boat on the 300 level with the concierge/tour director and main desk. Forward of this is the dining room - above it and forward is the bar/meeting room. On the 400 level on the aft of the boat is the Captains Club, a small dining area (and outside deck) serving limited menus for lunch and dinner. With its outside seating, sunroofs, and some grilled items, it was very popular. On the 200 level is a small fitness room and beauty parlor. The fitness room has a bike, e-trainer, and treadmill, all good quality. Because of the low ceiling, your head will hit the ceiling on the e-trainer if you are over 6 feet tall. A large TV is provided as is a single yoga mat for stretching (thanks Vantage!). Five of us used this room. We had room #301 and we liked the position - right next to the center of action and atrium, but it was not noisy.
Ninety percent of the staff on the shakedown came on along to France - they work well together. The officers and staff are not Vantage, they are contracted as are the tour director and theieceirge. The Captain is not comfortable with English, but if you catch him alone (as we did at breakfast, at his invitation) he is quite personable. The hotel manager has the gift of gab and is the face of the ship. He calls his crew the "beehive" and indeed, they are.
Most important to your trip are the tour director and concierge. We had Eva and Virginia respectively. They were both excellent. Their arrangements and interface with us were terrific. Great excursion details the night before and great handouts.
The folks that manned the front desk were fine. Vantage has an annoying procedure that you turn in your room card for a paper card when you leave the ship. This is time consuming - other boats have an electonic check out. The front desk will convert your dollars into Euros and also make change - helpful for getting tip money for the guides and drivers.
The wait staff in the restaurants were friendly, efficient, and willing to help you out with special needs.
Almost 100% American with the exception of one or two Canadian couples. Just about everyone was in their 60s-80s and as friendly as can be. We had one family of four generations that included kids. That was Stan Newman's family, a WWII fighter pilot who always wanted to go the Normandy beaches and his family joined him. Google Stan to read about his career. We also had a group of 40 from New Jersey, lots of fun.
Many passengers did pre-voyage trips and after voyage trips, sponsored by Vantage. Some did back to back river trips.
The Food and Beverages
The food was good, not great. We were disappointed that we did not have more French food. Portion sizes were small, which was good because you are getting upwards of four courses each meal. Breakfast was your standard cruise fare with buffet eggs, meats, cereals, fruit, baked goods, juices and yogurts. The omelette station was excellent.
Lunch featured another buffet or you could order specials off the menu. Specials were not always up to their standards. Burgers were only fair. All their soups were terrific. You could also have lunch in the Captain's Club. You pay for alcohol at lunch.
Dinners were always at 7pm, open seating. Travelling by ourselves, we made a lot of new friends by sitting at different tables. Each night featured new appetizers and three entrees, meat, fish, and veggie. Usually choice of two deserts. Could also order a standard dinner of salmon, steak, or veggie, and standard appetizers and deserts. Beer and wine are complimentary. The beer was German and good. The wines changed every night. If you didn't like it, you had other free options. Nice.
Our favorite meals were: lobster, lamb shank, fettucini cabonara, and eggs benedict.
Unlike other cruise lines, you are free to bring alcohol on board the River Venture. And there is an ice machine to cool your beverages.
Sailing The Seine
OK, I did not expect the beauty of the Seine - big hills with chalk-faced cliffs, surrounded by stunning farmland and picture perfect towns. By all means, try to spend some time on top or on the forward area or on the aft deck. Because of the time zone, it stayed light very late.
Intriguing also were transversing the locks, going through commercial areas, and docking at the huge port in La Harve.
Kudos to the French who take meticulous care of their homes, business, and commercial plants.
The Itinerary and Excursions
Cannot ask for a better itinerary of French towns and Normandy WWII beaches - that's why we chose this tour and we were not disappointed. Most excursions were via large, comfortable buses - three buses for our boat, each with its own guide. Eva got everything organized and hopped between buses to see that everything went smoothly.
Our boat was parked right near the center city. Guided tour of Monet's house in Giverney and gardens, including the famous lily ponds. A great tour, if a bit rushed and crowded. A superb gift shop. Look for the seed packages.
Some folks signed up for having a bite with a French family and had a great time in the PM. We decided to walk around Vernon and found a cherry festival. It was fun.
It was Sunday and we got up early and went to the 8am Mass at the cathedral. If you are Catholic, you MUST go to a Mass in one of the European cathedrals. (They are all name Notre Dame in France of course).
After lunch, we had a guided tour of Rouen. Fabulous old houses, some crowding over the streets. Back to the cathedral for more commentary. Tomb of Richard the Lionhearted (at least part of his body - did you know he was really French). Nice chapel dedicated to Saint Teresa of the Little Flower (my grade school). In contrast to the cathedral, we visited a modern church in the shape of a ship. There, the tour ended and we stopped at the La Terresa brassarie for a drink.
We visited two Benedictine Abbeys. The first had ruins and a timber newer (and operational) church. The second was just ruins - but it was stunning. Our guide was Olivier, who was excellent. He brought to life the history and dynamics of these ruins. We had an excellent time.
That night was formal night with a special dinner. Nice.
La Harve and the Beaches of Normandy
We were supposed to dock at Honfluer (a nice tourist town) but docked at La Harve instead. We were told that it was because of French bureaucracy. Hmmm.... that put us in an industrial setting 30 minutes farther from our excursions the next two days. (And here I would say, any cruise/boat trip can have issues, so just deal with most of them). An expected bonus was that the Russian cadet training four-master docked near us and we could tour it.
We did get some time in Honfluer and it was a nice tourist town. We found the merchandise to be pricey. The restaurants were nice and there was a lot of them. We noticed that no river cruise boats were docked there.
Our first day was huge - a two hour trip to the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach. Our guide was Alex (a Brit living on the coast) and he was five stars. I am a fan of WWII history and well read - he told me things I had never heard of before. If you have not been to the Normandy beaches, please go and celebrate those brave men. The cemeteries will make you cry. We had a ceremony where Stan placed a wreath at the cementary and all vetrans joined him. Wow.
We walked around the cemetery, then headed to Omaha beach. Strangely silent, it's hard to imagine the death and destruction on 6/6/44. We then headed down the coast for an average lunch (hard to feed 120 folks great food, but they did have lots of wine). Then, off to Pointe du Hoc, where the Rangers assaulted German guns atop 100 ft cliffs. This is one of the few places where gun emplacements are still left. The French removed most of them as they were a blight on their country. Then, we stopped at Arromanches, where the Brits (God bless them) created one of the Mulberry harbors. Still some remnants. We went to the museum which had a Brit film, not that good, skip that and look at the good exhibits. Check out the History Channel for something better. Note: the shops around this area are way overpriced. If you must have a D-Day hat or T-shirt, buy it here. Otherwise, wait until Les Angeles for trinkets.
What a day! We passed a countless number of monuments and museums. I would like to go back for a week!
If you take this trip, your enjoyment will be enhanced by reading one of the great books on D-Day. My favorite is the one by Steven Ambrose. Read this and you will recognise a lot of the small towns that were involved in D-Day and the battles after that day. Also try the books by Beevor and Ryan. If not, just rent "The Longest Day" based on Ryan's book. Our boat showed the movie topside the night before. Know your history folks...
Day Two from La Harve
Another long drive, this time to Bayeux. Toured the cathedral and then lunch on our own. Found a wonderful restaurant with pate. Yum. Walked up to the British cemetery and then toured the Bayeux Tapestry. Had lunch at La Petit Normandy (great pate!). If I had to do this day again, I would have skipped Bayeux and toured some more WWII monuments and museums. Some folks took a side trip to Mount St. Michelle, but it was a long trip.
One of the days in La Harve gave us an opportunity to walk around. Some of the old dock warehouses were turned into a modern shopping mall with clothing stores, shoes stores, a huge grocery store with wine and beer, and a garden center. This gave us a taste of French life outside of the old cities we visited.
OK, I am hooked. This is my favorite French town. It's small, beautiful, and friendly. I'll go back. We had a walking tour way up to Chateau Gaillard, built by Richard the Lion Hearted. It's not a bad hike, 20 minutes, but some of our old folks had some minor problems. They also offered an easy walk just in town. The castle and its history were excellent. Once again, Eva paid for all our admittance. An easy walk down and then we were on our own. We stopped at a patisserie to smell the bread and buy a morsel. Yum!
When you leave the main dock, walk towards the town and make a left at the main street. There are a couple of nice shops with quality merchandise and good prices. Also, a nice brassarie to have a capacino or beer (Le Cafe du Petit Andeley). Try a beer you have never heard of - you will be rewarded.
That evening, we left our boat (it moved down to Vernon) and we bussed to a large farm where we had dinner in a barn with folk dancing. Um, not my cup of tea. Food was mediocre and two hours of the same song sung different ways was painful. Better off to buy your dinner in Les Andeles and stay on the boat. One positive part of this side trip was that we drove up to the castle so those that did not walk up could see it. On the way we passed a 1959 Buick convertible and a shop specializing in older American cars. Go figure....
This is near Paris where the Seine and the Oise rivers meet. A blue collar town with boat crews. They were having a festival of the boats and they paraded the boats and had lots of land stuff to do. Lots of fun to walk around and see how the French enjoy themselves.
Back to the same docking as when we first joined the boat. We have been there before and seen the major sites. We went to the Metro, got a one-day pass (about 6 Euros), visited three museums, and found a restaurant we visited 14 years ago. A great day. By all means, be adventuresome and take the Metro - it's cheap and easy to use - lots of walking however. Our concierge had great maps and advice. For a great time, try the Arts and Meiters Museum.
On Board Lectures etc
- French lesson
- Lecture on impressionism
- Lecture on D-Day
- Showing of the movie "The Longest Day"
- Nice tour of the kitchen by the head chef
- Virginia has lots of good handouts and maps at every stop
- nice piano guy in the bar all the time
- other guest musicians brought in, including a woman who sounded just like Edith Piat
- skits by the staff which were pretty good
This did not turn out well. We departed on Monday and the French rail strike was already two days old. Folks that normally taking the train to the airport drove. Our bus should have taken 50 minutes but it took three hours. Traffic was gridlocked everywhere. We missed our flight. I fault Vantage for this. They were well aware of the strike and were actively working to schedule bus trips for those who were scheduled on rail to other destinations. They should have scheduled the airport trips earlier. To Vantage's credit, they had a rep at the airport who booked us into a hotel near the airport, paid for that, and paid for the E200 extra fee for missing the flight. One poor chap was separated from the Vantage rep and ended up paying full fare to get home. Don't know if he was reimbursed. This incident was preventable and has soured me somewhat on Vantage.