Le Havre, which lies along the English Channel on France's western coast, is the common port of entry for big ships calling on Paris and most typically a place to go through on your way to the City of Lights. By no means would we dissuade cruise travelers from making the long slog to "tres magnifique" Paris on a first visit, but on a return trip, Le Havre itself, both on its own merits and because of its proximity to Normandy (which is also quite magical), is worth a look-see.
While Le Havre is an ancient and textured city, dating back to the 16th century, it was badly bombed during World War II, losing much of its historic appeal. Still, it's been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the way it was rebuilt; the organization noted that Le Havre is "exceptional among many reconstructed cities for its unity and integrity."
Le Havre's prime location between Honfleur and Normandy offers a huge range of options. It's a gateway to the beaches that witnessed the bravery of D-Day and to the coasts and countryside that inspired so many artists. It's also a good place to visit for its art galleries and cafes, and it offers a relaxing alternative to the half-day commute into Paris.
Le Havre's cruise terminal offers a variety of services, including car rental agencies, a taxi station, shops, a cafe, Internet-accessible computers, free Wi-Fi, an ATM, a tourist office and bicycle rentals.
Travelers who have already visited Paris might want to consider touring Normandy -- fascinating in its own right, not to mention beautiful. Otherwise, look into commuting between Paris and the port of Le Havre.
Paris: The world capital of food, fashion and style has it all, and you won't remotely see it in one day. Our Paris port guide might help narrow it down.
Le Havre: The city itself has some charms. Key attractions include Musee Andre-Malraux, built in the 1960s. It showcases two native artists: Fauvist Raoul Dufy, known for his joyful Impressionist-like watercolors, and Eugene Boudin, a forerunner of Impressionism. (2 Blvd. Clemenceau; 02 35 19 62 62; open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays (closed Tuesday), weekends 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.) Also check out the Eglise St-Joseph. It's considered one of the 20th century's most outstanding churches. (Bd. Francois-1; 02 32 74 04 05; open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Natural History Museum: Housed in the former 18th-century law courts that survived the bombs, this museum displays fine collections of paleontology and zoology together with a collection of 8,000 drawings and manuscripts of naturalist Charles Alexandre Lesueur. (Place du Vieux Marche; 02 35 41 37 28; open Tuesday to Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.)
Normandy: Le Havre basically lies in the center of the Normandy region, which has a number of well-known sights to see. Among them: a World War II-related trip to the D-Day beaches where American, Australian, British, Canadian and French troops landed on June 6, 1944. Among the key points of interest are Sainte Mere Eglise, Utah Beach, the Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach.
Hire a taxi for the day -- they line up at the pier -- for a customized look at Normandy. You can even book a taxi for a simple two-hour driving tour of the region. Note, however, that you should negotiate the rate before you get into the taxi, and drivers might not speak much English.
Want a little more assistance? Book a full- or half-day guided tour of any of the region's myriad attractions. Normandy Sightseeing Tours (6 rue Saint-Jean, 14400 Bayeux; 02 31 51 70 52) offers a range of tours with English-speaking guides. Arrangements should be made in advance.
Honfleur: Drive across the Pont de Normandie, a sweeping bridge that spans the Seine River and connects Le Havre to Honfleur. This picturesque port town was made famous by Impressionists like Claude Monet. This is a terrific destination if your goal is a low-key day to shop antique stores and boutiques, eat a great French lunch and basically just mosey around.
Le Mont Saint-Michel: The famous abbey, perched on a 264-foot-high rock, is quite a sight. The water starts to rise and surround the abbey about two hours before high tide. Check the website for a high-tide timetable.
Shopping: The best shops are to be found in the rue de Paris, place de l'Hotel de Ville and the avenue Rene Coty. Shops are open 9 a.m. to noon and from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday. Some stay open at lunchtime. On Monday afternoons, two hypermarkets are open from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. -- Mammouth at Montivilliers and Auchan at Mont Callard Center Commercial, just beyond the railway station.
From the ship's dock to the city of Le Havre, it's about a 20-minute walk. (Often, passengers aren't permitted to stroll through the port facility.) Shuttles are typically provided to transport passengers from ship to center of town; some cruise lines levy a surcharge for the service.
Taxis line up at the pier, and you'll find a list of fares in the cruise terminal. It costs 8 EUR to get into town. A 1.5-hour taxi tour of Le Havre costs about 60 EUR for up to four people.
Rental cars are available from Sixt (02 78 63 00 18), Europcar (02 35 25 21 95), Radio Taxi (02 35 25 81 81) and Hertz (02 35 19 01 19).
Getting To Paris: Le Havre's train station is about a mile from the port. In most cases, passengers will take the shuttle from the ship to the center of Le Havre and then a taxi to the station (or take a taxi directly from the port to the station). Trains run to Gare St-Lazare (Paris) roughly every hour, more often before 8 a.m. It's more than a two-hour train ride home, so leave plenty of time to return to the pier.
La Taverne Paillette: La Taverne Paillette in the heart of the downtown shopping area is a Parisian-style brewery. (22 rue Georges Braque; 02 35 41 31 50; open noon to midnight, Monday to Sunday)
Le Grignot: Le Grignot, a bistro also in the heart of Le Havre, has indoor and outdoor dining and a menu that changes with the seasons. (53 rue Racine; 02 35 43 62 07; open noon to 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight, Monday to Saturday)
La Grenouille: La Grenouille (The Frog) bistro is "two jumps from L'Absinthe," near the fishing port. Local produce, seafood and frogs legs, of course, are on the menu of this cozy bistro. (16 Quai Quarantine; 02 31 89 04 24; open daily from noon to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.)
La Cloche: La Cloche is a traditional creperie, serving crepes, salads and ice cream year round. (50170 Le Mont Saint-Michel; 02 33 60 15 65; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Sunday)
Le Relais du Roy: Le Relais du Roy is at the entrance to the causeway, about 2 km before Mont Saint-Michel. It serves salt meadow lamb, fish and shellfish. (8 Route du Mont Saint-Michel; 02 33 60 14 25; open daily from noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.; closed from the end of February to the beginning of March)
Le Havre may often be billed by cruise lines as the port for Paris, but please note: The commute between port and Paris is a solid 2.5 hours each way. Just be prepared. Le Havre Cruise Terminal is at Florida Tip, and ships dock at Roger Meunier or Pierre Callet piers. The town center is 1.5 miles away.
Beware of "whirlwind syndrome." With just one day in Paris, strategize, and select two or three (at most) sightseeing destinations. Don't forget to allow time for a leisurely lunch. Also beware of pickpocketing and bag-snatching.
As well, if you opt for visiting places in Normandy, note that they're fairly spread out and also involve some commuting time. Your best bet is to rent a car (and possibly a tour guide/driver), and plan your itinerary carefully.
The official currency is the euro. There are plenty of ATMs and exchange bureaus in town. (Bureau de change at 41 Chaussee Kennedy, 76 600 Le Havre; 02 35 41 29 13)
French. You might hear some English but don't count on it.
A great souvenir is a video -- or just the memory of the experience -- of the Lowering of the Colors ceremony at Omaha Beach in Normandy, which takes place daily at 4:30 p.m. To the sound of a military hymn, the American flag is lowered and folded within view of the sea and 9,387 gravestones that mark the ultimate sacrifice young American and Allied troops made on June 6, 1944.