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On the Seine River: Paris Is Just One of Many Standouts on This Solo Cruise

Carolyn Spencer Brown

Last updated
Dec 12, 2019

Sponsored by Viking River Cruises

Paris, the eternal City of Light, is a cosmopolitan superstar. And, it's natural to assume that a Seine River cruise is strongly focused on la capitale. Whether you've traveled to Paris before or this is your first visit, the big surprise, I promise you, is what a marvelous voyage it is beyond the city limits, with its focus on culinary arts, impressionist masters, World War II history, Gothic cathedrals and the pastoral countryside of Normandy.

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For my seven-night cruise on Viking Rolf, traveling solo, I spent one pre-cruise night in Paris both to salve jet lag and reconnect a bit with this enchanting city, with a bonus extra day here while onboard. Then our trip took us into the Seine Valley, where we called at Vernon (for Giverny), Rouen, Normandy and the fishing village of Petit Andely, before heading back for one more overnight in the City of Light.

As a solo traveler, choosing to cruise the Seine was an easy decision. Paris can be overwhelming and as many times as I've visited, on this trip I was grateful to have the company of fellow passengers and a terrific guide on our day there.

And, the itinerary was not just a fantastic introduction to French towns and villages -- some I'd heard of while others were new discoveries. It was also a convenient and seamless way to get to know Normandy, without packing and unpacking, checking into new hotels and navigating les autoroutes on my own. When I wanted to be, I was always in good company, during meals, after-dinner drinks in the lounge and on tours. And, when respite was desired, I'd head up to the sun deck or out on the balcony with a good book. Alas, I typically turned very few pages. The scenery was too pretty to miss.

Day 1: Pre-Cruise in Paris

I've cruised a lot and the one travel tip I'll offer is this: Plan to get to your destination at least one day before you board your ship because disruptions happen and you don't want to miss the boat -- or miss days of your vacation. In this case, the journey was smooth, and arriving the day before gave me a chance to relax, nap and aimlessly wander around enchanting neighborhoods.

On this trip, I chose the Hyatt Paris Etoile just on the outskirts of Paris. It's different from the quaint, small boutique hotels you typically book in Paris, but I liked that the hotel, the only high-rise in the city, has killer views (you can choose Eiffel Tower or Montmartre -- both were divine), that it was a 10-minute walk to the Arc de Triomphe and that it was full-service. Coincidentally, it was also a Viking pre-cruise hotel and I had the benefit of advice from the very nice folks who manned the service desk.

Paris is a great power-strolling city and with a map in hand, I headed toward the Arc de Triomphe on the Place Charles de Gaulle. Inspired by military successes in the early 19th century (and various other military-minded honors have been added from subsequent wars), Napoleon gets credit for its creation but he ultimately abdicated well before it was completed in 1831. What's actually more interesting is the people-watching across 12 lanes of traffic that surrounds it. The Arc de Triomphe has a viewing tour and you can pay to climb the 284 steps for pretty nifty Parisian views (make sure not to cross the street on foot; there's an underground tunnel in the Champs-Elysees Metro). But, I know a better place for a good view.

Heading down the Champs-Elysees, dubbed the world's most beautiful avenue, I was struck by its contradiction. Maybe it once was elegant and special; today, it felt like a Times Squarian tourist trap. Sure, if you have come to Paris to shop at Zara, Gap, the Apple store and Sephora, you'll find no end of amusement but I kept on walking. I'm making my ritual Paris pilgrimage to Galeries Lafayette Haussmann. It's a department store but oh, wow, what a place. Located by the Paris Opera House, and sprawling over several blocks (you can access the different departments via under-road tunnel), the original building actually has a theatrical in-the-round feel. Its centerpiece is a 43-square-meter glass dome from the Art Nouveau era in the main hall. If I'd had the time, I would have lined up to step out onto the Glasswalk, a walkway that hangs out into the middle of the store, with great views of shoppers below and the dome above.

Speaking of views, the terrace on the seventh floor is mostly casual eateries with a grand view overlooking Paris. Here's a tip: If you don't feel like dining, there's a small area where you can still admire the scene.

Back at the hotel after a marathon walk, one of the things I really like about the location of the Hyatt is its proximity to the gracious and not-very-touristy neighborhood of Neuilly-sur-Seine. A recommendation led me to dinner at Le Durand Dupont, a brasserie that one reviewer described as a "chic staple" and which I'd say was the perfect first-day-with-jet-lag in Paris meal.

Tomorrow, the Seine River cruise begins.

Day 2: Getting Familiar With Viking Rolf

While other Viking travelers were still sightseeing in Paris on the pre-cruise aspect of their trip, I hailed an Uber and ventured to where Viking Rolf was waiting. Having cruised on Viking Longships before, I knew exactly what to expect (and half the fun is that, since all Longships are largely identical aside from artwork, you immediately feel at home).

If you're only checking-into-a-cruise experience is on a big, oceangoing vessel, the check-in process on a riverboat will stun you with its simplicity. A crew member meets you at the gangway, grabs your luggage and you're onboard, with a quick trip to the service desk to get your cabin key and flash a passport. Time elapsed: two minutes. Another thing so relaxing about a river cruise is even as your travels take you from place to place, you don't have to lift a finger: You unpack once and settle in.

Most standard staterooms on Viking Longships have private balconies or French verandas (essentially a floor-to-ceiling window that opens), are sleekly designed with plenty of storage and feature power showers with heated tile floors. Even more glam is the veranda suite category onboard. It's a true suite with separate living room and bedroom, a balcony off one, a French veranda off the other. It was an embarrassment of riches for this solo traveler, but I like space. On a very busy cruise, it was a great spot to stretch out on the couch with balcony doors open and watch the world go by.

One of the things I love about traveling alone is the chance to meet others and yet I also prize solo time. And, one of the challenges is I'm a bit shy at first. That's another reason why I love this ship design. At mealtimes you can jump into the social fray in the Restaurant on Deck 2 or you can nab a precious table for two at the Aquavit Terrace, off the lounge, and enjoy a quiet alfresco dinner under the sun and stars. On our first night onboard, the terrace was a bit of a secret and I almost had it to myself (that would change quickly as it became quite the hot spot for lunch and dinner).

What will soon become a cherished tradition is the nightly predinner port talk in the lounge, where you can sip a glass of wine and hear all about what the next day will bring. We loved the chef's recommendations about what to order for dinner, and our gentle introduction to French cuisine we'd enjoy throughout the week included escargot, roast chicken and Grand Marnier souffle. Tomorrow's a power-sightseeing day with all tours headed into the heart of Paris.

Day 3: A Much More Proper Tour of Paris

If, on my own ramblings, I was drawn to indulgent fun, today marks a new Parisian discovery: a morning review of Paris' most iconic spots and an afternoon trip to Montmartre. It was a full day of touring for most of us; those who preferred to explore independently could take a complimentary shuttle between ship and city center. Those who were more gentle adventurers could opt for a motor coach tour of the city's highlights, and still other options included guided visits of the Louvre.

After highlights, our bus dropped us off in the 5th arrondissement, the Latin Quarter (and, home to the Sorbonne, the hub of the Parisian collegiate scene). A short stroll to nearby Shakespeare and Company, the famous English-language bookshop, revealed a breathtaking view of the French Gothic Notre-Dame de Paris, the cathedral that so horrifically burned in 2019. Line up along the Seine embankment to take-in its still-stunning beauty. You can't get any closer because it's closed for repair.

Here, I met our guide for the trek to Montmartre, or I should rather say "my" guide because I was the only person on the tour -- How amazing it is that Viking didn't simply cancel the tour because not enough people signed up! With Metro tokens in hand, we headed to Montmartre.

Montmartre is a village, technically just outside of Paris, which represents the highest point in the city and for that reason alone, the views are magnificent. Its iconic attraction is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris (Sacre-Coeur), and the Gothic cathedral, accessible via a steep 270-step climb, is stunning, a wonderful spot for a few minutes of quiet reverie. And, then the fun starts. The most picturesque part of Montmartre is its charming hilltop village just a few minutes' walk away. It's known for inspiring artists like Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh. It also inspires living artists; there are more than 40 who daily set up their easels in the Place du Tertre, the town square. You can have a portrait drawn for 50 euros (about $60) or so, or buy a scenic vista. If you have ever dreamed of becoming a painter, well, you may want to stay in Montmartre forever.

We had a very pleasant lunch of mussels and crusty bread at one of the touristic restaurants on the square and meandered around the village, discovering Paris' only in-town vineyard and other quiet spots before heading back to the Metro to pick up the last Viking shuttle.

On Viking Rolf, this is definitely a night when you want to dine alfresco on the Aquavit Terrace. As soon as we moved from our cocktail hour "what's next" presentation to dinner, the ship began to glide down the Seine. There was nary a breeze to ruffle our chateaubriand.

Day 4: Vernon and Monet's Giverny

Did you know that the Seine, which runs from Burgundy's Dijon through Paris where it divides into two (creating the nomenclature of "left bank" and "right bank") and then on to Normandy and the sea, is the second-longest river in France (the Loire River earns top honors)? In our Viking Daily, we learn that it's France's busiest inland waterway, which surprises me, actually. Of all the rivers I've cruised, it seems the most pastoral and painterly, and of course the region we cruise through is where the impressionist art movement was born. Makes sense.

What's particularly surprising is how relatively little modern life we see from our perch on Viking Rolf. There are castles, white limestone cliffs, the occasional cathedral but 21st century -- anything -- seems tucked away.

Today, we pull into Vernon, literally at the foot of town. Expectations of this Normandy village aren't particularly high since the reason we're here is its proximity to Claude Monet's paradisiacal gardens of Giverny. And, while on my next Seine River cruise I'd like to spend an entire day in the absolutely darling village of Giverny (our tour was just a half-day), I'm glad I didn't miss out on Vernon.

A quick walk around town (Viking also offered a guided tour) featured delightfully ancient 500-year-old Norman half-timbered buildings that betrayed their age by leaning, just a bit, into each other. There were a couple of really interesting local bistros with Michelin connections. The Gothic Collegiate Church of Our Lady is worth a peek. The best discovery of all was the Musee Alphonse-Georges-Poulain, a museum above the tourist information center, which is the only place in the area that actually displays original Monet paintings; it also features works by Eduoard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard.

If you just wanted to stay onboard, I loved the impressionist art class that was offered -- there were some pretty magnificent passenger-created watercolors.

The afternoon was all-things-Giverny and Viking, responding to demands by younger, more active 40- to 60-something travelers, offered a cycling option. Ten of us, plus a guide, wheeled off across the Pont Clemenceau, which has straddled the Seine since the relatively recent 1950s. The towpath veered in and around the river, was mostly flat and gave us a wonderful look at the village itself. It's storybook, really. Golden stone houses with flower boxes brimming with geraniums line the village's main street.

We pulled up for a quick "rest stop" in front of Hotel Baudy, which today is just a restaurant (and a lovely one at that). In the late 19th century and beyond, American artists working in Paris made pilgrimages to Monet's country place in Giverny and needed somewhere to stay and eat and drink. Sometimes they traded their own paintings to pay bar tabs, which explains the visual chaos of some of the pieces still hanging here today. There's even an art studio in the back garden, which true to Giverny form, also has bountiful flora and fauna. It's about a half-mile from Monet's home, and when I found myself with a half-hour to kill for a Kronenbourg at the bar, having the bike meant I could get there with time to spare.

Giverny itself: The artist was a big proponent of the plein air movement, considered quite revolutionary at the time in that painters actually went out into nature and urban cityscapes to paint. Our guide told us Monet was inspired to design the gardens so that he didn't necessarily have to travel to have something to paint.

He designed two gardens. The first, flanking his sprawling pink villa, is full of flora and fauna, some Norman, some more exotic. It's not a formal French garden that you'd associate with, say, Versailles. What was unique at the time and is still beautiful to this day is how natural it feels, even as a team of gardeners works around visitors to keep it maintained. The second garden is even more iconic: The water garden, with its Japanese bridge and water lilies, inspired Monet to create numerous series of works of art. If you feel a sense of deja vu, well, yes, you've probably seen this garden before in a museum.

You can also visit the Monet family villa, which has been restored so you can imagine the scenario here during his life (check out his choice of art -- none of his works are displayed here and the view from the second-floor bedrooms, over the garden, is magnificent). There's a massive gift shop that has none of the natural elegance of the gardens you've just absorbed, and outside you can visit touristic restaurants for ice cream and such. If you wind up with free time, stroll on through the village, where a handful of galleries, boutiques and other art museums are enticing.

As our small band of cyclists headed back to Vernon, we started to develop the camaraderie that I've noticed often happens on active-oriented tours more than on more rigidly structured activities. As a solo traveler surrounded by nine other people a lot like me in that we preferred to ride a bike to the garden with stops along the way for small discoveries, there was banter and joking and introductions and where-are-you-from. When we paused for a surprise refreshment break of hand-baked macarons and the most delicious apple cider and Pommeau (a hard cider), all in the shadow of the ancient, precariously perched Mill House over the Seine, it was nice to make connections.

Surely, with fewer than 200 passengers Viking Rolf is by no means a big vessel, but our outing today made it feel even cozier.

Day 5: Two Days in Rouen

Power touring starts in earnest today. So many choices! With the ship docked at the foot of Rouen, Normandy's biggest city and its capital, you can take a two-hour walking tour of the medieval city's old town, a half-day excursion to the fishing village of Honfleur and another trip out to a farm in the gorgeous Normandy countryside to taste homegrown cheeses, apples and Calvados. Here's a tip, though: We spend two days in Rouen because it's the closest we can get to our trip to Normandy's D-Day beaches, which is, we're told, a powerful adventure.

You might want to consider pacing yourself here.

And, that's what I did, rambling around Rouen on my own. "Les Miserables" writer Victor Hugo is quoted as calling it "the city of a hundred spires" and that gives you a sense of the ambiance but of course doesn't tell all of the story. Despite being heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II, the city still has a strong collection, 800 strong, of the now-ubiquitous Norman half-timbered buildings. If the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady (also known as Rouen Cathedral) looks familiar, that's because it is: Monet's Rouen Cathedral series consists of 30 paintings through which he experimented with light play on the medieval facade.

Rouen also celebrates the life of Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake on the city's Place du Vieux Marche. A 65-foot cross memorializes the spot. Nearby is the supermodern 1970s Joan of Arc church, which honors her. The paradox of such a contemporary-looking church on this historic square is frankly quite jarring, and maybe that's meant purposefully as the heroine, considered a savior in the Hundred Years War (between the 14th and 15th centuries), was ultimately, condemned as a heretic.

Being a capital city, Rouen is also quite a bustling one, and there's plenty of chain store shopping aimed more at locals than tourists. It's well-known for its plethora of antiques stores; head to streets like Rue Damiette around the Church of Saint-Ouen de Rouen. And, keep your eyes peeled for idiosyncrasies, like the man who was sculpting a dog out of sand that looked so lifelike, and also sort of dead, which I did a double take and then dropped money into his tin cup.

Day 5 (continues): Overnighting in Rouen with Julia Child

Tonight, Viking Rolf overnighted at our docking spot in Rouen. What's a bit surprising to me is that the food onboard, French with contemporary twists and "everyday" options, like salmon, chicken and steak, has been so good that I've barely eaten off the ship. That changed for me this evening, when, channeling legendary Julia Child, I savored a special meal in La Couronne, an iconic Rouen restaurant.

This quote, from a story by David Lyon on, perfectly captures my interest in savoring a meal here: "Dining at the restaurant that introduced the late Julia Child to French cuisine feels a little like striking a match on the site where humans discovered fire." Indeed, as she recounted in her memoir "My Life in France," Child, who had literally just gotten off a transatlantic crossing in Le Havre as she and her husband were relocating to Paris in 1948, stopped in Rouen for lunch on the way. The meal at La Couronne, was, she writes, "the most exciting of my life" and sparked her passion for introducing French cuisine to American palates.

Maybe La Couronne milks the Child connection a little bit -- there's actually a Julia Child menu available, the exact same dishes she had, if not cooked by the same chef -- and the effort exudes a whiff of touristic marketing, but no matter. The ambiance, in a Norman building dating back to the 14th century, makes you forget all about the 21st century (and if you've seen the movie "Julie and Julia," where a scene is shot at the supposed La Couronne, you'll notice that it's not this one. This one's actually more beautiful). Service started out a bit stiff, but when the waiter understood I wanted him to call the shots, he became quite lovely. The experience remains a highlight of my trip.

On the way back home to Viking Rolf, I took a quick detour to Rouen Cathedral where, from June to September there's a late-night color and light show reflected off its facade. Don't miss it.

Day 6: Normandy and the Beaches of D-Day

Today is the penultimate experience of our Seine River cruise. I say that because it's the one day where we all come together for a tour of the World War II theater best known as the Normandy beaches. Gothic Revival churches, awe-inspiring artistic masterpieces and the culinary inspiration of Julia Child hold no candle to the reverence and honor we'll pay tribute to on this jam-packed outing. Indeed, today's all about the brutal effort that helped the Allies turn the tables, liberate France and ultimately, win the war.

It's a long day, 11 hours from start to finish back in Rouen, but you won't remember that. Here's what still sticks with me, a few months since my trip:

It was touching to see that Viking created two tours, one aimed at American travelers, the other focused on events of interest to British and Canadian passengers. It was a good reminder that this day is not just about the American war effort but also a meaningful battle for Canadian and British militaries. Travelers who are Canadian or British went to Sword and Juno beaches (with a side trip to see the Bayeux tapestry), and the British and Canadian cemeteries. Americans visited Utah, Omaha and Gold beaches before winding up at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

The trip from Viking Rolf in Rouen to Normandy takes about two hours. It's a pleasant journey on new and comfy Viking motor coaches; I loved that seats had access to outlets to charge phones and iPads. On the ride, fellow passengers napped, read and chatted. One couple, each wearing headphones, watched "Saving Private Ryan," the Tom Hanks film about D-Day, which they had downloaded on their iPad. All distractions ceased as we got off the autoroute and onto country roads in Normandy. The scenery is just beautiful.

For a lot of us on the American tour, the most jarring sight upon arriving in Arromanches, whose Gold Beach played a central role, is that this coastal part of Normandy, including neighboring towns, is as much a vacation spot for beach-goers as it is for a powerful nod to our history. Rusted out pontoons are dotted about. Les Braves, a steel, jagged war memorial hard on a beach, is another surprising reminder of what happened here on June 6, 1944, and yet this juxtaposition between history and life today is absolutely compelling.

On this long day, Viking hosts us all for a set-lunch at a golf resort; if you have any dietary restrictions, make sure to let the Viking culinary team know before the Normandy visit.

The most intensely moving experience of the day -- and that's saying something! -- is the post-lunch visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Here, we all felt the sobering realization that 9,387 crosses are dedicated to American soldiers who lost their lives on D-Day and in the ensuing Battle of Normandy. Another 1,557 men who were never found are memorialized on the Wall of the Missing.

Don't miss this: A ceremony was held for our group around the bronze memorial, "Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves," and all passengers who had served or are still serving in the military were asked to participate. Honoring military history and sacrifice of all who serve was a meaningful way to end the day.

On the way back to Viking Rolf, the bus was much quieter. People were lost in their own recollections. The events packed an emotional punch. For one full day, I think a lot of us forgot we were on a light-hearted vacation and absorbed this era in person in a way that no movie or history book could transcribe. Whether American, British or Canadian, I wasn't alone in feeling that I'll never forget this day.

Day 7: Utterly Charming Les Andelys

After such a momentous day in Normandy, Les Andelys was the perfect easygoing place. We docked at Petit Andelys, the smaller of two villages marked by the ruins of Chateau Gaillard hovering above. Here, you can climb up to the ruins for simply gorgeous views of the Seine Valley's white cliffs or amble around town shopping at darling boutiques and dining off-ship at bistros and pizzarias. Or, head into nature, as we did, via a kayaking expedition on the nearby Eure River. Interestingly, it attracted just about the same group of us who'd cycled into Giverny, and it was fun to catch up and reconnect. Getting out on the gentle river, we kayaked with the current, and it was placid and peaceful and you didn't really have to work too hard. Just right for a low-key day in France.

Back onboard, officers of Viking Rolf hosted a Viking Explorer Society welcome-back reception for past passengers, and it seemed like most of the passengers were there, sipping elegant cocktails and trading bon mots.

Day 8: Mantes-la-Jolie and Back To Paris

If yesterday's blissful laid-back nature helped us recharge, today, our last full day aboard, has picked up the power-touring mantle. We woke up in Mantes-la-Jolie, a suburb of Paris, which is relatively unremarkable for tourists -- its proximity to Chateau de Malmaison, home of Josephine Bonaparte, and the Palace of Versailles means it's easy to start tours here. And, if neither of those is of interest, there's also a transfer to Paris.

After a quick walk around Mantes-la-Jolie I got back onboard, looking for a few hours spent on the river. After lunch, the Chateau Malmaison tour went off, and the ship set out for our final port of Le Pecq. And, here's the thing: What can get lost on any river cruise amid all the sightseeing discoveries is the simple pleasure of gliding along the river. There are views from river bank to river bank, and it can be as glorious as a cathedral perched on a hilltop or an ancient half-timbered mansion or even watching other boats, mostly cargo barges, slip past. It occurs to me that the Seine feels even quieter than most; despite the fact that it's France's busiest commercial waterway, we haven't seen many other riverboats.

And, as we make our last journey, almost five hours' worth, back to Le Pecq, I curl up on the balcony and read a little bit from the book I still haven't finished. I spend some time, all the way forward, in one of the rocking chairs in the Aquavit Terrace. I sip a cocktail with a pair of passengers who, as it turns out, are near neighbors back home. There might have been a nap, a little shopping for gifts at the Viking store on Deck 2 and the contemplation, if not execution, of a packing strategy for tomorrow. It's going to be a long travel day.

It's hard to believe only a week ago, I arrived in Paris, tired, tense and laden with pressures of daily life. Now, I feel like a shirt that's been ironed to remove all the creases. The week we've spent is a jumble of kaleidoscopic colors, thought-provoking conversations, moving moments and new discoveries.

My only regret is I can't stay onboard and do it all over again.

Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic’s Chief Content Strategist, is an award-winning editor and writer who’s been covering the cruise industry for morre than 20 years. She’s began trawling Europe’s rivers while on assignment for The Washington Post and counts a dozen voyages along the Danube alone (and only two on the Seine; she's looking to increase her frequency on France's most iconic waterway). A Seine cruise's big appeal? The vast range of places to visit there, from imperial cities to villages so beautifully preserved they could be a film set.

Want to learn more about a European River cruise?

We traveled on Europe's most popular rivers -- the Danube, Rhine, Rhone and Seine -- and share our stories about our discoveries, both in-port and on-shore, with plenty of tips and insights to help you plan your own voyage. Please join us.

On the Danube River: Two Longtime Pals Make Discoveries About Europe and Friendship

On the Rhine River: Our Culinary, Castle and Cathedral Discoveries Are Just the Beginning

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On the Seine River: Paris Is Just One of Many Standouts on This Solo Cruise

And don't miss our exclusive new series: Cruise Critic's Ultimate River Cruise Guides. The guides give expert advice on what to do in ports of call when cruising Europe's rivers, from insight on the marquee attractions that are typically featured on included tours to off-the-track discoveries to make on your own.

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Publish date December 12, 2019
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