My mom and I had always planned on going to France together. As a kid, France (and Paris specifically) was the epitome of someplace magical. It's one of those places that you know is special without having to go there. Like many of you, I'm sure France is on your bucket list. Even though I'm an adult I knew I wanted to explore this place with my mom. We made plans when I was in high school to go, then college, then grad school and unfortunately our busy lives just got in the way. That was until last year when I decided "no more waiting!" I told my mom we're doing this now! The only question was how? Like many travelers I'm sure, when I go to a foreign country for the first time I like to experience as much as I possibly can. That means not staying in one place the whole time, it means getting out there and exploring as many places and cities as we reasonably can. Great let's go! The only issue is that my dear mother is in her sixties and has a bad knee, combine that with old European cities, cobblestone streets and having to cart your luggage from city to city and you hit a road block.
That was until we heard about Viking River Cruises! I'm sure many of you have heard of them, they have gorgeous tv ads with videos of smaller river boats gliding through ancient cities. They have river cruises all over the world spanning Europe, Asia and even Egypt but we knew we had to take one that traveled through France and gave us some time in Paris, so after talking with our AAA travel agent we decided to book their 'Paris and the Heart of Normandy' tour.
I have to make a confession... even though I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale (one of the cruise capitals of the world), I've never taken an ocean or river cruise. Outrageous I know...I had some questions and concerns about cruising, I was worried I would feel sick or that I would feel too confined with a pre-determined schedule, or that the crowd would be 'older' but that is far from what happened. So I decided to put together a review of my (spoiler alert) AMAZING time on Viking's Paris and the Heart of Normandy river cruise.
First things first, river cruising is different from ocean cruising. Actually, Viking recently launched their ocean cruises as well (one day I'll hopefully get to take one) and I'm sure they are amazing; however, here are some of the biggest differences between river and ocean cruising. First and foremost river cruising is MUCH smaller than ocean cruising. We had under 200 people on our cruise and it was amazing. You really get to know your fellow cruisers and if you're lucky like we were you'll make a few friends by the end of your trip. This was great for me because on one of the nights we went out but my mom was tired so she stayed behind, I missed her but it was fine because a few of the other couples and the concierge made sure to watch out for everyone and invited me along. Second, because of the smaller guest size, the crew really gets to know you. I can only speak for Viking's crew and service but after the first day the crew knew who we were and a few had even memorized and brought me my favorite drinks without having to ask for them (iced tea for breakfast and lunch, cosmopolitan at cocktail hour). This was wonderful because you really feel close, almost like the service is customized to fit you individually, you can tell that they really care and want to make your experience great. There are many more perks of a river cruise that I'll get to below but first let's talk about the booking experience.
Booking with Viking is a breeze! We decided to go through our AAA travel agent but you don't need to. Once you search around their incredibly easy website and find the cruise you're interested in (you can search by price, length of time, location etc.) you can book it. The great part is that Viking will help you along the way, they can book your airline (if you'd like) and even schedule a Viking representative to meet you at the airport and take you to your ship. When booking: be aware that they also offer pre and post-cruise extension trips which is great if you'd like to spend some more time in your destination before and/or after your trip. You can purchase their pre and post-trip extensions or plan your own. We decided to get into Paris an extra day just to give ourselves more time and see more sites (this was our first time there after all); however, be aware that if you choose to book this on your own and opt out of their pre and post- extension there may be a fee associated with it. Additionally, if you're on your own a Viking representative will not be available to meet you at the airport. This was fine for us as we arranged a car to pick us up at the airport then took a cab to the port the next day (it was a bit stressful on my mom but luckily I was there to help her figure it all out).
Next, once you book (woo hoo!) you'll be invited to create a My Viking Journey account. This is where you can keep track of your trip, itinerary, FAQ's, take a virtual tour of your ship, and even learn about the history of your destination with their 'reading lists' and 'filmography by location' sections. You can also book optional shore excursions (each port of call has an included shore excursion but there are also additional ones you can purchase) and upgrade your cruise with their silver spirits package (we opted out of this because all lunch and dinner is served with complimentary beer, wine and soft drinks- trust me you will have enough to drink). Additionally, because we booked through AAA we each got a complimentary 250$ ship board credit which could be used to purchase drinks, shore excursions and gifts from their onboard gift shop. I love the MVJ website because I'm a planner and loved coming back to this site in anticipation of our trip. Once your cruise date gets closer Viking will also send you a welcome package! This was so great and truly a unique and special touch. It included a little traveling pouch (which I still use), leather luggage tags and all of our documentation with travel information etc. It really helped alleviate any of the travel and planning stress and got us (even more) excited for our trip!
The ship and onboard amenities:
Now on to the ship! It's no surprise that the ship was absolutely beautiful. We were booked on the Viking Longship Rinda and we loved it (check out their interactive virtual tours of the ship to get a better idea of what's onboard).
Given that this was our first time sailing with Viking as well as the fact that these are not exactly cheap cruises we opted for the Standard F room. I was a bit worried that I would get sick being on the third level of the ship but I can say with 100% honesty that I felt great, I didn't even feel the boat moving. The room was small with a water level window near the top of the ceiling but exceptionally designed with every detail in mind. There are obviously bigger rooms that have balconies etc. but we loved our little room. We were also so busy we didn't spend too much time in it. When we did the room was just the epitome of relaxing, clean and comforting. There was a large flat screen tv, plenty of closet space and a fairly large bathroom with full shower and absolutely delicious smelling amenities. Also, one of the best things about the rooms are that they have every kind of outlet that you'll need so no need to bring along a converter! Finally, one of my favorite things about the room was the live cameras that were connected to the lounge and outside ship area. My mom always laughed at me because I would turn it on while we were getting ready to see if we were missing anything or to see who was up at midnight (spoiler alert: it was always the older crowds who were drinking and dancing 'til the crack of dawn)! In addition to the room, the ship itself is 3 levels with a top deck that is comprised of the sundeck, a walking path, herb garden for their delicious meals and seating and lounge chairs to enjoy cocktails while watching the river pass by.
Other amenities inside the ship consist of a library and sitting area full of books that revolve around the area you're traveling to, a computer area with free wifi (take note: because you're traveling from place to place wifi can get spotty at times), countless lounge chairs and sofas to relax on, a 24-hour snack area that had fresh baked goodies like meringues, cookies and macarons plus cappuccino and coffee. Additionally, my favorite place to relax and hear about the day planned ahead was the bar and cocktail lounge area. Whenever we got a chance we would head to the lounge for a cocktail. This is also where your cruise guide will give you updates and let you know what is going on for the day or what to expect on the cruise. They also have live music each night and activities that I absolutely loved because they were 'culturally enriching'. For example, we had a mini french lesson, a lecture on french cheeses, a cooking class and even had a master artist come in and teach us how to make an 'impressionist' style painting of our own! It was lovely. The other main areas on the ship that you'll spend a lot of time on are the main restaurant which has floor to ceiling windows which are great to see the river and the locks you pass through (you'll have shared tables, a sit down 3-course menu and a chance to get to know other passengers) and the Aquavit terrace (the open-aired more casual, buffet style area to eat on the bow of the deck).
Our River Cruise Itinerary!
So where did we go?
Day 0: Like I said we chose to fly in the day before our cruise started to get more time in Paris! We flew Air France (I wrote another review on what it was like flying premium economy on their airline) and arrived at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport which is about 30-40 minutes from Paris. We had one night and an afternoon to ourselves before we joined our Viking Cruise in Le Pecq (a suburb of Paris). In those 24 hours were were able to see and do a lot. We ate in cafes, took in a cabaret at the Moulin Rouge!, went to the Louvre and even had tea and macarons on the Champs Elysees. Here's a more detailed post about my quick but wonderful time in Paris before our cruise.
Day 1: Paris, Le Pecq, France
Our first (but I think technically second) day in Paris was great. This is embarkation day where you have time to arrive to your ship, get unpacked and rest. This is also when you'll meet your crew and hear about the cruise and what to expect from the cruise director.
Day 2: Paris, France
On day 2 of the cruise Viking bused us into the city and we took a tour of everything around Paris! We began along the Champs-Élysées, saw the Arc de Triomphe, the Palais Garnier opera house, the Louvre and the Paris Town Hall. We also got to stop at Notre Dame Cathedral and had time to explore (we went to lunch at a wonderful cafe next door and walked across the bridge to another bucket list favorite- Shakespeare and Co.). We then drove through the Latin Quarter, St. Germain des Près, Luxembourg Gardens, Musée d’Orsay, Place de la Concorde and the Grand Palais and Petit Palais, Les Invalides complex of military buildings (which houses Napoleon’s Tomb and the École Militaire- Military School). Our last stop was a trip to the Eiffel Tower where we had time to explore and walk around.
Day 3: Vernon, France
This was one of my favorite days on the cruise. We took a short ride from Vernon to Giverny where Monet's house and famous gardens are. This was absolutely breathtaking...We visited the beautiful gardens and charming stone farmhouse where he lived and worked; saw the water garden with the famous Japanese bridge, water lilies, wisteria and azaleas that inspired many of his masterpieces. Definitely take the time to tour his home, see his masterpieces and kitchen!
Day 4: Rouen, France
On day 4 we cruised into the city of Rouen and began with a walking tour through the center of Old Town and saw the Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral, and the famous Gros Horloge, a 16th-century astronomical clock. This city is also famous because it was the place where Joan of Arc was sentenced to death and martyred in the 14th century. We also had free time to explore and shop (you must try the 'Joan of Arc tears'--- little almonds dusted in chocolate) then returned to our ship. One of the highlights of this day was the nighttime light show back in the city. It was a light show depicting the story of Joan of Arc and the battle of Hastings which was projected onto the side of their church. It was amazing and a must-do if you're not too tired at night.
Day 5: Normandy Beaches, France
This was a long day but also one of my favorites. I'm a HUGE lover of history (especially WWII) and this was a particularly moving excursion exploring the beaches of Normandy. We had a fairly longer drive past Gold Beach, Courseulles sur Mer and Juno Beach. We also had time to visit Omaha Beach and Arromanches Debarkment D-Day Museum. We had a beautiful lunch in town and spent time shopping and then visited the American Cemetery. My mom's uncle was killed on these beaches and it was extremely emotional and very touching. We spent time honoring those who had fallen as well as many groups of veterans who were there that day. I can't say enough how beautiful northern France and Normandy in particular are. Such a tranquil and lovely seaside village full of history.
Day 6: Les Andelys, France
After the previously long day this was a nice relaxing day. We cruised into the small town of Les Andelys, which is known for its imposing castle, Château Gaillard. It was built in 1196 by Richard the Lionheart (but was an architectural disaster). We had lunch and then joined a guided walk up toward the castle (be aware that this is a slightly rigorous walk with a sharp incline). We had plenty of time to then walk around town, explore the cute shops and pubs. There was also time to take a behind the scenes tour of the ship's galley and kitchens.
Day 7: Paris, Le Pecq, France
On our last day in France we cruised back to Paris (Le Pecq). After a wonderful breakfast we opted for the optional tour of Versailles! It was beyond amazing... we had a guided tour and time to explore the gardens. Next, we visited Château de Malmaison, a manor house, purchased by Napoleon's wife Josephine in 1799. We drove back to the ship for a magnificent farewell dinner where they pulled out all the stops. Even though it was nighttime our touring wasn't done. We also booked the optional 'Paris by Night' tour which was a drive back into Paris to see the city and Eifel Tower illuminated! A wonderful and beautiful last night indeed.
Day 8: Paris, France
Sooooobbbb!!!!! This was our last day when we had to return to the airport and go home. Viking was great with our luggage and made sure we didn't have to haul it on and off the boat. Although we were sad to leave, Viking provided a beautiful breakfast (as usual). Additionally, they made it super easy by busing us back to the airport and even waited to make sure everyone got where they needed to be.
Other things to expect from a Viking River Cruise!
So now to one of the best parts, the food! I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that having good food while on vacation is probably one of the most important things when planning a trip. I have to be completely honest and say that the food onboard our Viking ship was superb! I'm sure there are a lot of foodies and potential food snobs out there that would disagree but I 100% adored everything they served. Each day (breakfast and lunch) the restaurant had a massive buffet that had pretty much everything you could ever want including a chef who was ready to make me my daily omelet and daily hot specials (can you say homemade pasta bar)? They also have a menu you can order from with daily specials and standard American fare like eggs Benedict and sandwiches. Dinner was really special (although casual). Each night the menu changed and featured 3 different appetizers, entrees and deserts.
The food is generally designed around the locations that you're traveling to which meant we got to try a lot of French classics like french onion soup, bœuf bourguignon and bouillabaisse (they also have standard fare like steak, BBQ chicken and caesar salad if you aren't an adventurous eater or just miss home xo). If you have food allergies just let Viking or the chefs know and they will be sure to accommodate you. I also found out the chefs get local ingredients and even use herbs from their herb garden on the sun deck! The meals are also served with unlimited wines which are carefully chosen by their maître d' and they were delicious. Soooooo to make a long story short, you won't go hungry and your belly and palate will be very happy! Here are some pictures of some of the appetizers, main courses, cheese plates and my favorite meal- a massive celebration buffet when we traveled up to Normandy!
The Crew, Tours and General Feel:
Other misc. things you might be wondering about were the crew. I can't say enough how considerate and attentive the crew was. From the cruise guide (who provided us with history, plenty of jokes and daily updates), to the maître d' (who handpicked each night's wines), to the cleaning staff (who cleaned our rooms twice a day and left pamphlets about our daily destinations) to the crew (who truly seemed to care about our experience and made us feel welcome).
The tours were also well planned and executed. Again, being someone who likes to get the most out of my time while traveling, I really appreciated the tours and tour guides. They were kind and knowledgable and were about 1-3 hours which was just enough time. One other touch I like about Viking are these devices called 'quiet voxes' which are little headsets you wear during the tour. These allow you to hear what your tour guide is saying but give you some freedom to explore without being on top of each other.
Finally, one last thing I want to mention. We lost power for about half a day. While this could have been a disaster Viking handled it in the best possible way. We couldn't have dinner onboard so they arranged for us to go into town and eat in a beautiful French restaurant. On top of that they kept us updated and fixed the problem ASAP. We also received a ship board credit towards another cruise which I thought was very nice of them.
So would I recommend a Viking River Cruise? If you can't already tell...Yes I would x1000! It was amazing. I got to see and do more in 1 week than most people do all their lives, with the maximum amount of ease. I learned about the geography and culture and really felt immersed in the experience. Due to the small size of the ship and passengers, I also got to meet some wonderful people all while living in a moving hotel!
All of these things were wonderful but what was truly great was getting to experience this wonderful time with my mom. We can't wait to go back and take another cruise with Viking!