Saturday, October 15, 2016
And so our river cruise begins. We boarded the ship and entered the “lobby” – a small area with a front desk and the cruise director’s desk. They handed us the key to our room, and directed us to stateroom #219, down a half flight of stairs and down the hall. We opened the door and we both had huge smiles on our face – the cabin was just as we pictured it!
There are only three types of cabins for passengers on this ship – the river view cabins (located on deck 1 with approx. 2 high windows at the top of the wall), Panorama suites (located on decks 2) and Royal Suites (there are 2 of them on deck 3). All the cabins except the river view have glass doors, wall to wall floor to ceiling. These slide open so 2/3 of your room is wide open to the outside (with a railing outside). There is a small seating area in front of the door, so that your cabin IS your balcony (instead of a small seating area outside). And the bed faces the door, so you can relax on the bed and look at the beautiful scenery passing by as you cruise down the rivers of Europe.
We had a few minutes to settle in and unpack, and then an announcement was made for the Emergency drill. We were all directed to the Sky Deck (above deck 3), and sorted by the deck on which our cabin was located, then we were checked in by cabin number and given a life jacket.
We were then directed to the Lounge after the drill, for the rest of the “safety talk,” which included information about the ship, explanations of the excursions, notice that whenever we left the ship we needed to ask the front desk for the Shore Pass for our cabin (so they would know if we weren’t yet back to the ship when it was time to sail), and strict warnings that when the Sky Deck was closed we needed to heed the restrictions because there would be times when we would pass under bridges so low that the wheelhouse would be lowered and the top of the railings was inches from the underside of the bridge. We also found out that although the ship holds 130 passengers, there were only 90 on this sailing.
We were also given our first Port Talk, held daily just before dinner, at which time the Cruise Director would explain the excursions for the next day so we could choose. The excursions included in the price of the cruise are always in the morning, and almost all the afternoon excursions (when offered) are optional and at an additional cost. Tomorrow we would be in Vernon, and would have the choice of going to Giverny to visit the painter Monet’s gardens (the inspiration for many of his most famous paintings), or to go to Chateau de Bizy, known as the small Versailles. We chose the excursion to Giverny and Monet’s gardens – we have always admired Monet’s works, and at one time had a bedroom comforter set that was based on Monet’s Water Lilies painting.
As soon as the talk ended, we all went down to the restaurant for dinner. Dinners include a choice of red or white wine or beer (different choice each night). (By the way, as of 2017 cruises this will be included with lunch – now there is a charge). There is a choice of 2 or 3 appetizers, choice of 2 soups, choices of 2 or 3 nightly entrees (or you can choose the “always available” chicken or steak or salmon), and choices of 2 or 3 desserts.
We spoke with the maître d’ about my dietary restrictions, and we spoke with the chef. After that, each night the maître d’ would speak to the chef before I arrived and get the list of what I could and couldn’t have, so I would point to something I wanted and he would say no, they can’t make that for me, or yes they can make it special for me, or it’s fine for me. Our server, Pavel, would bring the dishes out and always when he put mine down in front of me, he would present it to me and say “Here’s your special.”
After dinner, they had entertainment in the lounge (a guy named Milan playing the piano and singing) – the rest of the group went up, but we were tired and headed to bed.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Did I mention I love the bed on this ship? I want to take it home with me – how much do you think the airline would charge for that? Do you think they would notice it missing from our cabin when we leave? It doesn’t matter, I’m going to take it with me.
Our excursion was scheduled to leave at 8:30am, so we went down to the restaurant (on deck 1) for the breakfast buffet. They have fruits, sliced meats and cheeses, yogurts, muesli, oatmeal, plain pancakes, a chef to cook eggs and omelets, and some other hot dishes (varied by day). You could also choose one of two choices on the menu for the daily special (fruit pancakes, French toast, Belgian waffles, etc.). They also had a daily fruit smoothie – the pineapple was my absolute favorite! So much so that on nights when there wasn’t a dessert (other than fresh fruit) that I could have, they would make me a pineapple smoothie. Breakfast in the restaurant is usually served from about 90 minutes before the excursions leave until the meeting time. A light breakfast (small pastries, fruit cups and fresh fruit, muesli, bread and sliced meat and cheese, coffee and tea and juice) for early risers, through the main breakfast time, and for late risers.
Tour in Giverny
After lunch the ship set sail at 12:45pm, so we finally had a chance to explore the ship. It didn’t take us long – it’s not a large ship. On deck 1 to the back are the river view cabins, and the fitness room (1 treadmill, 2 exercise bikes, and some weights), and to the front is the restaurant. Up a half deck to the back are the cabins on deck 2. Up another half flight of stairs to the front is the front desk and cruise director’s desk, then the lounge is at the front (with outside seating to the very front). Up another half deck to deck 3 at the back are the cabins, and at the very back of deck 3 is a Club Lounge, where there is always coffee, tea, juices, and cookies.
On the Sky Deck, there are lots of seating choices, some covered under large tents (which are lowered when going through areas with low bridges), a large chess set and backgammon set, and a hot tub.
At 1:45 this afternoon there was an extended port talk, giving an overview of
all the excursion options. It was at this time we were asked to fill out a form indicating which excursions we wanted, so that they could hire the appropriate number of guides for each.
At 3:15pm, there was a French pastry demonstration and tasting (no charge). Then the ship docked in Les Andelys at 3:30pm. Again we were given a choice of excursions – a casual walk through the town, or a climb up to Chateau Gaillard (the ruins of a castle built by Richard the Lionheart). I asked the gal at the front desk if it was a difficult climb, and she looked at me and said I would have no trouble doing it. It was 300’ high, but we made frequent stops for everyone to catch their breaths, and I did indeed make it!
It was definitely worth the climb – the ruins were large enough that you could get a sense of how mighty the fortress must have been when it was built. The guide had also brought pictures so we could see illustrations of what it looked like when it was still complete. And the views of the river valley below were truly beautiful.
When we got back down to town, the guide made sure we knew our way back to the ship (pretty easy – small town), and we wandered on our own. There was a street fair going on, with lots of food and clothing items for sale. There had also evidently been a local pumpkin growing contest, and we heard and saw the winner announced and his prize given.
Back onboard, and port talk at 6:45 and then dinner was at 7pm. We sat again with our new friends, and truly enjoyed the conversation! Again after they went to the lounge and we headed to bed.
Monday, October 17, 2016
This morning we woke up in Caudebec-en-Caux. The ship would stay here overnight, as it is from here that we take buses to the beaches of Normandy tomorrow. The excursion options were Abbey Road – tour of two Abbeyes – one is a ruin of a previously beautiful church, and the other is where monks currently live (with a tour by a real live Benedictin monk); or Thatched Roof Cottage Road (the rest of our “group” chose this).
The Abbaye des Jumieges ruins were brought about after the French Revolution – the man who owned the property needed money, so he allowed people to pay for the stones, and so it was dismantled piece by piece. The guide assured us, however, that since the owner was a Frenchman, it was tastefully done so as to keep enough of a structure to honor the remains of what had once been a beautiful cathedral. The house in the back, previously the home of the abbot, is now a museum, so we wandered back there before meeting back at the bus. Again, the lighting, in combination with the changing colors of the leaves…. Just beautiful.
The guide shared an interesting piece of information. She said that you will not find perfection in the design of French cathedrals, as they believe that only God is perfect, so anything made by man cannot be. If you look carefully, the towers will always be different, even if it is just by a few feet. This is also found in the Turkish culture – if you have ever purchased a Turkish rug, you will find an imperfection. If one doesn’t exist by the time the creator is nearly done, they will put one in on purpose. Again, only God is perfect.
Then we drove to the Abbaye St. Wandrille, a monastery built in 649 and where Benedictine monks still live. We first stood in the yard while the monk told us about the history, the buildings, and the current residents, then he answered questions (all translated by our guide). Someone asked him about their vow of silence, and he explained that they couldn’t talk about “small talk,” but if you needed to talk to explain something to someone, then that was allowable.
Some of the buildings had been damaged over time and they were working on renovating and repairing some of the buildings. He gave us a peek into an area that most tourists don’t see – the courtyard of buildings where the monks live and study. We even saw one of the young monks reading in one of the windows.
After the tour, we walked to the gift shop – the monks make things for sale to raise money for their living expenses. Chocolates, souvenirs, CDs of their Gregorian chant music, and they even make and sell beer as of a couple months ago!
Back on the bus, and back to Caudebec. The town is known for its aeronautic manufacturing – the Société Latham was a French aeronautical construction company that built seaplanes for the French Navy. We visited the Notre Dame cathedral (built in the 15 th century), then wandered old back streets. A charming little town. Oddly enough, most of the shops are closed because it is Monday – they take the day off after their busy weekends. Sad for us as many wanted to shop. Near the water is a nice park, with a visitor’s information center (again, closed) where you can get maps for many walking and biking paths all around and outside of the city. The park also has a small miniature golf course with cleverly
The afternoon was quiet for most of us. There was an optional (additional cost) excursion to Honfleurs – one of the few old port towns in Normandy that had no damage at all from World War II. We chose to stay onboard and relax – I caught up on pictures and work. At 6pm, we were invited to the lounge for a “lecture” on the Normandy invasion (tomorrow’s excursion). The speaker, Nigel Stewart, shared the historic overview of the war and then the details of the plans leading up to the invasion. It was very interesting, and helpful in preparing for the next day.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016 [Normandy excursion]
We arrived back on the ship at 6:15pm. At 7:05 we had our port talk and then dinner. After dinner, our new friends pleaded with us to join them for the entertainment, which on just this night, included two performers and we were told we should not miss it. So we joined them in the lounge, and had a fun time. The Captain came down and sang and
danced as well!
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
After the 10.5-hour day yesterday, today was a little slower. The ship had traveled to Rouen, the capital of the region of Normandy. There was only one option for excursions, and it actually didn’t leave until 9:30am (wow – we got to sleep in!)
Rouen is famous for being the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake and where she is buried. A very modern church/monument marks the location, with a “farmer’s market” located in the connecting area where it has been held for centuries. This is also where Richard the Lionheart was crowned Duke of Normandy and left his heart to the city. And there is a beautiful clock – Gros Horloge – one of the oldest clock mechanisms in Europe. We walked through the town, which has many undamaged buildings dating back to Medieval times.
We went to the Rouen Cathedral, a very large cathedral begun in 1035 by the Vikings after they came to Normandy. The rest of the cathedral was finished in the 16 th century, and portions rebuilt over time. It was the tallest building in the world from 1876 to 1880. Inside the guide showed us where some of the stained glass windows had been blown out by the bombing in World War II and those were replaced by plain glass.
Outside the cathedral, the tour ended and we were left to wander on our own. Vic and I headed to the Musee des Beaux Arts (Fine Arts Museum), where we had been told there were paintings by Monet and Renoir on display. The building itself was beautiful, and upstairs in the Impressionist galleries we saw a painting that Monet had done of the very cathedral we had just visited. We also saw another painting he had done of Giverny. There was another painting done by someone I didn’t recognize, but the scene reminded me of the views from our river cruise ship.
We wandered back through the town and decided it was time to try French macaroons, so we bought three – a pistachio, a strawberry, and a caramel one.
Back on the ship for an early departure, and some “ship time.” At 3pm, we had signed up for a tour of the galley. Well, considering the size of the ship, it was more like an invitation into the small galley, with a chance to ask the chef any questions we might have. A few things that were very interesting – there is a separate breakfast chef who cooks through the night to have breakfast ready, and then he goes to bed after breakfast is served.
There are two guys onboard who wash all the dishes. They have two ovens – one for the fish items and one for meat, to avoid the possibility of contamination for those who have fish allergies. The cutting boards are all color coded – the blue is for fish, red for meat, green for vegetables, yellow for chicken, brown for cooked meat, again to avoid cross contamination. Parts of the preparation areas fold down when not in use to give more walking space. The crew eats their dinner before we do. The chef plans his week’s meals and food purchases based on the choices of the passengers the first couple nights. He buys food about 3 times during each weeklong cruise.
An interesting note about the crew – they hold multiple jobs. The gal who is the pastry chef also serves drinks in the dining room. Our room steward (who I only ever saw in our hall twice during the whole week) also assisted with serving during lunch. Even the Captain was seen cleaning the boat as we came back to the ship at one of the ports.
Also, this itinerary stops for the winter, so after our cruise there are two more and then the ship goes into port in Rouen with about 20 other ships from various lines and sits there for the winter. The crew gets four months to go home.
The ship set sail at 3:45pm. There was a Normandy Cheese Tasting at 4pm that we skipped, so our next activity was a Wheelhouse tour at 4:45pm. The Captain is a fifth general ship captain – his family are all barge captains. He has a 5-year-old daughter who listens to the family conversations and asks all the right questions, so he think she will probably carry on the family tradition. There is a Captain and a second Captain and they take turns steering the ship (although the Captain says it’s mostly him). Captains work for 2 weeks and then have 2 weeks off while another captain comes on board, so he was on leave after we disembark. The draft on the ship is only 4 meters, and it is flat bottomed. The rivers are sometimes covered in fog, so they use satellite when that happens.
The ship doesn’t have a rudder, instead it uses pods that enable it to move sideways to maneuver into ports; they can spin the ship 360°. During the tour, the Captain told us we would be coming up to a lock just before 6pm, so we went to our cabin and watched the path on one of the TV channels, and then went up on the main deck to watch us go through the lock. We made our way in, the doors closed behind us, and the water level started filling quickly. It took about 15 minutes to raise us up to the level of the river before us, and the front door slid open and we sailed away. One of the locks we saw later in the cruise filled with water so quickly I could visibly see the ship rising.
Port talk at 6:45pm, and dinner at 7pm. Dinner was a little quieter tonight, as our friends had selected to have dinner at the “Bistro.” There is no charge, but you do need to sign up for this experience. It’s held in the lounge, and it’s basically a bunch of smaller size portions of various foods for you to try. The entertainment tonight was a “Crew Show” – the next day we heard that it was rather a sad display, as none of the crew were particularly talented. One of the couples had been on an Avalon cruise a couple years ago and they said that the crew show on their previous cruise was actually very
Thursday, October 20, 2016
This morning we were in Conflans. The choices of tours were a visit to Malmaison (translated to English – “bad house”) which was Josephine’s (Napoleon’s wife) 17 th century chateau; or we could go to Auvers-Sur-Oise, the town where Van Gogh spent his last days, painted some of his most famous works, and is buried. Yes, we went with Van Gough.
Back on the ship, it was another quiet after as we did not do the optional excursion to Versailles, which left just before the ship set sail at 1:25pm. I took time to catch up on pictures and work, while Vic napped. We also started to watch a movie – they have a long list of movies available to watch for free on the TV in the room.
The ship made a brief stop at 5:45pm as we met the bus of guests who had gone to Versailles and they boarded the ship. The port talk at 6:45pm included the disembarkation briefing. Yesterday the list of all the guests onboard with transfers
was posted, with their pick up time and the time by which their luggage should be outside their cabin in the morning.
Our flight is at 8:35am, so we were first on the list with a 5am luggage time and 5:15am disembarkation/shuttle pick up time. There were only two other people on the list at our time. Our friends booked an extended package to London after the cruise is over, which will be a Monograms package, so their transfer to the train station is included.
The gratuities were also explained – you can choose to prepay gratuities; in which case a prepaid voucher will be in your room after dinner. Otherwise, the suggested amount is 12€ per person day, or 84€ per person/168€ per couple. This is put into a pool for all members of the crew except the cruise director, and you put the envelope into box at the front desk. The cruise director has a separate envelope for tips, and the suggested amount is 21€ per person or 42€ per couple, for a 7-night cruise, and you give him this envelope.
There were also two questionnaires in our room – one looking for our demographic information, the other asking for our opinion about the cruise. We were told to put these into the marked box also on the front desk, and there would be a drawing tomorrow, with prizes given. These questionnaires would also be put into a drawing for all passengers this season and there would be a winner of a free Avalon Waterways cruise after the season ends.
Dinner was a “Gala” night, since tomorrow is our last night and many are going on the optional excursion to have dinner at the Moulin Rouge (none of us are). People were a little dressier, but not really. Vic wore a jacket, but he was only one of about 3 men that did. At the end of the meal, they did the “Baked Alaska” parade – haven’t seen that on a ship in many years! LOL! Then the Hotel Director introduced all the crew, and dessert was served.
This evening there was another option tour – we had docked in Paris and at 9:25pm a group left for the “Paris City of Lights” tour. It was an almost 2-hour tour by bus to see some of Paris’ icons lit by night, with chances to get out and take photos at some of the locations.
After dinner, we packed quickly and then went to the lounge. We exchanged contact information with our friends, with solemn promises to get together next summer.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
Our alarm went off at 4:45 and we quickly got dressed and finished putting our night things into our suitcases. We put our bags out at 5am, and went to grab a little food at the early riser buffet (they opened it early for disembarkation).
Avalon had a van waiting for us outside to take us to the airport.