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Northern France culture cruise - sailing on the Seine

Get your culture fix by riverboat in northern France, discovering art and history on the Seine

Standing on our riverboat in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, glass of champagne in hand, we all agreed that Paris had never looked more enchanting.

And with the Eurostar and regular flights to whisk you from the UK, it’s the perfect starting point for a cruise combining stunning scenery and culture, with our own itinerary taking us on a 443-mile journey through northern France.

On board the newly refurbished 98-passenger MS Swiss Sapphire, for our ‘Cruising The Seine plus Versailles, Paris and London’ itinerary with Tauck, everything is all-inclusive — travel, accommodation, meals, unlimited drinks plus complimentary water in your suite, unlimited WiFi, all gratuities, and all guided shore excursions.

Even better than the bottomless champagne is Tauck’s ethos of helping guests to “travel deeper”; expect access to the best attractions before they open, exclusive dinners, and many other above-and-beyond extras along the way.

Journeys are designed to include as many interesting stops and points of interest as can be comfortably visited in one day. And with much of the sightseeing in the morning, there’s free time in the afternoon to explore — we made the most of the ship’s bicycles — or relax on the riverboat.

With most of my fellow passengers having cruised with Tauck before, it’s evidently a winning formula. Once you’re on board, you realise too that while this is a luxury offering by river cruise standards, it’s actually very good value. Prefer champagne to wine? Staff will take notice and your flute will be topped up at regular intervals. Fancy dinner a deux in the privacy of your cabin one evening? No problem.

Most of the cabins themselves are a spacious 225 square foot; all feature large floor-to-ceiling windows which open fully to make the most of the scenery. Beds are super comfortable, linen is 400 thread count, and bathrooms are equipped with Grohe power showers and Molton Brown toiletries.

After starting in style with our photo opportunity at the Eiffel Tower, it was time to head towards our first port of call, Conflans and Auvers-sur-Oise, the resting place of Vincent Van Gogh.

The following morning, we strolled through the town and fields where the artist spent his final days, saw some of the scenes and places that inspired his paintings, and viewed ‘room 5’ — the modest room in which he resided and eventually died in 1890.

Our knowledgeable tour guide was on hand to bring the destination to life as well, adding plenty of colour to our excursion — before the landscape took its own turn, ablaze with the reds, oranges and golds of autumn. At any time of year, there’s not much that’s more relaxing than sailing past ever-changing countryside, serene swans and elegant architecture. It’s hypnotic, slightly soporific and a wonderful way to appreciate nature’s natural assets.

With those carefully curated shore itineraries to enjoy during the day and a relaxed pace when back on board, it seemed fitting that evening entertainment was fairly low key — a pianist in the bar, plus optional talks and lectures on culture and the destinations visited during the cruise.

Dining takes place in the Compass Lounge for full breakfast, lunch and dinner, or quicker breakfasts and food and drink during the day in the more casual Arthur’s. While kosher meals are not available (as the ship doesn’t have the facilities), fish and vegetarian options are always on offer on the diverse menus, often with a regional flavour.

Potage Grecy featured cream of carrots and crispy apples, and dishes included stewed root vegetable ragout with tomato, oregano and tofu, and rocket salad with water melon, feta cheese and tangerine dressing.

Dinner one evening was ashore, and gave us the perfect opportunity to dress up for another Tauck exclusive — a private drinks reception and dinner at “the Versailles of Normandy,” Chateau Bizy, a classical style mansion house that’s a former home of Louis XV.

Along the way, we visited Vernon, the small town near Giverny, once home to Monet and his famous gardens. With Tauck arranging exclusive access before the hordes descended, we followed our guided tour by wandering over the famous Japanese bridge, marvelling at the exotic flower beds and exploring the artist’s home, which includes easels displaying works in progress. It was just like stepping into an Impressionist painting.

And in the medieval town of Rouen, with its small Jewish community, highlights included the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saint Joan Tower, the only remaining part of the castle where Joan of Arc was imprisoned before being burned at the stake in 1431. It’s also home to France’s oldest inn, La Couronne, famous for its northern French cooking and roll call of celebrity diners.

At Etretat on Normandy’s Alabaster Coast, we witnessed the dramatic white cliffs plunging into the ocean — scenery which has traditionally inspired many an artist.

Another favourite haunt of the Impressionist art set, the picturesque fishing port of Honfleur is still lined with 17th century houses and restaurants. And met with a sudden rain shower — often par for the course in this part of France — we couldn’t resist indulging in local speciality galettes, crepes with sweet or savoury fillings.

Our poignant final stop was Le Havre and the D-Day beaches. We may have been ending on a sombre note, but it was nevertheless fascinating to see the coastline and the bunkers where the D-Day landings occurred in 1944.

And while our river cruise ended here, the trip had one more finishing touch. Passengers headed back to London for a two-night stay and farewell dinner at The Savoy Hotel, along with a presentation by Tauck ambassador, author Celia Sandys, granddaughter of Sir Winston Churchill — all included in the cruise itinerary.

If that’s not luxury, then I don’t know what is.

JC Stays

Rudding Park, Harrogate

Rebecca Barnes

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Rudding Park, Harrogate