Milestones deserve to be celebrated as such. With their 10th anniversary right around the corner, my parents decided to commemorate the occasion with something more exciting than a fancy dinner or a sparkly gift, and as a copywriter for Vantage, I suggested they take a trip. After all, what better way to toast ten years together than with a fabulous river cruise? My stepfather and I sat down in front of the Vantage website to scheme, and I instantly knew what trip to send them on. With an art-loving mother who dreamed of sipping fine wines and a history-loving stepfather who is a former Navy officer, the decision was an easy one: Normandy & the D-Day Beaches.
After they returned from the trip, I sat down to pick my mother’s brain about her experiences.
This trip embodied several big “firsts” for you both: first time on a river cruise, first time traveling to France. What expectations did you have?
Your enthusiasm when talking about Vantage trips was infectious, so we knew Vantage was the way to go. Still, as a first-time river cruiser, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. Will I have ample time to explore the beautiful towns and ports, or will the bulk of the trip be spent on guided tours? Am I in the right age group to enjoy such a trip?
From the moment we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I knew I needn’t worry about the staff at Vantage. Our driver was waiting for us and seamlessly gathered our fellow travelers to transport us to the ms River Venture. Once on the ship, the friendly Cruise Director, concierge, and crew took care of everything. They didn’t allow us to lift anything heavier than a Champagne glass, and we truly felt that they wanted nothing more than to make our Vantage experience our greatest vacation ever. They were always on hand to help with the itinerary, suggest attractions, restaurants, and shops off the ship, and provide friendly and supportive service while onboard. It was clear from day one that this much-anticipated journey would not only meet but far exceed any expectations I had.
What surprised you most about the river cruising experience?
One of the most pleasant surprises – and there were many! – was the connections and friendships we made—we met so many fascinating people. We all had a major commonality: We love seeing the world. We had dinner with different people each night, and we fell easily into friendly conversations about our individual backgrounds and prior travel experiences. At first I was surprised to learn how many passengers were seasoned Vantage travelers, but as the trip progressed and I experienced first-hand the friendly crew, delicious meals, fascinating excursions, and onboard entertainment, I understood the frequency of repeat Vantage customers.
I was also pleased with the number of options available to us on our travels. At each new destination, we enjoyed walking tours with knowledgeable local guides; we strolled through the gardens that inspired Monet in Giverny, hiked up to Chateau Gaillard to enjoy the breathtaking view of Les Andelys below, and took an emotional walk through the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking the English Channel. Most of these guided tours ended by noon, and then we had myriad options. Our Cruise Director Alexi and our Concierge Ionel helped each traveler, depending on our preferences, plan the best way to spend the afternoon. Jeff and I opted to bike or walk as we explored, but there were also onboard activities for those who preferred to enjoy the scenic Normandy countryside from the ship.
What destination or tour was most memorable for you?
Interestingly, I expected Paris—where we extended our stay—to be the highlight of the trip. Don’t get me wrong; I was dazzled by Notre Dame and the Louvre, but the Normandy region was every bit as captivating. Though each excursion had its own unique charms, the D-Day Beach tour was the most memorable. I loved the combination of Old World charm and modern French city life in Rouen and strolling through Auvers-sur-Oise on our optional tour viewing the sights that Van Gogh painted during the last two months of his life, but standing on Omaha Beach, Allied flags flying proudly next to a sculpture commemorating the American soldiers who sacrificed their lives to liberate Europe, is something I cannot adequately articulate. There are some things that must be experienced to be truly appreciated.
This trip features a lot of culinary highlights; what was your favorite meal during the trip?
The French are passionate about their food and relish in long, leisurely meals, especially lunch. My favorite dining experience was one recommended by Ionel, our ship’s concierge: lunch in Rouen at La Couronne, the oldest restaurant in France. The charming French décor was a perfect backdrop for a two-hour feast that consisted of champagne, shrimp and tomato appetizers, grilled fish with roasted eggplant and au gratin potatoes, an array of cheese and fruit, peach tart, and, of course, fine wine. Between courses, we were treated to a culinary demonstration; a chef prepared pressed duck that the chef made before our eyes in a specially designed silver press. I have to agree with Julia Child, who once dined at La Couronne and declared that it was one of the most exciting meals of her life!
Looking back on the experience, what advice would you give to a fellow first-time cruiser?
My advice for first-time river cruisers is simple: Be prepared to be hooked. Instead of awakening at dawn to get on a bus, you’ll enjoy a leisurely breakfast at the ship’s restaurant before setting out on your next adventure. Instead of packing and unpacking every day, your floating “hotel” will transport you from port to port. Instead of falling into bed exhausted in a different hotel each day, you’ll enjoy an evening glass of wine on the Upper Deck of the ship as you sail and marvel at the gorgeous sunset and scenery in your chosen region. As far as I’m concerned, river cruising is the only way to travel.