As we approach the water, I see it stretched along the river. The MS River Venture is a small luxury vessel that can hold 136 passengers, and it’s my home for a week’s cruise from Paris to Normandy.
The Seine is well-suited for river cruising. It flows slow and steady through Paris and then northwest through the province of Normandy. From my large stateroom, I can open my balcony door and watch France roll by.
The MS Venture is narrow but roomy. A quick exploration uncovers a stylish dining room filled with large windows, a lounge, a small gym, spa room, and even bikes, which guests can use for free when the ship is docked. The top deck is set up for relaxing with deck and lounge chairs.
As I will soon learn, dining on the MS River Venture is a highlight. Our Vantage Travel cruise is all-inclusive, with excursions, meals, and drinks included. Meals have a decidedly French flair, with international favourites added to suit any palate.
But while the ship is comfortable, the highlight here is France—its people, its towns and villages, and the beautiful French countryside.
Our destination is Normandy, the largest province in France. It encompasses miles of coastline, small towns, and rich farmland. For many Parisians, Normandy is a peaceful place to vacation, but this region has had its share of heartbreak. Normandy’s historical significance runs deep. In a brutal battle to free France from Nazi domination, the Western Allies launched the largest amphibious invasion in history in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. France has not forgotten what was given; many towns have memorials to those who sacrificed to save France.
The MS River Venture slowly makes it way northwest, and then docks in Honfleur. The small town’s Vieux-Bassin (Old Harbour) is lined with beautifully restored 16th- to 18th-century houses. The town has been the inspiration for many artists, including Claude Monet.
When the ship docks, I set out to explore, turning down narrow alleyways and along streets lined with tables for diners. Small shops, such as the Maison du Caramel, tempt me with their treats. I wish I had brought along a larger suitcase.
D-Day: Beaches of Normandy
Vantage Travel is known for its port excursions. The itinerary is packed with tours led by local guides. When we arrived at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial the next day, our guide’s insight made it even more meaningful.
I knew the American Cemetery was large, but I wasn’t prepared for the sight of 9,387 graves. The rows go on as far as I can see. With a lump in my throat, I grasp the human loss. Many French, British, and Canadians sacrificed their lives, too.
At the memorial, I attend a wreath-laying ceremony. As “Taps” is played and the wreath is laid, an older gentleman behind me weeps, and I have to wipe my own eyes.
We travel then to Omaha Beach, its wide empty expanse so tranquil that it’s hard to comprehend all that happened here. Thankfully, time marches on. Today, Normandy is a beautiful destination.
Rouen is our next stop. It’s known for the impressive Rouen Cathedral. Damaged over the years by war, fire, and lightning, the cathedral still stands tall above the city.
Rouen is where the young military leader Joan of Arc was executed in 1431. I hadn’t realized how young she was. I’m even more impressed when I tour the Joan of Arc Museum.
Another famous woman left her mark on this town. It was at La Couronne, a restaurant in Rouen, that Julia Childs first fell in love with French cooking. As we dine at La Couronne that afternoon, I can see why. The excellent cuisine is served with flair.
The community of Auvers-sur-Oise is our next stop. This artists’ colony was the last town in France that Vincent Van Gogh called home. It is where he died and was buried.
After docking, we follow a well-worn path to the Church of Notre-Dame d’Auvers. This is the church I know from Van Gogh’s famous painting, and as I pull out a postcard print to compare, I see the genius of his artistic eye. Later, we visit his grave, where he is buried beside his brother.
On our last night in France, I watch from deck as we cruise slowly toward Paris. As we reach the French capital, I see twinkling lights in the distance. Suddenly, the Eiffel Tower comes into view. Tall and grand, it is a sight to remember.
Vantage Travel offers river cruises all over the world. Prices for the Normandy River Cruise start at US$1,799.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 40 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine (www.goworldtravel.com).