The Art of River Cruising: History and Hospitality on The Seine with Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours

Ian Cooper checks out Scenic’s ‘Normandy & Gems of the Seine’ cruise.

It’s dinnertime. My wife and I have just boarded the ‘Scenic Gem’, a 5 star luxury river cruise ship, on a 10 nights adventure on the Seine from Paris to Normandy and back. As we watch the Eiffel Tower gradually disappear, I ask our waiter, “can I have…?” Before I could finish my request, I was given an instant “yes”! Wow, ten more days of this… a very civilised way to explore the region’s artistic and historic importance. Let me tell you about cruising with Scenic and where we went:  

Differentiation

The biggest challenge for cruise operators is differentiation. Scenic’s answer is simple: ‘inclusivity’ and ‘hospitality’. The company calls this the ‘Scenic Difference’, but what exactly does this mean?

  • Inclusivity and hospitality – All Scenic river cruises are truly all-inclusive. Once you have paid… transfers, dining experiences, drinks, plus a huge choice of excursions and entertainment are all included.
  • Guest service – Prior to the cruise, I had only considered this level of ‘inclusivity’, from an economic standpoint. However, once the cruise was underway, it changed the dynamics of the relationship between the passengers and Scenic, to one of ‘guest’ and ‘host’. This was transformational in terms of the overall atmosphere.

I am sure there were limits, but the word ‘no’ didn’t seem to be in the vocabulary of the Scenic team. This was a ‘masterclass’ in guest hospitality.

The ship

Time to relax in the lounge
Time to relax in the lounge

Our sumptuously comfortable air-conditioned Balcony Suite was spacious with plenty of storage and a giant double bed. We also had:

  • luxury toiletries
  • fluffy white towels, robes and slippers
  • a complimentary daily restocked minibar
  • a safe
  • large TV
  • an ingenious balcony
  • a smart bathroom with high tech shower
  • a personal butler, though I couldn’t think of what I needed him for. We managed to unpack our undies without the help of Bogdan.

Ten nights sleeping here was positively decadent. Why would we ever want to leave our cabin? However, there was a huge choice of places to go and things to do on offer.

Where did we go?

There were 24 choices of excursions, too many to write about in detail, but here are a few themes and places that were popular highlights:

Impressionists of Northern France:

Normandy is the birthplace of Impressionist art. Inspired by the light, and innovations in transport and art materials, the leading impressionists, such as Monet and Renoir began to set up their easels and paint in the open air in this region. Two places with artistic heritage that we visited stand out:

  • Honfleur – This was my personal favourite place on the trip. A picturesque gem on the Normandy coast, with a population of 6,000 but over 5 million tourist visitors every year. With its bustling streets, vibrant cafes, original art and craft workshops surrounded by its colourful harbour, it’s not difficult to see its attraction for artists.
  • Monet’s garden at Giverny – This is quite literally a living canvas that inspired many of Monet’s most famous paintings. A guided tour around the spectacular blooms took us to where he painted his iconic ‘Bridge Over A Pond Of Waterlilies’. Tacky I know, but I couldn’t resist a photo of my wife on the bridge!

Memories of War:  

  • Somme Battlefields – Many guests went to the Somme Battlefields. For many, touching this pivotal moment of World War 1, evoked deeply felt emotional connections. As memorials were visited, we were reminded not to forget the lessons learned. Safely back on the Scenic Gem, one guest commented, “a very moving day, I’m glad I went”.
  • Normandy D-Day Beaches – Another unforgettable full day was to Normandy’s significant landing sites. Here we paid homage to the 156,000 Allied forces and 7,000 boats that stormed these shores on 6th June 1944. Standing in the same place where history was rewritten was another poignant reminder of the sacrifice and resilience that shaped our modern world.

Living history:

Rouen Cathedral
Rouen Cathedral
  • Bayeux Tapestry – My wife and I jumped at the opportunity of a half day excursion to see this amazing 231 feet, 950 years old, embroidered work of art, which recounted the epic tale of the Norman Conquest and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It was one of the highlights of the trip and certainly deserving of the souvenir fridge magnet!
  • Viking Rouen – Our brilliant ‘story-telling’ guide Ben, dressed as Rollo the Viking, entertained us with his blend of history and comedy on a walking tour of this medieval city. Showcasing Rouen’s Viking heritage, we explored its main cathedral, painted several times by Monet and heard the sad tale of Joan of Arc who was burnt at the stake here. Art enthusiasts were also not left out. The visit to the Fine Arts Museum gave us a chance to view one of Caravaggio’s most compelling paintings, the ‘Flagellation of Christ’.

Dining

Always available temptations in the lounge
Always available temptations in the lounge

When we weren’t out and about, it seemed we were always eating and drinking:

  • Breakfast – A huge buffet breakfast greeted us everyday, with the option of ordering off a menu of special dishes.
  • Lunch – This was served in the main restaurant, again with a combination of buffet or special orders. Alternatively, there was what they questionably called a ‘light lunch’ in the lounge. No matter how hard I tried, I never seemed to manage a ‘light lunch’!
  • Dinner – The gastronomic highlight of the day was dinner. The multi-course offerings, with appropriate wines, elegantly served by table staff who remember your preferences was a daily experience. Those with dietary issues were well looked after and for all meals there was an ‘always available’ alternative menu.
  • Snacks – Temptations were ever present. You could indulge yourself in as many cakes and ice creams as you want and help yourself to a 24-hours tea and coffee station.
  • Seating arrangements – All meals were with informal open seating. You can sit anywhere and with whomever you want, for any meal.

Getting social

One of the things I really enjoy about river cruising is the social informality onboard and how easy it is to get to know your fellow passengers from all walks of life. 50% were Australian, 25 % American and the rest mostly from Canada, and the UK. The majority were 60 plus and about half had retired.

Conversation was always easy and fun, especially after the recommended wine of the day. Some Australians chatted to us about the snakes in their backyard who chased them. “If you run away, Zig Zagging, they can’t catch you.” Useful advice!

Other entertainment:

Of course, the excursions I have mentioned don’t tell the whole story. Throw in:

  • 4 Paris excursions,
  • A private classical concert in a 12th century Chateau
  • Cheese and calvados tastings
  • An art class
  • E bikes on demand
  • Evening music and quizzes
  • Gym and massage facilities
  • all accompanied by as much food and drink as your conscience can tolerate.  

Overall Scenic Verdict

It’s not difficult to see why river cruising has become so popular. Despite the opportunity to overindulge, there’s no pressure. You could choose to just relax, enjoy the scenery and chat to new friends.

If you like the idea of travelling in style, enjoying relentless hospitality, and of paying once with everything included, then Scenic are a tough act to beat.

Travel Facts:

‘Normandy & Gems of the Seine’ – Scenic River Cruises

Prices for the 10-nights ‘Normandy & Gems of the Seine’ cruise start from £3,060 per person based on a 2023 sailing on board the Scenic Gem.

  • Scenic river cruises are truly all-inclusive, meaning guests can leave their wallet in a safe place and relax, knowing everything is taken care of.
  • Flights come in the form of a flight credit up to the value of £500, when cruises are paid in full 10 months in advance.

For more information, or to book, call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678

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Ian Cooper

Retired professor, author & speaker

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