A new ship sails the Seine between Paris and Normandy offering good looks both inside and out.
Michele and his washboard are clearly the crowd favourite. His metal-thimbled fingers rake across the washboard and ping tin cups and a little cymbal as he is accompanied by the other three members of Dixieland jazz band Clarinette Marmelade.
The clarinet player, the bass saxophonist and the banjo player all receive their share of applause but the crowd of about 100 save the most for Michele.
And that was before he played the drums — without drums. Producing two drumsticks he plays on whatever surface is available. The sounds he produces have the crowd enthralled; the drumsticks flick and fly as he taps on tables, glasses and benchtops.
He finishes with a smile to more applause and Clarinette Marmelade continues with its jazz classics.
It’s day five of Scenic’s Gems of the Seine River cruise in France and the passengers are relaxed and in the holiday mode of excursions, meals and making new friends.
The cruise is going well but it could have been different had the events of day two not been handled expertly.
But first, day one.
Scenic, the Australian company with humble beginnings 30 years ago in Newcastle, now runs cruises and tours worldwide and prides itself on luxury service.
Scenic Gem is the river ship, or spaceship as Scenic calls them, for the Seine excursion that starts and ends in Paris. It’s a floating five-star hotel with a crew and cruise director to match. Scenic Gem is the smallest ship in the Scenic fleet, built specifically to squeeze into the harbour at Honfleur on the Normandy coast, our day-five destination.
It carries 128 passengers in 64 cabins with 44 crew.
New guests are met with a smile, a warm hand towel and a refreshing drink, and ushered into the lounge — the scene for most of the social events for the next few days — all while passengers from the previous cruise are seamlessly transferred from the ship to their next hotel, the airport or train.
Like most things on Scenic Gem, it’s a slick operation and in a short space of time crew member Marius grabs my luggage and delivers me to my balcony suite cabin, my home for the next 11 days.
Marius explains the layout and amenities of the cabin and the laundry service options. For the duration of the cruise he also will be my personal butler. Salon appointments, late-night snacks, shoe shine, room service: call Marius.
Just like the cares of the world, you can forget about the word “no” for a while.
My 19sqm cabin includes an ensuite, balcony with two chairs and a table, and an electrically operated window that descends to let in a cool breeze as Scenic Gem glides down the Seine. The balcony offers that bit of extra space but can be separated from the room by sliding glass panels.
There are Egyptian cotton sheets on the bed, a pillow menu to ensure you get a good night’s sleep, individual room air-conditioning, a safe for valuables, L’Occitane bath products and a minibar replenished twice daily which, like just about everything during the cruise, is included in the price.
The price also includes entry to museums, excellent guides on each tour, gratuities and restaurant meals at both of the full-day tours. Depending on the price paid, there are up to six dining options, from casual cafe meals to a 10-course degustation and room service.
In keeping with the five-star approach, there’s even chilled Moet available at breakfast — just help yourself.
To balance the ledger, use the gym, but if you fancy a walk, take one of the personal GPS devices that give running commentary on points of interest. They also come with headsets for guided tours.
My initial thought is that while the room is fine size-wise for one person it could be tight for couples but those I ask with similar rooms say otherwise.
The Eiffel Tower is about 20 minutes’ walk from the ship, so on a sunny Paris day I’m off to do some sightseeing as embarkation continues.
When I return a couple of hours later, most of the 115 passengers have arrived.
Scenic Gem leaves Paris that night for Les Andelys and I wake early the next morning to a quiet, mist-covered river. The mist disappears as the sun rises and as we near Les Andelys I see the remnants of Chateau Gaillard, the Normandy fortress built by Richard the Lionheart to protect Rouen from attack.
The French took the fortress in 1204 and it changed hands several times during the Hundred Years War before it was ordered demolished near the end of the 16th century.
Today, it is reached by a steep road traversed by cars and tourist buses but walking to the fortress gives you an idea of the challenge facing opposing forces through the ages. Once at the top the reason for its position is clear — sweeping views of the countryside and the Seine. River.
This day, as on each day of the cruise, there are two guided-tour options or the opportunity for a self-guided tour by foot or bike.
While I walk to the chateau, others opt for cider tasting.
Late in the afternoon, with all passengers back and the ship being prepared for departure, comes the announcement that could have ruined the trip.
Cruise director Benjamin Frances delivers the news that the ship has lost power and cannot leave for Rouen. But it also means showers are limited, toilets are not working and the shower drainage system is affected.
Later, there is a warning of minor flooding in some of the first-deck cabins.
The problem was caused when Scenic Gem, as it is required to do, connected to a shore-based power supply when it arrived in Les Andelys. That connection somehow disabled the on-board generators. A flurry of phone calls and engineering inspections failed to provide an immediate solution.
At just the second of his daily port talk segments, Benjamin says the tour will go on but, in a worst-case scenario, we will be taken by bus to Rouen while engineers try to solve the problem.
Eventually, a few hours after we were due to depart, we’re told a solution has been found and the cruise will continue.
From then, the cruise flows as easily as the Seine. We arrive at Rouen, our base for two days, one of which is a full-day tour to the Somme battlefields including Villers-Bretonneux, the Australian National Memorial just outside the town and the Thiepval Memorial, which bears the names of more than 72,000 British and South African forces who died at the Somme before March 20, 1918, and who have no known grave.
Standing among the crosses on a ridge overlooking the farmlands below, it is almost impossible to envisage the apocalyptic scenes that would have surrounded Australian and other troops as they prepared for the battle of Villers-Bretonneux.
We are promised Honfleur would be a highlight of the tour and so it is on day five as Scenic Gem arrives at the tiny fishing village that looks out from the Normandy coast to the English Channel.
Honfleur is a charming maze of narrow, cobblestone streets. A guided walking tour provides a history of the town and there is plenty of time to wander at leisure.
The second of the “war tours” leaves at 8.30am the next day, this time to the D-Day landing sites featuring Arromanches, where engineering ingenuity delivered Mulberry B, a breakwater built secretly in bits in England and towed across the Channel. Floating pontoons and bridges enabled Allied forces to move tonnes of supplies ashore to support the soldiers in the Battle for Normandy.
The American cemetery, with its 9387 graves, and the museum at Omaha Beach are further reminders of the overwhelming price of war.
We leave Honfleur for Caudebec-en-Caux, itself a stopping-off point for a tour to the village of Etretat, offering spectacular views of a pebble beach surrounded by towering cliffs.
That night is Scenic’s Enrich dinner in the splendour of the Benedictine Palace at Fecamp. It is neither a palace nor an abbey but a factory and museum that explains the history of the liqueur Benedictine.
The original was built in 1892 but destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1900.
It is a spectacular setting for a cocktail party and fine-dining experience — one exclusive to Scenic.
The opulence of the palace dinner is the talk of the ship the next morning as Scenic Gem continues upriver towards Giverny, for a tour to Claude Monet’s house and gardens.
Most of the group goes by bus but, if possible, try Scenic’s electrically assisted bicycles. The journey is on a bike path most of the way and enables you to travel at your own pace.
Monet’s house and gardens are stunning. During our visit, the clouds disappear and bright sunshine highlights the rows and rows of flowers and the famous water garden with its lilies, filling every room of the house where the artist lived for more than 40 years from 1883.
The next day I opt for a tour to Auvers sur Oise, the
town were Vincent Van Gogh lived and
painted for the last 70 days of his life.
We’re taken to various points of interest, starting with a statue of Van Gogh, then the hotel where he lived before his death and up to the cemetery above the town where he is buried next to his brother.
From Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, Scenic Gem heads back to Paris.
The captain’s farewell cocktail party is that night and the dramas of day two are a distant memory.
We wake the next morning to find Scenic Gem docked. Today the tour options are to Versailles Palace, shopping with the ship’s chef or a walking tour.
The next day, we are the ones who are leaving as the crew prepares for the next group to experience the Gems of the Seine.
Top picture: The view down the Seine from near Chateau Gaillard with the village of Les Andelys in the middle ground. Picture: Chris Manly
For 2017, the 11-day Gems of the Seine river cruise is from $6945 per person, twin share with a business-class upgrade available from $3995 per person. See Scenic or contact your travel agent.