Time certainly does go by fast. Four weeks ago last Sunday, I was driving on the freeways of Southern California, returning after a wonderful vacation in France. That vacation was the culmination of more than 18 months of planning and preparation. I can remember when the countdown to departure had crossed 400 days and I thought how far off the trip was. Eleven days seems like a long time, but it isn’t. For a vacation that is really enjoyable, no amount of time seems to be enough. Before you know it, it’s over. Thank goodness for pictures and memories. It’s what makes travel worth the effort.
It has taken me the better part of 4 weeks to get back to my normal life. My cats were waiting for me when I arrived home. Work was waiting for me as well, which can be good or bad, depending on how one looks at it. I know I had a really good time when, except for my cats, I didn’t miss home. I survived my usual 2-week depression period following my return home. The antidote? Plan another trip.
All of my planning for this trip to France paid off handsomely. From the time I left home to go to the airport, every aspect of the trip had been arranged and scheduled. I outlined an itinerary for the entire trip. The itinerary insured that my wife and I always had something to do or see.
The following is a synopsis of our vacation to Paris and the Normandy region of France, including my review of various aspects of the trip.
AIR FRANCE NON-STOP TO PARIS – PREMIUM VOYAGEUR CLASS
When I made the airline arrangements for this trip, I had several options with a range of ticket prices. The deciding factor of which flights to choose was dictated by my desire to fly on the Airbus A380 super jumbo jet. Air France began flying the A380 non-stop from Los Angeles to Paris daily on May 28, 2012. The ticket prices were comparable to other non-stop flights. Having only one flight between the USA and France was another strong motivator for choosing this route. I could have arranged flights with stops that would have been less expensive, but the extra cost was worth having only one flight in each direction. In addition, I upgraded our seats to Premium Voyageur, which is Air France’s version of premium economy. This gave us benefits, such as more leg room, priority check-in and priority boarding.
Premium Voyageur is like a watered-down business class. The seats are in a fixed shell, so someone reclining in the row in front does not affect the row behind. The leg room is another plus. I was in the window seat and there was plenty of room for me to maneuver past my wife when I wanted to get to the aisle. The seat reclines slightly more than a regular economy class seat. The extra recline angle does not help. It is still insufficient to be really comfortable on a long flight. The food service in Premium Voyageur is identical to that of economy.
Something that I had read about the Premium Voyageur seats was that the seat cushions were not comfortable. Because of the fixed shell and the type of cushions they use, they feel less comfortable, cushion-wise, than a regular economy class seat. If you plan to fly in this class, consider bringing an air cushion. Mine made the seat bearable. I would fly Premium Voyageur again because of the extra leg room, the fixed shell seat and the priority benefits. If you’re not willing to pay the premium for just those benefits, you’ll probably be disappointed with Premium Voyageur.
AIRBUS A380 SUPER JUMBO JET
It was quite a thrill to fly on the largest in-service passenger jet. It is amazing how something as big as an A380 can get off the ground. Even more amazing is how these huge planes are maneuvered around airports. The wings of the A380 are wider than the runways they use to take off and land.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this plane. One advantage is the quiet ride on the upper deck. Air France has business class, premium economy and economy on the upper deck. In each of these sections there are 2 seats in each row adjacent to the windows. This means that even a couple in economy class can sit together, one on the window and one on the aisle. For anyone flying on the A380, I would choose the upper deck before selecting seats on the lower deck.
Since there are so many passengers on this plane, the lower deck is really crowded when the plane is full. I did not travel on the lower deck, but friends said it was much noisier on the lower deck than on the upper deck. When you have more passengers, you also get longer lines for the restrooms. Unless you can afford first class, the lower deck should be avoided.
In the future, I would fly on an Airbus A380. However, I don’t think I would go out of my way to book a flight just to fly on that aircraft. The flights are a very short period of the whole trip. The best flights for a particular route would be my choice in the future, regardless of the type of aircraft.
LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
I generally like Los Angeles International Airport. It is the airport I most frequently use when traveling to Europe. LAX is involved in a major expansion of the international terminal. Unfortunately, during my trip, very little of the new international terminal was open.
Three new gates had been completed, 2 of which were designed to handle the Airbus A380. As my luck would have it, my outbound flight was not serviced at either of these gates. My flight was parked at gate 123A, which is an old gate not designed to handle the A380. The boarding process at this gate was very disorganized. Considering the fact that our flight had more than 500 passengers, there was not enough room to have everyone waiting at the gate. So, passengers were spread out between adjacent gates that weren’t being used. In the waiting area where I was seated, I couldn’t hear announcements concerning our flight. It was only because of a good guess on my part that my wife and I ended up boarding when the Premium Voyageur passengers were supposed to board.
CHARLES DE GAULLE /ROISSY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
I had studied Charles de Gaulle Airport before we left for France. I was familiar with the layout of Terminal 2E and the 2 satellite terminals that would be our arrival and departure point. Our flight landed early and ended up being parked on a taxiway for about 25 minutes while the airport readied a gate for us. It was not particularly enjoyable sitting on the plane for that extra time after having flown for almost 10 hours. But, once we got off the plane, we had no problem finding our way. The airport is huge and we walked a long way to finally get to our bags, but that’s to be expected of any airport that handles the volume of passengers that go in and out of Paris.
Immigration and customs in France was quite different from what I’m accustomed to in the USA. During the flight from Los Angeles to Paris, I was not given any kind of a declaration form. After disembarking the plane, we went through passport control. The immigration officer didn’t speak a word to me, even though I greeted him in French. He opened both my wife’s and my passports, stamped them on a visa page and then handed them back to me. I doubt he really looked at them to make sure we matched our pictures. When we returned to Los Angeles, we had to complete a customs declaration form before we arrived and the immigration officer at LAX carefully scrutinized both of us and our passports.
Customs on arrival in Paris was the same relaxed situation. After we claimed our baggage, we walked through the customs area. There were a total of 4 officers at that checkpoint and they were involved in conversations among themselves. They didn’t seem to be paying attention to anyone passing through the checkpoint.
One of my arrangements was to have a shuttle van waiting for us when we arrived at the airport in Paris. My research told me that shuttle services in Paris were notorious for their unreliability. After having trouble getting responses from 3 different companies, I found Élysee Shuttle was the only one that would routinely answer my inquiries in a timely manner.
After we retrieved our checked luggage and made it through customs, I found a driver outside the customs checkpoint holding a sign with my name on it. The first thing the driver hit me with was how long he had been waiting for us. Excuse me? Let’s see, I just flew in from the United States, I had to get through the line at passport control, walk a long distance to baggage claim, wait for my bags to reach me, then walk through customs, and this guy’s concerned about how long he had to wait? On top of that, he charged me an extra 20€ for having to wait for us. Lesson learned. For my future trips to Paris, depending on how much luggage I’m carrying, I will either take the RER into the city or I will take a taxi.
TAXIS IN PARIS
While I’m on the subject of taxis, my wife and I used a taxi on 2 occasions. Both times, the taxi drivers were very courteous. One spoke broken English, the other spoke no English. If you are going to use a taxi, you must either catch one at a taxi stand or you can call for one by phone. Doing the latter will incur an additional charge, which is the cost of the taxi driving from where they were when they received your call. If you know some basic French and you have an address, taking a taxi is the way to go. On future trips, I would not bother with a reserved shuttle in Paris unless it was an unusual situation.
HÔTEL LUXEMBOURG PARC
I did a lot of research to find the hotel for our stay in Paris. The one I chose, Hôtel Luxembourg Parc, was a perfect selection. It is located right in the heart of the 6th arrondissement, on the north side of Jardin du Luxembourg. The rooms were exactly as they are depicted on their web site. They were spacious, comfortable, clean and quiet. The TV in the room had 2 news channels in English. The breakfast, although a little pricey, was very convenient and really quite good. For a standard French breakfast, including pastries and coffee, the cost was 15€. For an additional 5€, you could add bacon and eggs cooked to order. The hotel staff was very accommodating. I asked them to make dinner reservations for us one night and they helped us with arranging a taxi on our departure. I would definitely recommend this hotel and we will certainly consider staying here again during our next visit to Paris.
PARIS, MY NEW FAVORITE CITY
I’m not a city person. Cities are unavoidable because you usually have to go through one or more of them to get to your destination, like traveling into Los Angeles to go on this trip. I don’t care for Los Angeles, but I have to go there from time to time. Paris is altogether different.
Being from the USA, it is so different walking around cities in Europe compared with cities in my country. The history of Paris dates back 2,000 years. My country, civilization-wise, is a little more than 200 years old. There is an interesting mix of old and new in Paris. The center of Paris is mostly old structures, with newer structures becoming apparent as you get farther out from the city center. Paris has a number of parks that allow you to walk in a beautiful landscape, during which you can almost forget that you’re in one of the largest cities in Europe. There are cafés almost everywhere you look. And, if you know where to look, you can go grocery shopping in a building that is probably 800 years old.
I saw a lot of sights during the more than 4 days I was in Paris; the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triompe, Champs-Élysées, Place de la Concorde, Notre Dame de Paris, the Louvre, to name a few. There are still a lot of things I didn’t get to see. It’s likely I’ll plan a stop in Paris during my Europe trip in 2015.
VIKING SPIRIT – VIKING RIVER CRUISES
While in France, I also traveled on the Viking Spirit, which is a river cruise ship. The Viking Spirit started in Paris and traveled to the Normandy region of France, including the cities of Vernon, Giverny, Rouen, Les Andelys, Conflans, and Versailles. This was my 15th cruise, but it was my first river cruise.
Making the arrangements for the cruise with VRC (Viking River Cruises) was easy. The deposit was $500 per person, which I paid when I made the reservation. Unlike ocean cruise lines, VRC requires full payment almost a year in advance. Ocean cruises will usually allow a full refund if canceled no later than 60 days before departure. For VRC, that deadline is doubled to 120 days. The Viking Spirit has a passenger capacity of 150 if you figure 2 persons per stateroom. With a ship that small, it doesn’t take it long for it to sell out.
At about 4 weeks before departure, I received our cruise document package. You can read my post concerning the cruise documents here. The one thing I found as odd, compared to other cruises I’ve done, was that there were no cruise tickets in the document package. There was a name tag and luggage tags, but nothing to present when boarding the ship. When my wife and I arrived at the ship, we were greeted by the ship’s staff and welcomed on board. At the reception desk, I gave our names and we were shortly escorted to our stateroom. Not once did anyone with VRC ask to see any identification. I guess that’s how you do it when you only have 150 passengers.
The Viking Spirit is a very comfortable ship. It doesn’t take long to figure out where everything is because it is so small. The decor of the ship was consistent with what we paid for the cruise. Not overly fancy, just comfortable. The cruise was memorable, but I have to say that VRC didn’t knock my socks off.
VRC did really well organizing the included excursions at each port of call. Their tour guides were knowledgeable, friendly and easy to understand. The way their itinerary is arranged for the whole week works very well. They continued to be very organized when it was time for us to leave the ship. We were taken to the airport in plenty of time to catch our flight home and there was a staff member from the ship with us at the airport making sure we found our proper check-in point.
What I found disappointing was in the finer points of a cruise. VRC is very good at producing promotional videos. Leading up to my cruise on the Viking Spirit, I watched just about all of the promotional videos that are available on VRC’s web site. A primary theme in the videos is the elegant travel that VRC provides. I’ve been on a lot of cruises, some with excellent service and some with average service. The service on the Viking Spirit was a little disappointing.
With the exception of the soups, which were excellent, the food was pretty average. We ate at a local restaurant one night when the ship was in Rouen. The meal at the restaurant was outstanding, which is what I would have expected of the food being served on the ship. The food on the ship just didn’t seem to match what I’d seen in the promotional videos.
Another low point was the service in the lounge and in the dining room. One thing my wife and I enjoy when we are cruising is to have a cocktail in the ship’s lounge before dinner. At cocktail time, I almost always order the same drink. On cruises where I’ve been served by the same person on more than one occasion, the server will sometimes make a point to remember me and my preferred drink. Such was not the case on the Viking Spirit. In the lounge, I was served by one of 3 people during the entire cruise and no one remembered what I ordered each evening. What made it worse was that I frequently had to get the attention a server to take our order because no one would ask us if we wanted anything.
This average level of service continued in the dining room. It was apparent that many of the ship’s staff members had multiple jobs. We would see servers from the lounge also working in the dining room. One evening, a server excused herself before we had finished our meal explaining that she had to start her second job. The same person who took our dinner order would serve the meal and would also bus the table. It became obvious that VRC had a minimum number of staff, which was just enough to get by running the ship. Dinners frequently took over 2 hours for 3 courses. Yes, we were not in a hurry to go anywhere, but it should not take that long to serve dinner to everyone on a ship that size. Little things like leaving the bread plates on the table through dessert and having a server stand on my right side and reach across my face to pick up a plate on my left side diminished the experience.
I do not fault the staff on the Viking Spirit. They worked very hard and their hearts were certainly in the right place. VRC had not equipped them to do an excellent job. They hadn’t been trained to serve properly and there was not enough staff to adequately handle the number of guests. After my cruise on the Viking Spirit, it was obvious to me why VRC had the money to christen 10 new ships at the same time earlier this year. They must be making huge profits off these cruises.
My next river cruise may or may not be with VRC. Don’t misunderstand me. I had a fabulous trip. But, I had such high expectations for VRC and what was ultimately delivered fell short of those expectations.
Our excursion to the D-Day landing beaches and the American Cemetery was a high point of this trip. While our cruise ship was docked in Rouen, we were transported by bus on a 2-hour drive to the coast. We stopped at the D-Day Museum in Arromanches, France. Next, we visited German gun batteries on the bluff between Omaha Beach and Gold Beach. Then it was on to the American Cemetery, which is located on the bluff above Omaha Beach.
The cemetery is beautiful and a little overwhelming. There are marble grave markers in perfect rows covering a huge area. We were told that the total number of graves in the cemetery is 9,587. I stood at the cemetery, looking down on Omaha Beach, and imagined the violence that occurred there on the morning of June 6, 1944. We concluded our visit with a drive to Omaha Beach. Families walked on the sand and kids played in the surf while I was there. It was an unforgettable experience.
SEINE RIVER LOCKS
One of the most interesting aspects of traveling on the Seine River in France was all of the locks we traveled through during the cruise. The level of the river was very consistent during our cruise from Paris to Rouen, which is the result of the numerous locks on the river. At each lock, we would have a vertical change of 10 to 15 feet. I cannot imagine what the river basin would look like without these locks.
THAT’S A WRAP
This vacation was so relaxing because I didn’t have to do anything but enjoy it. All of the work putting things into place had been done well before departure. I was also able to enjoy the trip for a long time before we even left home. That’s important when the nearly 2 weeks we were gone was over so quickly.
I’ve already begun the planning for my next trip in 2015. The adventure continues!