Fond memories of a beautiful trip....
A travel companion and I traveled in France with Grand Circle in October of 2013. Our journey began with a pre-trip to Brittany, followed by a Seine River trip from Normandy to Paris on the M/S Bizet and concluded with a post-trip in Paris.
All I can say is ‘Wow’! I had traveled with Grand Circle once before. In 2009 I visited the Christmas Markets along the Rhine River. That trip was great, but this one was ‘over the top’.
Everything (with one small exception which I’ll mention later) about this trip was absolutely lovely. The pre-trip consisted of 3 nights in a delightful little hotel in St. Malo. The Grand Hotel de Courtoisville was a (tiny) bit worn around the edges, but had so much charm and heart, that I barely noticed. Of the 3 nights we were there, my travel buddy and I chose to eat dinner in the hotel twice. The first night we ate there because it was raining, we were tired and it was easy. The second night we ate there because we loved the food, the ambience was charming and the staff was literally tripping over themselves to provide excellent service. The hotel manager, Marie and her staff were amazing.
The pre-trip was outstanding largely due to the talent and care of our Program Director, Ken Dermer. Ken is originally from the US, but has lived in France for 30 years, and is extremely knowledgeable about the region and its history. Additionally, he was gifted with a great sense of humor, wonderful speaking ability, compassion and an extraordinary amount of patience. Sharing his insights, Ken guided us through St Malo, Dinan (an optional tour to a lovely medieval town), the countryside of Brittany and magical Mont Saint Michel. Brittany is much more than I’d imagined and hoped for.
After the pre-trip we were assigned to another Program Director, Isabelle Gauthier. We remained on Isabelle’s team for the remainder of our trip, including the post trip in Paris. Although we were initially disappointed to loose Ken as our PD, we soon fell in love with Isabelle, who made the remainder of the trip simply unforgettable. We started to refer to her as ‘Sweet Isabelle’, for her endless kindness.
Once on the Bizet, we settled into our comfy rooms, ate very good meals and enjoyed ‘included’ walking tours in the majority of villages we visited. My travel companion and I chose not to take several of the optional tours that were offered, preferring to stay in the villages where the Bizet docked, find small restaurants for lunch and wander the medieval streets. The nature of a river trip allows for that kind of flexibility. The highlights of the trip down the Seine were visits to the villages of Honfleur, Rouen and the gardens of Giverny. I also loved the day we spent (primarily) cruising. On that day the Program Directors organized a gourmet French food ‘tasting’ which gave us an opportunity to sample delicacies that we may not have tasted otherwise- local cheeses, fois gras and rillettes among others. Also, many evenings entertainment was offered in the Lounge (personally, I would have loved for some sort of entertainment to have been offered every night). Two evenings local singers entertained us. And the evening before we visited the D Day Beaches a WW II French resistance fighter, now in his 90’s, shared memories of his brave work during the Occupation.
The chef’s on the cruise did an excellent job of cooking for 120 guests at every meal. Breakfast always included a buffet of fruit, breads, pastries, cheeses, cereals, eggs, bacon, sausage and an omelet station. Lunches included soup, an entrée, salad/sandwich buffet, pasta station and dessert. Dinner always started with an appetizer, followed by soup or another appetizer, then a choice of three entrees and dessert. Many of the dishes were French classics of the region. Every evening there was a vegetarian option and a standard offering of broiled salmon or chicken, for those that didn’t want one of the featured entrees. Also at dinner, there was always free red or white wine. One night the appetizer was escargot in garlic butter sauce, which was delicious. Another evening we were served local mussels, in a lovely broth, again absolutely delicious. Although all meals were good, not every dish was to my liking and once I requested a substitution. My request was acted on quickly, with a smile and apology.
We found ourselves sitting regularly in the same section of the dining room, so that we could have Attila and Judith (a delightful married couple) as our servers. They took very good care of us, remembering our preferences and keeping our coffee cups filled in the morning and wine glasses filled at dinner. They made us feel like we were the only passengers on the ship. This wasn't unusual on the Bizet. We had a similar experience in the bar. Igor quickly got to know us and our beverage preferences. He had a smile and wink for us whenever we entered the Lounge. Also Karole, the Hotel Manager who 'manned' the front desk, was always patient and extremely accommodating, even helping me maneuver though Ipad issues at one point.
Once the Bizet arrived in Paris we had a couple of days, before we left the ship for our post-trip hotel. One of the highlights of the entire trip was the ‘Sparkle Party’ held on one of the final nights of the cruise. During dinner we cruised down the Seine. After dinner the passengers gathered on the upper deck to watch as we passed under the Paris bridges, which were beautifully lit. Then the captain positioned the Bizet in front of the Eiffel Tower just in time for its nightly lighting (at 9pm every evening the Eiffel Tower lights up with twinkle lights for 15 minutes). Once on the upper deck, I could hear classic French songs being played by an accordion (La Vie en Rose, etc), and was surprised to find that this wasn’t recorded music, but was actually an accordion player, wearing a black and white horizontal striped sweater and beret…oh so French and so very enchanting! We were also treated to a champagne toast and a souvenir Eiffel Tower keychain (to remember this special evening), before sailing away from the Eiffel Tower.
After 12 nights on the Bizet we sadly said “au revior” to the ship, and checked into a hotel in the Montparnasse district, for the post trip. Although the hotel was sleek, modern and clean, with very spacious guest rooms (by any major city standard- especially Paris), the Montparnasse neighborhood was a disappointment. It had very little charm and more vagrancy, trash and graffiti than I was comfortable with (although I was assured that it was safe). Also, it wasn’t within walking distance of the major Paris attractions. On the positive side it was within 2 blocks of a huge Metro/RER hub and bus transit hub, so was convenient for public transportation to all our destinations. There were also a number of restaurants, a boulangerie and a couple of small grocery stores within a short walk. Still, I would have much preferred a smaller room in a hotel within walking distance of major sights in a charming Paris neighborhood.
Despite my disappointment with the Montparnasse neighborhood, I loved the post-trip. This was primarily due to the guidance and support of our wonderful Program Director, Isabelle Gautier. She was totally invested in making sure we had all the guidance needed to get the most out of our visit. This included helping us to combine sights by neighborhood to ensure we would see the optimum number of attractions in our short time in Paris. She also worked with us individually, to help determine bus/metro routes to get us to (and back from) the areas we were interested in visiting. On the final day of the post trip she took everyone that was interested, on an informal walking tour of the Marais, one of the highlights of Paris for me. ‘Sweet Isabelle’ was endlessly patient and always so kind to everyone.
Now that I’m back on U.S. soil, fondly remembering my Brittany, Normandy and Paris trip, I’m anxious to start planning my next adventure with Grand Circle Travel!