Editor’s Note: This past September, writer and photographer K.D. Leperi cruised with Viking River Cruises on its itinerary “France’s Finest.” Her journey on the Rolf was the first week of a 15-day cruise that covered the best of northern and southern France
First, let me make it abundantly clear that I love France. I even took French as my second language in high school and college simply because the sounds and words effortlessly roll off the tongue with a melodic refrain that is both pleasing and dare I say, romantic. And, of course, there is the wonderful food, world-class wine, and great French cheeses along with some of the greatest art treasures and palaces in the world.
So it was that in the wake of the heinous terrorism episodes on France in 2015, I vowed to show my solidarity. I would travel to France in the aftermath, to be part of a resistance movement that won’t let the freedom-to-travel be chained. It was, with that in mind, that I booked a Viking cruise of “France’s Finest.” For 15 glorious days, I sampled the best of both northern and southern France, from Paris and the heart of Normandy to Lyon and Provence: It proved to be an unbeatable combination – a tour de force.
During the first week, I immersed myself in charming French cities, towns, villages, and bucolic countryside while learning about Paris’s sophistication, remembering the World War II beaches of Normandy, drinking calvados (a dry apple brandy made in Normandy), sampling French cheeses, walking the cobble-stone streets of medieval towns, and strolling the famous gardens of the famous impressionistic artist – Claude Monet.
My first week of the cruise was on Viking’s Rolf – a contemporary darling and recent addition to the longship fleet. Built and rolled out in 2016, the Rolf longship is 443 ft. with 4 decks and a crew of 50. Guest capacity is 190.
Rolf is one of the oldest Nordic-Viking names and comes from a time when it was vogue to use pagan names to extol virtues. Rolf was highly regarded as one of the most famous warrior kings of antiquity with some of his best fighters known as Rolf’s Twelve Champions. Another famous “Rolf” leader was “Rolf the Ganger.” He is best remembered for sailing the Seine and surrounding Paris.
Atrium (Decks 2&3)
Upon entering the ship, you will be dazzled by the spacious and contemporary-styling of the atrium-style lobby. It’s light and airy with chrome and light woods that accentuate the grand staircase. Open risers complement the airiness of the great room concept.
Aquavit Terrace (Deck 3)
Located at the bow of the ship, this outdoor seating area is a favorite with many passengers who want to breathe fresh air, read a book, or share a drink with new-found friends. The Aquavit Terrace is also a place where you can casually dine al fresco for lunch/dinner instead of the more formal dining room. Service is buffet-style with grills. Viking claims to have the most al fresco dining on Europe’s rivers.
The Observation Lounge & Bar (Deck 3)
The spacious Observation Lounge serves as a central meeting place for shore excursion briefings, language lessons, special cooking demos, cultural lectures. The bar is located in The Observation Lounge and is a central meeting place where you can sip the latest designer cocktail, wine, beer or premium liquor in a relaxed and friendly setting.
Library and Internet (Deck 3)
A small library with materials relevant to ports-of-call can supplement learnings. Across from the library are two dedicated computers for internet use by guests. Be aware, that internet service can be slow, especially when underway.
The Restaurant (Deck 2)
The Restaurant serves regional specialties and contemporary cuisine, with attentive service throughout the meal. The panoramic windows are a nice touch.
Reception and Gift Shop (Deck 2)
The Reception Desk and Gift Shop are conveniently located for all guests. Be sure to check out the reasonably priced items in the shop, including a Viking cook book with international cuisines and recipes. It’s titled, “The Kitchen Table – A Culinary Journey Around the World.”
Veranda Staterooms (Decks 2&3)
Veranda Staterooms are noted for their river views and airy, spacious comfort. Roomy closets and storage space, mini-refrigerators, along with amenities like 40” flat-screen LCD TVs and complimentary movies On Demand are a real treat. Ladies will love the heated bathroom floor and anti-fog mirrors. Premium Freyja™ toiletries are provided, though I do miss the previous brand L’Occitane, especially since it is French and one of my favorites. Complimentary Wi-Fi is provided within the rooms. Standard staterooms are located on the Main level – Deck 1.
Sun Deck (Deck 4)
The upper-most deck is outfitted with an open-air walking/jogging track, lounge chairs, solar panels and an organic herb garden. It is also where the ship’s wheelhouse is located. Interestingly, the wheelhouse is collapsible for those times when height clearance is critical for structures like bridges.
The Chef and the Cuisine
Executive Chef Richard “Ricky” S. Vallis was classically trained at Le Monde and worked at a 5-star hotel for three years before joining Viking’s Rolf. His inspiration to be a chef started at the family restaurant in Greece, where he worked since he was 12 years-old. Chef Ricky counts olive oil, fresh thyme, and garlic as some of his favorite ingredients. When asked what kitchen tool he would add to his kitchen if money were no object, he mentioned without hesitation, “A sous vide machine that slowly cooks food in a sealed plastic pouch. The resulting flavor intensity and tenderness are absolutely divine.”
Some of my favorite appetizers and entrees from Chef Ricky’s menu are:
Crème de Potiron: pumpkin cream soup with orange foam & pumpkin seed oil
Cassoulet de Poulet Parfumé a la Truffle: truffle scented chicken cassoulet with puff pastry shell, forest mushrooms and fresh tarragon
Filet de Flétan sur Risotto Crémeaux au Comté: pan seared halibut with baby carrots and comté risotto
Noix de Saint Jacques Caramélisées: carmelized sea scallops with bacon, braised savoy cabbage, thyme roasted potatoes in a port wine sauce
The Itinerary & The Tours
September 4-5 Paris
September 6 Giverny & Vernon
September 7 Scenic cruising on Seine, Rouen
September 8 Rouen
September 9 Les Andelys
September 10 Paris
During the first week of my cruise on “France’s Finest” itinerary, there were seven guided tours included (no additional fee) along with an audio headset to ensure I didn’t miss a word. Included tours were: Paris City Tour, Monet Foundation Giverny Tour, Vernon Walking Tour, Rouen Walking Tour, Normandy Beaches Tour US, Chateau Gaillard Walk, and Napoleon’s Chateau de Malmaison.
Optional Excursions are ideal for pursuing passions and have additional fees. A sampling of my optional tours included: Highlights of Paris & the Louvre, Rouen Countryside and Farm Visit, The Palace of Versailles, and Paris by Night Tour.
One of the most soul-stirring was a trip to the beaches of Normandy – in particular, our stop at the Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial. It was dedicated in 1956, with 9,387 burials and 1,557 MIA’s honored on the grounds. Over one million visitors come annually to pay respect to those Americans who gave their lives during World War II’s Normandy invasion and European operations.
In what has come to be one of the most sacred moments to me, I laid to rest a yellow rose for 2LT Walter H. Baker. A heartfelt thank you to Viking River tours for thoughtfully providing passengers with roses to pay our respect, and for giving me the opportunity to honor our distinguished but fallen soldiers. The yellow rose symbolically honored the memory of 2nd Lt William Baker from California who gave his life on June 9, 1944 during World War II Normandy invasion. (I made a connection because I grew up in California and because Baker was my previous last name from marriage). Nearby, a single peach rose adorned an unknown grave marked simply with the words: “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms known but to God.”
Our time roaming the cemetery grounds was followed by a special scheduled ceremony in the courtyard of the memorial. I wanted to be there. During the brief dedication, taps and salutes were rendered to those who sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom. The blue skies overhead were punctuated by several fleecy white clouds. As the music played, a single tear gently rolled down my cheek as I contemplated the magnitude of those sacrifices.
Nice to Know
• Viking’s “France’s Finest” is a 15-day cruise visiting 1 country & 11 ports; Visit 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
• 14 included shore excursions with local guide & headset
• Culture Curriculum®: learn about & sample a variety of French cheeses; try some Burgundian wines; see how silk printing is done today; attend lectures on Jeanne d’Arc & French Impressionists; learn to say a few words en Français; enjoy a concert of popular French tunes; visit a local market
• Beer, wine and soft drinks are complimentary with onboard lunch & dinner
• All onboard meals featuring regional specialties & always available American classics
• Welcome Cocktail Reception & Farewell Dinner
• Multiple dining venues with open seating
• 24/7 specialty coffees, teas & bottled water
• River-view stateroom, room steward & twice-daily housekeeping service
- Evening turndown service
- Hotel-style bed with optional twin-bed configuration; luxury linens & pillows
- Security safe, Hair dryer
- 110/220 volt outlets & USB port
- Direct-dial satellite phone
- 24/7 Guest Services for special requests
- Port taxes & fees
- Airport transfers on date of embarkation/disembarkation with Viking Air program