Day 1 – CroisiEurope’s Botticelli: Boarding In Paris
Our Air France flight touched down at Charles de Gaulle International Airport shortly after 3 this afternoon. We had come to the City of Light to experience something different: an eight-day cruise along the Seine on the low-price leader in river cruising.
CroisiEurope has been operating in Europe for nearly four decades, but with river cruising’s popularity surging in the English-speaking world, particularly among North Americans, the Strasbourg, France based company is ramping up its efforts to attract Americans and other English-speakers onto its fleet of 40-plus ships.
Last year, the company began to forge its way into the North American market, hiring a New York-based public relations firm and, this year, hiring a director of sales for marketing in the United States. To garner media coverage, CroisiEurope has invited journalists to experience its product. The company invited me to sail the Seine for the purposes of this review.
What is CroisiEurope’s most distinguishing feature? Its prices. My 8-day cruise started at $1,488 per person on the company’s website. And that price included wine and beer with onboard meals — and all drinks consumed at the bar, excluding champagne and some of the premium cocktails and special wines. WiFi is also offered free of charge on board, and of course, all meals. With cruises beginning at less than $200 per day per person, CroisiEurope may just offer one of river cruising’s best bargains.
But as someone accustomed to luxury ocean ships and upscale river cruise vessels, I wasn’t sure that I would appreciate CroisiEurope. I’m no snob, but could I acclimate to cruising on a budget-oriented product?
As we were being driven across Paris to reach Quai de Grenelle Bateau, situated within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, I wondered if I would enjoy the French food served on CroisiEurope? Would I get by on a vessel where French was the predominant language? What was included? What was not? Would I like my stateroom?
About 45 minutes after leaving the airport, our driver brought us directly in front of Botticelli. She wasn’t as flashy as some of the river cruise vessels that I’ve been on recently, but after only a few minutes of my walking on board, I discovered that what Botticelli lacked for in polish, she made up for in charm.
Botticelli had the feeling, not of a boutique hotel as do many other river cruise vessels, but of someone’s home — the home of an uncle or aunt or perhaps the grandparents. At first glance, the interior appeared a tad dated but showed little, if any, wear. The atmosphere was immediately warm and inviting, as was the staff, who casually welcomed us on board, with Tunde, the purser, handing over a key and instructing one of her colleagues to assist us to room 262.
Adorning the walls in the reception area and along the corridors were oil paintings by Gerard Schmitter, who founded CroisiEurope nearly 40 years ago. Schmitter retired in 1999 and spent much of his remaining years painting canvasses, in what I imagined to be an artist’s cabin, in the Vosges, a range of low mountains in eastern France. His paintings are largely still life, flowers and such, and they add to the charm of the vessel.
Nowadays, Schmitter’s children and grandchildren run the company from its base in Alsace. A small framed photo of the elder Schmitter, along with his wife, hangs behind the reception desk. The Schmitters look as though they could be anyone’s grandparents. There is no mistaking that CroisiEurope is a family operated business, built on legacies that are both enduring and endearing.
Our stateroom was along the corridor that led to the aft (and only) restaurant. The walk was not a long one, as Botticelli is a small vessel, measuring 110 meters and carrying only 151 guests. Unlike many of its competitors, Botticelli’s public spaces span only three decks, a lower deck with standard staterooms, a deck above featuring the reception area, lounge, restaurant and superior staterooms, and the sun deck.
I inserted the keycard into room 262, a superior stateroom. My first impression was that while the room was by no means elegant, it was certainly adequate, clean and fresh.
The beds were twins pushed together, with lamp sconces on each side. On the wall at the foot of the beds was a flat-panel television, and to the left of it, a desk/vanity with mirror and hair-dryer. From what I was able to discern, there was but a single electrical outlet. There were three small closets and storage underneath the beds.
The bathroom was spotlessly clean and small, with enough room for storing personal items. Shampoo and soap were provided. The shower was what I would describe as functional, with a European-style sprayer, which could be removed from the railing where it was mounted.
My favorite stateroom feature was the large sliding glass window. Botticelli has neither full, step-out balconies nor French balconies. The sliding glass window, however, proved to be perfect for framing Paris, particularly the Eiffel Tower, which we passed during an evening cruise (I’ll get to that in a moment). Though unintended, the window even featured a small ledge, with a railing, that could be used for seating, similar to a bench, and I enjoyed perching on it and photographing life along the Seine on a beautiful Friday afternoon.
A Cruise Within Our Cruise
After unpacking, I went for the crew introduction in the main lounge. Situated forward, the lounge was a cozy area with plenty of seating and glass all around. Short-stemmed roses in glasses adorned tables covered by patterned cloths. A largish wood laminate dance floor fronted the bar. Though in excellent condition, the dance floor looked as though it had seen many nights of couples twirling one another as Botticelli navigated along the Seine.
We enjoyed complimentary beverages, a kir vin blanc and a sparking wine. Botticelli has an open bar — with caveats. On one side of the menu was a list of complimentary beverages, including draught beer, spirits, wines, soft drinks, juices, still and sparkling water, and a selection of coffees and teas. Flip the menu over for a list of premium beverages that cost extra, such as a Crémant d’Alsace for €19 a bottle and champagnes that started at €39 a bottle.
During dinner, we did something I’ve not done on any other cruise: We cruised through the heart of Paris. The experience was one of the best I have ever had on a river cruise. How could it not be? The evening was exquisite, and after all, I was in Paris, cruising on the Seine, no less.
As we dined, we motored past river banks where people were picnicking and enjoying the Parisian summer. We saw two string quartets — one on a barge that passed us in the opposite direction and another on the river banks performing for an audience seated on steps. They, and we, were experiencing joie de vivre at its best.
After crossing Paris during dinner, Botticelli stopped for about 30 minutes, then all guests were invited to the Sun Deck for a night cruise back to where we had started, Quai de Grenelle Bateau.
Once again we sailed past the city’s best-known sites — the Eiffel Tower, the Orsay and Louvre museums, Pont Neuf and Notre Dame cathedral. CroisiEurope may be the low-price leader in river cruising, and while the price paid for the cruise is quantifiable, seeing Paris by night from the river is priceless.
To my knowledge, CroisiEurope is the only company to offer such an experience. As Botticelli only has only three decks, compared to four on most other river cruise vessels, it is able to get under the low bridges that cross the Seine as the river meanders though the heart of Paris. Indeed, the four-deck Viking Spirit remained docked at Quai de Grenelle Bateau during our four-hour evening excursion.
Our “cruise within a cruise” certainly will go down as one of the best river cruise experiences of my life.
A Brush With The Law
I experienced a brush with the law at the beginning of my adventure this week. Only the law I brushed against was Jude Law, the Academy Award nominated actor known for such roles as Watson in Sherlock Holmes.
I bumped into Law at Asheville, North Carolina’s tiny airport. I discovered that he had been in Asheville researching one of our most famous authors, Thomas Wolfe, who Law will portray in an upcoming movie called “Genius.” The movie, scheduled for release in 2015, will focus on the relationship between Wolfe and his editor Maxwell Perkins.
Perkins also worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, writers who, like Wolfe, spent considerable time in Paris. In fact, Wolfe visited the City of Light six times, and tomorrow, after our morning tour of Paris, I’ll tell you more about Wolfe’s visits and his impressions of the city.
I was thinking of Wolfe as I turned in for sleep last night. One of his books, You Can’t Go Home Again, explores the concept of returning home. And this is where all components of this story intersect.
Strasbourg, where CroisiEurope is based, was the home of my ninth-generation grandfather. Having only learned this salient fact about my family during the past few months, my relationship with France has changed.
“But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home,” Wolfe wrote about the lead character in You Can’t Go Home Again. “Why had he thought so much about it … He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”
As I began to fall asleep on Botticelli, docked on the banks of the Seine on a beautiful Parisian night, I felt something I had never felt in France. I felt I had come home.
CroisiEurope, Botticelli, Paris-Honfleur & Return
|Friday, June 20, 2014||Paris, France||Boarding between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. in Paris. Time to settle comfortably in your cabins before meeting the crew during a welcome cocktail reception. Dinner on board before departing on a cruise by night to tour the sights of the French capital.|
|Saturday, June 21, 2014||Paris, France||Breakfast on board. The day will be dedicated to the discovery of Paris. Morning optional guided tour of Paris, which will begin with famous landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysées. Lunch on the ship followed by a free afternoon to stroll round Paris. Dinner and a free evening or go on to a cabaret (optional).|
|Sunday, June 22. 2014||Vernon, France||Buffet breakfast on board before cruising to reach Vernon around 12.30 p.m. Lunch on board. In the afternoon, take the opportunity to visit the Claude Monet Foundation in Giverny, a charming pink house with green shutters which has been patiently restored and reveals the painter’s daily life. As you wander round the house, visit Monet’s huge workshop, bathed in the light that he cherished so much, the blue living room, the yellow dining room and the famous garden full of flowers and finally the Japanese style water garden. Return to the ship for dinner before cruising off towards Caudebec-en-Caux.|
|Monday, June 23. 2014||Caudebec-en-Caux, France||Buffet breakfast on board while cruising along through magnificent scenery and steep cliffs at the foot of which nestle charming little villages. Lunch on board before arriving in Caudebec-en-Caux around 1 p.m. In the afternoon, leave on a guided tour (optional) to discover the abbeys trail beginning with the abbey of Saint-Wandrille, then on to Jumièges, and the ruins of one of the most beautiful abbeys in France, not forgetting the church of St Pierre, one of the finest examples of 10th century Norman architecture. Return to the ship for around 6 p.m. for dinner before sailing on towards Honfleur (subject to the tides).|
|Tuesday, June 24, 2014||Honfleur, France||After breakfast depart on an excursion (optional) to the “Côte Fleurie” (flowered coast) and the towns of Trouville and Deauville including a stop on the way to visit a Calvados distillery and tasting. Return to the ship for lunch. The afternoon will be spent on a guided visit of Honfleur (optional). Lying at the foot of the Côte de Grace, the town will enchant you with its old port, the church of St Catherine entirely made out of wood, its picturesque streets and outer harbour dotted with little fishing boats. Or full day guided tour (lunch included) to the beaches of the Normandy landings (only as a pre-booked tour and a minimum of 30 participants). Departure by coach to reach Pointe du Hoc passing the towns of Omaha Beach, Coleville sur Mer and its American cemetery. We stop in Arromanches after lunch to watch the film “The Price of Liberty.” Return to the ship for dinner and a free evening.|
|Wednesday, June 25, 2014||Rouen, France||Early morning start and breakfast while cruising along a superb valley whose light variations inspired not only the impressionist painters but also many poets, before passing under the splendid Normandy Bridge. Lunch on board before arriving in Rouen around 2 p.m. Depart on a guided tour of the town (optional) to discover the cathedral, its historic quarters and the “Place du Vieux Marché” where Joan of Arc was burnt alive at the stake. Return to the ship for dinner and an entertaining evening.|
|Thursday, June 26, 2014||Les Andelys, France||After breakfast, cruise off toward les Andelys, through the lock in Amfreville, arriving around midday. Lunch on board. The afternoon will be spent visiting the Martainville castle (optional). Discover this rich house, the holiday home that belonged to a wealthy banker of the XVth century. Today it has become the museum of Norman arts and traditions. In the castle you will find a unique collection of objects made and used in Normandy between the XVth and the XIXth century. Return on board. Gala dinner and evening while cruising.|
|Friday, June 27, 1014||Paris, France||Breakfast on board before arriving in Paris around 8 a.m. before disembarking. End of our journey.|