We arrived in Paris on the River Seine at dusk, after dining on foie gras and carre de veau during the voyage from Poissy, France. There was the Eiffel Tower just off the river on the Left Bank, and the summer evening darkened to show why Paris is called the City of Light. Every building and monument illuminated our passage under many of the bridges, some so close we touched them with our fingertips, as we passed landmarks including the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre and Notre-Dame Cathedral.
It might sound like a romantic honeymoon or a retiree’s reward, but I was there with my children, 11-year-old twin girls, and this was their first trip to Europe. The boat is not a typical cruise ship but long and low to fit under the bridges.River cruises have long been the manna of the golden years, but they appealed to me as the perfect mode for travel abroad with kids. Your hotel moves with you, which means no packing and unpacking, rushing to catch planes and trains or navigating a car in a foreign country. Just settle into your cabin and lounge on deck with meals and drinks provided as the world comes to you along the banks of a beautiful, history-laden river. Ahhh, said a busy parent seeking respite from child managing.
Our voyage was with CroisiEurope. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the family-run French company was founded in 1976 by Gerard Schmitter. CroisiEurope cruises on most of the major rivers in Europe, including the Danube, Po, Loire and Rhine, as well as the Mekong in Vietnam and Volga in Russia.
Our trip began on the coast of Normandy, where the Seine enters the Atlantic at the English Channel, in the colorful seaport of Honfleur. Upon boarding the 360-foot Seine Princess, we were greeted by our cruise director, Fabiola, and shown to our suite, one of 67 cabins lining the upper and lower decks. Ours had two twin beds and a foldout double sofa. (While most rooms are twins, splitting up the kids and adults into separate rooms, suites can be better for younger children.)
We joined the rest of the 83 passengers for the official welcome on the leather sofas and chairs of the cocktail lounge and found a mix of English, French and Japanese passengers. The friendly crew alternated speaking English and French and spelled out the schedule of breakfast buffet from 7:30 a.m. to 9, lunch at noon and dinner at 7 p.m., with optional daily excursions in between. The all-inclusive meals, drinks and excursions were a welcome break from coordinating food and outings for any parent.
Dinner was served in the gold-accented dining room at assigned tables with linen tablecloths, full silverware setting, a fine selection of wines and three-course French cuisine. The salads, appetizers, elegant entrees of fish, beef and chicken and decadent desserts provided a refreshing divergence from the usual children’s menus. The girls tried French sauces on meats and ate potatoes prepared in ways other than french fries and were happily surprised they liked them. (The staff also accommodated our vegetarian and gluten-free needs.)
The ship sailed at intervals during the day and night, under the expert guidance of our captain, affording beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. While the girls played hide-and-seek on deck, other passengers played cards and board games. Evenings offered dancing in the lounge and a cabaret show put on by the crew that the girls particularly enjoyed.
Excursions included a tour of the abbeys of Jumieges and Saint-Wandrille de Fontenelle. Next came Rouen and the incredible cathedral in Monet’s painting. The girls’ favorite outing was a visit to Chateau de Malmaison, the extravagant manor and grounds of Empress Josephine and Napoleon I located near the Seine in Rueil-Malmaison.
And then, of course, that arrival in Paris by night. All in all, a perfect way to introduce children to France and to travel abroad.
While some might say river cruisers are seeking a peaceful escape from the energy and rambunctiousness of children, or that younger travelers will feel out of place amongst the predominance of retirees, let me note that in our experience, the trip was greatly enhanced by interactions with the older and wiser set, many of whom told me the presence of children was equally welcome.
The river cruise also struck me as a perfect venue to share a hassle-free family vacation with three generations: grandparents, parents and grandchildren.
The exchanges between my girls and the elderly passengers emphasized the value of interaction between life’s stages.
“It’s good to be reminded of the importance of play, at any age,” was a sentiment from one traveler. I heartily agree.