(Photo: Photo courtesy of Scenic Cruises)
ABOARD THE SCENIC GEM -- Stewart Bayford, 62, of Perth, Australia, is standing with his wife Debbie, 60, at the bar of the newest cruise ship on France's Seine River, laughing over how they ended up on board.
"It was a compromise," says the retired geophysicist, pausing to grab a glass of champagne from a passing waiter. "I wanted to go to the battlefields, Debbie wanted rest and relaxation. With this ship, we were able to get a little of both."
A little of both, indeed. In more than a week on the 128-passenger vessel, the Scenic Gem, the Bayfords have been able to spend several full days touring some of the Normandy region's most famous battlefields, including the D-Day landing beaches of World War II, as well as other historic sites, villages, cider estates and more, while still having plenty of time for relaxing on board.
"It's just been lovely," says Debbie, a retired teacher. "It's not rushed at all, and yet there are plenty of activities to do."
Looking for a cruise through France's Normandy region that is as leisurely as it is upscale? As of this summer, your best bet just might be a sailing with a company that is barely known in North America: Australia-based Scenic Cruises.
Unveiled on the Seine in late July, the Scenic Gem is a stylish, unusually all-inclusive vessel that offers a more elaborate -- and relaxed -- itinerary through the region than those available from such major North American lines as Viking, Avalon and Uniworld.
Starting with an overnight stay in Paris, the Scenic Gem spends 10 nights traveling the Seine to the Normandy coast and back -- three more than most cruise ships on the meandering waterway.
As the Bayfords experienced earlier this month during one of the vessel's first sailings, the extra time allows for an all-day excursion to the Somme battlefield of World War I -- something almost no other line offers -- as well as a more in-depth view of several charming Norman towns.
Notably, the ship stops in the provincial capital of Rouen for three nights -- one to two more than most other lines. Passengers are able to spend hours strolling its historic downtown -- full of centuries-old, half-timbered houses and a famed cathedral painted by Monet -- while still having time to take a Scenic-organized excursion to the Rouen-based French Baking and Patisserie Institute for a two-hour class. Some even had time for a second local excursion to see the Monets and other Impressionist paintings of Rouen's highly rated art museum.
Scenic also spreads stops in the Seine River towns of Les Andelys and Vernon across two days. Most lines visit them in a single day. In Les Andelys, an extended morning visit allows for a Scenic-organized tour through the Norman countryside to Lyons la Foret, a picture-perfect French village, and a trip to a local estate for a cider tasting. In Vernon, passengers bus or bike to Monet's house in nearby Giverny.
The Scenic Gem also is specially designed to travel all the way north to Honfleur, one of the region's most picturesque coastal towns. Located near the mouth of the Seine, it only can be reached by vessels with certain types of hulls, and most river ships only go as far as Rouen or Caudebec-en-Caux. Alas, as of this month the line has yet to win approval from French authorities for the stop and instead is docking the Scenic Gem at a charmless industrial shipping area in nearby Le Havre (Scenic officials say they should have permission for the Honfleur stop for the 2015 season).
In addition to a longer trip on the Seine, Scenic is touting a more intimate and all-inclusive experience than what is offered by many river lines.
For starters, the Scenic Gem offers more space per passenger than many of its competitors. Four Viking and AmaWaterways vessels on the Seine, for instance, are roughly the same size as the Scenic Gem but pack in 22 more people. An Avalon Waterways ship is the same size but carries 12 more passengers. Among lines targeting North Americans, only Uniworld and Tauck offer a more intimate experience with similarly sized vessels carrying just 118 passengers.
With a crew of 42, the Scenic Gem also has a higher crew-to-passenger ratio than many of its competitors. Every cabin on the Scenic Gem comes with private butler service, and the ship has its own on-call masseuse and hairdresser. Again, only Uniworld and Tauck offer a higher crew-to-passenger ratio on the Seine.
Still, where the Scenic Gem really stands out is in its all-inclusiveness. Scenic includes unlimited complimentary beverages in its fares. Sodas, mineral water, espresso drinks, wine, beer and even premium spirits are available with meals, at the bar or even from cabin minibars for no extra charge at any time. Many other Seine cruise operators only offer complimentary wine and beer with lunch and dinner (Uniworld and Tauck are exceptions here, too, with both also offering unlimited complimentary beverages).
In addition, gratuities on Scenic as well as shore tours and airport transfers are included in fares. So much is included, in fact, that the line doesn't even bother to swipe credit cards when passengers arrive. Many leave without a bill.
"It's the way to go," says Jan Cattanach, 67, of Warialda, Australia, echoing many of the ship's passengers. "It's absolutely wonderful to know you've paid for everything up front."
Like Cattanach, by far the majority of passengers on the Scenic Gem are from Australia. Well known in the country, Scenic Cruises until recently wasn't even marketing in the United States, and despite recent efforts, still is drawing just a handful of Americans. On this sailing, there are just four Americans. There are eight passengers from the UK, six Canadians, two New Zealanders and 98 Australians.
The result is a cruise that at times has a distinctly different feel than a similar sailing with a North America-based line. As a group, the Australians on board are much more lively -- and social -- than one would find with the passengers on a North American ship. Singles and even couples sitting alone in the lounge will find that they are quickly pulled into the nearest group for conversation -- whether they want to be or not. Happy hour starts early, and there is often dancing late into the night.
"They're a fun group of people, very outgoing and friendly," says one of the few Americans on board, Mark Lassman, 67, of Weston, Fla. "We've felt very comfortable."
Modern and stylish, the Scenic Gem's rooms are relatively big for a river ship in Europe, though still small compared to high-end ocean ships and hotels on land. Each room boasts a sleek if somewhat small wall storage unit and beds topped with white-on-white Egyptian linens. Nearly every room also comes with a small balcony area -- a relatively rarity on river ships. Cabin bathrooms feature walk-in showers, high-end Duravit sinks and top-of-the-line Dornbracht fixtures (a handful of top suites also have Duravit bathtubs).
The cuisine in the Scenic Gem's main dining room, too, is relatively upscale -- at least for river cruising. Multi-course meals arrive elegantly plated, though as cruising regular Lassman notes, the food isn't nearly as gourmet as what is found on top ocean ships.
"You don't have the variety for one thing," says the veteran of more than 30 ocean cruises on lines such as Regent Seven Seas and Oceania. Dinner menus feature a choice of just three main courses that change daily, he notes, as well as a few always-available items.
Once per cruise, passengers also have the chance to dine at L'Amour, a fine dining restaurant with around 20 seats carved out of a corner of the main lounge. It offers a more drawn-out, six-course meal. During the day, the same space is used for a casual, self-serve lunch service.
Passengers in the most expensive top deck rooms also receive an invitation once per cruise to a special table in the dining room, Table La Rive, for a six course meals with premium wines.
All of the extra perks and all-inclusiveness come at a price, alas. Fares for the Scenic Gem's 10-night Seine cruises start at nearly $600 per person, per day -- far higher than many of its rivals. Avalon and Viking's Seine cruises, by contrast, start at around $350 and $200 per day, respectively.
Still, passengers on board say it's worth the cost. As the Bayfords of Perth note, the crew on board is a delight -- upbeat, friendly and engaging. They seemingly work around-the-clock to make the experience wonderful for passengers.
Says Stewart Bayford on the last day as the ship pulls back into Paris: "We just filled in the questionnaire, and I honestly couldn't find any reason to be critical."
For a deck-by-deck look at the Scenic Gem, click through the carousel below.
Contributed by Gene Sloan, USA TODAY
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