Amy and Julie have just returned from an unforgettable trip with Tauck, starting with two nights in Versailles before joining the Swiss Sapphire in Paris for a Seine river cruise. Their journey continued across the Channel with two nights at London's exclusive Savoy Restaurant. After setting sail from Paris, here's the rest of Amy's thoughts and experiences with Tauck...
In 1925, when Arthur C. Tauck first placed an advert in a newspaper for his first tour, he said he wanted a ‘congenial party’ of people, promising that within 10 minutes of their journey, ‘we shall be just one happy party, properly chaperoned, out for a real good time’ – over 90 years later, I experienced exactly that with Tauck. Last night, as our experience ended with a farewell dinner at Simpson’s on the Strand, as everyone hugged each other goodbye, and some tears were shed, I felt that the original spirit of Tauck – that congenial party, properly chaperoned, and enjoying a ‘real good time’ – was alive and well in that very room!
Leaving the elegant city of Paris after three nights’ onboard our new home, the MS Swiss Sapphire, we had really settled in and our Seine river cruise adventure began properly. Docking first in Conflans, we woke up to very different scenery than we had become used to – a quieter and smaller town. We met our local guides and drove to the tiny rural village of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh spent the last couple of months of his life. On our approach to the village, we crossed a bridge offering up beautiful views of the river and surrounding countryside on both sides, and it was easy to see what first attracted Van Gogh (and other artists) to the area. Surrounded by fields, Auvers-sur-Oise could perhaps easily be mistaken for any typical tiny village in the French countryside, but our local guide brought it to life with anecdotes about Van Gogh’s life (or just ‘Vincent’ as she called him, as it made her ‘feel closer to him’) and it was an informative and fun-filled excursion, particularly during a visit to the ‘Absinthe Museum’, run by perhaps the world’s leading expert on absinthe, and topped off with a tasting.
Van Gogh was not the only legendary painter we learnt more about; the next day, we woke up in Vernon, the city near the quaint village of Giverny, synonymous with Monet and his world-renowned garden paintings. It was an early start to the day, but well worth it, as Tauck have exclusive access to the gardens half an hour before everyone else. This was an exceptional opportunity to enjoy the tranquillity and beauty of these unique and famous gardens before they become overcrowded; fairly soon after they open, they seemingly become filled with groups of people, but we enjoyed a guided tour before the hordes. After all, with Tauck, how you see the world matters!
From the excellent quality of the local guides – who were informative, humorous, and passionate about their subjects – to dividing us into smaller groups, including a ‘leisurely paced’ group for the less mobile, we could make the most of our knowledgeable guides, and gain a deeper insight into the towns and cities we visited. Tauck Exclusives – offering privileged access and unique events – created so many memorable highlights across the itinerary, while there were also plenty of thoughtful ‘little extras’, such as offering ‘pocket money’ for local lunches during the river cruise, tasty local snacks for the coach ride after an excursion, and local gifts left on the bed after turndown by the cabin stewardess, and giving each guest a white rose and/or a pebble to lay on the grave of their choice at the American Cemetery at the Normandy Beaches. Arriving back onboard each day, we were greeted by Alex, the cruise director, and other members of the crew, along with cool hand towels and more tasty treats. At night, there was a variety of entertainment – including a characteristic accordion player, a French jazz singer, the can-can dancers of the first night onboard the Swiss Sapphire, a crew show, and the resident piano player – to top off each day. All these little components enhanced the overall experience, adding thoughtful touches, while the Cruise and Tour Directors ensured that everything ran smoothly, and in such a subtle and discreet way, it was one of the most wonderful travel experiences of my life, and it’s set the standard for future travel, upping the ante to an unprecedented level. This really is travelling well, but it’s not ostentatious, or patronising to guests. It’s not hard to see why some guests have travelled up to 25 times with Tauck – once you go Tauck, you never go back! It’s perhaps a testament to how well looked after you are with Tauck, and the experiences you enjoy, that one of our new American friends had travelled far for the first time (having been very nervous about long-haul travel), but was soon inspired to travel more with Tauck.
The river cruise itinerary was a perfect combination of Normandy’s highlights, and seemed to perfectly weave a narrative. We explored the rustic Normandy countryside and coastline, with an exclusive visit to a chèverie, a goat farm producing cheese and chocolate, where we met the owner, who was a real character with quite an unique sense of humour! We later continued onwards to Étretat, a charming town on Normandy’s Alabaster Coast, which is renowned for its coastal formations which inspired artists such as Boudin, Courbet, and our old friend Monet, and then Honfleur for free time to explore its charming harbour – again, depicted by many artists such as Monet and Boudin – and have some lunch. As with our ‘local lunch’ in Paris, Tauck gave us a little bit of ‘pocket money’, and it went towards some very delicious moules marinière. We tasted further spoils of the Normandy countryside during another exclusive visit to a cider farm. Art was a recurrent theme throughout the trip – as well as excursions focusing on art, there were several lectures during the river cruise on art and photography – and history also seemed to create an overarching narrative throughout, too. We learnt about both medieval and modern history as we continued our journey throughout Normandy, visiting the famously Gothic and half-timbered city of Rouen, learning all about Joan of Arc, and later the Chateau Gaillard, built by Richard the Lionheart overlooking a strategic bend on the river Seine and the town of Les Andelys, and a full-day excursion to the Normandy D-Day Beaches. After the river cruise, both art and history were combined during an optional guided visit to London’s V&A Museum, as our local guide showed us a selection of art and decorative pieces in the British Galleries and explained how the art illustrated the progress of Britain’s changing history and society from the 1500s to 1900.
Onboard, we continued to enjoy utterly sublime and attentive service from an exceptionally friendly crew, particularly the hard-working bar staff, Sonja, Barbara and Marius, who were excellent at discreetly anticipating what guests wanted. The crew offered personal service which was second to none, and nothing was too much trouble for them. The cuisine was delicious, with fresh and local ingredients, and quite possibly some of the best I’ve enjoyed on a river cruise. Each night was a new revelation of French dining experience. Breakfast and lunch were typically buffet, although there were some a la carte offerings for breakfast, and for lunch you ordered the daily soup and dessert from your waiter. One night, we enjoyed dinner in The Bistro, a smaller dining venue at the back of the boat on the third deck. With just a small number of seats available, there’s an intimate atmosphere, and a set menu which includes lobster bisque, escargot, and crêpes suzette, but it’s also possible to order a dish from the main restaurant, too. However, whether in the Compass Rose or the Bistro, each meal began with an amuse bouche, after enjoying cocktail hour and canapes in the lounge. Perhaps one of the most special meals, though, was an exclusive dinner at the historic Chateau Bizy, originally built for Louis XV before being largely demolished in the French Revolution and later rebuilt in the 19th century by the later King Louis Philippe. After a brief tour, we enjoyed a champagne reception with the chateau’s owner, before entering the beautiful dining room for a delicious four-course dinner, accompanied by a pianist playing on an elaborately decorated piano once owned by Napoleon. It was almost a surreal, pinch-yourself moment.
After nine nights onboard the Swiss Sapphire, the day had finally come to bid farewell to our floating home and her exceptional crew. However, it was not the end of our Tauck adventure, as we still had two nights in London to look forward to, staying in no less than the iconic and prestigious Savoy Hotel. Crossing the channel via Eurostar, travelling in Standard Premier Class (which included a light lunch and a drink), we were soon arriving in London St Pancras International, where we met our new local guides for a panoramic sightseeing tour of London, including Trafalgar Square, Belgravia, Buckingham Palace, Lambeth Palace, Green Park, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament (where we had a photo-stop) before reaching the Strand and the Savoy. During the Panoramic Tour, although I was familiar with many of the sights, and some of the facts, even I learnt some new things about London. After check-in, we had the rest of the afternoon and evening at leisure to explore independently, and Julie and I managed to score some cheap tickets at the Motown Show online, so we quickly hurried down Shaftesbury Avenue for dinner and the theatre.
The next – and final full – day started with two options: a guided visit of the V&A (and an optional drop-off at Harrods) or a drop-off at Harrods, although guests were of course free to make their own way for their independent explorations. While I opted for the V&A visit, Julie enjoyed a stroll to the London Eye and the South Bank. There was free time for lunch and the afternoon, and Julie and I took two of our new American friends to a traditional London pub for fish and chips and pie and mash. Finally, it was time for our farewell drinks and dinner in Simpson’s on the Strand, with a very special guest speaker: Celia Sandys, the granddaughter of one of the greatest ever Britons, Winston Churchill. She gave a warm and witty speech, detailing her memories of her grandfather, and giving an intimate and quite different perspective on a public figure renowned as much for his wit as his ‘bulldog spirit’. That night was, sadly, the end for our congenial party, but with the new friendships created across the pond, and what I learnt throughout from the knowledgeable tour guides and directors, I will always have Paris… and the rest of my memories and experiences I enjoyed.
I cannot recommend Tauck highly enough; it really has to be experienced to be believed. I consider it to be the ‘Mary Poppins’ travel: practically perfect in every way!
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