August 2015 - Viking Rinda to Europe
Good Rinda, Bad Rinda; Pay for gold, get bronze.
1. Summary: After reading & watching the Viking advertisements and paying top dollar, we were disappointed; we paid for gold, but the Vikings delivered only bronze. We did see a lot of Paris and we did see a lot of other parts of northern France. However, the itinerary could have easily been adjusted to give more time in Paris, Versailles, and Normandy and less time in little villages/towns that were carbon copies of the other little villages/towns that we saw on the previous day. The food was mostly "ho-hum" average, with a few really great meals and a few total epicurean disasters. They filled our glasses with wine at every opportunity during lunch and dinner, and champagne was available at breakfast if we felt the need. On a scale of 1 (Poor) to 10 (Fabulous) we rated the trip at "6" and most of the other passengers that we talked with on the cruise were in agreement. The overall issue that drove us crazy was the schizophrenic nature of the cruise: one night we would get a truly great meal at dinner, but the next night was just awful; one day we would enjoy a very interesting and well planned guided tour but the next day we were left to wander a small town with yet another gothic church and not much else. If you're a zealous history buff, you may find everything to be exceptionally interesting, but how many gothic churches and former palaces can you visit in one week? France is littered with them. We would have preferred to have had more time at Normandy, the Louvre, and Versailles.
Recommendations: Bring comfortable walking shoes and a hat, you will need them. If you plan to take this trip, please remember to put the camera or iPhone down once in a while and actually LOOK at the scenery, paintings, sculptures and other attractions with your own eyes. It's very easy to only see France through the 2-inch screen on the back of your camera and miss out on actually BEING there. We saw countless tourists solidly glued to their cameras throughout the tours, desperately trying to get the perfect picture of something or other, or hell-bent on getting a selfie with the Mona Lisa. I confess that I fell into that "give me photo or give me death" category more than once. Also, consider skipping lunch to spend more time in the venues; you can grab some quick ice cream or chocolate crepes or even eat at a cafe without having to take the bus back to the boat.
Disclaimer: This was our first trip to Paris and/or France and our first vacation on a Viking River Cruise or any river cruise for that matter. We have previously taken two European vacations to Italy (Rome, Florence, Capri, Pompeii, Venice, Sorrento, and Assisi). We have been on 4 or 5 Royal Caribbean cruises (to the Caribbean) over the last 20 years, plus a Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska and a cruise around the Hawaiian Islands. Also note that this trip took place in August; that's the month where most people in France head to the beaches and a whole lot of businesses are closed, especially the smaller "mom and pop" stores. Note: the French get at least 5 weeks of vacation each year, and they love to use it. The good news was that the traffic was dramatically reduced because everybody was out of town, and since we spent a lot of time sitting on buses, that time really added up. Also note that we were booked on the "Rinda", the larger boat that can't dock in downtown Paris, so they docked Rinda in Le Pecq which is a small town about 15 miles west of Paris. The Viking people like to refer to Le Pecq as "a suburb of Paris" but that's like calling Baltimore a suburb of Washington DC. They constantly told us that it only took 20 minutes to drive from Le Pecq to Paris, but the helicopter must have been in the shop while we were there since the trip was consistently 55 to 60 minutes one way every time we got on the bus; the red lights and construction zones didn't go on holiday.
2. Airlines - Getting There: They won't make your flight reservations when you sign up for the cruise and pay in full, so you have no idea of what arrangements are going to be made on your behalf until 30 days prior to the cruise. We flew out of Washington DC (Dulles) and they put us on an Iceland Air flight to Iceland (5.5 hours), and then another Iceland Air flight to Paris (3.5 hours). We had about one hour between flights in Keflavik (Reykjavik) where it was 40 degrees (F) at noon on the 3rd of August! Be prepared to be seated on the least expensive flights to and from Paris and for many this means hours of additional travel time; so when some passengers arrive on the ship they may not be in the best of spirits! It seemed that everybody we talked with ended up going through a different stop on the way to Paris. Some went through Iceland, some went through Heathrow/London, some through Munich, some through Stockholm. One couple was flying back home to Baltimore from Paris through Chicago with a 4 hour wait in Chicago. It was interesting that when we switched planes in Iceland, the authorities checked our passports, but when we landed in Paris, there was no immigration or customs; we went from the baggage carousel directly to the public areas of the airport where our Viking representative greeted us and herded all of the passengers into one area prior to getting on the bus for Le Pecq.
3. Does Le Pecq equal Paris? When we booked our vacation back in December, the other Viking River Boats were sold out so the Rinda was our only choice for the first week in August. The advertisements say "Paris, Paris, and Paris" but the Rinda is docked in Le Pecq (sometimes referred to by the Viking folks as the "Port of Paris"). It's a 1-hour Viking-provided bus ride to downtown Paris (Louvre, Notre Dame) one-way, so we felt cheated out of valuable time that could have been better spent in the city. The La Pecq issue has become an 800 pound gorilla in the room; we got a special letter prior to departure that explained and defended Viking's use of Le Pecq and the Cruise Director tried to explain away the issue while we were onboard. One good thing about Le Pecq, they have a Monoprix store there (like a Walmart - just a few steps from the dock) where we bought several bottles of wine and some chocolate to enjoy while sitting on our veranda watching the shoreline of the Seine go by. There is a small refrigerator in the cabin and you can stuff 4 or 5 bottles of wine into it; there is a corkscrew in every room. During meals, the waiters will be happy to open a bottle of wine that you provide if you want to go that route.
4. Das Boat & Das Staff: We were in Cabin 335, an "A" Stateroom with the veranda. We had a king size bed with one chair, 2 end tables, a bureau for the clothes, a closet, a digital safe, a small refrigerator, and a flat screen TV. There was just enough room to walk around the bed. The bathrooms are small and the shower measured about 4 feet wide and 24 inches in depth at one end and 18 inches in depth at the other end. The larger staterooms include a sitting area and larger bathrooms and showers. The veranda was just wide enough for two chairs and a small table. We used the veranda during 3 days and 1 night for sipping wine and taking photos of the quaint villages/towns and scenery as we sailed down the Seine. The veranda became our favorite spot for private relaxation during travel time. If you don't get a veranda, the sundeck is always an option. The TV comes in handy; you can get CNN and BBC news, sports, Viking documentaries, maps of the cruise, movies and TV shows if you wish, but you can also listen to the Cruise Director's lectures in the room if you don't want to go up to the lounge before dinner. They also have a camera on the bow of the ship and you can watch the view on the TV 24/7. They provide a variety of music channels, and I found it amusing that what they call "Pop" music was mostly rock and roll from the 50s and 60s; I would have called that "Golden Oldies." The suitcases fit under the bed for storage, and a 220-volt hair dryer came with the room. You'll find three or four 110-volt outlets in the room along with three or four 220-volt outlets. They provided life jackets under the bed and a safety exercise was conducted the first afternoon, but they like to joke that if the ship goes down, they will be serving cocktails on the sun deck; the Seine is only about 9 or 10 feet deep in most places and the ship draws 6 feet of water so the boat doesn't have very far to go before hitting bottom and lifeboats are not required. Amazingly, the Seine is only about 100 yards wide in most places so you're never more than 40 or 50 yards from shore during the entire cruise. When it is necessary to turn the boat around, they have to cruise to a wide spot in the river, make the U turn and then cruise back to the ultimate destination. The Seine has 6 locks between Paris and Normandy (think "miniature Panama Canal") and it was very interesting every time we entered a lock and the boat went up or down about 12 feet in about 15 minutes. Tours of the wheelhouse are available over several days if you're interested in the technology; the boat has bow thrusters to help make turns or to dock, and they use radar even though the river is very narrow.
5. Where are the toilets? One of the first things that the Cruise Director (Michael B.) covered during the early daily briefings was the astonishing lack of public toilets all over France. We were warned to use any available rest rooms early and often because you would never know when and if you were going to find another one or how long the lines would be waiting to get into one. As a last resort, you might need to duck into a cafe, buy a glass of wine, and go stand in line at their unisex single-use restroom. "Depend" under garments might be a consideration for you! Unfortunately, because of the lack of facilities and the huge crowds at the venues, our group tours (typically 20 to 50 people) were delayed by 20 or 25 minutes every time we stopped for a potty break. At Versailles, the Louvre, Giverny, and Normandy, it wasn't unusual to see 10+ women waiting to get into the public ladies' rooms while there was no waiting at the men's room. Occasionally, we found rest rooms at a snack shop where they wanted 70 cents (cheaper than a glass of wine) to use the facilities when you can find them.
6. Paris: If you really want to "see Paris", you should consider booking a few days on the front end of the trip or the back end. We saw Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower (on the Viking excursions) and we walked mile after mile of Paris streets to visit some museums, stores and cafes on our own. We ended up spending 1 full day in Paris at the beginning of the trip and another full day (including a half day in Versailles) at the end of the trip. We do feel that by adjusting the schedule and reducing/ eliminating the time spent in Les Andeles, we would have enjoyed more time in Paris
7. Itinerary: As our first priority, we wanted to see Paris, Notre Dame, the Louvre, Versailles and Normandy. The other stops on the trip were expected to be icing on the cake. We soon realized that Paris requires a lot more time than previously planned, and we were not prepared for the long bus rides and having to wait in lines for everything including restrooms. And, since some of the less-interesting stops ate up more time on the schedule, we felt cheated out of time that we could have spent on our primary objectives. (See the "Excursions" paragraph below.) So Bottom Line: It was an "OK" itinerary, but it could have been much better.
8. Other Guests: The Rinda holds about 200 passengers. About 70 percent of the passengers appeared to be over 65. Maybe 10 percent of the passengers were under 30 with just a few under 18. The remaining 20 percent appeared to be between 30 and 65 years old. A few people were in wheel chairs or used a cane to get around. There are no tables for two on the Rinda, so unless you're travelling with a group, you'll be meeting lots of new people at every meal. So that you can prepare your answers in advance, here are the questions that are universally asked upon meeting unknown passengers: What is your name? Where are you from? Is this your first Viking Cruise? Where else have you traveled with Viking and around the world? What did you do before you retired? Where did you live before you retired? Are your children as deliriously happy, exceptionally smart, amazingly good looking, extraordinarily well educated, and hugely successful as our children? Note: If you intend to get creative with your answers, please coordinate with your travel partner(s) so that you all consistently tell the same fantasies during the cruise! Having said that, please note that we did meet five or six "very down to earth" couples who provided very pleasant dinner conversations and travel tips during the week.
9. Meals, Wines, and Lines: Our previous experiences on cruise ships always included excellent meals. The Vikings provided a few excellent meals, a few disasters, and mostly mundane fare. On top of that, the portions usually tended to be small with a few exceptions. I thought we had paid for "excellent" and "bountiful," but I guess I was mistaken. We learned a lot on the cruise. We discovered that by adding mushrooms and wine to chicken, you become a Coq au Vin chef, and adding a little cheese to cauliflower makes it "French Cauliflower." If you really want to impress your family, run your mashed potatoes through a pastry decorating bag, and then use a blowtorch to brown the top of the swirl; finally, jam a finger-sized piece of toast into the top of the swirl and you're ready for the kitchen on Rinda (smile). Spinach is "French spinach" when it is served in a pastry shell. If you buy wine, they will be happy to pull the cork for you - no problem, no charge.
Dinners: The Split Pea soup was very good as was the French Onion soup and the Lobster/Shrimp Bisque (brown, not pink). The pork tenderloin was great. The Beef Wellington was very tasty but the meat was a little on the tough side, and the cheeseburger with fries was excellent; just like at the Outback Steak House. I had a prime rib dinner one night that was very good, but they served it with a little container full of BBQ sauce on the side. How strange; A1 steak sauce would have been much more welcomed. The Coq au Vin consisted of a leg and a thigh with some mushrooms and some kind of wine sauce; it was OK but the portion was on the small side. The plain chicken breast was a safe alternative but totally uninspiring. We tried to avoid ordering things that we didn't recognize on the menu. I ordered the penne pasta with shrimp one night and I got a large bowl of pasta with a plain tomato sauce that reminded me of SpaghettiOs eaten during my childhood, along with three (3) shrimp. Yes, I said three (3) medium sized shrimp. I was insulted and I should have sent it back but I didn't. Later in the week they served a shrimp cocktail appetizer that had 2 large shrimp, thus confirming my conclusion that three medium shrimp does not a meal make. That shrimp cocktail appetizer featured two large raw shrimp that were only partially deveined so I had to finish off the deveining task myself. I was tempted to cook the shrimp over the candle on the table, but I didn't want to make a scene on the Seine. One of our tablemates ordered the scallops one night and got four (4) golf ball-size scallops; the presentation was very nice but the portion size was "skimpy." The night after having the excellent cheeseburger, I decided to give the "Pulled Pork Sandwich with Cole slaw and fries" a try, and I ended up getting a Kaiser roll with a compressed pork patty that looked like a 3-inch pancake. The slaw came in a small cup with a few fries alongside. Has this chef ever been to Texas? What was he thinking? At the very least, he could have done some research on the Internet. Salads are not typically served with dinner on Rinda, but if you ask, you can get a Caesar salad added to your order. The house wine flowed like water; the waiters refilled our glasses every 10 minutes like clockwork. We received some interesting appetizers; one was a teaspoon filled with some kind of fish chutney; somebody suggested that it was raw tuna but we never managed to verify that guess. I got the steak tartar one night - very thinly sliced raw beef with a tasty sauce. The thought of eating anything raw scares the heck out of me, but when in France, do as the French, right?
Lunch: We skipped a lot of lunches to stay at the venue du jour and avoid spending time on the bus and sitting for an hour or more on the boat for lunch. Our Viking-provided lunch at a restaurant in Normandy consisted of wine, a salad, Coq au Vin, scalloped potatoes, some zucchini, cans of soda, and a chocolate dessert. Unfortunately, it took 1.5 hours to get through lunch; that time would have been better spent at the museum. One day on Rinda, we stood in a line 10 deep (20 minutes) to get some French-sounding spaghetti thing for lunch. They put some olive oil in a skillet, added spaghetti, threw in some bland tomato sauce, and sprinkled some herbs on top. After simmering that for 4 or 5 minutes it was ready to eat. Again, the taste reminded me of childhood SpaghettiOs. If I ever go on another Viking cruise, I'll bring a jar of Ragu. The French are very big on having salads for lunch, and one day we did the Rinda lunch buffet which included salad, egg salad, pasta salad, some other salads, sausages, pickled herring, and cauliflower covered in cheese. Thankfully, the dessert table was exceptional and my willpower caved in as I sampled a large variety of cakes, pies, cookies, and candy. Hats off to the pastry chef; he never disappointed. If you're going to France for the wine and pastry you will be in heaven.
Breakfast: Rinda serves a great breakfast. They make omelets to order at the buffet line but you might have to stand in line for 15 minutes to get one. Recommendation: Order an omelet from the waiter and you'll get in 3 or 4 minutes from the kitchen. You can also order pancakes, French toast (very dry), eggs, juices, eggs Benedict, and other items from the menu. The buffet selections were endless: champagne, omelets, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, oatmeal, granola, cereals, yogurts, pastries, bagels, toasted bread, croissants, smoked salmon, fresh fruits, hot stuff that I didn't recognize, some kind of crackers that I didn't recognize, muffins, you name it and it was there. We had absolutely no complaints when it came to breakfast, except that they could have cooked more than one omelet at a time at the buffet table to speed things up.
10. Airport & Driver Issues: Our bus drivers were pleasant, competent and punctual for almost all of the trips with the exception of our return trip to the airport on the last day. That particular driver was late arriving, texted and talked on her cell phone, and even started to read off the list of terminals that each passenger was headed to, all while driving at 60 mph on the highway. I was going to yell "put down that phone" while she was changing lanes with one hand, but I didn't know how to say that in French, and she didn't speak English! Also, the Viking representative at the airport took us to the wrong part of the terminal for our Iceland Air flight back to the US, and we would still be there if it wasn't for another passenger finding the ticket counter on his own and leading the way for the rest of us to the right part of the terminal. I think the Vikings are more worried about the arriving passengers than the departing passengers.
11. Excursions: Excursions are good. One major issue when you're exploring on your own is having to wait in line for an hour or more when trying to get into a museum (usually a former palace) or other venue; that's not a problem when you're on a Viking excursion since they have group tour tickets with timed entry. Also, having a tour guide is really great since they know where the important stuff is located (it would have been very easy to get lost in the Louvre), they can give you the historical background, and they know where to find the restrooms. Unfortunately, after the (mostly) 2+ hour tours were over, we only got about 30-45 minutes of "free time" which is just enough time to visit the gift shop and hit the restroom before getting back on the bus; not enough time to really go off and explore. We tried to get around that problem in Paris by skipping the trip back to the boat for a lunch; that way we could spend more "free time" in Paris and catch the last bus back to the boat later that afternoon. We were lucky; the weather was perfect throughout the week except for a little light rain while we were inside the Louvre, but we didn't need the Viking-provided umbrellas at all. The Viking folks provide bottles of water every time you leave the ship - take a few - you'll need them. They also provide little radio receivers (about the size of a cell phone) with earpieces so you can hear the tour guide speaking even if you're 100 feet away; that worked out great since the museums are loud and packed solid with people and we didn't have to stand next to the guide in order to hear her/him.
Day 1 - Le Pecq & St. Germain: You can tour the town of St. Germain with a guide in the afternoon to see churches and a former palace, and you can buy wine or other essentials at the Monoprix store in Le Pecq, just a few steps from Rinda's pier. There is a pretty good view of Paris in the distance across the Seine from the Palace in St. Germain. We found an ice cream shop just across the street from the Palace where we sat and enjoyed a break from the walking as we watched the locals for a while. If you arrive from the airport early enough, you can take a Viking bus to Paris, and skip St. Germain, but we arrived at 3 p.m. after the last bus to Paris had already left. St. Germain was interesting since it was our first stop in France; plus we were sleep-deprived from the flight so I'm not sure we could have survived an intense afternoon in Paris. Bottom line: St. Germain was an "OK" stop on the itinerary, but not very special when compared to Paris, Rouen, Versailles and Normandy.
Day 2 - Notre Dame & Paris: We took the Viking tour of the Notre Dame Cathedral in the morning, but our group had to stand in line for about an hour waiting to get in; no timed tickets there. Then we spent the rest of the day exploring Paris on our own: walking to the Latin Quarter, and walking past the Louvre, walking through the shopping districts and walking around a lot of monuments. We had lunch in a small cafe in the Latin Quarter - Pizza and wine no less. Then we walked up the Champs-Elysses to the Petite Palace to catch the bus back to the ship at 5 p.m. So, except for lunch, we walked the entire day. Bring comfortable shoes. The Eiffel tower was plainly visible off in the distance, but it was too late in the day to visit it, and we were booked on the night tour of Paris on the last day when you get to visit the tower when it is all lit up. Bottom line: The first day in Paris was "good." If you can't read a map, and/or you can't walk long distances, you should plan on bringing money for a taxi or a bicycle rickshaw so that you can get around Paris and make it to the return bus on time.
Day 3 - Vernon, Giverny & Monet: If you're into art, this is like dying and going to heaven. We took the Viking tour (including express tickets to enter the property and a guide to provide the walking tour) to visit the vast gardens and ponds (complete with lily pads) that Monet used for inspiration when he painted. It was kind of like actually walking through some of his paintings. Then we took a tour of Monet's house (after waiting in line for 40 minutes) including his personal art collection. The gift shop there has a wide variety of unique items, all geared toward Monet of course. There are a few museums and cafes there in the small town of Giverny, but we didn't have time to visit any of them.
Day 4 - Rouen - Joanie on the Pony: Rouen was where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, not exactly Disneyworld, but if you appreciate the religious and historical perspective, you'll probably enjoy the trip. The town is fascinating because a lot of the original medieval structures are still standing and the narrow cobblestone streets wind through the city - it's "Old France". Rouen offered endless shops, cafes, and fast food opportunities (think: chocolate-filled crepes, ice cream, chocolate/ candy and McDonalds) along with small art galleries and clothing stores. There's a modern church in the square where Joan met her maker; it's just across from the restaurant where Julia Child became interested in French cooking. Rouen was one of the better venues on the itinerary.
Day 5 - Normandy Beaches: The first thing we found out on this tour was that the landing beaches at Normandy cover over 50 miles; that's more than the distance from Atlantic City to Cape May, NJ. It was a 2-hour bus ride from the Seine to the coast. Along the way, our guide provided a large amount of background information along with personal stories about her grandparents' dealings with the occupying Germans during the war. The trip focused on the American cemetery and the beaches where the "Mulberry" artificial harbors were used to offload men and supplies after the initial invasion. Unfortunately, we simply drove slowly past many other beaches that contained dozens of relics and several museums on our way to Arromanches where we saw dozens of the concrete breakwaters still sitting on the flats at low tide more than 1/4 mile out from the shoreline. We lost about 20 minutes after arriving due to the long lines at the restrooms. The museum there was packed with people and we had time to watch a 30-minute film that documented the preparations and landings, but we didn't have much time to walk through the extensive museum because the Viking tour focused on feeding everyone lunch at a local restaurant - an hour and a half of valuable time that we would have skipped if we had known how long lunch was going to take. (A crepe or an ice cream on the street would have been sufficient; you might want to consider skipping the sit-down lunch if you go.) It's a shame that we spent more time in the restaurant than we did in the museum or on the beach. After the stop at the Arromanches beach, we headed for the American Cemetery where we walked through the sea of marble crosses and Stars of David that marked the graves of more than 9,800 servicemen and women. We witnessed a memorial service there which was quite moving. The visitor's center/museum was excellent; we spent about an hour there. Then we headed to Omaha Beach at Saint Laurent Sur Mer to see a memorial and the beach where the Americans landed.
Day 7 - Les Andeles: They could have skipped Les Andeles all together. When we arrived, a carnival had taken over the docking area so the reality of the surroundings didn't look at all like the Viking Cruise commercials that we saw on TV. There's a partially-destroyed castle on the top of a high hill near the town, and it's a long uphill (steep) climb to get there - maybe a half mile or more. The cruise director previously warned us that the castle tour was not for everyone. We had to stop several times along the way to let everyone catch their breath and wait for stragglers. The view of the Seine and surrounding areas from the castle was beautiful. The Cruise Director acted as our guide and he provided an incredible amount of information about Richard the Lionheart and the history of the castle. There was a quaint restaurant at the bottom of the hill and the nearby town provided yet another gothic church, one or two cafes, and a shop or two, but spending an entire day there walking the cobblestones felt like a waste of time since we had already been to Giverny and Le Pecq. We actually resorted to playing miniature golf on Rinda's sun deck for a lack of things to do that afternoon. Les Andeles was one of the most disappointing venues on the itinerary.
Day 8 - Louvre: We paid 69 Euros each for the Viking-provided Louvre tour. We arrived with our tour guide at a few minutes before 9 a.m. just before the doors opened. We were the second group in line at the "Group" entrance so we got in very quickly. The Louvre is enormous and 10 million tourists visit it each year. Our guide walked us through several sections over 2 hours which included the "must see" Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, and the winged goddess of Victory statue. You can take pictures as long as you don't use flash. By the time we got to the Mona Lisa, the room was crammed with several hundred visitors, each of whom were determined to get a "selfie" with the smiling lady. As you can imagine, the pushing and shoving got pretty intense (we were warned about this prior to the tour) not unlike trying to get into the Sistine Chapel on Easter Sunday or trying to get near the Trevi fountain at noon in Rome. They also warned us to be careful to protect ourselves against pickpockets. We had some free time after the tour ended (hello gift shop), and we decided to skip the bus trip back to the boat for lunch and head out on our own to explore Paris. We had "brunch" at a great little cafe just a few blocks north of the Louvre; it was called Le Pain Quotidien Saint-Honore (address: 18 place du Marche, they also have a web page!). Our selections included: wine, salad, a baguette, and Quiche Lorraine - all for 37 Euros (for two). Very picturesque, very relaxing, great food, good portions, and they had a one-at-a-time unisex restroom! They even had an English menu and the waiters spoke enough English to take our order. After wandering through Paris for another hour or so after brunch, we were able to get the Viking bus at 2 p.m. that took us from the Petite Palace to Versailles for the afternoon Versailles Palace tour.
Day 8 - Versailles: We paid 79 Euros each for the Viking-provided Versailles tour. We arrived on the Viking bus around 2:45 p.m. The Palace at Versailles was huge, and the crowds were even bigger. They told us that the gardens covered 750 acres - that's big. This place was the king's hunting lodge! The reflecting pool was a mile long - that's big. The first thing you notice is gold; gold on the gates, gold on the roof, gold on the statues, and that's before you even get into the building. Once inside past the metal detectors, there is gold on all the walls, gold on all the furniture, golden clocks, golden sculptures, golden lamps, gold on the chandeliers, gold on the ceilings, gold woven into the fabrics, and the place is littered with priceless paintings and other sculptures. No wonder the starving masses staged the French Revolution. We had timed tickets for 3 p.m. and our guide got us in the door a few minutes before 3 so we were just a little ahead of schedule. Once inside, we (again) lost 20 minutes for a potty break. Then we became part of a traveling beehive of humanity that swept us along the halls and rooms like a huge mass of logs heading down a river toward a sawmill. The camera on my battery died after 300+ pictures that day, just before we got into the Hall of Mirrors, so I had to switch to my iPhone for the remainder of the day. Our tour guide described the incredibly staggering opulence enjoyed by the king, queen and several thousand of their closest friends at Versailles while we viewed the endless rooms, chambers, halls, and a chapel that looked like a small version of the Sistine Chapel. After our guided tour ended, it was "hello gift shop", and then we had an hour or so to visit the gardens (they required a separate Viking-provided ticket). The fountains, sculptures and reflecting ponds were endless and literally breathtaking. We noticed two soldiers carrying assault rifles while we were there; the first time for that. In Paris you will see police with pistols, some on rollerblades, some on motorcycles, most in cars, but Versailles was the only place we saw assault rifles.
Day 8 - Night Tour & Eiffel Tower: The Viking bus drove us around Paris on our last night to see the Seine, and all the significant monuments, bridges, palaces and shopping districts. Then we stopped at the Eiffel Tower to disembark and watch them put on the 10-minute light show at 10 p.m. It was quite spectacular - definitely worth the trip, especially since we didn't visit the tower on our previous treks across Paris. The grounds around the tower were packed; similar to (but not as large as) people watching fireworks on the 4th of July at the Washington Monument in DC. It was a great way to end our trip before heading back to the ship to pack our suitcases.
Bottom line: Day 8 in Paris/Versailles was "very good." We finally got to see the Louvre, Versailles and the Eiffel Tower and we got to sit in a little cafe for a very nice meal and some wine. It was a very long day, but it was worth it. Too bad everything had to be crammed into one day. Day 8 was a Sunday in August, so lots of stores and cafes were closed, but enough were open to meet our needs.
12. Viewing the Seine from our Private Balcony: The boat usually travels at 15 to 20 MPH with plenty of quaint villages/towns along the way. Chalk colored cliffs lined the Seine for about 25% of the trip. Occasionally we would see rail yards and industrial areas with graffiti on the walls and bridges. We passed lots of barges and a few powerboats. We enjoyed our private time on the balcony with wine and chocolate; if you don't book a room with the veranda, the sun deck is the best option.
13. Language Issues: I confess, all I really know about the French language I learned from Pepe Le Pew cartoons as a child (smile). 95% of the time English was spoken fluently. Everyone on Rinda spoke fluent English. Most people that we met on the tours (waiters, shop keepers, cashiers, and museum staff) spoke English. Of course, the tour guides spoke fluent English. In one chocolate shop in Rouen the staff didn't speak English or they refused to but we still managed to get some samples and purchase "Tears of Joan of Arc" chocolate drops. Please note that although just about everyone speaks English, they typically have thick accents and they may not speak "American English" so you might have to ask for clarifications from time to time. We bought one of those "Learn French Fast" CD courses at Costco for $39.95 a couple of months prior to our trip, but we never got much past "Hello, goodbye, thank you very much, please, where is the toilet," and counting from one to 10; and as it turned out, we really didn't need to speak French although it was fun trying.
14. Money: Bring Euros with you; except for the airport gift shop in Iceland and gratuities on Rinda at the end of the cruise, dollars are not accepted anywhere, although credit cards seemed to work anywhere.
15. Conclusion: Now it's back to work, back to a low carb diet, and I have to download 1,000+ photos and videos from my camera and iPhone and create a DVD Slideshow for posterity. I can't wait to read your assessment of Rinda after you get back from your trip. We are not planning to book another Viking River Cruise.