Seasoned river cruisers have come to expect the best cabins on ships will have spacious balconies. So when Avalon Waterways launched its line of "suite ships" without traditional balconies – and many cruise insiders proclaimed them the best cabins in European river cruising – it seemed there was a revolution underway.
Avalon realised that river cruisers want balconies but don't want to give up the interior space to make way for one. Its 128-passenger ship Tapestry II, launched this year, is different from other European river cruise ships, with wall-to-wall sliding glass doors that open to turn the entire 18.5-square-metre Panorama Suites into open-air balconies.
The unique design also gives cruisers the option not to do turn them into open-air balconies. Remember, the weather in northern France and other parts of Europe during the shoulder seasons of March and September is often not warm enough to let the outside in – and balconies often sit empty then.
With beds positioned to face the view, the focus is on the passing scenery. And what gloriously idyllic scenery it can be.
Tapestry II sails an eight-day Paris-Paris itinerary along the Seine River, covering charming French village landscapes and landmark destinations. I scrambled to turn on the video function on my phone as we passed centuries-old stone farmhouses and docile cows chowing down on vibrant grass.
We visited Monet's gardens at Giverny, as well as the historic footsteps of Joan of Arc in Rouen, the capital of Upper Normandy. In Conflans, cruisers have the choice of following the trail of Van Gogh's last days to Auvers-sur-Oise or marvelling at the lavishly restored luxe of Napoleon and Josephine's Chateau de Malmaison.
Certainly one of the itinerary's highlights is the day spent discovering Normandy's landing beaches. Standing on the windswept sands of Omaha Beach, we listened wide-eyed and rapt as our guide described the events of June 6, 1944: D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history: an unstoppable flotilla of 5000 ships charging towards the Germans who had been occupying Normandy. At least 10,000 Allied casualties in one day. A battle that would last 80 days, claim 425,000 lives and ultimately give France its freedom. History is very much alive and tangible in this part of the world, with many original beach obstacles and blockades remaining. At Pointe du Hoc we saw bomb craters the size of houses and steep cliffs covered in barbed wire that had once been scaled by soldiers. Many bunkers remain, and visitors are invited to climb inside and imagine the experience of soldiers from both sides of the war.
It's a long day, leaving by coach from the port of Caudebec early in the morning and returning just in time for dinner, but well worth the effort for the unforgettable insight. As we watched local children playing on the beaches where blood had once spilled, our guide Barbara tells us: "This freedom is what they fought for; I'm very happy to be here and to say thank you to all of you, our allies."
Avalon handles shore excursions seamlessly. Multilingual guides, such as Barbara, are carefully selected for their expert local knowledge. The "local favourites" program is a hallmark of the Avalon offering: authentic experiences in each destination that go beyond what is normally available to independent tourists. Forget a standard group outing to the Louvre; on a daytrip to Chateau de Bizy, near Giverny, we were welcomed by the nonagenarian lady of the manor, a descendant of the Bonapartes. In preparation for our day at the Normandy beaches, we were briefed by one of France's foremost WWII scholars.
This was my first taste of river cruising and it won't be my last. With fewer than 200 passengers, there's a relaxed ease to getting on and off the ship, a manageable line at the breakfast buffet (and no competition for the Vegemite jar) and never a crowd on the sun deck.
Personalised, attentive service from the cruise director and operations staff make every guest feel like a VIP, while the luxury inclusions of the ship and the spacious cabins are a pleasant indulgence. Meandering along Europe's waterways, close enough to practically peek into the windows of riverfront homes is a delightful way to enjoy historic villages so far from the reach of an ocean cruise.
River cruise ships launching this season
According to www.cruisecritic.com.au, the 2015 European summer season is the biggest yet for river cruising, with at least 30 new ships set to launch.
Here's five to look out for:
Scenic Jasper (Scenic Tours): Australian-owned Scenic cruise line will be increasing its fleet in Europe to 10 with the launch of two ships this summer. Expect a vitality pool and spacious sun deck on Scenic Jasper (and her new sister, Scenic Opal), which will be sailing on the Rhine River.
Viking Eir (Viking River Cruises): Viking launches a whopping dozen new ships in central Europe this year, with Viking Eir part of the Longship-class fleet. Carrying 190 passengers, there will be five classes of cabins, including two-room suites.
SS Maria Theresa (Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection): Deployed to cruise the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, the SS Maria Theresa carries 159 passengers in 80 luxurious cabins. The Royal Suite impresses at almost 40 square metres.
Tauck Esprit (Tauck River Cruising): Tauck's latest Jewel-class ship will sail on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers from March 2015. Most of its cabins feature floor-to-ceiling windows.
Camargue (CroisiEurope): With Camargue, CroisiEurope has made the decision to provide fewer cabins and more spacious public areas. Carrying up to 148 passengers in 76 cabins, all Camargue's staterooms have floor-to-ceiling windows.
Several airlines fly daily from Australia to Paris via Asia and the Middle East, including Qatar Airways, which flies daily from Melbourne and Perth to Paris CDG via Doha. Return Economy fares start at $1450. Phone 1300 340 600, see www.qatarairways.com/au.
Avalon Tapestry II marks the debut of Avalon Waterways' Suite Ship concept in France. Launched in time for the 2015 summer sailing season, the ship will sail eight-day itineraries along the Seine River from Paris to Normandy's landing beaches. Prices for an eight-day cruise start at $3314 per person, twin share, based on an October 31 departure in a deluxe stateroom. Panorama suites from $4390 per person twin share. Phone 1300 230 234, see www.avalonwaterways.com.au.
The writer was a guest of Avalon Waterways on Tapestry II's inaugural launch cruise.