Is Benedictine really a secret elixir originally created by a 16th century monk? Or was Alexandre Le Grand, the wine merchant who started producing the golden liqueur in the mid-1800s, just a shrewd businessman pulling a fast one?
No matter. The mystery shrouding Benedictine ensured the success of the after-dinner drink. We’re intrigued. And we get to tour the Benedictine Palace, which Le Grand built, in grand style.
We’re sailing with the Scenic cruise line along the Seine River on the Scenic Gem.
Scenic River Cruises, France
Ask around about the most deluxe river cruises in Europe – and you’ll hear Scenic Cruises, an Australian company, often touted as the creme de la creme. (Scroll down to the end of this post to discover what it’s like to travel with the Scenic cruise line.)
The company offers several Scenic river cruises in France – on the Seine River in Normandy and in Bordeaux on the Garonne, Dordogne and Gironde Rivers. Ours is a 10-night Seine River cruise.
In the town of Fecamp, Scenic has organized a special dinner ashore at the Benedictine Palace for guests sailing on the Scenic Gem cruise ship.
And so, dressed up and champagne glasses in hand, we wander through the palace rooms with its flamboyant arches and stained glass windows. A trio of classical musicians plays in the background. After admiring Le Grand’s collection of historic books and art, we dine in a chandelier-lit hall on lobster, duck pate and lamb charlotte – followed by generous pourings of Benedictine, of course.
All of Scenic’s river cruises include an added special “enrich” experience like this, not offered on similar cruises by other lines. But really, so many of our activities are memorable in their own way that it’s hard to flag our dinner at the Palace as the “premier” experience.
Exploring the Seine with Scenic cruise Line
Our Scenic Gem river cruise starts in Paris (where there are many more non-touristy things to do beyond the Eiffel Tower).
We cruise to the Normandy coast and back, past chalk cliffs and gently rolling banks of green, squeezing through several locks.
Along the way, we stop to see centuries-old castles and cathedrals, blooming gardens, artist studios and off-the-beaten-path museums – the sights and scenery reminding us that the Seine valley is the cradle of Gothic France as well as the birthplace of Impressionism.
Bicycling to the Victor Hugo Museum
We perhaps have the most fun on the e-bikes (the river ship has 25 well-maintained electric bicycles onboard).
At Caudebec-en-Caux, we join the guided bike ride to the Victor Hugo Museum in the pretty hamlet of Villequier. Our short ride is easy, thanks partly to the flat new Seine Valley Cycle Route, which runs some 75 miles alongside the Seine River.
The museum was once the family holiday home of a wealthy ship-owner whose son married Victor Hugo’s daughter, Leopoldine. Tragically, Leopoldine and her husband drowned in a sailing accident nearby on the Seine, shortly after their wedding.
Today, the rooms of the house – decorated in period furnishings – contain letters, photographs and manuscripts illustrating the lives of the famous French writer, the doomed young couple and other family members.
And who is that lovely young woman with the come-hither eyes? Ah, that’s Hugo’s mistress, his lover for 50 years.
After visiting the elegant riverside museum, we leave the group and continue pedaling on the river path. We push the e-boost on the bikes to the max, laughing as we ride faster than we’ve ever bicycled before – until hunger drives us back to the ship for a barbeque lunch on deck.
Visiting Claude Monet’s house and gardens
In Vernon, we cycle again. But this time we’re on our own.
Aussies, who make up about half of Scenic’s passengers, are intrepid travellers, we learn. They like having the flexibility to explore independently. So Scenic has these nifty personal audio devices with pre-programmed walks and maps to use if you don’t feel like joining a guided tour. For our ride from Vernon, the tour director also hands out printed maps for those of us who still like the feel of paper between our fingers.
So, under bluebird skies and with summer-like temps (in October, no less!), we risk sunburn and find the riverside path to Claude Monet’s home and gardens in Giverny.
Monet spotted the pink stucco house with its jaunty green shutters while traveling on a train – and immediately fell in love with it. For forty years until his death in 1926, he lived and worked here, capturing the region’s ever-changing light and soft scenes on dozens of canvasses. His water garden is especially enchanting; the light dances on his celebrated lily pond, which inspired his series of masterpiece paintings on water lilies.
Inside, his blue sitting-room has been restored as it was, along with the cozy yellow and cornflower-blue country kitchen where he dined with his eight children and Alice, his mistress-cum-second wife.
His flower gardens are glorious to stroll through too.
“I must have flowers, always, and always,” Monet once said. We walk between rows and rows of trailing orange nasturtiums, neon-colored dahlias and roses.
Alas, throngs of other visitors are also out and about today. Unlike the Victor Hugo Museum, which we had all to ourselves, we have to patiently wait our turn for the best picture spots in the gardens and as we go through the rooms of the house.
Learning about D-Day on Normandy’s beaches
It’s impossible to talk about Normandy without mention of the D-Day beaches. The epic events of the WWII Allied landing on June 6, 1944 to liberate occupied Europe are an integral part of the psyche of Normandy. Full-day tours to the landing beaches are offered on this Scenic Gem cruise.
The morning is devoted to the D-Day Museum in Arromanches. We watch a grainy black-and-white film about how massive modular harbour sections were built in England and floated across the English Channel to create the port for delivering troops and supplies.
Outside, concrete remnants poke up through the sea. German bunker ruins also still dot the long wide stretch of golden beach. They’re in stark contrast to the cheerful beach windkarts (or sand yachts) – basically tricycles attached to huge sails – awaiting present-day riders to whiz along the hard-packed sand.
The afternoon includes the option to visit Juno Beach, where the Canadians landed. (The other option is to visit Omaha Beach, where the Americans landed.)
Normandy cows, cream, cheese and more…
Our river cruise on the Scenic Gem takes in many more sights and activities.
There’s the impossibly picturesque seaside town of Honfleur with its half-timbered homes, cobbled alleyways and patisseries filled with tempting meringues and macarons. And the sunset visit to an organic manor-farm for cider and Calvados tastings, accompanied by local creamy cheeses. And the vast gardens laid out behind the palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte (on which Versailles was modeled) and the posh seaside resort of Deauville.
And we can’t forget the storybook Chateau de Chantilly! It houses the second largest collection of antique paintings after the Louvre (must see: two exquisite works by Rafael, the Italian renaissance artist).
Everywhere the Seine flows in Normandy, it paints picture-perfect scenes that belie the region’s rich and turbulent history.
And in Paris, which book-ends this cruise, swans gliding unruffled on the river add an air of serenity to this vibrant city of ineffable charm.
Scenic River Cruises review:
River cruises are different than ocean cruises. If you’re new to river cruising, read our post on why people love river cruising.
Scenic “space ships”:
Scenic Cruises has a fleet of 16 river ships plying the waterways in Europe and Asia. Dubbed “space ships” because of the large public areas, the ultra-modern ships come with lots of bells and whistles – like showers with multiple jets (get a back massage while lathering up). Most cabins have glass balconies that cleverly turn into enclosed sun rooms at the touch of a button.
Scenic Gem cruise ship:
Our ship, the 128-passenger Scenic Gem cruise ship, was designed specifically to sail on the Seine River, with the ability to dock in Honfleur.
It’s the most spacious of the Seine River ships.
Scenic Cruises is known for their super-inclusive rates. Virtually everything is included in the rates – all excursions, cocktails and premium wines (French on our cruise), dinner in the specialty restaurant, mini-bar restocked daily, tipping, even one bag of complimentary laundry. All guests have butlers too.
Scenic prides itself on offering special “enrich” experiences (like the Benedictine Palace feast on our Scenic Gem river cruise in France). Each cruise itinerary includes at least one. Some other “enrich” examples: A guided champagne tour of Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official home in Scotland; meeting a real cosmonaut and learning about the history of space exploration in Moscow; and sharing a traditional meal with a local family in their home in the Black Sea.
Luxury is in the details:
Scenic doesn’t flaunt its stuff. Friends who also recently sailed with the Scenic cruise line (but on the Danube) thought their ship didn’t look as “luxurious” as other river ships they saw. (Because ships sometimes have to tie up side-by-side at the same docking station, you might have to walk through other ships to get onshore, getting a peek at the competition.)
And it’s true. There’s no gilt or glitz to be seen on the Scenic Gem cruise ship. The décor is simple and clean. Very minimalist, in fact. We’d call it “spare luxury.” But you’ll find strong mini-reading lights above the bed, umbrellas and walking sticks in the closet, a spacious glass shower that’s easy to step into and loads of lovely L’Occitane toiletries.
Premium drinks and cocktails are also available whenever you want. One of our favorites was the “Breakfast Martini” with vodka, Grand Marnier, orange marmalade and lime juice – but we didn’t really drink it at breakfast! Quicksilver service is right at your fingertips too. The food is excellent. And it’s a luxury not to have any ship announcements (if you don’t show up for your tour, it’s assumed you’ve decided not to go).
For more information on the Scenic cruise line:
Visit Scenic’s website.
What to pack?
Don’t stress. To dress like a European, see this packing guide for Europe.
All photos are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except lead photo and where noted)
Our newspaper travel article on this Scenic Gem cruise
We first wrote about our river cruise in the North Shore News (click here to see a PDF of our article).
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