The Seine River has a lot going for it, not least of which is the fact that it traverses right through the heart of one of the most famous cities in Europe.
And for river cruise lines that offer the Seine as one of their itineraries — and there are a growing number that do — that means a pretty great parking spot right in the center of Paris.
This year, Avalon Waterways became the latest river cruise line to launch a vessel on the Seine, having introduced the 128-passenger Avalon Tapestry II on the iconic waterway in March. It came on the heels of Scenic (formerly known as Scenic Cruises) christening the 128-passenger Scenic Gem on the Seine last year and Tauck repositioning its 118-passenger Swiss Sapphire there last year, as well. Looking ahead, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has plans to debut an additional vessel on the Seine in 2017.
And there is plenty of existing inventory on the Seine. Viking River Cruises sails three vessels on the river, the Viking Neptune, Spirit and Pride; AmaWaterways has its 150-passenger AmaLegro there; Uniworld's 118-passenger River Baroness plies the Seine; Avalon sails its 140-passenger Creativity there; and CroisiEurope has four vessels on the Seine.
Having been to Paris countless times, I was curious how experiencing it from the river would compare. Last month, I visited Paris from the vantage point of two very different Seine vessels: Avalon's newly minted Tapestry II and CroisiEurope's 24-passenger barge, the Raymonde.
Chef Jean-Jacques Tranchant of Le Cordon Bleu shows Avalon Waterways guests how to make macarons. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran
When visiting a city such as Paris, the location of your hotel, or in this case your floating hotel, is key. Conveniently, most of the river cruise vessels on the Seine dock just south of the Eiffel Tower, near the Pont de Grenelle, which is known for featuring the much smaller but otherwise identical version of the Statue of Liberty. Not only is the location well suited for getting around, but passengers will likely be pleasantly surprised (and super shutter-happy) when they see the impressive view of the Eiffel Tower from the sun deck of their river cruise ship.
This area is in Paris' 15th arrondissement, which like much of Paris connects easily to the rest of the city via the Metro subway line. In addition to the Eiffel Tower, the port is not far from the famous shopping boulevard the Champs-Elysees.
Bunking on the CroisiEurope canal barge Raymonde was a totally different experience from being on the Seine in one of the larger river cruise vessels. The Raymonde docks on the Canal Saint-Martin, in Paris' 10th arrondissement, near the Gare du Nord train station in the northern part of town. This is a nontouristy and a quite hip and up-and-coming neighborhood. If iconic Paris views are what passengers want, they won't find them tucked away into the cozy 10th. But if neighborhood charm is a preference, there is no shortage of it along the canals.
When the Raymonde sails the Canal Saint-Martin, it creates a mini-spectacle as it passes through several locks en route to the Seine. Locals and tourists alike gather along the walking bridges above the canal to watch as the locks fill with or release water to lift or lower the barge. Another curiosity is the vaulted tunnel that the canal passes through between Place de la Bastille and Place de la Republique.
And then, the grand finale is being able to sail the Seine itself right through and past some of the city's best-known monuments. An evening dinner cruise aboard the Raymonde provided a beautifully lit Paris backdrop to a tasty dinner and wine.
Tackling Paris as a visitor can be a daunting task. This is where the tour operating abilities of each individual river cruise line can really make a difference. Most river cruise lines, Avalon and CroisiEurope included, will offer a full- or half-day sightseeing tour of the city to help passengers get their bearings. These tours can be a great starting point for Paris rookies and return visitors alike, giving them the opportunity to see and snap many of the city's most notable landmarks.
From there, exploring Paris is really about each individual's tastes and interests. As a greater number of river cruise lines add capacity in the city, they are each hoping to differentiate their product by better catering to those tastes and interests with distinctive excursions, focusing on the arts, culture and other special interests.
Case in point, last month I experienced a side of Paris I had never thought to really delve into before, that of the city's rich history in culinary education. I attended a new optional excursion Avalon Waterways was testing: a cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu. The class was led by French chef Jean-Jacques Tranchant, who taught us how to make caramel macarons. Participants had a complete blast, despite some of our culinary shortcomings (a certain Travel Weekly editor who shall not be named may have burned her caramel filling), and we executed some delicious macarons. Avalon executives left the encounter feeling confident that Le Cordon Bleu would be added to Avalon's Paris offerings — yet another way to see Paris from the Seine.