The Scenic Gem on the Seine river, France.
The Scenic Gem on the Seine river, France.

Cruise the French countryside with your own butler

THE first time I went to France it seemed like a good idea to hire a car and drive it from a friend's place in Germany through to Paris. There was a lot of swearing. We got lost. We struggled to understand directions and there were several near-death experiences. By the time we made it to our hotel my nerves were shot. The car did not move an inch for the entire time we were in Paris.

So when the opportunity came up to explore the French countryside from a relaxed base on the five-star Scenic Gem (no driving required), I was thrilled. It's a spectacular ship offering the ultimate in luxury. Yes, you get your own butler. Yes, you can drink that 12-year-old single malt scotch or expensive champagne. And yes, it's all included in the cost. Every single meal. Every single drink. Every single expedition and tour.

You certainly won't go hungry or thirsty. In fact, I think the food is a highlight on the 11-day Gems of the Seine cruise. Each guest can dine once in the fancy L'Amour restaurant - a six-course extravaganza.

Taking in the beautiful scenery from your balcony room is pretty special. But don't stay on board the whole time, because there are plenty of carefully thought-out tours of the Normandy region and its villages. We visited historically important sites such as Rouen, where Joan of Arc was killed, along with the Somme battlefields and the D-Day landing sites.

I knew that visiting these areas would be emotional, but it's impossible to be prepared. The sheer scale of the loss of human life is hard to explain. There are thousands and thousands of white crosses - at farms, official cemeteries and memorials. People in nearby villages still live with the after-effects of the wars on a daily basis.

Our guide told us that shells and unexploded mines are found all the time and, during recent renovations to his tea house, he came across the remains of five soldiers. German bunkers can still be seen hidden in the hills across from Omaha Beach. At Arromanches you can see what's left of the constructed harbour which was built in secrecy in Britain and towed across the English Channel in 1944. It played a vital role in supporting Allied troops after D-Day.

But if guided tours aren't your thing you can explore the towns on your own. I loved wandering in Monet's gardens in Givenchy, the inspiration for his famous water lily paintings, and the opulent Versailles palace, with its golden gates and the hall of mirrors. We also dined in a castle while classical musicians played, visited award-winning cider farms and watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle from the deck of the ship.

Normandy put on good weather and we docked in the coastal town of Honfleur, where fishermen sell fresh seafood on the street and shops and restaurants have nautical themes. One of the other stand-outs on the Scenic cruise was the staff. These are people with a knack for making their guests laugh and for satisfying every whim. When you get off the plane you're greeted at the airport and you don't have another thing to worry about.

A massage? Why, of course, my lady. Another glass of sauvignon blanc? Coming right up. Tea? Coffee? A haircut? More drinks in your mini bar? Done.

Cruise director Benjamin Frances is a man who loves his job. He tells jokes and he likes to hug.

"I do just truly, truly love people," he tells me.

"I want my crew to be happy. I want my guests to be happy. I want everyone on my ship to know me as a human being.''



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