Viking Cruises wants to sail the Seine from Paris to Le Havre
Pont Grenelle - the Paris river boat dock
A cruise on the River Seine, a large and vital river flowing through Paris and beyond to Normandy, is a fantastic experience. Today is it possible for riverboats to cruise from Paris downstream to the city of Rouen, the site of the demise of Joan of Arc. But according to current law river boats are not allowed to sail beyond Rouen, which is still 75 miles from the coast of the English Channel.
But Viking River Cruises is currently petitioning the French Government to reconsider some of the Seine River navigation regulations. If the changes are enacted we could see Seine River cruises that go all the way from Paris to Le Havre, on the Atlantic coast.
The Current Limitations
Today, Seine riverboats are limited in to 110 meters length, where they to exchange passengers at the Pont de Grenelle, about ½ mile upstream from the Eiffel Tower. But Viking River Cruises is prompting the French government to allow larger river boats, up to 135 meters in length, into Paris. With luck, these same vessels will also be considered large enough to cruise all the way from Paris to Le Havre, the main port of call at the mouth of the Seine River. If the regulations can be changed then Viking River is planning to build at least five new vessels "to spec" at the St. Nazaire STX shipyards near Nantes, France. The regulatory decision is scheduled to be made in September, 2014.
The French government has some incentive. Viking Cruises just announced that it is building two new 970 passengers ocean-going cruise ships, and the order was originally negotiated with the same French shipyard, but the deal for financing fell through so the order was transferred to the Fincantieri shipyards in Italy.
What the New Regulations Could Mean
Rouen, where the riverboats are currently required to turn back towards Paris, is an attractive and historic French city, but not as beautiful as the historic fishing village of Honfleur on the Atlantic coast just across the Seine river from Le Havre.
Typically the 110-meters maximum river boats dock for two nights when they reach Rouen. The first day they tour the city - seeing the historic district and the church devoted Joan de Arc. The next day a motor coach drives the guests some 100 miles, roundtrip to Honfleur and then makes a brief visit to Le Havre. The second day a similar but longer coach ride is taken to the Normandy Beaches and the Normandy American Cemetery where almost 10,000 American soldiers are buried; men who died helping to save France during World War II. In the evening hours of the second day the boat finally begins the upstream return trip to Paris.
The new regulations could allow one vessel to make the entire trip from Paris to Le Havre; providing tourists with the opportunity to spend more time in both the historic Normandy Beaches area, and in Paris.
The Pending Deal
That right to legally navigate the entire Seine River is what Viking River hopes to accomplish. If approved, the company will built five new vessels of 135 meters in length at the French STX shipyard in St. Nazaire, France. Three vessels would sail on the Seine, the fourth would go to the Rhone River (which flows from the Paris region southerly towards the Mediterranean) and the fifth would sail the Garonne River, which flows from Toulouse, close to the Spanish Pyrenees, to Bordeaux and beyond to the Atlantic ocean.
In addition to the promise to use French shipyards to build the five new vessels, Viking River would also agree to move two pontoons on the River Seine in downtown Paris to create a space on the river wide enough for a vessel of 135 meters to turn around just downstream of Pont de Grenelle, the the river boat docking location about ½ mile upstream from the Eiffel Tower.
The necessary regulatory changes for vessels to sail on the Seine within the city limits of Paris are already clear, but what is needed for the new vessels to qualify as "ocean-going" vessels, legally allowed to navigate the lower regions of the Seine River, are not so clear. There are many factors including possible changes to the definition of "ocean going" vessel, or to the description of the river below Rouen.
While the upper Seine is a very tame river - with only 80 feet in elevation between Paris and Le Havre - the lower Seine is subject to the extreme tidal changes of the English Channel - and so navigating this region requires very specific knowledge.
The Attraction of the Plan
Seine River cruises are popular, but not as popular as cruises on the Danube, most likely because of the restriction forcing boats to stop at Rouen. However, I have already taken this cruise (my cruise was on Uniworld) and even with the limitations it is already a truly grand experience.
While all of the details of the cruises Viking River may be planning if the French agree to this change have not yet been revealed, it appears likely they would make Seine River cruises more popular than ever.
If the vessels can operate one way between Le Havre and Paris, instead of sailing roundtrip Paris, guests would have more time to see the sights along the way such as the infamous Monet Gardens with Arles, where Vincent van Gogh spent his final days and created some of his most famous paintings.