A cruise down the Seine proves far from sedate for Richard Tulloch.
Now it's over, I don't mind telling you. That was my first time. I've travelled on rivers by kayak, canoe, white-water raft and once, in an hour of madness, on an inflated tyre tube, but that was my maiden voyage on a cruise ship.
You see, when I travel I like to be active, to challenge myself, to meet adventurous people and learn new things about the world.
I thought cruises were for lazy types who lounged in deckchairs, sipping cocktails. I was wrong.
On Viking's Paris and the Heart of Normandy trip, body and mind were kept constantly busy. It was like taking short Paris-Sorbonne University courses in art and history, with extracurricular classes from crew and fellow passengers on camembert, qigong exercise, river locks, cha-cha-cha, American politics and how to impart spin to a tenpin bowling ball.
Attractions packed into eight days on the Seine were the Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa, Notre Dame, the Palace of Versailles, Monet's garden at Giverny, the Bayeux Tapestry and the D-Day beaches, as well as numerous churches, castles and attractive French villages.
Whenever on shore, we walked brisk kilometres following people holding up lollipops, trying to keep up with the group and our tour guides' lectures, while still taking time to examine altarpieces, poppy fields, river barges, half-timbered houses and pyramids of macaroons in patisserie windows. Some of us took notes; all of us took photos.
My fellow passengers came from the US, Britain, Canada and Australia.
"We all have two things in common," the lady from Florida said. "The English language and grey hair." Yes, most of us were the wrong side of 60, appreciating the comfortable cabins and stylish dining, but what had attracted us to this particular cruise was the intensive hit of French culture and history.
The deckchair/cocktail option was available to those who needed some downtime, but there were sometimes hard choices to make from the smorgasbord of travel experiences on offer. Should we opt for Omaha Beach or the Bayeux Tapestry? Would we prefer the grandeur of the Palace of Versailles to the village charm of Conflans?
As we docked at Paris, Vernon, Rouen and Conflans, we were met by guides who knew their stuff and how to tell it.
Patricia's lecture on impressionism, straight after our visit to Monet's garden, was a standout. So, too, was Anne-Marie's clear and moving explanation of Hitler's rise to power and her family's situation during the occupation of France, delivered as a bus carried us towards the Normandy beaches. And there's no substitute for learning history in the place where it happened.
In Rouen, we stood in the square where the unfortunate Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake, and found Richard the Lionheart and his Viking ancestor Rollo lying in the cathedral.
At the American memorial near Omaha Beach we held a short ceremony; then we each laid a rose on a young man's grave. Sailing on the Viking Spirit was relatively relaxed and intimate, according to the experienced cruisers among my shipmates.
Four ladies who met on a Viking cruise in 2006 have travelled together every year since. You get to know people better on a small river boat than on an ocean liner, they said.
There is no getting round the fact that this is group travel, however, which can't satisfy all of the people all of the time.
While some of us had been to France before, others were on their first tour to Europe, so naturally we had to "do" the highlights.
"Don't be rude, but be French," our guide advised as we elbowed our way through the Louvre crowds to glimpse Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. There was little time to explore the less popular rooms hung with less famous, though hardly less fabulous, works. To do that, we'd have to go back at a later date.
While every day was full, simply watching the countryside slip past the cabin window was entertainment enough. The Seine is relatively narrow, so we passed very close to villages and houses.
As evening fell on our last day, we glided back into Paris and our thanks to our on-board staff were sincere.
Led by the French captain, David, the German hotel manager, Dirk, and the British program director, Sharon, they, too, had been excellent travel companions.
It was a very full week. I met interesting people, learned new things about the world and had my preconceptions challenged.
I've done a cruise.
And now I'm home, ready to lounge in a deckchair with a cocktail.
Air France flies from Sydney to Paris from $2136. travel.com.au.
Viking River Cruises' eight-day Paris and the Heart of Normandy trip operates from March to December and costs from $2745.
1800 829 138, vikingrivercruises.com.au .