Luxury Travel Review

Private guided tour of Fontainebleau made visit to former royal castle interesting, fun

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Fontainebleau Castle from the gate

Fontainebleau Castle from the gate

During a spring trip to Paris, France we visited the nearby town of Fontainebleau, in the Seine-et-Marne Department ( and, known for its former royal residence and forest. There was too much to see in one day so we spent the night at La Demeure du Parc, a boutique hotel established in late 2015 that was conveniently located within easy walking distance from Fontainebleau Castle.


During our tour we walked past one of the water fountains named for Diana

Since our time was short and it was our first visit to the area we took advantage of the opportunity of a guided tour in English. We met Véronique Villalba (, our licensed guide, at 10 a.m. in front of the castle for Les Grands Appartements Tour, a private two-hour visit of Fontainebleau. A graduate of the University of Nanterre specializing in art history she had 10 years of experience as a guide. It was her friendly demeanor and passion for history that brought the former castle stories to life and made our morning activity memorable.

The internal architecture varies by time period of construction

The interior design varied according to the time period of construction.

When I asked her why the historic attraction was special she explained that it was the sole castle that housed French kings for more than eight centuries (taking into account an interruption due to the Hundred Years' War). In contrast, she explained, Versailles only served that purpose for four centuries and the Louvre had only become a royal home 650 years earlier.

The castle retains period furniture

One of the characteristics worth noting was that the castle retained period furniture

Fontainebleau Castle, established circa 1137, was large. The fortified complex occupied 46,500 square meters of space in 13 floors, which included 1,536 rooms. Of those, 6,000 square meters were open to the public. It had 130 hectares of parks and gardens with 42,500 plants, and employed 135 staff. Despite the chilly and rainy weather we encountered it was by no means devoid of visitors. On the plus side, with only 470,000 visitors in 2015 it was a much more serene attraction than the Louvre or Versailles, both of which had millions of visitors a year each.

Grand Salon de lImperatrice

The Grand Salon de l'Imperatrice

The attraction itself was made up of a hodgepodge of buildings, improved and modified on the whims and budget strings of its powerful owners over the years. Despite our brief visit we toured interior and exterior areas. That the interior rooms were frequently furnished with original pieces, she explained, lent the castle a notable ambiance absent in other castles and palaces where the furniture and art had been sold years earlier.


The Chapelle de la Trinité

We visited the Royal apartments, Renaissance Rooms, one of Marie Antoinette's Boudoirs, Francis I Gallery, Galerie de Diane, Chapel of the Trinity, Chapelle basse Saint-Saturnin (only the upper level). We saw many of the masterpieces: The Duke of Orléans Commemorative Wedding Cabinet, Charlemagne in the Guise of Henry IV (in the Chapelle de la Trinité), The Royal Elephant (in the Galerie François Ier), Alexander Taming Bucephalus (in the Galerie François Ier), Odyssey Cabinet (in the Ancienne Chambre de la Reine), Beneman Commode (in la Nouvelle Chambre de la Reine), Marie Antoinette’s Bed, Napoleon’s Throne. Outside we walked through or caught a glimpse of its gardens and courtyards (sometimes from a distance): Cour Ovale, Cour de la Fontaine Cour d’Honneur, Cour des Offices, Grand Parterre (created by André Le Nôtre and Louis Le Vau and said to be Louis XIV’s greatest architectural achievement at Fontainebleau), Jardin Anglais, Jardin de Diane, Grotte des Pins, Pavillion de l’Étang, and Park. Should I return to Fontainebleau I would enjoy another visit to the castle, especially in the company of Véronique Villalba, for further discovery and leisurely exploration, including time in its gardens if the weather is clear.

Steps away from Notre Dame, a quiet foodie haven

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

The front of Atelier Marie Albert

The front of Atelier Maitre Albert Restaurant avec Guy Savoy

Despite its reputation as a culinary capital Paris, France is one of those cities where picking a restaurant at random may result in a memorable find or a disaster, and the price difference might be negligible. The more touristy the area the greater the chances of disappointment, so as a general rule I make a point of not going to unfamiliar restaurants in zones popular among visitors, especially in the vicinity of tourist magnets such as the Latin Quarter, Le Marais, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysees, and Eiffel Tower, for example.

Some light bites as amuse bouche

Our light bites as amouse bouche

One way to reduce the chances of a less than stellar expensive meal is to sample restaurants owned by or part of the portfolio of a well known chef. This has been particularly true when I have sampled the cuisine at one of the restaurants already. Such was the case of the Atelier Maître Albert (1, rue Maître Albert, 75005 Paris, France, + 33 1 56 81 30 01, fax +33 1 53 10 83 23,,, part of the Guy Savoy food constellation. Prior to going there I had dined at Guy Savoy's eponymous gourmet restaurant as well as Les Bouquinistes (see Latin Quarter restaurant nice neighborhood option) and Le Chiberta (see Le Chiberta, a restaurant find near the Champs Elysees), and had sampled the products of his new bakery outlet specializing in brioche. Most of those experiences had been rewarding so I was confident my meal at the Atelier Maitre Albert would also be worthwhile.

The menu is posted outside

The menu was posted outside

Located at the beginning of a narrow street in the Left Bank across the Seine River from the famous Notre Dame Cathedral the restaurant was a pleasant surprise because while I had walked the neighborhood countless times I had no idea the restaurant was on that street, a 10 minute walk from my central accommodations. Except for the famed chef's name on the exterior wall, the modern facade revealed little of the restaurant's ambiance or its high quality comfort food.

Our seats were next to the huge fireplace

Our seats were next to a large fireplace

As soon as we entered a young man with hip bleached blond hair welcomed us warmly. Moments later, after handing over our rain gear, we were seated in armless chairs next to the unlit fireplace in the restaurant's ground floor dining room. From our seats we had a generous view of the entire dining area and across to the open kitchen and its grills. There was also window side dining near the entrance with views of the street.

Paintings from the old Guy Savoy restaurant

Paintings from the old Guy Savoy restaurant hung at Atelier Marie Albert

It took a few moments for our eyes to adjust from the bright midday exterior sunlight to the low ambient light indoors. The first decorative features we noticed were the familiar colorful clown themed paintings hanging on the back wall. Previous to that day we had last seen them at the Guy Savoy main restaurant. Since the restaurant had moved nearby and been redecorated the paintings had been transferred to their new home. Other salient decorative features were sleet gray marble tile, exposed beams, stone walls and track lights. It was pleasantly serene without being too quiet.

Soup and brioch from Guy Savoy bakeries

Artichoke soup and brioche from the Guy Savoy bakery

With our friendly English speaking waiter's help we made our selections from the menu including a glass of wine to match our choices. We both had the Velouté de l'Atelier "en verseurse," a light artichoke soup brought to the table in a pitcher and served with brioche. It reminded me of a similar soup I had tasted at the chef's gourmet restaurant. For mains, my lunch partner had the Volaille fermiére du Maine (a quarter chicken portion) for one, a free range spit-roasted fowl dish with a side of mashed potatoes. He ordered a light white from the Pays d'Oc on our server's advice.

Special ribs cut from the bone

Special ribs still on the bone

The pork ribs deboned and sliced

At my request the chef served the pork ribs deboned and sliced

I had Travers de porc "marinés," marinated pork ribs and a side of Gratin d'épinards champignons (mushroom and spinach gratin). The gratin was a favorite. Both mains were moist and tender with a broth like flavorful sauce. At my request, the kitchen staff had removed the bone from my ribs so they were ready to eat when they were served, although the server was kind enough to show us the ribs before they were deboned. I had a red from Bordeaux. For dessert, I had the Choco pralin-feuilleté, anglais-chicoré, two slabs of dark chocolate and crispy praline with a small dark chocolate ice cream ball.

The chicken was served with juice

The chicken was served with a broth like sauce

The chocolate dessert

The chocolate dessert

Overall, our comfort food style lunch experience was outstanding. Kudos to Guy Savoy and his collaborators Emmanuel Monsailler, chef, and Laurent Jacquet, manager and their staff. From the soup and salami amouse bouche to the dessert we enjoyed all our courses. The dishes were perfectly prepared and worth repeating. The service was attentive, helpful and friendly. As a bonus, the restaurant was in a central location and convenient to visitors and residents within and near the Latin Quarter. What more could we ask from a neighborhood restaurant?

Our weekend stay at Black Forest lake front hotel with spa

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

The Treschers Swarzvald Hotel

The Treschers Schwarzwald Romantic Hotel

While visiting the Black Forest Highlands of southwest Germany we spent two spring weekend nights at the popular Treschers Schwarzwald Romantic Hotel, part of the Romantic Hotel Group since 2002. The hotel was on the shores of Lake Titisee in the tourist village of Titisee-Neustad 850 meters above sea level. The main highlight of our lakefront Four Star Superior accommodations, 38 kilometers from Freiburg, was the lake view. We could catch a glimpse of the natural lake from the restaurant dining room, our 27 square meter Classic Double rooms and Titinova, the pool and sauna areas on the opposite side of the hotel.

The weather was cloudy and rainy

The weather was cloudy and rainy during most of our stay

Viewing the hotel from the lake

A view of the hotel from Lake Titisee

We experienced rainy and chilly weather for virtually our entire stay. From the sunny blue sky we saw briefly one afternoon to the thunderstorm that serenaded us at dinner and the gray fog enveloping the lake the morning of our departure the lake drew my eyes whenever I was near a window. I loved the lake greenery. Lake Titisee, our tour guide explained, was free from over development, and thanks to a ban on motorboats (only rowboats and electric boats were permitted), especially clean. One of my favorite moments was Saturday night, when from the comfort of my balcony, I watched a short fireworks display from a boat in front of the hotel, part of a wedding celebration taking place onsite.

The standard room had a view of the lake

Our Classic Double Rooms had a small balcony and a view of the lake


Marion Moninger, marketing manager, and Michael Moninger, hotel manager

The family hotel, the Hansjörg Trescher Michael Moninger families owned the property, was established in 1887. Although pets were not allowed, children of all ages were welcome. There were many families with well behaved children during our stay. There was a collection of valuable mechanical clocks in the lobby and lounge. I appreciated that some of the reception desk and restaurant staff spoke English. Many staff members were friendly and service oriented, especially our servers, such as Maike, at dinner.

The bathroom was nearly the size of the bedroom

The bathrooms were modern

To reach our rooms, 109 and 119, from the reception and lobby we had to pass through an open style restaurant facing the lake. It was there that we had the buffet breakfast between 7 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. a la carte dinner between 6:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. Lingering food odors, some of them stale, assaulted my nose as soon as we approached the restaurant entrance. The pungent food smells in the main building and restaurant hung in the air at all hours, reaching into the hallways and rooms of our building. It was unpleasant and disappointing, making it challenging to enjoy our time at the property.

The spa featured water pools of varying temperatures

The sauna's central area

The hot salt sauna was a favorite

The Himalayan Salt Sauna was a favorite

Hotel facilities included three restaurants (two open during our stay) that emphasized fresh seasonal products and sourced most produce locally, according to a property spokesperson. There were also: Flaschlehimmel piano lounge, fireplace bar, terrace overlooking the lake, Bellezza Beauty Spa, 72 square meter fitness room (with eight Life Fitness, Kettler and Germania machines), indoor and outdoor pools, Finnish sauna with a panoramic view of the Bärental, steam sauna, Himalayan-Salt Sauna, infra-red twin cabin, plunge pool with a waterfall Kneipp Treatment, gift shop and beer garden.

The indoor pool had two levels of seating

The indoor pool had two levels of seating

The pool had a bar that opened in the afternoon

The pool bar

Given the foul weather a spa visit was especially in order. Although the hotel spa was fully booked, with the owner's assistance, I managed to try the San Vino Facial, one of the facility's signature wine based treatments. My visit was not without challenges as the spa menu was only available in German and the hurried woman at the spa reception spoke no English and showed no signs of wanting to try. On the plus side, my facialist was friendly and welcoming and I enjoyed the gentle treatment.

The spa Facialist

My therapist was friendly and the treatment was worthwhile

The spa features a treatment using local wines

The entrance to the spa featured a display promoting the local wine facial treatment

After making sure I was comfortable, she began the treatment by rubbing a mix of shea butter and grapeseed oil on my hands. She used a cleansing milk and tepid water to prepare my face for the facial, which began with a peeling product. While the mask hardened she massaged my feet. After removing the mask with a warm liquid that smelled of vinegar she applied a day cream followed by eye cream, which for once didn't irritate my eyes.

A plate of black forest hams and sausage

A deli plate including black forest ham and boiled egg was one of my favorite items

Trout with vegetables

Trout with vegetables

Before dinner at the waterfront restaurant, I donned the hotel branded cotton bathrobe and slippers from my room making my way across a long underground passage with automated lights beneath the restaurant to the Titinova on the other side of the hotel, where I spent a short while at the indoor pool, warmed to 31 degrees Celsius, and sauna area. Both had pretty lake views. In the sauna, for adults and children 14 and older, no clothes were worn. There was an ample supply of towels. I started at the Himalayan salt sauna (a favorite) heated to 45 degrees Celsius before moving to the infrared sauna for two heated to 55 degrees Celsius. From there I went to the Finnish sauna, heated to 95 degrees Celsius, before spending a few minutes relaxing on a lake facing lounger. Both had lake views. It was raining and chilly so I gave up my plans to swim in the outdoor pool.

The hotel employed 120 staff and had 155 beds in 82 rooms ranging from Classic to Family Apartments. In June 2016, the property received a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor. Should we return to Lake Titisee we would consider a stopover at the Treschers Schwarzwald Romantikhotel Titisee (Seestrasse 19, D-79822 Titisee-Neustadt, Germany, +49 7651 8050 / +49 7651 8116,,

Seine River dinner cruise a memorable gourmet option for special occasions

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

View of the Eiffel Tower as we cruised by on the Seine

Our view of the Eiffel Tower as we cruised by on the Seine River

Often friends and acquaintances, knowing my fondness for Paris, France ask for dining recommendations. It is a question I never take lightly, especially for first time visitors. One of my top recommendations is Le Jules Verne in the middle of the world famous Eiffel Tower because of the romantic setting, gourmet offerings and spectacular views of the city. It is the type of setting that memories that last decades are made of and the perfect place for special occasions.

Boarding the yacht Don Juan

The boarding area of the yacht Don Juan II

On my most recent visit, I discovered another completely different yet equally romantic, elegant, and memorable venue, the Yachts de Paris Don Juan II (Port Henri IV, 75004 Paris, France, +33 1 44 54 14 71, , ), a 50 meter long by 7 meter wide yacht. Aboard the vessel, which could seat 38 guests (far fewer than the famous iconic tower), five staff served an appetizing set menu made from fresh ingredients while the boat cruised 26 kilometers along the Seine River past the Eiffel Tower and back to its departure dock, a stone’s throw away from the Ile Saint Louis in the heart of the city. There were only 12 of us that night, which made the experience ever more intimate and special.

A comfortable spot on deck to enjoy the view

Before our departure we sat on at a comfortable spot on deck to enjoy views of Notre Dame while sipping a bubbly aperitif

The bar was stocked with several types of Champagne

Below deck the bar was stocked with several types of champagne

Despite our early arrival we received a warm welcome by the English speaking staff. We were immediately invited to board. Black rattan furniture with red cushions was spread around the open space atop the Don Juan II. Below deck pretty tables were set and awaiting our arrival. The elegant tableware was designed by Safran and the furnishings were by Pierre Frey. The single stall head was spotless. After a quick tour one of the staff invited us to have an aperitif topside while we waited for the rest of the passengers to arrive.

another yacht passed us just was we pulled out onto the rivier

Another Yacht de Paris vessel passed just as we pulled out onto the river

Moments later, we were sipping chilled champagne and munching on mixed nuts (pistachios, cashews, pecans, walnuts and Brazil nuts) and enjoying views of Notre Dame Cathedral, the Institute du Monde Arab, and the Left Bank as the rest of the guests began to arrive. Francois, an attentive staff member, offered me a synthetic fiber red blanket to ward against the night chill. He brought us bite size morsels of salmon with beetroot, tomato and radish. Greg, the cruise photographer, introduced himself and with our permission took some photos. When it was departure time our server invited us below deck. We headed to our window side table for dinner.

The aft view of the river

The aft view of the river 

From the Port Henri IV we motored past the Ile Saint Louis and Ile de la Cite islands passing many historic buildings such as the Conciergerie, Musee du Louvre, Grand Palais, small Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower (at the top of the hour to see the twinkling lights), the Musee d’Orsay and finally Notre Dame Cathedral. The Don Juan II glided gently along the river most of the way, so that but for the passing scenery and the occasional wake from a fast moving boat we might have forgotten we were on the water.

The tables enjoyed a view from the large windows

We had an outstanding view thanks to the yacht’s large windows

The bread cart

The bread cart was one of several luxury features of the dinner service.

Our five course set menu dinner began with a pre-starter of Crab, white radish pickles, chips and crisps. There were two types of butter, salted and seaweed flavored. A server came by our table to offer us bread from a cart: country, fruit and nut, Italian bread sticks, brioche. Whenever our bread plate was empty she would return to refresh it with our selections. Lobster with fresh greens and creamy nage was next. The main course was Suckling Lamb, roasted and cooked with bay leaf, organic asparagus from the Landes with juice and Parmesano di Reggiano cheese. A Saint-Nectaire cheese course followed. For dessert we had Flower of flowers, lime and strawberry cremeux and juice of an infused hibiscus. Chocolate bites, presented in individual boxes for us to keep, completed the repast. Our meal was paired with a 2012 Louis Jadot chardonnay from Burgundy. We appreciated the souvenir printout of our menus. It included a map of our path along the Seine.

The pre-starter featured bites of crab

The art like pre-starter featured bites of crab

The suckling lamb

The suckling lamb

The photographer took our photos with iconic buildings in the background such as Notre Dame while we were docked and later the Eiffel Tower when we went topside to enjoy the light show during the cruise. At the conclusion of the cruise the photos were available for purchase. Our two favorite photos became a lovely keepsake that enhances our wonderful memories of the evening.

The highlight of the sightseeing, the Pont de Grenelle replica of the Stature of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower

Among the sightseeing highlights were the Pont de Grenelle replica of the Stature of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower

The restaurant, opened March 2003 and managed by François Giroud, was one of eight small vessels owned by Yachts de Paris. The meals were created by Guy Krenzer, executive chef, who was recipient of the recognition Double Meilleur Ouvrier de France and creative director of well known Lenôtre culinary enterprise. The wine and food pairings were selected by Olivier Poussier, recipient of the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde 2000 award.

Flower of flowers, lime and strawberry cremeux and juice of an infused hibiscus

The colorful dessert of Flower of flowers, lime and strawberry cremeux and juice of an infused hibiscus

A cart of sweets to wrap up the meal

A cart of sweets to wrap up the meal

In addition to the well presented gourmet dinner we enjoyed and the exacting service, there were a myriad luxury touches, such as the blankets, cloth napkins with our amouse bouche, the orchid on our table, artistic dinnerware like the sea urchin shaped appetizer plates, quality nut snacks, perfectly timed courses to allow us to profit from the best views, and friendly and professional staff who kept us informed during the brief journey, that made the evening special. I would gladly take another cruise aboard the Don Juan II and recommend it to friends living or visiting Paris to celebrate a special occasion or just because.

VIP tour, passionate guide made Versailles visit worthwhile

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Metro stop Invalides in Paris

Our meeting place for the tour was the entrance of Les Invalides metro stop in Paris

Over the years I have visited Versailles, the famous palace established by Louis XIV near Paris, France, several times on my own and with large group tours. While the attraction itself was impressive the crowds were oppressive and the logistics to visit it cumbersome. On my most recent stay in the City of Lights, I tried a new approach. I placed myself in the hands of an organized small group program that started and ended in Paris. When I visited Versailles in the past I had to make my own way there from Paris. This time all I had to do was reach the meeting point in central Paris in the morning, and make my own lunch arrangements. The tour company took care of the rest. At the conclusion of the tour our small group returned to Paris together. I was pleased with the results. I appreciated and enjoyed my visit to the 787 hectare palatial estate much more than on most of my previous visits, and was able to discover areas open only to small escorted groups such as ours.

Stepping off the train at Versaiilles

At the train station in Versaiilles

We met Herve Rudrauf, our English speaking French tour guide, by the entrance to Les Invalides RER train station in the tony seventh arrondissement near the heart of the city early morning on a spring Friday. It was pleasantly chilly. The sky was gray and overcast, threatening rain. We were thrilled to discover there were only four of us in the daylong (eight and a half hours) tour. The other two participants in the Full Day Versailles VIP Behind Locked Doors program, organized by City Wonders Tours (6-9 Trinity Street, Dublin, 1-800-358-1942,, were from the United States.

Herve, our tour guide

Herve Rudrauf, our tour guide, in the palace gardens

Following greetings, introductions, and instructions Herve handed each of us an RER train ticket and we descended the stairs to the station platform. A few minutes later, we boarded a crowded two level suburban train. It was necessary for our group to split up in order to find seats. Once at the Versailles train station, we found each other and walked together to the palace entrance where, thanks to our tour, we skipped the long admission line. We also had special access to select rooms, such as Marie Antoinette's private theater, open only to escorted visitors. A staff person provided our group exclusive access.

The Royal Chapel at Versailles

The Royal Chapel at Versailles

Despite the expedited entry and private visit, the interior of the palace was overcrowded with tourists, sometimes making it challenging for our small group to remain together, hear our guide, take photos and walk from one room to another without being separated. That was not surprising given that some 7.5 million people visit the opulent former royal residence each year, according to a Versailles spokesperson. Although the interior was 63,154 square meters large and the attraction employed as many as 1,000 staff, only 23,072 square meters of the former palace were open to the public, and some of those rooms and halls could only be visited with a guide. A representative from City Wonders indicated that as much as 70 percent of the palace interiors may be visited via an escorted tour.

The Royal Opera at Versailles

Our private visit of the Royal Opera was memorable.

Because of the uncertain and overcast weather it was a relatively quiet day, our guide explained to our surprise when we commented on the number of people all around us. As we made our way within the storied interior the cacophony of noises competed for our attention. Our eyes and imagination wondered. It was easy to become distracted. Thankfully Herve was efficient at keeping a speedy yet comfortable pace (although restroom breaks were limited and there was no time for the gift shop) while at the same time sharing engrossing information about the former royal residence and its famous occupants.


It was a cloudy and rainy day in the gardens

The palace gardens did not look their best because it was cloudy and rainy.

Anticipating a two hour break for lunch we had made reservations in advance at a gourmet restaurant in the village of Versailles. Unfortunately, by midday we were in the heart of the estate and too far away to return to the village for lunch so we begrudgingly cancelled our booking. Instead we made our way to one of the crowded restaurants within the property. While the service was speedy and efficient lunch was the most disappointing meal we had during that month long trip. We were so hungry after leaving the restaurant we attempted to buy something else at the nearby cafe only to find a slow moving long line and a limited selection of fast food items that appeared no better than what we had already sampled at the restaurant.

Part of what made the tour worthwhile, in addition to our tour guide's knowledge and enthusiasm, was the access our small group had to areas of the former palace reserved for escorted tours such as ours. Despite huge crowds we had a chance to step behind the cordon at the Royal Chapel for a brief look. We had private visits of the Royal Opera in the main building and the Queen's Theater in Le Petit Trianon, among of my favorite sections.

A painting of Marie Antoinete

A painting of Marie Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon


One of the houses in the Hamlet, part of the Versailles estate

After lunch we walked around the gardens, discovering a hidden grotto where the famous queen was said to spend quiet time alone. We also visited Le Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette's home away from home while at Versailles; and ambled around the Hamlet, a make believe village within the estate.

Perhaps because before studying to become a licensed tour guide Herve spent several years working as an actor his discussions about life at Versailles were engrossing and entertaining. His interest and passion about French history (he wrote his thesis on the representation of royal power in France), the royal families, and the intriguing stories of inhabitants of the former royal palace were contagious. By the end of the tour, our fellow travelers were asking him for recommendations of books about the history of Versailles and its previous inhabitants.

The ceiling of the Queens Theater

The ceiling of the Queen's Theater at Le Petit Trianon

At the conclusion of the Versailles portion of the tour, a taxi, slightly delayed due to strikes, dropped us off at the Versailles train station where we boarded an RER return train to the city. City Wonders Tours, owned by Simone Gozzi, offered the Full Day Versailles VIP Behind Locked Doors tour Fridays and Saturdays only for a maximum of 15 people. The company won the award for the best Guides and Products in Paris 2016 from Get Your Guide. The highlight of the tour was Herve, our friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide who brought the history of Versailles alive. We especially liked the well orchestrated tour logistics, intimate size of our group, and access to private areas. In the future we would be well inclined to book another tour with the same company and the same guide.

Smithsonian Channel to broadcast fascinating documentary on Queen Mary August 21

By Scott S. Smith

The Queen Mary at dusk

The Queen Mary at dusk from “Mighty Ship At War: The Queen Mary”*

I previewed the Smithsonian Channel’s new “Mighty Ship At War: The Queen Mary,” the engrossing tale of one of the greatest ocean liners favored by celebrities, which became a critical troop transport and Allied command center during World War II. It is now docked in the port of Long Beach, California, as a museum, special events venue, and luxury hotel (also featured prominently in this excellent documentary, produced by STV Productions for the Smithsonian Channel and BBC Scotland). The one-hour special, produced and directed by Matt Pinder to commemorate the 80 anniversary of the ship’s maiden voyage, will premiere Sunday, August 21, at 8 p.m. ET/PT. 

It is a fascinating story of the most famous of the Cunard vessels. The documentary moves at a fast pace, balancing historic film and still photos with interviews of those who sailed or worked on it. Construction in Scottish shipyards in the early 1930s helped many survive the Great Depression. The naming ceremony for the largest and most powerful ship of its kind drew 250,000. It was moved to its home port of Southhampton, England, and sailed to New York City in May 1936 in just over four days. A floating palace with five dining areas, a grand ballroom, and a squash court, it was wildly popular for the next three years, favored by stars like Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich and featuring entertainers such as Bob Hope.

As Nazi Germany became a threat, Jewish families fled Europe on the liner. Its last civilian voyage was in September 1939. Transformed into the largest and fastest troop transport, the 81,000 ton ship could carry up to 16,000, ultimately delivering over one million, including helping with the D-Day invasion. Hitler offered $250,000 to any U-Boat captain who could sink the 81,000 ton vessel. Aboard it Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British high command planned strategy on the way to Allied conferences. As a journalist specializing in World War II, I found this part the most gripping, but no segment lasted too long.

After the war and refitting, the Queen Mary enjoyed two decades of glory, carrying an average of 1,000 passengers per voyage. But in 1965, with competition that could fly from London to New York in hours, it began losing money and its last Atlantic crossing came two years later. Over two million passengers had enjoyed its service as it sailed 3.8 million miles.

Long Beach opened the doors to tourists in 1971 and the Queen Mary has had its ups and downs under various managers. The latest firm recently announced an investment of $250 million in the area (I found the Russian submarine Scorpion and the Battleship Iowa nearby well worth visiting). None of these rough seas in retirement have dimmed the public’s fascination with the legendary vessel, which has attracted 50 million visitors. Among the draws are a chance to stay in the original 346 first-class suites, a five-star restaurant, a spa, special exhibits (currently on Princess Diana), a 4-D theater, and numerous tour options. I rate the documentary and the Queen Mary an A grade for anyone interested in the great ships which sailed through such important moments of our history.

*Photo courtesy Smithsonian Channel

"First hand information and photos of outstanding destinations, luxurious accommodations, voyages, products, restaurants, spas and attractions for the discriminating traveler. "


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