May 3, 2014
Jet lag is real. I reported to the courtyard of the Royal National Hotel at 7:00 a.m. for departure in a total fog. Buses were already lined up to take the two tour groups off on our respective adventures. We had our bags weighed, filled out some additional paperwork, and then filed onto our bus for the adventure of a lifetime.
I sat near the front with Emily, and we had a great time chatting and getting to know each other as we headed out of London on our way to Dover, home of the famous White Cliffs of Dover, where a ferry would take us across the English Channel into Calais, France.
White Cliffs of Dover
During the ride to Dover, our tour manager Jon (hereafter referred to as Jon Snow, because he knows something), introduced himself and our driver, Kev. He explained how the service station stops would work and gave us tips for navigating the tour successfully. He also explained Contiki’s mantra of #NoRegrets, and why he felt it was importation for us to see and participate in as much as we could. I didn’t come on this trip to leave with any regrets, so I knew already that I was in it for the big time.
As we entered Dover, we were ushered through French customs, and our tour driver drove our bus right onto the ferry.
Once on board, we exited the bus and went upstairs to the passenger area for snacks, photos and shopping. I spent most of the trip exploring the gift shop with Emily. Then, we headed up to the deck and found a few of our fellow tourmates, including Pat and another Canadian girl I’d met only briefly the night before, Shandi. We chatted with them for a bit before the cold drove us all inside to warm up. This part of the trip was still a bit awkward…we all shared this special bond of embarking on an incredible adventure together, but we were all still very much strangers. It is crazy to me looking back how quickly that passed.
We boarded the bus again and drove off the ferry into France, where we were treated with views of the absolutely beautiful French countryside. I sat next to Shandi this time, who was a ton of fun to get to know. Jon Snow brought around forms for us to designate which of the “Optional Extras” we would be participating in, and Shandi and I both marked the #NoRegrets box, meaning that we would do everything. I knew it would cost quite a bit of money, but I had a feeling it would be so worth it. Behind us, Pat and Richard (another fantastic Australian, hereafter referred to as Dicky), checked #NoRegrets too.
Canadian National Vimy Memorial
After our first service stop, Jon Snow gave us a brief history of France, and told us we’d be making a quick stop at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, dedicated to Canadian forces killed during World War I, since we were ahead of schedule and had so many Canadians on tour.
Trenches at Vimy
After the memorial, we made our way to the Campanile Porte d’Italie Hotel in Paris. I had read some not-so-amazing things about Contiki hotels, so I was thrilled to see how clean and well-kept this hotel was.
After a quick minute to freshen up, we headed to the dining room for our first “included dinner.” I ended up being quite impressed. I sat down with three other Contiki-ers, Betty from Mexico, and Kenny and Tom, both from Australia. We had a great talk about what brought us here, what we were looking forward to most, and what we had left behind back home. Talks get pretty deep pretty quick on Contiki. You’d be amazed at how quickly you bond when you’re traveling together and experiencing so many new things.
Dinner was served – a huge ham and cheese quiche and a small salad. I’m not a quiche lover, but I finished it anyway thinking that was the entree. That was until they delivered the real entree – the quiche was an appetizer. Roasted chicken, veggies, and potatoes were served, along with desert (some sort of delicious chocolate cake), but I was so stuffed from the quiche, it was a lost cause.
After dinner, Jon Snow rounded us all up for a trip into the city to see the Eiffel Tower at night. I was so jet lagged at this point, I was falling asleep standing up, so for a minute, I considered staying behind at the hotel and going to sleep. That would have been the worst mistake – this night ended up setting the tone for the rest of the tour.
I plucked myself up and headed out with the others to the Paris Metro station, and we made our way into the city. I sat with Pat for a portion of this journey, where he introduced me to a number of Australian phrases and slang, like “having tickets on yourself.” Australians have shortcuts, abbreviations, and fun phrases for everything. It took me a while to catch on.
Once in the city, we hopped off and caught our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. It was an awe-inspiring moment for me. Seeing something that I’ve only seen in pictures materialize in front of my face felt surreal, and I think it was one of my very favorite moments of the entire trip.
As the sun set, we all went separate ways to explore, and I headed up to the Palais de Chaillot for great views and a few photos with a small group. We found ourselves sipping beer and sharing stories in a local cafe, waiting for the Eiffel Tower’s nighttime light show. I chatted happily with Kieran, another strapping Australian, and bonded with him right away. I would end up spending the majority of my time on this trip with this group (which also included Shandi, Pat, Dicky, and Emily), and couldn’t have been luckier to meet such awesome people.
Top row, left to right: Pat, Shandi, Alex, Dicky, Me, Kieran, Nicole, Sam, Rosie. Bottom row: Joel, Kenny, Emily
Next, we stopped by the carousel for a quick ride, and then made our way back to the Eiffel Tower to meet the rest of the group for the light show. I was in awe standing next to Pat and Kieran looking at this amazing sight, and felt in that moment that I had made the best decision in the world to book my trip. #NoRegrets.