“I Love Paris” was written by Cole Porter and crooned by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and celebrities today. This Spring, Paris is singing in colors. Luxury Travel Maven Lisa TE Sonne enjoyed Springtime in Paris on her way to gliding in the canals of  the heart of France with European Waterways. Here are a few of Sonne’s  photographs about why Paris is worth singing about in springtime.

The fruit stands on Rue de Seine of the left bank…..

Springtime in Paris offers color for the sensual and the spiritual.

Notre Dame, Sonne

Spring light and centuries of prayer in Paris’s famed Notre Dame Cathedral celebrating its 850th anniversary. (c)Sonne

Reflections of Moulin Rouge after Spring Showers. The song “I Love Paris” was written for the Tony winning musical “Can-Can” set at Moulin Rouge (c)Sonne





Life’s vignettes ride by when your front row seat is a Parisian Cafe.

At the first signs of Spring, Parisians take to the streets.














Paris, Sonne

A little chill in the air doesn’t stop Parisians once the Spring sun is out.

Why do you love Paris?  

“Paris is always a good idea,” according to Audrey Hepburn.”  What do you say? 


 -Lisa TE Sonne, Luxury Travel Mavens

Photographs by Lisa TE Sonne

(c) To be used only with permission.






I woke in a dream on La Belle Epoque—gently, slowly gliding through the French countryside on a canal, while a charming talented chef shucked fresh oysters four feet away, and a cute Scottish lass offered more champagne. A Vivaldi piece ended and the birds crescendoed their musical score for our movie-like lunch al fresco topside on a luxury barge. The breezes caressed, the sun kissed, the blue skies cajoled. We were cruising the Burgundy canal in April, the weather thermostat on perfect.

Spa time as the french countryside floats by

Tableaus drift by—all white cows against shamrock green fields, a chateau in the distance, dozens of bare-branched trees with round ornaments of mistletoe, meadows of greens tattooed with yellow flowers, some children sitting on the bank waiting to smile and wave, a heron in flight- wings gracefully carving the air.
Six passengers, six staff as we voyage tranquilly from chateau to winery, from medieval to Renaissance to modern humanity, from the left-overs of winter to the burgeoning Spring.

A continuum of contentments—moving meditations just basking in the landscapes shifting with shadows and lights as we pass on, or active conversations with well-traveled and educated people; sitting in the Jacuzzi with lovely views to relax, or biking through villages and fields off the tourists path, feeling like you discovered it all yourself.

Passengers from New Zealand and California offered to help open the lock. Each lock station like the one in the background is numbered.

Every time we reach a lock, there is an opportunity to hop on or off the barge for a bike ride or walk.  Towpaths parallel the canal and side paths lead to villages and forests with songbirds. Pilot Alain and first mate Rod would let passengers help with the locks or steer the barge if they wanted.

As we sat outside topside enjoying the oysters as a prelude to lunch, we each had many reasons to be smiling about our morning in Noyers sur Serain, an outstanding village with a lively market from fresh produce to original art, and winding streets of architecture from five centuries. Page had gotten a striking pair of shoes. Shona had gathered artisanal tiles after talking with the creator. Ann had walked through the centuries of architecture. Ken sat in the warm sun watching it all- people and the landscapes, an amused half smile on his face. Kirsten comes to see if there are any more food or beverage requests. David was pleased that so far all his advance requests for food and drink had been met from  his specific dishes, to bourbon and Pims being in stock.

Each day passengers could relax onboard, and explore the countryside by bike, and enjoy a private tour by Anna to a chateau, winery, abbey, or memorable village.

My long-time friend from graduate school, Page, chats with our four new friends about the cheese that David, a retired professor and author, had ordered in advance. Made by Cistercian monks whose parent monastery is kilometers away. We had visited the “daughter Abby” the day before- Abbaye de Fontenay founded in 1118 by St Bernard, and beautifully laid out. It’s the only privately owned UNESCO World Heritage site in the world according to Anna, our  wonderful Captain and our  entertaining, well-versed guide, for forays in the van.

The Abbaye’s gardens, cloisters, illumination room and chapel all emanated a prayerful sense. The practical side of the lay-out was intriguing also- a well-preserved medieval tower for the pigeons and doves, fish farm for food, a set area for the hounds they cared for in the past for the gentry hunters. Centuries ago monks here also invented the hydraulic hammer which made culling ore much more efficient, a pivotal innovation credited with ushering in the Industrial Age. We returned to the barge that day, most un-industrious.

Chef Huw comes out again to pick rosemary and thyme from the flower boxes flanking the sides of the boat. So far he has hit the bulls-eye every meal- from requested poached eggs and fruit for breakfast to other guest’s dinner requests for duck, pigeon, rabbit,  or salmon and vegetarian. He has also cooked up items passengers picked up in local village markets- making heirloom tomatoes taste even better and creating a celery root soup that practically had sippers swooning. The deserts were beyond good. And every night the table was set imaginatively sometimes with lit candles, fresh flowers and imaginative napkins thanks to George and Kirst. They also made eloquent introductions to the wines and cheeses that were paired with each lunch and dinner.

The first day we saw filmmakers in enchanting Flavigny sur Ozerairn where the movie Chocolat occurred.

Our itinerary of days ahead includes wine tasting in Chablis, an inside private tour of another historic chateau, a night at a country french restaurant, and a lock station run by an artist who displays his whimsical sculptures on the banks. Already we have walked through the lavish rooms of Chateau d’Ancy where Henry the IV, Louis XIII and Louis the XIV slept, stood on the hilltop where locals say Caesar conquered the Gauls in 52 BC in the Battle of Alesia,  learned about anise making in the village where Chocolat was filmed, bicycled through nature and rustic villages, and indulged in the comforts provided by a wonderful staff.

In the past, grand royal barges carried the privileged people of the courts. Now it is a vacation of privileges. European Waterways offers 17 routes in France, Holland and England.

 -Lisa TE Sonne for Luxury Travel Mavens

Photographs by Lisa TE Sonne

Monet in his Garden“Claude Monet did not paint the subject, he painted the moment –the emotion, the light,” said our guide, Wafaa Lenkey, as our private car drove away from Paris’ Eiffel Tower, heading north to Giverny and the home and water lily gardens of  “the father of Impressionist Painting.”

Kensington Tours, known for their adventure tours, also now provides remarkable, customized day trips and night experiences in European cities, and they made the arrangements for our trip to the French Countryside with a private car, driver, and guide.

Page, a friend from graduate school, and I were on a girlfriend trip to France, stopping in Paris on the way to a superlative-sounding barge trip on the Burgundy river with European Waterways.  We both had wanted to see Giverny for many years,  but not with a busload of tourists. Renting a car and spending our time with our noses buried in maps and guidebooks wasn’t appealing, either. We wanted to be soaking in the landscapes that had inspired Monet and hearing great stories. Kensington supplied a great solution.

As we drove comfortably along the Seine River for more than an hour, Waafa told anecdotes about the names of towns, dished historic gossip, answered our questions, and prepared us for our destination. “Monet lived many places, but not all were conducive to painting… He saw Giverny from a train window and found it to be very conducive for painting.”

Private guide in the gift shop shows us a copy of the painting that gave the Impressionist movement its name.

She told us how he bucked the prevailing pressures to paint only “mythology, royalty, and religion” and wanted to capture light and  impressions, how the invention of paint tubes allowed him to paint outdoors, and how his cataracts in old age helped usher in Abstract painting.

Monet’s Realm

The first building we entered was once the enormous studio Monet used for his iconic water lily paintings. Duplications now hang above a gift shop, and outside the doors are the gardens immortalized in the moments Monet put on canvas—including the iconic green bridge, and a pond for water lilies.

“He composed his garden as if composing a painting,” she told us.  We had arrived before Spring had unfurled her full promise, but potential was ripe in every direction, and some bold tulips, daffodils, and primroses delighted the senses.

Imagine the conversations in Monet’s kitchen and dining area…. Our guide said he loved his food and wine.

Inside his house, Monet’s bedroom windows looked out on the colorful canvas of earth. His walls were covered with duplications of his paintings. Page particularly enjoyed Monet’s bright kitchen. Our guide told us he ate lunch there with his wife and their two kids, and his mistress and her four kids (not by him), and whatever guests he allowed.

He did not allow guests at dinner. After full days painting, he wanted quiet. Not even his dear friend Rodin or visiting American painters like Mary Cassatt were welcome at dinner.

Monet was influenced by Japanese prints and collected over 250 of them, many of them on the walls of bedrooms, and his kitchen.

Wafaa credits Americans with making Monet famous, because his first big exhibit was thanks to Americans, at a time when the French art critics were still dismissive of such big changes.  We credit Wafaa and Kensington with a delightful Spring excursion. On our art and garden trip through time, she was like the additional girlfriend you want with you — the one who knows all the good stuff about where you are.

Giverny Gardens on a Girlfriend trip with Private Guide

Future Trips

If you are going to a major European city and want to do something memorable, you can contact Kensington Tours in advance, like an elite concierge. They can find you a guide and tailor a day, a night, or more for you — from secret  fashion venues, to one-of-a-kind eating and shopping experiences, to behind-the-scenes at… well, challenge them and see.

In the spirit of Monet’s love of good food and wine, and trying to capture moments, Page and I are now off to another part of the French Countryside and will soon be gliding along the canals.

-Lisa TE Sonne, Luxury Travel Mavens

Photos by Sonne



La Belle Epoque Dining & Saloon, provided by European Waterways

“French Soft and Creamy Cheeses” “French Goat Cheeses” “French Firm Cheeses” and “Wines of Burgundy.”  These section headings are followed by sensual descriptions of the delectable and savory with room for my future tasting notes. The salivating begins before I have even left home!

Weeks ago, I  received a beautiful European Waterways “Ship’s Log” book that includes maps, tasting lists, menus, and recipes for my anticipated  “Classical Burgundy” luxury trip on the Le Belle Epoque.   She is a “barge,” but with a sun deck, outdoor jacuzzi, library, 24/7 inclusive bar, and air conditioning, the wood-paneled, 12 passenger  La Belle Epoque sounds more like a yacht to me. She is built specially though to travel the shallow canals, locks, and rivers.

When I think of barges, I think of the elaborate, royal court barges of past eras that  I have read about, or the huge powerful container vehicles that ply the Hudson River and the Pacific coastline, and I think of  how joyful my mother is describing what a great time she and her girlfriends had years ago when they went barging together for a week in Europe– one big, elegant, floating slumber party with their own chef.

Traveling through Burgundy with leisure and pleasure

Most of my  girlfriends are still working and/or in active Mom mode, but I did find one who could  take time to smell the cheeses with me for lots of bon appetit! She is a francophile, so it wasn’t hard to say Merci to France for having so many barge options, but it didn’t diminish the drooling over other possible destinations.

European Waterways offers European barging trips in

England —Thames River

France— (16 different trips on various canals and rivers)

Germany —Mosel River

Ireland —Shannon River

Italy —Venice and the Po Valley

Netherlands: Holland’s Rivers and Canals

Scotland —Caledonian Canal

France alone has 2,700 miles of navigable inland waterways. Many have rustic parallel pathways lined with tall poplar trees. Originally the trees were planted to shade the horses that gave the barges their horse power.  Before the 20th century, barges were propelled by sails or pulled by horses or people.

Now the shore’s pathways or “tow paths” offer a wonderful way for barge guests to walk or bicycle between villages with their charming, slow moving, home-base in sight.  A little healthy exercise might justify all those cheeses, wines and dishes prepared by the barge’s chef. I’ll put some sneakers in my suitcase (as well as pants with an expandable waistband for good-eating days.)

Bicycling and Barging the Burgundy

It also looks like my camera will get some good exercise–  there’s the 11th century Abby, the village where they filmed  Chocolat, and Rennaisance Chateau and gardens!

Here’s more from the itinerary as provided by the  EUROPEAN WATERWAYS website :


Tanlay to Venarey les Laumes

Sunday, Day 1 Tanlay

Guests are met at the designated meeting point inParis and transferred to the barge moored in Tanlay. A full crew Welcome Aboard with champagne and canapés. After time to settle into your cabin you will enjoy your first dinner on board and introduction to Burgundy’s excellent cuisine.

Monday, Day 2 Tanlay to Lezinne

La Belle Epoque Cabin for barging on the Burgundy

Wake to the aromas of ground coffee and French patisseries, enjoy a leisurely breakfast and morning cruise to Lezinne with the opportunity to cycle or walk into the picturesque 16th Century village of Saint Vinemer. After lunch we visit the 16th century Renaissance-style Chateau de Tanlay, nestling serenely within this picturesque village and also the 18th century Fosse Dionne. Dinner on board.

Tuesday, Day 3 Lezinne to Ancy le Franc

After breakfast enjoy a lazy cruise up to Ancy le Franc with plenty of opportunity to wander or cycle ahead as the vessel ascends through the locks towards the beautiful 16th century Renaissance palace and gardens of Chateau d’Ancy le Franc. Lunch in a local auberge and then visit the vineyards and town of Chablis, dating back to Roman times. We enjoy a private wine tasting renowned for its Premier and Grand Cru wines popularized by Alexis Lichine in the 1950’s. Dinner on board.

Wednesday, Day 4 Ancy le Franc to Ravieres

Morning visit to medieval Noyers sur Serein to admire the local produce, colours and delights of the wonderful market, or to wander the town ramparts in this, one of the most beautiful villages in France. We return to the barge and enjoy a gentle afternoon cruise past grazing Charolais cattle to Ravieres followed by a visit to the 16th century Renaissance palace and gardens of Chateau d’Ancy le Franc. Dinner on board.

 Thursday, Day 5 Ravieres to Montbard

The Abbaye de Fontenay,

Morning cruise, with excellent walking and cycling opportunities, to Montbard passing the Forges de Buffon. After lunch, we escort you to the exquisite World Heritage Unesco site of Abbayé de Fontenay founded by St Bernard in 1118. Representing a distinctive example of early Cistercian architecture and virtually intact, Fontenay allows an exceptional glimpse of early Cistercian life and industry with its peaceful gardens and ponds and fascinating cloisters, dormitories and scriptorium. Dinner on board. 

Friday, Day 6 Montbard to Venarey les Laumes

Morning cruise through woodlands and rolling fields, with great towpath biking and walking opportunities, past the tiny canal side villages of Nogent, Courcelles and Les Granges. This afternoon we enjoy a stroll around the hilltop village of Flavigny sur Ozerain, where the film ‘Chocolat’ was located. On the way from the summit of Mt Auxois, we look at Alesia, the last battle site between the Gaulles and Romans that took place in 52 BC. Also time to enjoy the town of Semur-en-Auxois. Captain’s Farewell Dinner on board.

Saturday, Day 7 Venarey les Laumes

Disembark after breakfast and transfer back to Paris.

 For some stories on the above trip, stay tuned for future Tuesday columns in Luxury Travel Mavens.

For additional options, check out Andrea Rotondo’s River Cruising Revolution?

-Lisa TE Sonne for Luxury Travel Mavens

Photos courtesy of European Waterways

Part Two: Barging and Biking In Burgundy

Short Video of the Luxury Barge

If you like this idea of slower, immersive travel please share this with friends, and add a comment.

02. April 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Destinations · Tags: , , ,

Austin-Lehman Adventures receives kudos from Travel and Leisure, National Geographic Adventurer, and Outside Magazine for their adventure trips. Founder Dan Austin shares insights into how you design the “feng shui” of  a trip with “Wow” moments and water-cooler bragging rights.

Kayaking amidst volcanoes and gardens, part of Nicaragua’s allure for active travelers. Photo by Lisa TE Sonne

The “ALA” team can customize an adventure trip for you in dozens of countries. Here he shares how they designed their inaugural trip offerings to Nicaragua.

How do you decide whether to add a new country as a destination? What factors do you look for?

Austin: “That is a great question!  First there has to be some level of interest.  Whether from our guests sharing their travels to an area or one of our staff experiencing it in the off-season.  Just takes someone raising their hand and saying, “hey check out”.  That just starts the ball rolling.  In this age of the internet, hundreds of hours can be spent looking at everything from key properties or hotels, to likely trails or activities.

“At some point a site visit by yours truly is typically in the cards… I know it’s a tough job.  After endless hours poring over maps, guide books and websites, we just start looking for a “route” that has plenty of opportunities to experience the region, its culture, history and activities. All without spending endless hours driving and driving to get from point A to point B.  Finding key hotels that fit the route and the region is also key.  They don’t have to be 5 star… but they do have to be nice and appropriate for the area.  And of course it has to be safe! “

Calf looks on as Dan Austin rolls up his shirt sleeves and milks a cow, part of an option one morning to help make your own farm breakfast. Gathering eggs is next.

How do you decide whether to add an activity to a given destination whether it’s cigar making or ash-boarding like on the first Nicaragua trip?

Austin: “That is a tough one, obviously you can not do everything— at least not in one visit.  We look at getting the biggest bang for the buck.  Does it fit well with the region and what people expect?  Is it a quality experience? Does it provide bragging rights back at the office around the water cooler? (Like, what did you do this weekend?  Me, I ash boarded off the top of an active volcano!)

“Does it have the makings of a “WOW” moment…  something truly memorable. Really look hard at the “feng shui” of a trip.  Does it flow well, good mix of activities, calorie burning and calorie consuming. Something for the mind, body and soul.”

Austin carried his board to the top of the volcano with others whoalso signed up for “ash-boarding” down. Photo by Lisa TE Sonne

 What do you do before you offer an activity or destination to the public?

Austin:  “We really need to see it before we can get behind it.  Maybe not every little detail, but the basics.  A quality local guide is key! A lot of time and energy goes into securing the local guide and then training on the ALA way.  With the right guide you can accommodate any and all guest requests and or surprises that might pop up.

“In the perfect world, I like to personally experience the exact trip (and have time to tweak and adjust) before our guests see it. With some 80 programs constantly evolving around the globe, that isn’t always possible.  When I can’t, I have to make sure we have the right guide and a key staff support person on the job… especially for the first few departures.  We need to represent ALA at all times.”

 How do you choose accommodations?

Austin: “The best way to put it is simply—“The most appropriate for the region,”  meaning it might be the historic Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone or an  over-the-top tent camp somewhere in Damaraland Namibia.

“On our recent trip to Nicaragua that was a good example– a balance.–historic Spanish style properties just off the town square in Granada to an award-winning Eco -Lodge complete with private beach in San Juan del Sur.  Hotels and lodges are a big part of the experience and we look for the best possible properties that “fit”.  Also key is that they share ALA’s passion for customer service and treat our guests like you would a guest in your home.

Cathedrals, museums, plazas, spas, history tours were options along with zip lining, horseback riding, kayaking and ash boarding.

Why did you choose to add Nicaragua to your global portfolio of adventures?

Austin: “It’s funny, we started working on Nicaragua long before the main stream media picked it up as an up and coming destination.  A lot has changed in Nicaragua since the 80’s and 90’s, the country has always been fabulous for its scenery, culture and such, just wrapped up in civil unrest.  So as Nicaragua started to emerge as a safe destination and open to tourism, it was just natural to keep an eye on it and look to understand it better.

“Being just north of Costa Rica was also part of the interest. If Costa Rica is so great, we better look at its neighbors.  As we dug in, we saw the value available as well. Nicaragua is still very affordable and a great value for what you get. I think I had a half dozen 25 dollar massages !”

Local Guide Julio points out the landmarks from a cathedral rooftop.

Why do you use local guides and how do you assure that the local guides will provide a memorable, safe experience when you aren’t there?

Austin: “This is a personal decision.  I know it’s not what all companies do.  I just know if I travel to an international destination, I want to get to know it from a “locals” point of view. I want to hear about growing up in the country, the issues they face today, where they are going, etc.  Locals also add an element of safety you can’t duplicate, they know where they should and should not go.

“We look for experienced, professionals with a passion for sharing the best of the best their country or region has to offer.  We then “train” on the ALA way.  We work on everything from the “extra wows” to problem solving and first aid.  We look at is as a partnership and we chose our partners carefully. “

 I really enjoyed your company’s inaugural trip to Nicaragua.  You mentioned that you wanted to tweak it for future groups.  How? 

Austin: “I think we will just look at the highlights and how they were received.  We will look at what we missed and why? Maybe try and cut some of the drive times down.  I am actually considering just two moves—Granada and San Juan del Sur–leaving more time to explore a bit deeper at each. Visitors can easily do “add ons” if we say drop Leon.  Also looking at adding the hotels for the first and last night in Managua near the airport.  This will just help take a bit of the stress out of arriving and departing with a wide range of flight schedules.

“It often takes years of “tweaking” to make a good trip great or a great trip incredible!  Always looking to improve, new properties are always coming on line, new restaurants or even new trails or activities.”

How will you make the Nicaragua trip more “luxurious” for those who want to pay more for extra amenities? For example, can they opt to fly into the airstrip near Morgan’s Rock, the upscale (for eco-lodges in Nicaragua) sanctuary?

Austin: “Interestingly enough while Morgan’s Rock is amazing and I don’t see switching, there is a new “over the top” 5 star property coming on line in the same area..  (good article in WSJ   Really it’s just a matter of keeping our eyes open and continually researching options.  Dang, I may even have to go back soon and do site visits on the lookout for new properties.”

Dan Austin (far right) joins fellow travelers in a smoke after helping make the cigars.

 What do you say to people who are worried about the political past of Nicaragua and how safe is it now?

Austin: “I think everyone on our recent group would agree, we never felt safer!  I spent a week traveling before the group and went well out of my way to get off the beaten path and again, never felt safer in any region of the globe.  The country sees tourism as a key to a prosperous future.  Typically tourism jobs pay more than other industries and embracing it can only create more and more opportunities.

“I have found that once a country understands the value of tourism, they have a tendency to start policing themselves.  The last thing they want is for some random act of violence set them back and it will. “

 What would you like people to know about you and your company?

Austin: “I think just that we are not the biggest and never plan to be.  We are family owned and operated.  We have put a lot of time, effort and energy into creating and living by both a mission statement as well as a vision statement that sums it up best.. I will share those with you here.”

Mission Statement:

o   Design and operate incredibly fun and deeply memorable outdoor adventure vacations in the Americas, Europe and Africa for adventurous, caring and curious individuals, families and groups led by the company’s extraordinary guides;

o   Exceed guest expectations via highly personalized ‘above and beyond’ service, smaller group sizes, great food, best-in-class accommodations and signature ‘wow moments’;

  • Allow its guests to experience destinations, wildlife, and communities in a deeper and richer manner than they would on their own; and
  • Inspire guests to become clients for life.

Vision Statement:

  • To be the most respected, trusted and best loved tour operator by our guests, employees, partners, and the communities we serve. To be recognized and respected for our collection of pre-set itineraries and custom trip planning services…and the extraordinary ‘above and beyond’ personalized service we provide to all our guests. To deepen and expand our passionate and active commitment to philanthropic initiatives that enhances our guests’ experience, improves the lives of people in the places we visit and propagates the importance of traveling with an open heart and small footprint.

More Luxury Travel Maven Q & A with the Austin Lehman founder who walks, ash-baords and kayaks his talk in in Nicaragua.

What adventure would you like to design?

- Lisa TE Sonne,  Luxury Travel Mavens

Photographs by (c) Lisa TE Sonne from ALA Nicaragua trip, except for feature  home page photo of Yellowstone, provided by Austin-Lehman Adventures.