The irony of my life is that I really don’t do that much leisure traveling. As Commodore for Princess Cruises, I can see how some people would think I must be joking, because of course, I travel all the time.
I’m at sea for months at a time with Princess, where my duties keep my mind attuned to the safe and pleasurable passage of our guests as we cruise around the world. When my time off coincides with school vacations, my wife, Sabina, our two children and I also travel. We go to see our relatives — my family in Sorrento, Italy, and Sabina’s in Cleveland, San Francisco and Germany.
One of my favorite things to do is go camping with my boys. Give me a tent in the forest, a fishing pole and river and I’m very happy. As much as we love our vacations to see family, it was becoming clear that Sabina and I were overdue for a 100-percent carefree, zero responsibility vacation together. With all of this in mind and our 20th wedding anniversary approaching, I knew I had to do something special for her. I had to create the perfect gift to symbolize my love for her and celebrate our life together.
It had been a long time coming. Sabina has talked about going to Paris since the day I met her while working on a cruise ship She was on board with her aunt, an employee and acquaintance of mine, who had given her a cruise vacation as a graduation gift.
Her aunt introduced us and as we got to know each other, I learned how Sabina had studied art and fashion design at university, and how she longed to walk the streets of Monet and Chagall; to see the Mona Lisa at the famed Louvre Museum; and to have a drink at a café made famous by Ernest Hemingway. She had dreamed of doing this long before I met her. Over the years, Paris kept coming up. “Maybe next year,” was our refrain. We never had the opportunity to go. So Paris would be my gift to her.
To make the journey even more special, I decided to make it a surprise. I enlisted Sabina’s parents, who live in Cleveland, to come to Florida to watch our boys, Luca, then 14, and Marco, 11. My story was that she should join me on a training session in Amsterdam, itself a treat, but not Paris.
We boarded a flight from Miami to Paris under the guise that we were continuing on to Amsterdam. It wasn’t until we went to collect our luggage that I handed her a Fodor’s guide to Paris, her go-to book whenever the family joined me on board, and told her, “Happy Anniversary!” Knowing my sense of humor, she thought I was joking. But once she realized we were finally going to Paris, she was overjoyed.
We grabbed our bags and went off to discover the dazzling City of Lights.
First stop was our home for the next four nights, the Hotel Saint-Jacques in the Latin Quarter, which I had secretly booked. It was the perfect place for Sabina because the Hotel Saint-Jacques is where her favorite movie, the Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant classic Charade, was filmed. The hotel was charming and a piece of art itself with rooms painted in warm colors and beautiful paintings on the wall.
We headed out immediately toward Notre Dame, which was close to our hotel. This beautiful Gothic cathedral was a site we ended up visiting many times during our trip. We saw it that first morning, with pale, February light streaming through the magnificent stained-glass rose window, a gleaming contrast to the gray, stone walls. As Notre Dame was on the way to the hotel, we returned each evening, after busy days exploring, to pass by its watchful gargoyles, perched along the walls.
We stopped for crepes at one of the many creperies near the cathedral. Like our visits to Notre Dame, we quickly formed another routine of a Nutella crepe before returning to the hotel. Delicious!
Sabina discovered that the Louvre was open until 10 p.m. that first evening, so we headed there at 6 p.m. and found the museum mostly empty. How wonderful it was to walk through its rooms together, seeing the priceless works inside.
For Sabina, seeing paintings by the artists she had studied for so many years was a lifetime dream. For me, the most memorable painting was the Mona Lisa. To gaze upon her, without the throng of people that ring her during the day, and feel as if she was gazing back only at us, was really special. It was a very quiet, serene moment. I’m not typically into paintings but once I went there, it changed my mind. The Louvre is a special place.
We packed a lot into our short time in Paris. We were able to see the churches of Saint Sulpice and Sacre Coeur and worked our way through the department store Galeries Lafayette. We even stood atop the Eiffel Tower and surveyed the city. From that high point, we spotted our next destination, the golden-domed tomb of Napoleon and the Musee de L’Armee.
Strolling through this magnificent museum, we admired the armor and diverse range of weaponry through the ages. We found ourselves thinking of our sons because they both enjoy medieval history and the Age of Empires computer games. They would love this museum. It’s truly a museum for guys!
More typically, we soaked up the atmosphere through long walks, along the grand Champs Elysee, the historic Marais district, the Jardins de Luxembourg and the ancient rue Mouffetard, a narrow cobblestone street that was once a Roman road that led all the way to Italy. Sabina mostly set the itinerary and I advised on where to dine. You know you are on vacation when choosing a restaurant is the most important decision of the day! We enjoyed a classic French dinner of Boeuf Bourguignon at the renowned bistro Chez Rene and couscous at Chez Omar.
But the meal I recall the most reminded me of one I had long ago. I must stop here and admit, this was not my first trip to Paris. I went decades ago, a few years before I met Sabina. That visit also represented a very rare break from responsibility.
At that time, I was a young safety officer who was appointed to the building team of the Fairsky (later the Sky Princess), which was being built in a shipyard near Toulon. When a strike broke out, I found myself with nothing to do, so I took a train to Paris. I stayed in a small hotel, and most of my meals were picnics of fresh French bread, pate, cheese and wine. Is there a more beautiful lunch or dinner?
As I walked alongside famed Parisian food markets with my wife, I remember the simple meals I enjoyed more than 25 years ago. One night, we put Fodor’s recommendations aside, and recreated one of those meals. We bought baguettes, three or four different types of pate, some salami and an assortment of cheese. Of course, we also picked up a great bottle of wine.
We set our picnic out in the room of our hotel. As the night was not too cold, we opened the doors to the balcony and let the breeze in. We looked out over the city, as we sat on our bed trying different pates and sipping wine. I cannot think of a more romantic setting.
My surprise gift of a trip to Paris for Sabina was every bit as much a gift to myself. Two years have passed by since then, but I still treasure our getaway together. Before we know it, another significant anniversary, our 25th, will approach. I think it would be difficult for me to surprise her again, so I think we will plan that one together. I know if Sabina has her choice, we will go to Paris again.