Queues are all behind you when you're on a group bus tour, writes Linda Thompson.

Poor George didn't know where to look. A few metres from the quietly spoken retiree from Nashville, Tennessee, a stunningly gorgeous girl was dancing and singing — topless, in a sparkly costume that left little to the imagination.

It was only the second day of his Insight Vacation with a bunch of very new friends, and he was at the Moulin Rouge. The real thing. In Paris.

Everyone in our little group from the US, Canada, Australia, Singapore and South Africa was in awe of the talent of these dancers and singers, some of the best in the world, who have competed to win a coveted spot at the world-famous cabaret.

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We'd arrived in Paris only the day before, after meeting in London, taking the fast Eurostar from St Pancras to Paris and having our first welcome dinner together that night, slowly getting to know each other.

We were travelling the Road to Rome with Insight Vacations — a guided trip from London to Paris, Burgundy, Lucerne in Switzerland, tiny Liechtenstein, mountainous Innsbruck in Austria, the Dolomites to Venice's canals, Tuscany's vineyards to Pisa and Florence and finally to Rome.

There were retired couples, and those having their first big trip now the kids had grown.

River cruise boat in Paris.
River cruise boat in Paris.

There were mum-dad-and-son threesomes from Canada, mum-son-and-mum's-friend threesomes from California and Panama, mum-dad-and-English-speaking-daughter threesomes from China and Singapore, an "almost 12" redhead and her granny from Durban, a mum and teenage daughter also from Durban. And one Kiwi.

By the end of 12 days on the road together we would become firm friends with shared experiences. And a shared appreciation for our tireless tour director Gary — an American living in London who has travelled since he was a child.

He's fluent in many languages, can solve any problem (even the perennially late duo we were always waiting for) and wake everyone on the bus slowly with a gentle "buon giooooorno ... " after a few sleepy hours on the road.

But back to the red windmill. Moulin Rouge is an "optional experience", but it's a must-do.

Come on now, how often are you going to be in Paris? There's $18 million in extravagant costuming on troupes of Doriss Girls and boys in sequins and glitzy headpieces in the current Feerie show — a sort of fairytale.

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Don't be fooled by the very average "cabaret" featuring a couple of competent singers of standards as you walk in. The bloke is wearing either an awful perm or a wig.

Then there's dinner and wine. And then there's the French cancan, snakes in a giant water tank that rises up soundlessly through the floor next to you, and a woman swimming with them. There's an incredible juggler, there's Cossacks, acrobats and horses, oh my.

No photos allowed so you'll have to use your imagination.

Paris sizzles in the summer. There are monuments on every corner, but of course you have to see the Eiffel Tower first. And Notre Dame Cathedral.

Close-up visits to these icons is a must, but they are also optional experiences. Do them — you'll beat the queues and get up to the viewing platforms on this historic tower over the city nice and early before the crowds and the heat take over.

Those "Skip the line" tickets are a bit of a joke in high summer. You'll battle crowds everywhere, but doing a group tour like this takes you to the head of the line in no time.

The wrought-iron lattice tower on the Champ de Mars designed by Gustave Eiffel and constructed from 1887 as the entrance to the 1889 World's Fair was only meant to last 20 years. Now it's one of the most-visited monuments in the world. It's also the best spot to get a handle on this lovely city.

There is a modern side to Paris, but it is wisely banished behind a forest in the distance, so all you need to see are the old buildings, monuments and wide roads.

Except for that one hideous modern building. La Defence, rising like a pimple on the ancient landscape … Parisians hate it too.

Discover some of the 37 bridges over the Seine on a bateau mouche ride down the river in the evening, and watch the Parisians and the thousands of summer visitors take in the evening on the riverbanks and waving as you pass.

The oldest of these is called — ironically — Pont Neuf, the new bridge, constructed about 1578, but each bridge has its own unique history.

We finally appreciate the left and right banks — our Rive Gauche hotel is actually quite a distance from the banks — and see many of the sights we've only ever seen in photos.

Then the city magically lights up at dusk and you'll see why this is called the City of Lights — the Trocadero where intellectuals gathered, the tunnel where Diana died, the Champs Elysees. Driving back to our hotel we get caught in a traffic jam, but as my sister said (talking on Messenger thanks to Wi-Fi on the bus) it's a traffic jam — in Paris!
Next day we take a foodie walk around the market with a local, Florent — a surprisingly skinny bloke with ample appetite — and sample baguettes, every kind of cheese from silky to stinky, salami, plump strawberries and raspberries, tempting pastries and rum baba.

Linda Thompson and Intrepid Tours tour director Gary outside the Coliseum in Rome. Photo / Linda Thompson
Linda Thompson and Intrepid Tours tour director Gary outside the Coliseum in Rome. Photo / Linda Thompson

We taste the best of patisserie, boulangerie, fromagerie and chocolatier, while some sneak off to indulge their own passions. One couple go to the Louvre to tick the Mona Lisa off their wish list. Another pair detour to Louis Vuitton to buy a coveted handbag — another tick. A few years of schoolgirl French allow me to translate a big historic plaque for one of the Americans.

Quelle surprise!

The Notre Dame is a beauty with its French Gothic architecture and its Rose Window dating back to 1160. Again we beat the crowds with priority access.

It's worth listening to the history, thanks to Gary, our endless font of knowledge, to better understand the intricate designs and imagery showing what happens to the non-believers. Into the fires of hell.

The next day we drive through the Burgundy wine region through the village of Auxelles and the many windfarms on our way to the mountains of Switzerland and Austria.
Adieu Paris. Hello Schweiz.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

UK & Europe fares are on sale with helloworld

, with savings of $200 on Economy return fares, $500 on Premium Economy and $1000 on Business Class. Sale ends September 3.

DETAILS
Insight Vacations' 12-day Road to Rome premium escorted journey starts in London and visits Paris, Burgundy, Lucerne, Liechtenstein, Innsbruck, Venice, Pisa, Florence, and Rome. Prices from $5950 pp, including accommodation, transport, sightseeing and many meals.