My last European bus trip was an "it's-Tuesday-so-it-must-be-Paris-pass-me-another-beer" tour with Contiki. Thirty years later, my eight-night La Belle France trip with Back-Roads Touring promises to be very different.
And not just because all of us on the tour bus are now too old for Contiki.
For a start, our group is staying in atmospheric boutique hotels rather than tents, and bottles of chilled Chenin Blanc and rich Burgundy will take the place of the cheapest booze we can find. There won't be any wide-eyed first-time overseas travellers like I was in 1988 on the bus either.
Back-Roads Touring specialise in leisurely tours with no more than 18 passengers, all of whom tend to be experienced travellers who prefer someone else to look after the driving and logistics. While "must see" tourist sites still make an appearance, itineraries favour those who enjoy immersing themselves in a destination with authentic historic, culinary, cultural experiences and plenty of free time to explore independently along the way.
Our tour bus is almost full of passengers aged 50 to 70, with a lively mix of couples, two sisters travelling together and one solo adventurer. Like most of my travelling companions, I've chosen the La Belle France itinerary because it includes a bit of everything: chateaux-sprinkled countryside, Normandy's WWII sites, historic villages, a visit to Monet's Garden, Honfleur, and Mont Saint-Michel, plus wine tasting in the picturesque Loire Valley.
Given the name of the company, it is no surprise when our driver and guide Michael Smith announces we're leaving the highway to explore the backroads not long after we leave Paris. Michael moved to France from England in the early 90s and is brimming with local knowledge and the enthusiasm of someone who loves their job.
Our first stop is Monet's Garden, which brings back memories of high school art classes where I tried in vain to replicate the muted colours and natural beauty captured by Monet. We stroll along manicured paths as Michael tells us how the artist dammed a tiny tributary of the Seine River to create the famous water lily pond, which features in more than 200 of his paintings.
The gardens are blissfully quiet on this cloudy Autumn day and we have plenty of time to explore its fragrant surrounds.
Most of the men are up bright and early the following morning, filled with anticipation of what lies ahead.
Unfortunately I don't share their enthusiasm. As someone who has never been interested in war history, the prospect of spending an entire day touring Normandy's WWII sites doesn't exactly thrill me. However, one the most rewarding things about joining a tour is how it forces you to step outside your comfort zone and experience things you wouldn't normally see.
At the American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand war cemeteries crosses stretch as far as the eye can see. However, among the stories of war there are also moments of beauty. Strolling along a silent Omaha Beach bathed in soft morning light provides a moment of quiet reflection and a poignant contrast to the violent scenes that unfolded here on D-Day in 1944.
The next day we awake to brilliant blue skies and I am the one filled with anticipation. I have been trying to get to Mont Saint-Michel for so long that it is hard to believe I've finally made it when we arrive at the site the following afternoon. Michael points out the tide times on a sign near the base of the medieval monastery before we join him for a guided tour.
"You should be okay today but don't be tempted to venture out too far after our walk. When the tide rushes in, it's impossible to make it back safely from some parts of the tidal flats."
The famous Romanesque church is located on an island and has a village at its base that was founded in the Middle Ages. This has retained its lively atmosphere, although the storekeepers do a roaring trade in fridge magnets rather than supplies for pilgrims these days. We hike up the steep, winding streets and into the church, admiring the sweeping view across the bay before we stroll through the picturesque cloister, ornate abbey and lodging rooms.
After the guided tour, everyone heads off to explore on their own. I venture on to the tidal flats to tiptoe through the mud, most of which has thankfully been baked dry by the sun.
Soon I am joined by other solo travellers and we have fun clowning around taking each other's photo. It was a long time coming but my visit to Mont Saint-Michel proves that sometimes good things really do come to those who wait. However, perhaps surprisingly, it not Mont Saint-Michel that is the highlight of my trip.
Over the following days, we visit Chateau de Chenonceau and Villandry, grand chateaux in the heart of the Loire Valley. We also play picnic Russian roulette. One morning a hat is passed around the bus and each couple draws a picnic item to buy for lunch. Lady Luck is not on my side as I get wine. Michael gallantly steps in as my plus one to split the cost since I'm travelling solo and also helps me choose some excellent local drops for everyone to enjoy.
We lay out our feast on a picnic table and toast our guide for finding such a great spot beside the Cher River. The sun is shining, the river is sparkling and the food, wine and company is superb. Just like Cher, we wish we could turn back time when Michael reluctantly says it is time to leave.
However, it's not all bad. We're off for more wine tasting, this time in an atmospheric 10th century cellar.
We pack up the picnic and store our supplies in the onboard fridge in preparation for an impromptu dinner alongside the Vienne River near our hotel. This picnic is even better than the first one thanks to the stunning view of Chinon, a town so beautiful the entire city was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. The setting sun lights up Chateau de Chinon, where Joan of Arc was sent to join the army at Orleans, and bathes the sky in pink and blue. Today has been my tour highlight.