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TRAVEL INSIDER : Time and Space Remain as D-Day Reunion Nears : Accommodations: Despite rumors of a shortage, there shouldn't be a problem reinvading Normandy.

August 01, 1993|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

The 50th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied troops invaded Nazi-occupied Normandy, is still 10 months away. But for weeks now, word has been seeping out of France that the area's hotels are booked solid for the main staging and landing dates of June 5 and 6.

Listening to these reports, it's easy to conclude that thousands of American veterans have been outflanked in their plans to reinvade the place. And it is true that an individual calling Normandy hotels this week is almost certain to be told that there's nothing left during anniversary days. But that's only one perspective on the story--and a distorted one.

"In Pearl Harbor we had the same situation," says Andy Ryder, a veteran operator of military reunion tours. "People were running scared (after hearing reports that the area was booked solid). But when it came down to it, there were rooms available, and there were seats on airplanes."

The bottom line: A traveler determined to visit Normandy during anniversary observances still has a chance at hundreds of hotel beds even on the most coveted nights, and there are several options beyond that. Among the choices:

* Sign on with a tour, either through a veterans' organization or as an individual. Tour operators are the ones who have reserved most of the 48,800 hotel rooms in Normandy; some operators started booking as early as 1989. But those operators are still looking for customers to fill many of those rooms, and their package prices may well be the best deal available.

Anniversary visitors "are going to do much better with a group rate than they're going to do individually," says Col. Kevin Henretta of the U.S. Department of Defense 50th Anniversary of World War II Commemoration Committee. He and others urge that veterans look into trips arranged through service organizations, such as the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division Assn. (based in Sweetwater, Tenn.) or the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (based in Kansas City, Mo.). Those groups are in turn making arrangements with tour operators.

One of the leading tour companies for the event, Galaxy Tours of Pennsylvania (P.O. Box 234, Wayne, Pa. 19087-0234; telephone 800-523-7287 or 215-964-8010; fax 215-964-8220), reports that it controls about 1,100 beds in Normandy during festivity dates, and that about 400 of them are not yet sold. Galaxy tour prices start at $1,965 per person, excluding air fare, for a June 1-9 journey that begins in London, ends in Paris, and places travelers at the American Military Cemetery in Colleville/St. Laurent, near Omaha Beach, for June 6 ceremonies.

Grand Circle Travel (347 Congress St., Boston, Mass 02210; tel. 800-221-2610), which for 35 years has specialized in serving travelers over 50, is another major D-Day tour operator. Bruce Epstein, senior vice president for Grand Circle's land division, estimates the company will have more than 400 travelers at commemorative events on June 6, and that many vacancies remain. (Both Galaxy and Grand Circle say they can guarantee access to restricted commemorative events; anyone determined to reach those events should question tour operators closely on that subject.)

The luxury-oriented Cunard Lines (800-221-4770), meanwhile, is taking unusual steps to capitalize on the invasion anniversary. On June 18, the cruise line announced that it is stationing the Queen Elizabeth 2 (capacity 1,850) and the Vistafjord (capacity 736) in the same waters on June 6--just off the Normandy coast, near Cherbourg. Both ships will send passengers ashore for ceremonies.

The QE2 departs New York May 29 on an itinerary that includes Southampton, England, and Cherbourg and Le Havre, France, returning to New York via Southampton. For a 10-day cruise from New York to Southampton (Mary 29-June 8), or a nine-day cruise from Southampton to New York (June 4-13), least expensive fares start at $3,035 (per person, double occupancy; round-trip air fares from Los Angeles included). Shipboard entertainers: Bob Hope, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, English World War II singing star Dame Vera Lynn, and television commentator Edwin Newman.

The Vistafjord itinerary covers 13 days, starting May 27, including Barcelona, Spain; Algiers; Gibraltar; Casablanca, Morocco; Lisbon; Brest, Dieppe and Cherbourg, France, and Southampton, with fares beginning at $6,500. A Cunard spokeswoman reports "a tremendous amount of interest" and predicts that the ships could sell out as early as two months before departure date.

However one arrives, a visitor to coastal Normandy in early June should expect crowds, closed roads, closely controlled access to historic sites and tight security. Several heads of state and several thousand veterans are expected in the area for the occasion.

"We really think that there will be 10,000-plus veterans and their families," says Henretta. "A lot of groups are staying in Paris (more than 100 miles away) or England and just coming over for the day."

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