Cruising down the Seine from the heart of Paris to Normandy, Sue Bryant soaks up the very French ambience on Uniworld’s new river vessel, Joie de Vivre.
I could be in any stylish Parisian street, chatting to friends in a cosy bistro with tiled flooring, red leather banquettes and red-and-white chequered tablecloths. Onion soup, pâté and steak au poivre are on the menu and there’s a chilled glass of Provençal rosé in front of me.
In fact, I’m on a ship; Uniworld’s 128-passenger S.S. Joie de Vivre, a new river cruiser that combines grand design statements with bold colour and goes all-out to offer complete immersion in French culture and cuisine.
Joie de Vivre was built 10 metres shorter than typical Seine river cruisers so that it can moor right in the heart of Paris, where a tight turn is required to spin round and head downstream and deep into the Normandy countryside. Just along from where I’m eating, the Eiffel Tower pierces a deep blue sky.
I’d cycled past it earlier on an energising ride on the banks of the Seine, so I’d certainly worked up an appetite for lunch in Le Bistrot, one of four places to eat on board. The sense of occasion was slightly dimmed by most of my dining companions deviating from the menu and demanding cheeseburgers. But top marks to Uniworld for embracing the spirit of France.
Joie de Vivre was christened in March, godmother Dame Joan Collins imbuing the ceremony with a sense of old-fashioned glamour (see our report on that here). And that’s what really sums up the look of this very stylish ship, which embodies French style from the 1930s through to the 1960s. “It’s a tribute to the design, art, food and wine of France – everything I love,” says Toni Tollman, who designs the interiors of all Uniworld ships.
The idea, Tollman says, was to have the finish of a Riva yacht, all polished walnut and gleaming metal. The top of the bar in the Salon Toulouse is solid bronze. The staircase was inspired by the one in the Plaza Athénée, a legendary Parisian hotel, while the corridors are adorned with original political cartoons by Sem, a famous French caricaturist from the early 1900s.
Bathrooms are grey and white marble, with luxurious under-floor heating. “Joie de Vivre is like a grand hotel in Paris in the 1940s or ’50s; a grand ocean liner; a super yacht on the Seine,” Tollman declared. “We don’t do plastic.”
In fact, the ship nearly didn’t happen. It was in the planning stages when the atrocity of November 2015 at the Bataclan concert hall took place and The Travel Corporation, Uniworld’s owner, considered pulling the plug. But chairman Stanley Tollman, who was in Paris at the time, remembers: “A week later, I said, this isn’t right. We’ve been bringing people to Paris for so long. We want to support France.” So the ship went ahead, the red, white and blue colour schemes throughout a symbol of solidarity with Paris.
Joie de Vivre has an intimate feel, with just 54 staterooms and 10 suites, but it’s surprisingly spacious. The airy main lounge, Le Salon Toulouse, is all gleaming wood, deep pinks and big vases of red roses. The aft lounge, with wicker seating and motifs of tropical greenery, has multiple purposes – it’s Club l’Esprit during the day with early morning yoga, fresh veggie juices and all-day coffee in a sunny, glass-enclosed aft area, and a tiny swimming pool with a powerful jet. By night, the venue becomes Claude’s. The floor of the pool is raised hydraulically, creating an intimate dining space, cocktail bar with dance floor and on some nights, movie theatre, where French films are shown.
For a river boat, Joie de Vivre has a remarkable array of dining choices. In addition to Le Pigalle, the main restaurant, and Le Bistrot, there’s a private dining/cookery experience, La Cave des Vins, held in the wine tasting room on Jules Verne deck and costing €95 ($140).
Up to 12 participants don chefs’ aprons and hats and are assigned tasks, assisted by the ship’s chefs, to create a wine-paired feast including pork terrine, Normandy fish soup, calvados sorbet, tenderloin of beef with potato gratin and a Normandy apple tart.
There’s also evening dining in Claude’s, where you can try sharing dishes such as baked camembert and duck cassoulet.
Mercifully, the ship carries a fleet of bicycles and I cycled wherever I could, joining guided jaunts along the river in Rouen and Caudebec-en-Caux as well as Paris. Excursions are included in the cruise fare, from the many attractions of Paris to a day trip to Mont St Michel, the dazzling Monet garden at Giverny and the Normandy landing beaches. We drove through the bucolic Normandy countryside, all thatched cottages, apple orchards and contented-looking cows grazing, and sat by the water in the gorgeous little fishing port of Honfleur, drinking cafe au lait in brilliant sunshine. The perfect setting, in fact, to conjure up a sense of true joie de vivre.