Jeannine Williamson sails along the Seine from the very heart of Paris through historic Normandy on Uniworld’s newest ship, Joie de Vivre. On board, she experiences the Francophile ‘joy of living’ with incredible food and plenty of fizz, as well as a personal service that is second to none
Ion, our butler, stands by my cabin window and relates one of the stories behind the art of sabrage, or sabering. Apparently Napoleon wanted to impress a lady and devised an exciting way to uncork Champagne.
The scenario unfolded when I fancied a cheeky late-afternoon glass of fizz – one of the many perks of travelling on an all-inclusive line where premium drinks and fine wines are part of the fare. But it certainly turned out to be a pre-dinner cocktail with a difference – and certainly not one to try at home – as Ion produced a gleaming sabre from a wooden box and, holding the bubbly in his other white-gloved hand, deftly sliced off the bottle top. As the cork headed towards the Seine, fellow butler Viorel poured the first glass.
A few days earlier the vessel’s godmother, Dame Joan Collins, and assembled guests had been treated to a similar spectacle as she christened Uniworld’s newest ‘Super Ship’ Joie de Vivre and the butlers lined up on deck for a simultaneous sabering. The company’s first ship to sail on the Seine, the name translates as ‘joy of living’ and is even more pertinent given the Paris terrorist attacks that shocked the world in November 2015.
One of the few lines to invest in France since, president and chief executive Ellen Bettridge said the outrage had made Uniworld even more determined to show its faith in the French capital and surrounding region. Clients can also be reassured by the fact that Uniworld has increased security across its fleet and each ship has 24-hour guards.
Joie de Vivre is a mouth-watering proposition for Francophiles and foodies
“Joie de Vivre was already under construction when the attacks happened,” she said. “For a week or so work stopped, but it was quickly decided that we wanted to support France and people will always want to go to Paris. If anything it made us make the ship even more French.”
The 128-passenger vessel joins the fleet of 21 ships, and is one of the 13 owned and operated exclusively by Uniworld. Compared with Seine ships, which are 135m long, Joie de Vivre is 125m, enabling it to dock right in the heart of Paris.
A key fact, and selling point, that makes Uniworld stand out from the river cruising crowd is that all its ships are distinctly different. In 2004 the company became part of The Travel Corporation, which also owns Red Carnation Hotels, and this signalled the start of the luxurious line where vessels are themed around the regions they sail in.
The Gallic vibe is everywhere, from the richly varnished wood finishes inspired by classic power boats and yachts, to the retro framed posters, French-inspired hand-crafted furniture, rich fabrics and, last but not least, the all-important food and drink operation overseen by French executive chef Frederic Roland.
The atmosphere is summed up by Uniworld UK managing director, Kathryn Beadle, who said: “You step off the soil of France and onto this ship and you are still in France.”
As I sat down on a classic wooden curved back chair in the jaunty red and white bistro at the front of the ship I certainly felt as if I was still on dry land. A waiter, clad in a waistcoat and long white apron, handed me a menu featuring French favourites such as cassoulet, coq au vin and a ham and cheese baguette. With its dropdown windows Le Bistrot encapsulates the feel of a French pavement cafe (minus the smoke!).
“On all our ships the average time for dinner is one and a half hours,” explained Beadle. “It never feels rushed. If you go into a restaurant you would feel short-changed if you were hurried through a meal and the courses came very quickly. We want everything onboard to be an occasion in the same way that it would if you were dining in a restaurant ashore.”
That said, everything also stops for the great British institution of afternoon tea, served against the backdrop of the resident pianist in the Salon Toulouse lounge and bar. I can’t resist the temptation of the three-tier cake stands served to the table with
a pot of proper loose leaf tea.
The main restaurant is Le Pigalle, for buffet breakfast and lunch and à la carte dinner. Standout features in the evening are the open dining arrangement, allowing passengers to eat at any time between 7pm and 9.30pm, rather than the fixed dinner time that’s a constant on many lines, and an imaginative vegetarian menu.
Claude’s, at the back of the ship, is part of the multi-purpose area that goes through clever chameleon-like changes. By day you can visit the massage room and gym or take a dip in the small pool and have a decent workout swimming against the current. At night a hydraulic floor covers the water and transforms the space into a nightspot that includes the French Supper Club with a tapas menu designed for sharing.
You step off the soil of France and onto this ship and you are still in France
One night we get hands-on in Cave du Vin, a demonstration kitchen and private dining room where the walls are tantalisingly lined with bottles of wine. Donning natty Joie de Vivre chef’s hats and aprons, and suitably fortified with a glass of Champagne, we embark on a range of culinary tasks under the watchful eye of chef de partie Robbert Westendorp. We produce, with a fair degree of professional hand-holding, a delicious meal of Normandy fish soup, chicken liver pâté, beef tenderloin with potato gratin followed by apple tart. After the completion of each course we savour the fruits of our labour, accompanied by different wines
Even on dry land food and wine is omnipresent, making Joie de Vivre a mouth-watering recommendation for Francophiles and foodies. One excursion is lunch at La Couronne, the restaurant where American chef Julia Child fell in love with French cuisine. We embark on guided bike tours, in a token attempt to offset some of the onboard calories, and are greeted at chateaux with – you’ve guessed it – more food and drink. An alternative to the full-day excursion to the poignant Normandy landing beaches, which many UK passengers may have visited in the past, is the extraordinary Chateau de Champ de Bataille. The vision of multi-talented architect, interior designer and garden designer Jacques Garcia, we are greeted with an aperitif and canapés before a tour around the ornate mansion, where the owner’s dogs snooze on 17th century chairs.
Back on board, Joie de Vivre’s 54 staterooms are spread across three decks, all connected by a lift. Available in five categories, and starting at 15 square metres, they include eight Junior Suites, at 28 square metres, and the pair of two-room Royal Suites. Standard features in all cabins are blissful Savoir of England beds, climate control, a nifty TV set in the mirror, marble bathrooms with a heated floor and towel warmers, L’Occitane products, bathrobes and slippers. Suite perks include free laundry, mini-bar and butler service. Unlike the ships where butlers double up with other jobs, Uniworld’s are the real deal, and immaculately dressed in tailcoats, complete with a floral buttonhole, and pin-striped trousers. They’re available for tasks such as packing and unpacking, bringing early morning tea and breakfast, pressing clothes, shining shoes – and going the extra mile.
On Joie de Vivre everything is a class act, and never more so than when it comes to opening a bottle of Champagne. Salut!
- Uniworld sails on 22 rivers in 26 countries (prices from £2,489pp for the seven-night Paris & Normandy cruise on Joie de Vivre). For more information see directory, p53