Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s new ship S.S Joie de Vivre offers an authentic French experience says Deborah Stone, who was on board the inaugural sailing from Paris
Uniworld’s new-build generation of boutique river ships have a reputation for being flamboyant and S.S. Joie de Vivre has plenty of ooh la la.
The interiors are designed by Beatrice Tollman and daughter Toni, who has a self-confessed obsession with early 20th century France. So it’s no surprise that this ship – built to sail down the River Seine from Paris – is full of Gallic-inspired fun.
S.S Joie de Vivre has the sophisticated, alluring, curves of a grande dame – fitting as Dame Joan Collins is the ship’s godmother.
This is Uniworld’s first new ship for two years, following the success of S.S. Maria Theresa, which has an interior reflecting the opulence of the Austrian Habsburg Empire. But while 128-passenger S.S Joie de Vivre has similar luxurious details it is completely different in style.
The Tollmans, who own the luxurious Red Carnation Hotel Collection as well as Uniworld, insist on the best quality as well as making an impact. On S.S. Joie de Vivre, a glittering gold-trimmed marble twin staircase provides the grandest of entrances with a large green and gold Murano glass chandelier above it. A waterfall-effect glass panel subtly hides the lift between decks two to four and the floors around the staircase, with its wrought iron balustrades, are also white marble.
Uniworld Boutique River Collection ships are known for their original artwork and antiques and on S.S. Joie de Vivre this includes a “lifesize” Murano glass unicorn that sits outside Salon Toulouse. Inside the salon are original etchings of old Paris, vintage framed posters of Parisian shows and vases full of delicate freeze-dried red roses. Plump sofas covered in Sanderson fabric are sociably scattered to give you views of the river through the floor-to-ceiling windows and at the back of the salon an authentic-looking Parisian café-bar is recreated in Le Bistrot, serving continental breakfast for late risers and, from midday until 9pm, French staples such as onion soup, steak frites Toulouse cassoulet and, of course, cheese.
But the real food sensation happens in Restaurant Le Pigalle, where lavish French farm-to-table cuisine and local wines are served at a mix of tables for two to five or six next to wide picture windows.
The buffet breakfast offers hot and cold dishes – even crispy and non-crispy bacon – and there’s a chef to whisk up omelettes or eggs any way you want.
Lunch is another buffet experience with oysters, shrimps and smoked fish for starters, or cold cuts and salads, and a choice of hot food such as fish casserole or roasts.
Afternoon tea is available in the Salon Toulouse followed by champagne and cocktail receptions every evening before dinner, which you can take any time between 7pm and 9.30pm – there’s room for everybody to sit down together.
With complimentary wine and other drinks available at meals, or in fact at any time of the day anywhere in the ship, dinner is particularly convivial.
Back in the salon for a nightcap or kir royale, there’s live music every night, sometimes from local bands or singers, and twice a week there is a big-screen cinema in Claude’s or live music from the house band.
Claude’s is a particularly special venue. During the day it’s Club L’Esprit, an onboard spa and wellness centre with a conservatory feel.
There’s a fabulous pool in the centre with large steps into the water and it feels like you’re walking into a bath. Push a button and you can swim “against the tide”, or just luxuriate in the warm water.
Massages and beauty treatments are available and there’s a small gym with state-of-the-art equipment, although you wouldn’t want too many keep fit-fanatics on board with you. In the evening a hydraulic floor covers the pool to create Claude’s, a classic French supper club with live music and a menu that includes tapas and other dishes to share.
Eating at Claude’s is free, although you need a reservation, and it’s here that the cinema screen appears by magic on non-supper club nights.
There is a fee to eat in Le Cave des Vins, where up to 10 guests can help prepare their meal with two of the ship’s chefs. Not only can they pick up insider tips on the preparation of dishes such as chicken liver pate and Normandy fish soup, the ship’s sommelier will also offer wine pairings and explain a little about each selection. At 95 euros per person it will appeal to the real foodies onboard – and it’s great fun.
Every stateroom is a private haven. The beds are as soft as a cloud, although if you prefer firm mattresses the staff can sort that too.
Standard staterooms have all the style of a classy hotel with top quality bedlinen and if you find the voluminous duvets too much you can swap it for a sheet and blankets.
There is plenty of storage space in the French shellac-style drawers topped with marble and the double wardrobe, which comes with a safe, slippers and bathrobes.
Above the drawers is a wall of mirrors with a large TV screen embedded in the centre that offers several American and British TV channels plus enough free films to last for weeks. There’s also music, radio and games, information about your onboard bill and maps of the town where you’re moored.
The power points are particularly clever – you can fit a British plug in the same place as a European or American plug and there are two connections for charging your mobile phone, tablet or laptop.
Beside the bed are switches to open the curtains so you can enjoy the view without getting up while waiting for your butler service morning pot of English breakfast tea.
And there are also switches next to the power points to lower or raise the full-length, floor-to-ceiling window to create a balcony inside your stateroom and let you enjoy the fresh air as you sail.
The bathroom has a marble heated floor, marble walls and a luxurious marble and glass walk-in shower complete with L’Occitane shampoo, conditioner and shower gel, while beside the marble sink there’s L’Occitane hand wash and body lotion.
Nothing is overstated; everything is just right, although in the suites – two large Royal Suites and eight Junior Suites – the wallpaper is lavishly pretty and the artwork even more expensive.
But as playfully stylish as S.S Joie de Vivre is, it’s the staff and their immaculate service that makes this ship stand out. Happy staff make for a happy ship and you can’t get much more joyful than this.
When you step onto S.S. Joie de Vivre in Paris you’re not just boarding a floating hotel, you’re stepping into a real super ship that is an authentic French experience.
GETTING THERE: Uniworld’s eight-day Paris & Normandy river cruise starts from £2,489pp, including seven nights of onboard accommodation in a category five river-view stateroom on the S.S. Joie de Vivre, all meals and unlimited beverages onboard and daily excursions plus wellness on the water experiences and transfers on arrival and departure days. For more information call 0808 168 9231 or visit uniworld.com.