It might be morning coffee time back home, but we’re sipping champagne and nibbling exquisite canapes against an expansive backdrop of gardens and fountains. After the convivial welcome we follow Patrick Pottier through a series of ornate and idiosyncratic rooms at 17th century Chateau de Champ de Bataille, some members of the group still clutching glasses of fizz. Greyhounds belonging to the chateau owner and celebrated interior designer Jacques Garcia come with us, taking ‘dog naps’ on antique chairs along the way while Patrick talks about the painstaking 20-year restoration of the house and grounds.
Our private and very personal visit is a far cry from some of the stuffy tours conducted with military precision that I’ve endured at some UK stately homes. It might be grand, but the Normandy chateau is very much Garcia’s home and he’s there a lot of the time. After a three-course lunch in the equally atmospheric restaurant, naturally accompanied by more wine, we make a token attempt to walk it off as Pottier continues the tour around part of the 90-acre estate, the largest private garden in France, where he has been responsible for creating amazing areas such as an Egyptian walk lined with topiary sphynxes, a Greek temple and Indian palace surrounding a tranquil lake.
Not surprisingly, a few people snooze on the coach back to the stretch of the Seine between Rouen and Caudebec-en-Caux where our vessel awaits.
With its brightly painted bow, you can’t miss Uniworld’s Joie de Vivre which was launched in March by Dame Joan Collins, the ship’s godmother. Uniworld’s vessels stand out from the river cruise crowd as they are all very different. The 128-passenger Joie de Vivre embraces French style from the roaring twenties to the swinging sixties with its antique furnishings, retro posters, and highly polished interiors epitomising the glamour of Riva sailing yachts. Whimsical touches include a ‘life-size’ unicorn crafted from Murano glass.
It’s not just the vessel that’s different. The majority of river cruise lines offer a tried and tested shore excursion programme based around city walking tours and coach tours to places of interest. Nothing wrong with that of course, and indeed there are several that follow a similar theme on Joie de Vivre’s sailings out of Paris. But as we soon discovered, passengers can expect the unexpected along with some very individual touches. Plus, you’re always spoilt for choice with several included excursions to pick from at each stop.
At Vernon, gateway to Monet’s famous gardens, I opted for a bike tour, partly to try and offset some of the on board calories and because I visited Giverny last year. After riding around the town, stopping to see the old mill straddling two piers, medieval castle and charming half-timbered houses, we headed up the hill to Bizy Castle. We knew refreshments were awaiting but didn’t expect to be greeted by the charming octogenarian owner, a member of the Albufera family descended from Napoleon’s brothers, and be treated a selection of Normandy cheeses, sweet treats and apple juice on the terrace long before other paying members of the public arrived.
In Rouen our arrival coincided with preparations for the summer Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts and we’re invited to a one-off exclusive preview.
Back on board it’s as if you’ve never stepped off dry land. Uniworld designs its ships around the destinations visited and a lovely spot to have a snack or lunch is Le Bistrot, reminiscent of a Parisian cafe-bar with hoop-backed wooden chairs, red and white tablecloths and waiters in long starched aprons. The menu features favourites such as onion soup, cassoulet, steak frites and Normandy apple pie, with the obligatory freshly-baked baguette on the side.
With all drinks included in the fare, you don’t need an excuse to get into the Gallic mood by ordering a Pernod or sparkling kir royale as you decide what to order.
The main restaurant is Le Pigalle, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dishes showcase fresh, seasonal and regional ingredients and one lunchtime there were oysters from Normandy. The a la carte evening meal is up to six courses, if you count the amuse bouche and cheese, but of course you can just order a couple of dishes if you’ve got the willpower (which escaped me for the duration of the cruise).
Other culinary temptations include afternoon tea in the main lounge and a tapas-style menu for sharing in the intimate Claude’s Supper Club at the back of the ship. Food lovers and keen home cooks won’t want to miss an evening at Caves du Vin, Joie de Vivre’s demonstration kitchen and private dining room where up to ten passengers join the chef to create a five-course meal paired with fine wines. It costs €95 but is worth it. If you’re still feeling peckish there’s even 24 hour-room service!
Although it’s slightly smaller than other ‘super ships’ in the fleet, allowing it to moor in the centre of Paris close to the Eiffel Tower, Joie de Vivre packs plenty into its 410ft length. There’s small gym, massage room and, making the best use of space, the chameleon-like Club L’Esprit lounge with a bar, loungers and indoor pool where you can flick a switch to swim against a resistance current. At night the pool is cleverly covered to transform the area into a live music venue and dance floor.
When it’s time for bed after all the fresh air and food, the 54 staterooms and eight suites – the latter with butler service – provide a blissful retreat at the end of the day or for a cheeky afternoon nap. The beds are heavenly and come with a variety of pillows and the marble bathrooms have toasty heated floors.
Aside from the ship itself, a standout feature is the crew. Unfailingly helpful and cheerful, they ensure all passengers embrace the ship’s namesake philosophy ‘joy of living’. Bon voyage!