T+L Take: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s S.S. Joie de Vivre
Newer, sleeker ships keep coming to Europe’s waterways, thanks to a surge in new passengers who are attracted to river cruising. And as today’s traveler looks to immersive experiences, the interest in this form of travel — which highlights small tours, hyper-local cuisine, and cultural attractions — will only continue to grow.
This year, one of the most anticipated debuts was Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s S.S. Joie de Vivre, the fourth in the line’s class of Super Ships. Uniworld — which won a Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Award in 2016 for the top river cruise line — is known for having some of the most luxurious, well-designed vessels on the water. (Think less cruise ship, more boutique hotel meets super yacht.) And unlike many other cruise companies, which operate on the rivers and at sea, Uniworld designs each ship individually, giving travelers a sense of place and customization that feels unexpected and refreshing.
Once you set foot on the Joie de Vivre, it’s clear you are in France. With its sumptuous Pierre Frey Braquenié silk wall coverings and caricatures by the Belle Epoque artist George Goursat (Sem), the ship evokes early-to-mid 20th century Paris — but there are plenty of contemporary touches, too. In the elegant main restaurant, Le Pigalle, which has walnut-paneled walls, soft pink banquettes, and velvet-covered ceilings, passengers can dine on French classics such as coq au vin or beef bourginon — but also healthy breakfast smoothies and on-trend dishes like a creamy burrata toast.
The itinerary itself is also a standout. The ship will be making regular 8-day sailings to Normandy from Paris, so guests can easily tack on a couple of days pre-or-post cruise in the City of Light. (Also of note: the ship is built to be 410 feet long, and it can sail right into the heart of the city.) Once you leave Paris, the itinerary reads like a greatest hits tour of some of France’s most famous destinations, including Honfleur, Rouen, and Giverny, where Monet had his home and gardens.
The ship was a labor of love for Uniworld’s owners, the Tollman family, who spared no expense when it came to the materials: think silks, velvets, antiques, and plenty of marble. In the staterooms, pink fabric headboards beautifully offset the solid walnut dresser. Tasteful art, both from the family’s personal collection and various dealers, is displayed throughout. For example, in the upstairs lounge, a series of aquatint etchings from 1861 documenting the history of Paris and the Seine line the back wall. Ringing the room are printed Sanderson fabric couches, which add just the right amount of color.
The ship has 10 suites and 54 staterooms, ranging in size from 410 square feet to 162 square feet (the majority are sized at 194 square feet). All of the staterooms are stylish and extremely well-designed to maximize space. For example, beneath the custom Savoir of England beds, you’ll find two drawers that pull out to stow away suitcases. Shelves on the right side of the bed come in handy for stashing souvenirs or reading material. One wall is mirrored (which creates depth) and also has a built-in television, leaving more space for guests to place objects on the marble-topped vanity. White marble-clad bathrooms have well-sized shower stalls and destination-appropriate L’Occitane en Provence bath amenities. Guests in a category three stateroom and higher can also roll down the top portion of their cabin’s window with a push of a button, allowing for magnificent, up-close views of the Seine.
Passengers won’t ever forget that they are in France. The lunch and dinner menus are filled with iconic French dishes, wine, and yes, cheese. For lunch, the buffet might include coq au vin, Dover sole, or beef bourguignon. Occasionally, hearty English and American fare, such as a duck cottage pie or macaroni and cheese, will show up too, along with personal recipes from Mrs. Tollman—if they serve the key lime pie, just say yes. All of this is paired with a French white or red wine, and it’s nice to see more unexpected choices, such as pinot noir from Sancerre, show up in the sommelier’s hands. At dinner, guests can choose from multiple courses: portions of lobster thermidor, roasted Bresse chicken, and mussels in white wine sauce are sized perfectly so that you never feel too full. For the cheese and dessert course, special attention is paid to Normandy, so that you can try a creamy Pont L’Eveque or Neufchatel, as well as a soufflé spiked with Calvados. All wines and food are included in the price of the cruise.
Uniworld offers several excursions in each port, whether it’s a gourmet walking tour through the markets of Rouen, a morning trip to the charming port town of Honfleur, or a full-day outing to see the famous D-Day beaches. Because the ship is small, tours never feel overly crowded; certain excursions, however, fill up fast so it is best to sign up as quickly as possible. Uniworld can also arrange special outings, depending upon the time of the sailing. For example, during our voyage, a Picasso exhibit was set to debut in the art museum of Rouen, so passengers were able to get a sneak peak (and a champagne toast) two days before it opened.
During the day, the Club L’Esprit is a small wellness facility, complete with a single treatment room for massage and a small plunge pool. At night, the pool is covered, and the space becomes an elegant supper club called Claude’s. The bar also stays open late.
Uniworld’s staff is courteous, efficient, and extremely accommodating to guests’ needs, whether it’s delivering a pot of morning coffee and basket of croissants or keeping group tours on schedule.
The Exclusive Experiences
Exclusive to the Joie de Vivre, the intimate Les Caves du Vin is a 14-seat private dining and cooking demonstration room. For 95 Euros a person, guests can reserve the space and experience a 7-course dinner and culinary lesson, with classically prepared French dishes (think Normandy fish soup, terrine of poultry, and potato gratin) all paired with a standout wine.