Jeannine Williamson savours the delights of the Seine.
In bygone times, elegant carriages transported family members and visitors to the imposing Chateau de Vizy, with the owner’s horses residing in splendour in the 18th century stables inspired by the grandeur of Versailles.
Although we didn’t cut quite the same dash as we pedalled up the drive on bikes, by the time we’d been treated to a private tour around the chateau once owned by Louis de Bourbon, Duke of Burgundy and grandson of Louis XIV, and been seated at an al fresco table overlooking the gardens we certainly felt like royalty.
Outside normal opening hours, there was nobody else around except our guide and the charming octogenarian owner, a member of the Albufera family descended from Napoleon’s brothers, who welcomed us personally to her chateau.
Other members of our group had gone to see Monet’s famous gardens at Giverny, on the opposite bank of the Seine at Vernon. But having visited before, I decided to explore the lesser-known gem of Chateau de Vizy, where we listened to our guide playing an impromptu tune on the grand salon’s ornate lacquered piano made by Sebastien Erard who produced pianos for the French court. Afterwards we tuned in to more history about the estate as she chatted on the sunny terrace while we sampled regional cheeses, sweet and savoury pastries and Normandy apple juice.
The scenario certainly encapsulated the French joie de vivre, or joy of living, so it was fitting that we cycled back to continue our voyage from Paris to Normandy and back on a new river vessel of the same name.
Launched in March by actress Dame Joan Collins, the ship’s godmother, Joie de Vivre is equally stylish. It’s part of the Uniworld fleet where no two ships are the same and the decor reflects the regions in which they sail. This legacy comes from the line’s sister company Red Carnation Hotels, a collection of individual boutique properties designed by founder Beatrice Tollman and her daughter Toni.
Inspired by Parisian design from the Golden Twenties to the free-spirited Sixties, a walk through the public areas of the 128-passenger vessel takes in everything from retro posters fashion and entertainment posters, hand-crafted furniture, mirror-like polished wood and even a ‘life size’ unicorn made from Murano glass.
The 54 staterooms and eight suites resemble the plushest hotel rooms, with marble bathrooms with toasty heated floors, made-to-order Savoir of England beds - arguably the most comfortable you’ll find on any river ship - and an innovative TV embedded in the mirror. The suites come with the services of butlers Viorel and Ion; immaculately turned out in pinstriped trousers and tailcoats, all topped off with a carnation in the buttonhole and obligatory white gloves.
The ship’s Gallic vibe continues in the various restaurants and dining venues, a total of five when you include 24-hour room service, which is unprecedented for a river ship of its size. And when you learn there’s a French chef at the helm you know you’re really going to be in for a treat.
Le Pigalle is the main restaurant, serving buffet breakfast, lunch and a waiter-served a la carte dinner. The line has adopted a farm-to-table philosophy, sourcing seasonal and regional ingredients from suppliers along the route, such as Normandy oysters, white asparagus and the region’s trademark cheese, butter and apples that feature in many dishes. Mealtimes in France are sacrosanct, and as a result there’s never a feeling of being rushed. Plus there’s no fixed time for dinner, the norm on most river vessels, and passengers can dine whenever they want between 7pm and 9.30pm. Unusually too, there’s also a completely separate menu for vegetarians.
Other places to eat include Le Bistrot, a gorgeously atmospheric recreation of a Parisian cafe overlooking the bow. Tables are spread with red and white cloths and the menu features French favourites such as cassoulet, steak au poivre and the ubiquitous ham and cheese baguette.
A changing selection of complimentary wines are served with every meal, but if you have a favourite from earlier in the week then all you have to do is ask for it. That said, the unfailing friendly and professional team of waiters and bar staff will probably recall your top tipple by day two along with your name.
The on board entente cordiale is aided by the open bar, part of Uniworld’s all-inclusive fare. So if you fancy a buck’s fizz at breakfast or a pre-lunch aperitif just go for it. Equally tempting is the endorsement of the great British institution of afternoon tea; fresh brew and a three-tiered stand of goodies served in the lounge against the backdrop of live piano music.
Foodies won’t want to miss an evening at Le Cave du Vin, a new innovation for Uniworld. Up to 10 guests can learn how to cook a five-course gourmet dinner with a helping hand from the chef. Of course, the reward for all the hard work is eating the fruits of your labours, accompanied by fine wine pairings with every dish. One of few experiences that cost extra, it’s well worth the €95 fee for anyone who loves food and drink, plus you get a copy of the recipes and a souvenir chef’s hat and apron.
You can always make a token effort to work off some of the calories by ordering lighter food options, signing up for one of the bike tours, heading to the ship’s gym or taking the plunge in the small indoor pool with a resistance current. Alternatively, you can simply go with the flow as I did and immerse yourself in a week of fascinating French culture and unashamed gastronomy.
One evening I turned in to find a selection of recipe cards created by Beatrice Tollman and Uniworld chefs had been left in the cabin as a memento of the trip. It was certainly a delicious reminder of a cruise that provided a real taste of France, both on board and ashore.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises offers a seven-night Paris & Normandy cruise on Joie de Vivre from £2,489, including all meals, drinks, daily excursions, flights, transfers and tips. Call 0808 168 9231 or visit www.uniworld.com.
Joie de Vivre photos by Steve Dunlop and Rainer Witzgall
This first featured in the June edition of etc Magazine pick up your copy now.