Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has wholeheartedly committed to the city of light, deploying its newest ship, S.S. Joie de Vivre on the River Seine. Jasmine O’Donoghue jumped aboard the inaugural sailing.
Stepping off a transfer and into the heart of Paris, with the Eiffel Tower looming behind us, the bright floral artwork on the hull of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s S.S. Joie de Vivre catches the eye.
Touted by the cruise line as “the first of its kind to sail the Seine River”, the ship promised to bring the “joy of living” to the rivers of France.
Suspense clung to the brisk spring air as we ascended the gangway and became some of the first Aussies to set foot on board the vessel.
We are met by highly-polished wood finishes reminiscent of a luxury yacht – a first for the line – and led down a majestic marble staircase which wraps around a water feature cascading from the ceiling, making it immediately apparent Uniworld has not skimped on the finer details.
A warm welcome from the crew and we are promptly escorted to our room by an animated staff member, who gushes as he shows off all the new gadgets in our cabin.
He gleefully flicks a switch and our floor-to-ceiling window drops down into a French balcony, flooding the cabin with light and the buzz of the city outside.
Next he highlights a bedside switch for the curtains, allowing passengers to peek out at the French scenery without leaving the warmth of their beds.
Amidst the excitement and exuberant mood on board, it can be hard to comprehend that this beacon of luxury was nearly a “no go”.
Speaking at the vessel’s christening ceremony in Paris, The Travel Corporation founder and chairman Stanley Tollman told guests he initially pulled the plug on the ship shortly after the 2015 attacks on the Bataclan Theatre.
Two weeks later, he reversed the decision, reinforcing that France has the company’s “full support”.
“I honestly believe in a lifetime of businesses and travel-related services, that this is really one of our best achievements,” Tollman told ceremony guests.
“The standard of workmanship, the quality of people working aboard and the enthusiasm that everybody who has seen it has embraced, it is something that has made me seriously proud.”
Echoing Tollman, Fiona Dalton, local MD for Uniworld told travelBulletin the decision to deploy the vessel in France could have gone one of two ways.
“The courageous thing to do was to continue to deliver this extraordinary initiative and that’s what they did,” she said, adding “all credit to the owners for having the courage of their conviction to do what they knew was right, not what they knew was easy”.
The decision is paying off for the line, with cabins for S.S. Joie de Vivre booked at 90% for the remainder of the year, the bulk of which is from past guests.
In line with its aim to make every vessel unique, Uniworld has introduced a number of fresh concepts on S.S. Joie de Vivre.
Drawing inspiration from the vessel’s roundtrip itinerary from Paris, the ship embraces “all things French”.
The design of the shiny new vessel aims to extend the onshore experience on board and weaves in Parisian design spanning from the 1920s through to the 1960s, while the dining offering is dominated by French produce and local wines.
A number of fresh concepts have been introduced on S.S. Joie de Vivre, with the cruise line rejigging its approach to a pool and spa.
Located at the back of the middle deck is Club L’Esprit, which during the day is a relaxing spa and wellness centre encasing a resistance pool, massage room, fitness centre and a bar well-stocked with smoothies and snacks.
It’s a spot to grab a snack and relax on comfortable seating with a book or take in the French countryside from the balcony.
But just before the sun fades, the sparkling star-like lights in the ceiling switch on, a hydraulic floor rises over the pool and live music takes over.
The mood changes and the venue transforms into a Supper Club called Claude’s, serving as an alternate dining venue with a set menu.
At the opposite end of the deck, overlooking the front of the vessel, is another dining option, Le Bistrot.
Mirrored on a French sidewalk cafe, it offers a continental breakfast in the morning, traditional bistro cuisine in the afternoon and in pleasant weather the venue’s windows can drop down, converting it into an open-air space.
Also new is Le Cave des Vins, a private dining room and “wine cave” downstairs which Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge described as an “on-board shore excursion”.
Groups can reserve their space in the wine cave for a farm-to-table experience where they prepare a seven-course meal with the chef and settle in to enjoy it with paired wines.
In an increasingly busy river cruise environment, Bettridge told travelBulletin that Uniworld had positioned itself in a way she said gave them no competitors.
“We are a floating boutique hotel, we are not a river cruise,” she stated.
“No one else can offer this level of service, no one offers this level of food, no one offers this level of style and I just don’t think we have any competitors.”
The cruise line has experienced a rebound from the Australian market for France over the past 12 months, Dalton said, noting across the board Aussie bookings had been “really strong for the last six months”.
Dalton said she was “quietly confident” that the launch of the new ship would be a “foundation for a fantastic 12 to 18 months ahead for Uniworld globally”.
S.S. Joie de Vivre is operating eight-day itineraries on the Seine, which can be paired with departures of the S.S. Catherine on the Rhone and River Royale in Bordeaux for longer holidays.