A Stylish Jaunt Down France’s Most Picturesque Rivers

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Apr 11, 2018

by LEE TULLOCH, Writer

It’s a cruising tradition that every newly minted ship has a “godmother” to christen her and bring good fortune to the vessel. I attended my first christening in 2014 when Uniworld launched the SS Catherine, a sumptuous river ship that cruises the Seine, the Saône and the Rhône from Paris to Avignon. The godmother on that occasion was legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve, who officiated with fabulous indifference, dashing away now and again to puff on a cigarette.

Today, at the launch of Uniworld’s latest European river ship, the SS Joie de Vivre, in Paris, another showbiz stalwart, Dame Joan Collins, does the honours. Dressed in a snazzy white pants suit and picture hat, the perky 84-year-old Dynasty star wields the obligatory champagne bottle, dazzles luncheon guests in the ship’s formal dining room, Le Pigalle, and poses for selfies with her husband, Percy Gibson, before heading back to London, like the protagonist in an intriguing plot line. It’s a shame to see her go; she looks like a woman who’d be a heck of a lot of fun on a cruise.

Fortunately, not all the glamour has disappeared with Dame Joan. I have seven nights to look forward to on the SS Joie de Vivre, a ship that Uniworld considers the most luxurious on the Seine. Like a beautiful vintage yacht (minus sails), she has gleaming walnut woodwork, antique bronze hardware and flamboyant interiors designed to evoke the Paris of the 1920s to 1960s, when chichi nightclubs, bars and salons were all the rage. Our voyage is taking us from Paris to Normandy, where the Seine meets the English Channel, and back again.

Like her godmother, the SS Joie de Vivre is a class act that’s 
a little bit saucy. She is slender and her shorter length means she is able to dock in the centre of the city, allowing for pre-cruise shopping sprees and intriguing shore excursions to cultural 
and historic sites. There’s a chic little bistrot with the air of the Rive Gauche, a bar that might have been lifted straight out of 
Les Halles and a supper club where, after dark, the hydraulic floor closes over a small swimming pool. At the heart of the ship is a grand staircase inspired by the one that graces the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris.

After bidding au revoir to the City of Light, we moor in the little village of Mantes-la-Jolie. I’m on the port side and I know to have my curtains drawn in case there are early-morning joggers along the quay. Newcomers to river cruising are often surprised by the practice of tethering, where other ships draw up alongside to dock for the night and passengers walk across each other’s vessels to reach the quay. (On my first river cruise, I woke one morning to find a dining room full of German tourists looking down at me over their breakfast sausages. We’d been tethered to their ship during the night and I hadn’t known to close the blinds.)

The Seine is a busy river and from it you can access an astonishing number of iconic landmarks, including the Palace of Versailles, Empress Josephine’s Château de Malmaison, Monet’s garden at Giverny and Rouen Cathedral. In Normandy, cruise guests can opt to visit Mont Saint-Michel or the D-day beaches 
or play golf in spectacular, cliffhanging Étretat.

There’s an intriguing range of landscapes, from industrial ports to pretty villages, shantytowns to imposing villas with gardens spilling down to the water. Most days I perch on an overstuffed sofa by a window, sipping tea or cocktails as the swans and barges glide by. This kind of slow, reflective travel is immensely soothing and one of the reasons, I believe, that river cruising is gaining devotees so quickly.

With such luxury on the ship, it can be a daily challenge to get off it. That said, one of the great joys of river cruising is the access to villages and communities along the riverbank. The ship carries bicycles for the adventurous, who set off each day to explore the towpaths. Although we’re bussed to locations such as the historic trading port of Honfleur, in many towns we simply pull up to the dock, disembark and walk or cycle into town.

Which is exactly what we do in the beautiful city of Rouen, famous for its cathedral and for Joan of Arc, who was burnt at the stake in the town square. Rouen is also the home of La Couronne 
(31 Place du Vieux-Marché; +33 2 35 71 40 90), the 14th-century restaurant where, in 1948, American Julia Child had a revelation about French cooking that led her to embark upon her successful culinary career. The restaurant is a pilgrimage for foodies and, for €65 (about $100), they will serve you a three-course meal including a version of the Dover sole that sent 
Child into ecstasy.

It seems crazy, given we’re in France, but it’s tempting to stay on the ship for as many meals as possible. The food on board is exceptional – fresh and lavishly presented, much of it sourced locally. Uniworld matriarch Béatrice Tollman, who ran her own hotel kitchen in Johannesburg at the age of 22, keeps a keen eye on menus, which offer a selection of her favourite recipes, such as pâté en croûte and creamy cheesecake, alongside oysters, lobster, venison and other less homey dishes. The five-course set menus for dinner always include a full vegetarian selection.

But this is Dame Joan’s ship and we want to keep our figures. 
In a bid to avoid the breakfast croissants, I retreat each morning to the wellness centre, Club L’Esprit, where smoothies are served and yoga and aquatic exercise classes take place. There’s also a seriously good masseuse in residence. At night, kilojoules can be worked off dancing when the spa turns into Claude’s supper club.

If Dynasty had been taped on a river vessel, Claude’s might have hosted Alexis Colby in all her sequined, shoulder-padded splendour, before the obligatory catfight with her nemesis, Krystle Carrington. But this is not Dynasty and Dame Joan is not Alexis. She is an actress, albeit a glamorous one, whose favourite place on board is, in fact, Salon Toulouse, where an extravagant high tea is served each afternoon. A contretemps over macarons? Not on this dignified dame.

SEE ALSO: The Best River Cruises in the World