Uniworld’s latest ship, Joie de Vivre, launched in Paris last month. Sophie Griffiths samples its French flavours.
The staircase is dimly lit and narrow, curving upwards in a seemingly never-ending spiral. Teeth gritted, banister gripped, I pull myself upwards and minutes later burst, panting, into dazzling sunlight.
Carefully positioning myself on the chipped stone slabs and clenching on to the protective fencing, I take in my reward. Directly below, horns blare as tiny scooters zig-zag through speeding lines of cars on the Champs Elysees. To the left, our guide points out the grey silhouette of the Sacre-Coeur’s domes rising up above Montmartre, while Gustave Eiffel’s iconic steel structure looms to my right, dominating the skyline of zinc rooftops.
We’re standing on top of another of Paris’s most famous structures, the Arc de Triomphe, part of a “Rooftops of Paris” tour around the French capital. High above the chaos of the city below, it feels as if we’re in another world.
Our excursion is one of a number offered by Uniworld on its newest ship, the 128-passenger Joie de Vivre, which launched last month featuring itineraries from Paris to the Normandy Beaches.
The excursions are designed to give guests an alternative view of the cities in which the ship calls, and while not explicitly detailed on the Joie de Vivre’s official itinerary, they may be added soon, reveals UK managing director Kathryn Beadle.
“We’re looking at the excursion portfolio,” she says, stating that a number of extra excursions are available to book on request.
“Guests can ask for additional ones through the concierge; some are private, and some will operate as groups,” she explains.
Additional excursions include a trip to the opera at the Palais Garnier, as well as a behind-the-scenes tour of the Eiffel Tower, complete with an explanation of the mechanics behind the original hydraulic lifts of 1889.
The previous day, we had enjoyed a “Behind the Scenes at the Ritz” visit, viewing the newly refurbished world-famous residence, which only reopened its doors last June after closing for three years and 10 months to undergo the revamp. We gaze in envy at the Windsor suite, named after its most famous former inhabitants – the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson) – and marvel at the designer stores lining the shopping “street” within the hotel, before rounding off the tour with cocktails in the Hemingway Bar, enjoying a La Vie en Rose and an equally delicious Ritzy Jasmin.
For now, though, I’m occupied with the rooftops of Paris. From the Arc de Triomphe, we head to the Galeries Lafayette department store, where we sample champagne on the roof terrace, which also doubles as an excellent sun trap. Afterwards, we head to the Arab World Institute to view the city from a different angle, gazing out on the Left Bank and the gothic towers of Notre Dame. And then it’s back to the ship for early evening cocktails in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower onboard the Joie de Vivre.
“Very few people are able to say that they’ve stayed in the French capital and seen Paris from this view,” grins Ben Wirz, Uniworld’s senior vice-president operations. “Its [docking] location is a great advantage.”
It’s also a stark reminder to guests that they are in the City of Light, which tragically in recent years has dominated headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Uniworld was not shy in admitting that the terror attacks of November 2015, in which 130 people were killed, gave it pause for thought about whether it should continue with its plans to launch a new ship sailing Seine itineraries out of the French capital.
But founder Stanley Tollman tells agents at the christening of the Joie de Vivre that within a week of the attacks, his initial reluctance to place a ship in Paris was replaced by defiance. “We’ve been bringing people to Paris for so long,” he says.
“This has always been a city of light for my wife and I… and we wanted to support France.
“It’s so important that people keep coming, and that they tell their friends to keep coming.”
Uniworld president and chief executive Ellen Bettridge later admits that such was the family’s defiance that the ship in fact became “even more French” in its decor following the attacks.
This explains why vintage Belle Epoque-era posters and political cartoons by French caricaturist Sem adorn the walls of the Joie de Vivre, and why the lounge is named the Salon, with a new eatery called Le Bistrot featuring light bites and continental breakfasts.
French culture is in fact reflected throughout the ship. At its bow lies Club l’Esprit, a swimming pool area complete with retractable floor which rises in the evenings to cover the pool and transform the area into Claude’s supper club, with a bar and cinema space showing classic French films. It also has French doors, which open on to The Winter Lounge, with a retractable roof enabling passengers to bask in the Parisian sunshine and return to the warmth when the weather is less kind.
Another of the ship’s unique aspects is La Cave du Vin, a dining and cooking experience for passengers who prepare their own seven-course meal, each serving paired with a different wine by the ship’s sommelier. At €95pp,the price is steep but Wirz insists the experience is worth every penny.
“Guests are able to join the chef as well when the ship is in port, and being able to cook and eat together under the guidance of the chef is a great experience.”
He adds that the dishes alter according to the local foods offered in the markets of the various ports visited by Joie de Vivre on its itinerary, which also include the medieval city of Rouen as well as the Normandy Beaches.
And despite its proximity to Britain, which Beadle admits means that Brits tend to book holidays in France last minute, the Joie de Vivre seems to be winning the market over already.
“France for the Brits is usually more of an impulsive purchase, but this ship is proving really popular. It’s exceeded expectations,” she smiles. “We felt it wouldn’t be easy introducing a ship in a city where it’s had publicity for the wrong reasons. But it shows that people will go through with their purchase if the product is right.”
It also helps if the excursions are on point. And as I look out across the city’s skyline spreading out from the Galeries Lafayette, champagne in hand and the zinc rooftops shimmering in the spring sunshine, I think they might just be.
Book it: Uniworld’s eight-day Paris & Normandy river cruise on Joie de Vivre starts from £2,489pp on an all-inclusive basis, including transfers.