Set sail to celebrate the joy of France

Live the high life as you cruise along the Seine on board the luxurious S.S. Joie de Vivre and take in the gorgeous landscape and rich history

It seemed like a typical November night in Paris.

The city was wearing its autumn coat, but that did not dampen the buzz of this restless, cultural capital. The countless boulevards and winding alleyways were filled with late-night diners enjoying the signature flavours of French fare.

At about 10pm, Mr Brett Tollman, 56, and his family had just finished dining at a favourite restaurant. The group then meandered back to their hotel. But when they arrived, they were met with awful news.

"We were told to go to our rooms and watch the news immediately," says Mr Tollman, chief executive officer of global travel company The Travel Corporation (TTC). "We could not believe the events occurring just blocks away.

"We stayed up all night making sure all our teams and travellers in Paris - thousands of them - were safe. Our family has a very close relationship with Paris and to be there when such a travesty happened was just awful."

Following the terrorist attacks of Nov 13, 2015, Mr Tollman and his father Stanley, 87, TTC's president and founder, agreed to push forward a project that would pay personal homage to France and the dazzling city of light.

Two years on, that promise has been fulfilled with the launch of the S.S. Joie de Vivre (JDV) - or Joy of Living - a $126-million purpose-built luxury vessel launched earlier this year and the jewel in the crown of Uniworld, TTC's river cruise company.

The Lady Liberty statue (above) and riverside life at Mantes-la-Jolie.

From the moment I step on board, it is an "ooh la la" of colour, elegance and je ne sais quoi that is unmistakably French.

There are gorgeous antique brass fittings, plush hand-stitched fabrics and gleaming polished wood floors.

In my suite, there are Hermes toiletries atop a custom-made mattress by Savoir of London. A rain shower, underfloor heating and white onyx tiles complete the bathroom. Day one of seven and already the bar is set very high.

With celebratory champagne in hand, I ascend the top deck as the crew release the moorings. It is a typical Parisian afternoon.

Tufts of white cloud traverse an expanse of iridescent blue sky and the boulevards are lush with lines of green. There is energy in the air.

Most river cruises from the capital begin an hour out of the city due to the typical 135m length of the vessels.

However, the JDV was designed with Paris in mind. At a strategic 125m, it is able to depart right from the heart of the city, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

As the ship pulls away, it makes a pronounced "toot" at the passing river taxis plying this ancient arterial route, which cuts its way right through the city.

My Seine sojourn had begun.

The 300km round trip leads us - 120 passengers and me - north-west to Caudebec-en-Caux, via Mantes-la-Jolie, Vernon/Giverny (home of the famous gardens), Les Andelys and Normandy's capital Rouen.

As dusk descends, the sprawl of the city gives way to the blinking lights of petite villages and rolling hills. Children cycling along the riverside wave to us. Everyday France, in motion, bathed in the soft light of a rising sickle moon.

My night closes on the balcony at Claude's, a live jazz bar and supper club at the stern of the ship, that by day houses the gym and lap pool. Just me, a cocktail and the gentle rush of the waters below.

The next day, following a scrumptious lunch on board (I gain a penchant for Lamb Napoleon on this trip), I meet the South African Mr Tollman and he recalls the events of 2015, which cemented the idea for the JDV.

A private backstage tour of the Opera Garnier (above).

He also says that his mother, Mrs Beatrice Tollman, 84, not only helped plan the ship's daily menus, but also played a part in the ship's design and execution - down to the cutlery.

Of course, it is not just the style and substance on-ship, but what the Uniworld team organises landside that keeps this journey surprising.

The all-inclusive excursions range from a "secret" royal wander at Versailles to an exclusive tour of the Opera Garnier - legendary home of the Phantom - and a poignant visit to Normandy's D-Day beaches, where more than 5,000 soldiers died on June 6, 1944.

Day four and I join an excursion with 10 other guests at Rouen, the city of 100 spires - and one of the most heavily bombed areas during World War II. I walk the cobblestone streets, past ancient walls pockmarked by shrapnel and the site where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake in 1431.

At the town market, we meet chef Gilles Tournadre of two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gill. In an alluring mix of French and English, he leads us on a gourmande tour, detailing local produce, with swigs of cider and calvados (apple brandy).

We then return to the JDV and help him prepare nothing less than a Michelin-quality lunch in the ship's private wine cellar/kitchen Cave des Vins. Of course, much wine flows.

In the evening, we are treated to a private tour of a new Picasso exhibition. Nothing like fine art paired with champagne and canapes.

The next morning, we arrive at the farthest point of our Seine journey, the quizzically named hamlet of Caudebec-en-Caux. Beyond this village, the river widens dramatically as it empties into the English Channel.

Wanting to see this for myself, I join the bus tour to the old-world fishing village of Honfleur, moored in an estuary at the mouth of the Seine. The village that dates back more than 700 years is like a picture postcard and was a regular respite for French impressionist artists Boudin and Monet.

Along the old port of Vieux Bassin, the oddly shaped 16th-century buildings seem to cling to one another for support. More intriguing is the wooden church of Sainte-Catherine, whose innards mimic the upended galley of a ship.

Our walk through time ends with a feast of freshly shucked Normandy oysters, paired with deep-fried shrimps doused in butter and cups of golden cider, much to the envy of the beady-eyed gulls communing at the slipway.

I rent one of the ship's bikes and head off on my own les quais (riverside) adventure.

The hour-long ride takes me through forests and parklands - the same paths frequented by famed writer Victor Hugo.


    The Joie de Vivre sails from Paris between March and November. Current promotional rates for the 2018 season start at €1,819 (S$2,910) a person (all inclusive). Go to for details.

    Singapore Airlines and Air France have daily direct services to Paris-Charles De Gaulle Airport, which is about 30km from central Paris. Other daily services from Changi include Emirates (via Dubai) and British Airways (via Heathrow, London).


    For many travellers, Paris makes for an ideal starting point to explore France and the rest of continental Europe.Your cruise itinerary can be personalised to take in other parts of France or to join other Uniworld cruises, such as to the cities of Avignon and Bordeaux.

    The Normandy cruise offers plenty of exclusive excursions and it is best to book them early. Adventures include a day trip to the awe-inspiring abbey of Mont Saint Michel, a round of golf along the Normandy coastline and lunching in the restaurant that inspired television cook Julia Child.

    If you want to enjoy a unique view of Paris, go for sunset drinks at the lesser-known Ice Cube Bar atop the Galeries Lafayette Haussmann department store. Go to for more information.

Every so often, the tumbledown turret of an old chateau peeps out of the foliage. It is enchanting being in a place so few travellers venture.

I catch up with some JDV comrades on my return and join them for a champagne and hors d'oeuvres tasting at the nearby Manoir de Retival. The renovated hotel is situated on a high cliff and looks across our great river highway back towards Paris.

The end of my cruise is coming to an end all too soon. My final evening is spent with a few newly made friends at Le Bistro.

We tuck into the flavour-packed duck confit, sausage and bean cassoulet, while gazing out across the ship's bow through open bay windows. Caught between worlds: the refuge of the environs and the style of a Parisian diner.

As we return to central Paris, a landmark glides into view. Standing firm at Pont de Grenelle is Lady Liberty. Most know that France gifted the United States the Statue of Liberty in 1886; but America gave Paris the same statue - albeit a smaller version - in 1889.

Seeing this iconic symbol, standing bright against the skyline of this intoxicating city, brings home the very essence of France, the JDV and its fraught yet inspired beginnings.

The week-long river sojourn not only sates my wanderlust, but also provides me a new perspective on travel: exclusive, curated, celebratory and still joyously French.

•Marc Checkley is a New Zealand freelance writer and producer working in Britain and Switzerland. He was hosted by Uniworld.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 03, 2017, with the headline 'Set sail to celebrate the joy of France'. Print Edition | Subscribe