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I was midway through a bowl of French onion soup capped with fluffy puff pastry when one of my dining companions turned and asked, “Did you hear about the Picasso in the bathroom?”
I hadn’t, but after some sleuthing, we confirmed that the self-portrait was, in fact, authentic and sailing with us onboard the 128-passenger Joie de Vivre — the newest Super Ship from Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. (Unfortunately for me, it was hidden from view in one of the men’s public restrooms.)
The presence of the impressionist artist’s original work onboard a Uniworld ship was hardly a surprise. In fact, as we sailed the Paris and Normandy itinerary along the Seine River through France — Picasso’s final resting place — I noticed that all the ship’s interior spaces drew inspiration from its host country. The front staircase mirrored the one at Paris’ Plaza Athenee Hotel, for example, and hallway art is from French caricaturist George Goursat, whose work peaked in popularity during the early 1900s.
Uniworld has long been known for this type of high-end product, where opulent luxury meets practical, thoughtful design. My Category 1 stateroom had a wall-to-wall window that could be retracted for unobstructed river views, and bedside consoles included a charging station and an electronic panel that controlled lighting and the cabin’s “Do Not Disturb” feature. A mirror across from the bed incorporated a built-in, flat-screen television with a variety of films available for streaming (including “Saving Private Ryan,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Amelie,” all of which take place in France). The marble-lined bathrooms were spacious, featuring a rain shower, heated flooring and heated towel racks.
Although all Uniworld ships tout an elevated river cruise experience, Joie de Vivre — which took its inaugural voyage in April — sets itself apart from the fleet in many ways. It’s shorter than the river’s standard 135-meter river ship by 10 meters, for example, which allows it to dock directly in Paris.
And instead of just one consistent dining option, Joie de Vivre has four: Restaurant Le Pigalle, which serves a breakfast and lunch buffet followed by an a-la-carte menu in the evenings; Le Bistrot, a small French bistro meant to mirror a French sidewalk cafe; Claude’s, the ship’s French Supper Club; and Le Cave des Vins, a five-course cooking class with an onboard chef that can be enjoyed at an added price (premium wine pairings are included).
All of the onboard fare was excellent — but I give higher marks to the service. After just two days, my waiter at Le Pigalle had memorized my coffee order, and a steaming cappuccino was waiting at my usual table each morning as I arrived. And one night, as my group stargazed on the chilly top deck, a crewmember offered my friend his dinner jacket to wear during the few minutes it took to fetch her a blanket.
Onshore excursions were heavily immersive and made more intimate by Uniworld’s exclusive, private guided tours and three pacing options: active, regular or gentle. My Paris and Normandy sailing also offered the option to partake in culinary Connoisseur Collection tours (available on select France departures), but I found the standout excursions to be the full-day tour of Normandy’s D-Day beaches; an exclusive private showing of the Palace of Versailles’ private apartments; and a stop at the home and gardens of Claude Monet (where, I might add, none of the art was hidden behind a bathroom door).
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