Is it a good or a bad thing to be greeted at a ship's bar by a big warm hug from the bartender you last met two years ago? Of course I thought it was wonderful to re-meet the beautiful Ana in Joie de Vivre's Salon Toulouse but perhaps it could have been interpreted as my over-familiarity with the bar on SS Antoinette. No matter – our mutual pleasure in seeing each other again is not only genuine but typical of the remarkable crew who work on Uniworld's river ships.
It's not just the ships; the Tollman family, which owns The Travel Corporation's 25 travel brands, prides itself on recognising staff who go out of their way to deliver "TNTs, or Tiny Noticeable Touches" to guests, whether in the prestigious Red Carnation hotels or any of its tour companies.
The Tollmans were onboard Joie de Vivre for its christening in Paris this year. Dame Joan Collins did the honours as godmother and Uniworld's founder Stanley Tollman spoke about how France – and Paris in particular – has weathered some shocking events recently. "Paris is resilient, and so are many travellers," he said. "SS Joie de Vivre had to built, as a homage to the City of Light. And it had to be Uniworld's best ship yet."
Joie de Vivre is certainly a devoted homage to Paris. Not only is it designed to dock in the centre of the city – within easy walking distance of the Eiffel Tower – its interior design is a visual love letter to France's glory days in the 19th and 20th centuries. The sumptuous Salon Toulouse lounge-bar is filled with stylish furnishings in delicious shades of rosy reds and pinks; wood-panelled walls are hung with vintage framed photos of France and striking Art Nouveau posters; and the couches are covered in an antique-style Sanderson print that's similar to one we later see in Claude Monet's house in Giverny.
Behind the bar at the ship's bow is the tres chic Bistrot, which is decked out like a traditional French bistro with red leather banquettes, red-and-white checked tablecloths and bentwood chairs. This is the go-to spot for an informal meal; lunch selections include pates, luscious cheeses, onion soup and cassoulets.
The main dining room is Restaurant Le Pigalle, where lavish buffets are set up for breakfast and lunch, and classic French dishes are served for dinner. It's as elegant as the lounge upstairs and conducive to leisurely wining and dining while watching the scenery pass by.
If you want to take the gourmet experience up a notch, food and wine pairing events are held in La Cave du Vin for groups of 12; it's about the only thing you'll have to pay extra for on a Joie de Vivre cruise, apart from spa treatments. These are offered at Club d'Esprit, the ship's wellness venue where you can swim and work out by day and party the night away when it turns into Claude's supper club.
Active shore excursions are all the go on river cruises, which is just as well considering it's so hard to resist all those calorific treats. The Go Active program on Joie de Vivre's seven-night round-trip cruises from Paris to Normandy includes cycling, walking, hiking and golf. Before we leave Sydney, my cruise companion's husband expresses horror at the thought of us non-players wreaking havoc on the scenic golf courses of Mont-Saint-Aignan and Etretat, and anyway we are more than happy to join cycling and walking tours.
One memorable outing is a guided bike ride around the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. The queue to get inside the palace is off-putting – even when you have a pre-booked tour you can't escape the crowds inside – and the history of the 800-hectare estate is fascinating. Work on the gardens started at the same time as the palace, in 1661. It took 40 years for thousands of workers to dig out the Grand Canal, build the orangery and dozens of ornamental fountains, and plant trees from across the country.
Cycling along the five kilometres of country roads from Vernon to Monet's house and gardens at Giverny is a breeze. The flowers are in full glorious spring bloom and Uniworld has even organised an on-site talk with a visiting artist. Pedalling along the riverbank from Caudebec en Caux to the Victor Hugo museum at Villequier, where the great writer spent his holidays in the 1840s, is just as scenic. However, this idyllic spot on the Seine is also the site of Hugo's greatest tragedy, the drowning of his newlywed daughter.
There is always a dark side. The hauntingly beautiful medieval city of Rouen, where the ship spends two separate days, is probably best known for being where St Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake. A self-guided audio tour, obtained for €5 from the Tourist Office (formerly Monet's studio), leads us on an eye-opening walk that takes in imposing Gothic monuments and tiny alleyways flanked by tall, narrow half-timbered houses.
The ornate, 14th-century Gros Horloge (an astronomical clock) and the magnificent Court House feature on most tours, but the cloisters of Aitre St Maclou – a former plague cemetery – was an unexpected find. It is now an arts centre but the original wooden facade, decorated with skulls and crossbones, remains intact. The mummified cat near the entrance makes for a ghoulish photo opportunity.
From Rouen, students of more recent history can take a day tour of the World War II landing beaches in Normandy. We opt instead to take an independent trip to Mont St Michel on Normandy's north-west coast. As you approach by road, the rocky island and its crowning spired monastery rise magically out of the surrounding salt-grass plains long before you get close.
The story goes that in 708AD local bishop Aubert received a command from the Archangel Michael to build a church on top of the island in his honour. Over the centuries it became a magnificent Benedictine abbey and the pretty village below grew around the steep hill to provide shelter and supplies for the thousands of pilgrims who flocked there while walking the Camino de Santiago. Today more worldly travellers throng the shops and restaurants; a highlight of our personal pilgrimage is lunch at Mere Poulard, a restaurant that has been famous for its fluffy omelettes since 1888.
Joie de Vivre's eight-day return cruises from Paris to Normandy are already hugely popular. They run until December this year and restart in March 2018. As Christmas approaches at a rate of knots, a winter holiday complete with Christmas markets, French food and wine and oodles of bonhomie might be the just the thing.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN PARIS
Foodies with a sweet tooth and sense of history mustn't miss the original Laduree patisserie. First opened in 1862 by baker Louis Ernest Laduree on Rue Royale near the Opera Garnier, you can book a table for tea or just buy a beautifully wrapped box of macarons. See laduree.com/en_int
TOUR THE TOWER
Check out the Eiffel Tower's underground bunker and impressive engine room before ascending to the roof of Le Jules Verne restaurant for panoramic Paris views. Your guide entertains with facts and anecdotes about the city's most famous landmark. See booking.parisinfo.com
EXPLORE PERE LACHAISE
The vast cemetery where famous people from Frederic Chopin to Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison are buried lies about an hour from the Eiffel Tower by metro. Its tree-lined avenues and array of mausoleums and graves make for a memorably atmospheric walk. See en.parisinfo.com
For unforgettable city views and a look at the setting of the famous 19th-century novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, climb the 400-odd steps of Notre-Dame cathedral's towers. Take a breather along the way to admire the 500-kilogram Emmanuel bell. See booking.parisinfo.com
CONTEMPLATE AT MUSEE RODIN
Auguste Rodin's The Thinker is one of the most recognised sculptures in the world. See it in the peaceful gardens of Musee Rodin at the Hotel Biron, a historic mansion that houses the works Rodin donated to the French state in 1908. See musee-rodin.fr/en
Qatar Airways flies daily from Sydney to Doha with three flights a day from Doha to Paris. Phone 1300 340 600, see qatarairways.com
Uniworld's Joie de Vivre sails seven-night Paris round-trip cruises to Normandy, plus longer France itineraries combined with other ships. From $3999 (March 2018 departures). Phone 1300 780 231 or see uniworld.com
Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of Uniworld and Qatar Airways.