The prow of Bon Voyage is decorated with painted vines hung with bursting grapes, rather fittingly for a ship that will take us through the world's most illustrious wine region. The vines swirl in a rather rococo fashion, suggesting that luxury and abundance – and perhaps a hint of bucolic decadence – hides behind the ship's trim white exterior.
The grapes make me think of paintings by Watteau. I hurry on board expecting charm, a touch of drama, some aristocratic frippery and decorative whimsy. Bon Voyage delivers, of course. This is a Uniworld ship, and Uniworld ships are never shy when it comes to décor. All the Uniworld signature elements are here: velvety padded walls, fabulously erupting potted orchids, original artworks, seating as studded with buttons and tassels as a Victorian crinoline.
The lobby is tighter than on some Uniworld ships, but still makes a statement. Its floor is an ice-rink of gleaming tiles, its walls clad in polished wood and brass. A sinuous, contemporary chandelier dangles overhead like a glass octopus. Wrought-iron balustrades on staircases add a French touch, cabinets and vases provide a nod to the Chinoiserie once popular in palaces. Here is a ship that wants to make a statement, where staying on it isn't just a travel convenience but an experience in itself.
Bon Voyage is filled with pops of colour, antique-like furnishings and casually scattered books that make you feel as if you're staying in a chic Parisian apartment in the sixth arrondissement. Main lounge-bar Le Salon Champagne is apparently inspired by Yves Saint Laurent's Villa Majorelle. The décor is a relaxing, stripy green, the armchairs plump as marshmallows. Potted palms and giant vases suggest an exotic Georgian-era conservatory. You expect parrots to come flying out of the greenery.
Corridors are marvellous, with impressionist-style oil paintings in gilt frames hung against velvety sea-green walls. I'm in a Grand Suite (number 315) in the middle of the top deck. Only topmost cabins have French balconies, which barely allow you to step out, but let you slide open French doors for breezes and full-on river views. My suite too is exactly what I expect of Uniworld: fabulous finishes, a feeling of opulence, fine fabrics, curious modernist artworks and superb butler service. The en-suite bathroom is encased in purplish marble and colossal by river-cruise standards, with a full-size bath, double sinks and a rain shower.
Bon Voyage sailed on its maiden voyage in mid-April, part of a Uniworld fleet-wide transformation that started with Joie de Vivre on the Seine River in 2017 and Beatrice on the Danube and Main in 2018. This Bordeaux-based ship started life as River Royale, but an extensive eight-month transformation has seen it upgraded to the company's latest Super Ship standard. Passenger numbers have been reduced to 124. Cabins have been entirely redecorated and four new suites added. Fitness and spa facilities have been reconfigured, and two new restaurants created. You wouldn't know the ship wasn't brand new.
The open top deck is all reimagined too. It has pretty blue-and-white banquette seating and lounges emblazoned with a rather un-French creature that looks like a Persian leopard. A new swimming pool is elegantly tiled and manages an infinity effect but, like all river-cruise pools, is really a plunge pool – good for cooling off in summer, but not likely to improve your crawl.
The most notable addition to the deck is a new casual-dining venue called Le Café du Soleil. It serves mostly French-inspired light fare such as stuff-it-yourself baguette sandwiches, soup, salad nicoise, excellent pâtés and scrumptious tarte flambée, the Alsace version of a pizza. The only pity is that this delicious food remains the same every day.
In the evening, the idea seems to be that the café might transform into a bar called La Belle Etoile – a name already written in red neon on its window. That's not the case on this inaugural cruise but, if it eventuates, it would be a welcome addition that would enliven the deck, traditionally a rather dead space on river ships after dark.
Another alternative dining venue inhabits the prow of the ship beside the lounge. La Brasserie is said to have been inspired by Bouillon Pigalle, a renowned Paris bistro in the classic mould – think banquette seating, marble-topped tables and retro drinks-advertising posters. It's a bit of a cramped space with 10 tables for two, and the menu is limited, so you might eat here only once or twice in a voyage. However, it offers an agreeable change of pace from the main restaurant, and serves rustic French dishes such as escargots, onion soup and beef bourguignon.
On-board dining has always been a big focus for Uniworld, which in my previous three experiences has produced the best cuisine and the best restaurant service of any river-cruise company. Main restaurant Le Grand Fromage falls short in both regards, but perhaps this is a teething problem on an inaugural sailing. (Certainly, the service elsewhere on the ship is impeccable.) The food is nonetheless very good. Breakfast and lunch are taken buffet style, evenings feature four-course meals with a good selection of French, international and vegetarian dishes. The breads and pastries are impressive, as are the complimentary wines.
All but the most premium of beverages is included in the cruise fare. There are nearly 90 complimentary spirits and liqueurs as well as craft beers and speciality cocktails – the Sassy Bordeaux is an interesting melange of Lillet Blanc (a blend of Bordeaux wine and citrus liqueurs) and tarragon. On occasion, there are on-board wine tastings and a chocolate and wine pairing. Adjacent to the main restaurant is La Cave du Vin, a private-dining and wine-tasting room for further indulgence.
Indulgence has many forms on this ship. You can scatter your morning yoghurt with juicy strawberries bought just the day before from a French market. You can recline on a lounger under a blue-striped awning, feeling like a figure in a Watteau painting as woodland and riverside châteaux glide by. You can be fussy about your wine and the sommelier will bring you an alternative.
Bon Voyage isn't just a river ship that gets you from A to B in bland, functional style like those of some other companies. Uniworld strives to make its ships reflect the destinations through which they sail, and Bon Voyage is no exception. It's a little piece of France, charming and elegant, sophisticated and flair filled, and always dedicated to the gracious art of living.
Etihad flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Abu Dhabi (14.5hr) and Paris (7.5hr), with codeshare connections to Bordeaux (1hr) on Air France. Phone 1300 532 215, see etihad.com
The writer travelled on Uniworld's eight-day "Brilliant Bordeaux" cruise return from Bordeaux, which has regular departures between March and early November. From $5599pp including accommodation, meals and beverages, most shore excursions, airport transfers and gratuities. Bon Voyage also sails 15-day "Portrait of France" and 22-day "Ultimate France" cruise-tour itineraries. Phone 1300 780 231, see uniworld.com
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.