We were originally scheduled to do Gems of Northern Italy but the ship was damaged in a port accident so we switched to the Grand France tour. The first week was on board the S. S. Catherine (reviewed separately) with a high-speed train connection between Lyon and Paris to begin the second leg. The train trip to Paris was fantastic. Everything was looked after by our lovely escorts and we arrived without incident.
The ship: Decor was classic; beautiful and well-maintained. The maintenance staff worked hard to keep everything clean and shiny. Because we switched at the last minute, we were not able to get the same category cabin as we had booked on the Venice cruise so we were in the "basement". The room was larger than the one on the first leg of the trip. We didn't spend a lot of time in our room, so the size and location wasn't a huge issue. The guest laundry was located on this floor which was very convenient. However, the only coffee station on the ship was next to the bar on the other end of the boat which was very inconvenient. We had the same issue with the a/c on the Joie de Vive as we did on the Catherine; it was not nearly adequate given the temperature in France at the time. Even with the thermostat set as low as possible (5C), the temperature in the room never got cool enough. I was extremely uncomfortable, especially at night, and even though I requested a fan, none was provided.
The pool was indoors in the middle of the bar - very unappealing location. It was covered over at night. The main lounge and rooftop deck were comfortable and it was wonderful to sit there and watch castles float by.
The staff: By and large, we found the staff to be excellent. Most of them are from Eastern Europe but speak English well. I took the time to learn a few pleasantries (good day, please, thank-you) in Bulgarian, Romanian and Hungarian which they seemed to really appreciate. It was an ice-breaker that got them chatting about their countries and families.
The food: I had high expectations for the food and was rather disappointed. It was fine, but not great. We took a cruise up the coast of Norway on Hurtigruten in 2018 and their chefs sourced local ingredients throughout the whole trip; the food was outstanding. We expected elegant French cuisine but it was all rather uninspiring. Service in the dining room was excellent compared to the Catherine.
The ports: We loved all of the ports but did run into a couple of hiccups. At Giverney, there was an option to bike to Monet's gardens or take the bus. During the port talk, I asked if the biking was on level, paved trails and we were told it was. I am a casual biker, used to riding on level, paved trails, so I decided to sign up. At the muster point, there was a huge van dumping off bikes and bags of helmets. No one was available to help adjust seats or generally get you ready. The first thing we had to do was ride uphill onto a very busy bridge that was under construction. One of the participants fell off and suffered from bad road rash but he had to continue to walk his bike to the destination as there was no way to get back to the boat or the gardens. When we approached Giverney, we had to pedal up another steep hill, all the while dodging cars and pedestrians. Needless to say, I shouldn't have been on this tour and never would have participated if it had been adequately explained at the port talk. The tour guide was very frustrated with the inexperienced riders on the tour and complained about us to the more experienced riders. Monet's gardens were absolutely mobbed with tourists, but they were beautiful and it was worth the harrowing bike trip to get there. I got some amazing pictures. My takeaway is don't attempt a Go Active tour unless you are a real sports enthusiast :)
We were looking forward to the tour to Juno Beach and the Canadian cemetery in Normandy. Unfortunately, these were add-ons to Omaha Beach and the American cemetery and we just didn't have enough time. We understand that most of the passengers are from the US and it probably doesn't make financial sense to have a Canadian beach tour. Our suggestion to Uniworld is they have an optional tour to the Canadian and UK beaches. It could probably be covered in a couple of eight-passenger vans and I certainly would have paid extra to have time to fully enjoy the experience. The opportunity to visit our beaches was a very special memory of our trip.
We had an onboard credit that we decided to use to go to Moulin Rouge. The show was professional and very entertaining. However, six people were jammed together in tables meant for four which made it hard to fully appreciate the dinner and show. The food was mediocre and some of the champagne served at our table was flat.
The entertainment: We usually spent some time in the lounge after dinner each evening and enjoyed the singers. There wasn't as much passenger participation on this cruise as the Catherine.
The experience: This was our first river cruise and we will definitely do another one but not Europe in July or August; it's just too hot The all-inclusive policy on Uniglobe is very appealing as you aren't constantly being dinged for every drink, tour and tip. This was a lovely introduction to river cruising; it's going to be hard to top this experience.
Compact but adequate.