Looking for an immersive experience in Paris? Fling open the curtains of your cabin aboard a charming river barge that saunters along the Marne Canal, and you will find yourself, metaphorically speaking, up to your neck in the river Seine, with the bright lights of the city’s landmarks winking from the opposite bank.
I boarded Raymonde, one of CroisiEurope’s fleet of boats that sail the mighty rivers of Europe, and a few further afield, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower at Bassin de la Villette.
Friendly and convivial, this is every inch a laid-back house-party boat, with a crew of six to cater for your every whim. The lounge and bar area on the first deck extends to an open-air terrace with bistro tables and a jacuzzi tub, while the extensive top deck is adorned with sun loungers.
Our first night kicked off with a deliciously saucy pre-dinner cabaret show, starring a mesmerising burlesque singer and her flat-cap-wearing band mate, who put a fun twist on classic chansons and La Vie en Rose. It’s enough to inspire an English girl to swap her bullet-proof opaques for fishnets, and to make the boldest of men blush.
The dining room is small enough to be intimate, yet big enough for celebratory gatherings around the elegant table that seats 22 – with floor-to-ceiling windows offering a kaleidoscope of backdrops from Notre-Dame to the Grand Palais.
Dinner was usually an impressive five courses, with menus accommodating market-fresh produce. Mouthwatering amuse bouche followed by salmon tartare, an entrée of duck breast with sauté potatoes, and white-chocolate mousse for dessert was among the most memorable meals.
The wine selection is generous in quality. Star whites included Château Le Sablou Côtes de Bergerac moelleux; Cuvée du Golfe de Saint-Tropez Côtes de Provence rosé and a mighty Le Puy aux Cerfs Saumur Champigny rouge.
We spent the morning of day two cruising along the Canal Saint-Martin, passing through a tunnel and resurfacing near République, to take in views of the Trocadéro and Tuileries gardens and Île Saint-Louis before heading off for a tour of the city’s covered passageways.
Hidden away from noisy boulevards and tourist hubs, these 19th-century arcades are a labyrinth of curio shops and cafés.
Embellished with iron latticework, stained-glass windows and mosaic tiles, they serve as pedestrian shortcuts to the designer hothouses of Shiseido, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Stella McCartney, as well as providing a showcase for artisan jewellers, booksellers and other small traders.
Starting at Galerie de Valois, the passageway of the Palais-Royal, I found a perfumery to fall in love with. For an olfactory punch par excellence, step inside Serge Lutens’ Les Salons du Palais Royal. This house features limited-edition perfumes in exclusively designed glass bottles, including his fabulously named Tubéreuse Criminelle.
The master parfumier’s latest creations are designed to establish a connection between fragrance and literature and open a new path to what he calls an anti-perfume, L’Eau Serge Lutens. Be still my beating heart.
We went on to explore Galerie Vivienne and Passage Choiseul, before squeezing in a little aperitif (check out Lavomatic, a very cool cocktail bar hidden on the first floor of a laundromat in the 10th arrondissement) and a scoot around the Musée d’Orsay before returning for dinner.
For someone enamoured of Paris’s great literary heritage, the guided tour of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on day three of our cruise proved a serious highlight. The famous church and achingly chic boutiques are, of course, a big draw, but the chance to hop around bars and cafés formerly graced by the likes of Sartre offered a taste of existentialism without the angst.
Three of the most celebrated cafés, where the biggest names in art, philosophy, poetry and politics once convened, are within striking distance of one another: Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore and Brasserie Lipp. If you only have time for one, refuel at Deux Magots – the creative melting pot where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir came to write, Hemingway came to drink and the likes of Verlaine, Mallarmé, Apollinaire and Oscar Wilde debated and mused.
The afternoon saw us whizzing around Paris clocking up Instagram moments. Of all the excursions on offer, touring the city in an open-top vintage 2CV is by far the most fun. One morning a fleet of Smartie-coloured cars collected us at the dock for a three-hour blast along the Champs-Élysées and up to the hilltop Sacre Coeur, stopping for chocolat chaud at Café des Deux Moulins, famed for its star turn in the film Amélie.
A guided cycling tour is another optional extra, but for seasoned cyclists it can prove a rather frustrating stop, start and stop again experience. You can’t help but feel for the guide, for whom the tour must be like trying to herd cats in the syrup of Parisian traffic. Happily, you’re also at liberty to go it alone: a generous stock of bikes is freely available on board.
It’s a rare thing to find yourself questioning whether a package is too good to be true. We enjoyed an open bar and refreshments around the clock, all premium quality and included in the price. At the gala dinner on the third night, the chefs rolled out a stunning seven-course menu. “So, there isn’t any cap at all on wines, spirits, coffees?” I asked, probably for the third time. Just checking.
“No, we decided not to make additional charges,” my host reassured me. “The price is all-inclusive and the bar is here for whatever guests want or however much – we do care about their safety and wellbeing regarding drinking, but not about counting the cost.”
Small wonder charters are a booming business: this celebration boat nails the “home-from-home” vibe, with extended family groups accounting for a sizeable chunk of bookings. While you can, of course, book a cabin just for you and your partner on a standard cruise, the ship is a fantastic floating venue for a special-occasion trip booked privately for friends and family.
No matter how enthusiastically you may wish to indulge and imbibe on board, arguably the greatest value for money is in the locations visited. Docking in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the illustrious Quai d’Orsay and Quai de Grenelle allows you to bed down in Paris’s premier arrondissements – any seasoned traveller will know how much even a modest hotel room costs in these prime locales.
Raymonde’s 11 cabins are cosy, with comfortable beds and disproportionately, but pleasingly large en-suite bathrooms, bigger than most I’ve seen on board ocean ships. Sleeping semi-submersed creates the sensation of being in a relaxation tank, but once accustomed to the sound of gurgling water and waves splashing at the windows, I found it strangely comforting.
A three-night all-inclusive Prestigious Paris cruise on Raymonde costs from £568pp excluding flights. The Saint-Germain-des-Prés and covered walkways tours are included. The 2CV tour costs £158pp and a guided bike tour £73pp (020 8328 1281; croisieurope.co.uk).