Pedalling around Paris delights Stephanie Holmes.
It was only four hours out of my life one chilly April morning, but it quickly became one of my top five travel experiences, ever. Pedalling a bike through the streets of Paris gave me such a feeling of euphoria, I couldn't stop the involuntary grin that was plastered to my face. I felt like Sarah Jessica Parker in the final season of Sex and the City, Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face; a wide-eyed foreigner instantly charmed by the City of Light.
I'd resisted the temptation to wear a Breton-striped T-shirt for the occasion and in retrospect I was glad I had, as Paris in the Springtime was more arctic blast than sunshine and cherry blossoms. But the face-aching chill couldn't take the edge off my joy. I mean, how often do you get the chance to bike along the River Seine guided by a lovely Parisian man called Benjamin with Maori tattoos on each calf and a pounamu around his neck?
This New Zealand-loving Frenchman was just one of the expert guides I met during my eight-day cruise on Uniworld's brand new luxury super ship Joie de Vivre, christened at the end of March by Dame Joan Collins.
My grin had started on the first evening on board, when the captain sailed us upstream to get our first glance of the Eiffel Tower, before expertly manoeuvring us around to begin our adventure through the beautiful Normandy countryside. From Monet's garden in Giverny, to the World War II D-Day landing beaches, to the private apartments of the Palace of Versailles, back to our final docking point in Paris, each day's shore excursion had its own expert guide to bring each destination to life.
In Versailles, guide Jean-Michel had assigned roles to members of our group to help us become invested in the lengthy history lesson he was giving us as we walked. A young Australian man was to be Louis XV, an older American woman was Madame de Pompadour, I was Marie Antoinette. Jean-Michel's method worked; I came away with a fascination about the French royal family that no high-school class had ever managed to inspire.
In Paris, Benjamin set a steady pace as our group of four left the opulence of the ship to hit the streets. This was one of three shore excursions on offer on the final day of a packed itinerary. While some guests were being chauffeured around the city's highlights by coach, others were walking the markets and medieval lanes of the Latin Quarter. But I wouldn't have missed the chance to cycle this city for the world.
My spirits were high as we whizzed along the Left Bank, past the river-cruise boats and house barges, pavement cafes and wine bars, over ancient cobblestones and under bridges topped with gold-plated statues.
We stopped for photos by the Louvre, then locked our bikes outside Notre Dame Cathedral and split up for some free time. Choosing not to join the lengthy queue to get inside, I headed across the Pont au Double bridge to Shakespeare and Company, a famed independent bookstore as seen in one of my all-time favourite movies, Before Sunset. I browsed the crammed shelves before heading to the store's cafe next door to drink an excellent Cafe Lomi coffee while gazing in awe at the gothic wonder of Notre Dame.
Back on board the Joie de Vivre and making the most of the final night of the trip, I joined a group of Aussies in the bar (where else?) for cocktails expertly made by one of the attentive crew. With drinks in hand, we headed up to the top deck into the cold night air for the most magical view to end an already enchanting day. On the hour, every hour for five minutes, the Eiffel Tower sparkles with golden lights, dancing like glitter in a shaken snowglobe.
I watched until my face ached, but this time not from the cold. The grin was back . . . and it returns every time I think about that day.