Boris, a U Host, stood before a group of river cruisers relaxing in the U Lounge, a gathering space seemingly designed by Alice's Wonderland of Furnishings. He wore all black, as if he had just rolled in from a night of chasing the White Rabbit around Paris. While he spoke, hands wrinkled with age and smooth with youth lifted glasses of riesling to their lips. Then arms slowly began to rise in response to his question.
"Who has been on a river cruise before?" he asked, as barges and sightseeing boats floated by on the Seine.
He glanced around the room at the strong showing.
"Forget everything you know," he commanded in his German accent.
Bring on the amnesia, and maybe another glass of wine to soften the shock of the new.
Last fall, Uniworld, a major player in the boutique river cruising industry, unveiled U by Uniworld, the rebel kid who's shaking up the conventional family. Floating down such European waterways as the Seine, Danube and Rhine typically appeals to an older population who can afford the expensive price tag and tolerate the languid pace. Over the years, many river cruise lines have started to incorporate more physical activities, such as biking and yoga, but U is more a disrupter than a tweaker.
"U by Uniworld is attractive to people who want a cruise with less structure, feels less like a tour and has a more young-at-heart vibe," said Chris Gray Faust, managing editor at Cruise Critic. "They're more the choose-your-own-adventure type."
(Uniworld is not the only line branching out. Gray Faust said the Austrian company Amadeus River Cruises will introduce voyages with a similar bent next year.)
If that sounds like millennial bait, then you have cracked the company's marketing strategy. In fact, in the beginning, the company set an age bracket of 21 to 45. It has since abandoned the birth-year check, but has kept its radical take on river cruising. For instance, instead of daily printouts of the itinerary, the crew communicates with guests via chats on WhatsApp. The U rate, which is significantly cheaper than traditional river cruise prices, includes two meals a day but no alcohol. (Beverage packages are available.) Brunch and all but one dinner are buffet-style, and the restaurant is open during reasonable times. (Meaning not-too-early bird.) No wardrobe change is required from day to night, unless you really want to be that guy in the tie. Most of the free activities involve exercising or imbibing, whereas the U Time excursions, which cost an additional fee, lean toward the historical and cultural.
"We walk, we hike, we bike," said Boris, who led many of the treks and rides on the Seine Experience cruise in mid-October. "We are very sporty."
What we weren't: all millennials.
Our boat was the black swan of the Seine. The double-decker vessel was painted the color of squid ink. The signage was Classic Silicon Valley: a purple neon "U" in a circle over the word "Uniworld"; "the B," which is the name of the ship; and the hashtag, #TravelforU. At night, a glowing red heart beat through a window.
At check-in, I joined the WhatsApp group chat and didn't have to wait long to receive the first message of the trip: a text from the bar team about the special cocktail of the day, the Limon Bubble. My cabin wasn't ready, so I ventured down to brunch, passing Britney Spears, Channing Tatum and Chloe Grace Moretz along the way. (Black-and-white photos of celebrities adorn the hallways. If you book a studio cabin, you will lose the French balcony but gain Ryan Reynolds.)
The buffet worked like Tinder but for platonics. If you want to make a new friend, simply hang around the omelet or dessert table. That's how I met the Nova Scotians: Michelle and Jim, an Air Canada flight attendant and a retiring educator, respectively, and their travel companions, who were celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. And the Minnesota grandmother, Alice, and her granddaughter, who turned 14 at Versailles. And most of the 40 passengers, really. We were such a small group — the ship can accommodate 120 cruisers — that we soon became familiar with each other's favorite food groups and drinking habits.
After dinner on the second night, I struck up a conversation with Willem, the Dutch captain on the U's sister ship. We went upstairs to watch the French captain thread the 360-foot-long boat through the needle-thin locks. Willem told me about his first full season on the A, which sails on the Rhine and Danube rivers. He said some itineraries were doing better than others, such as Amsterdam to Frankfurt. Uniworld had to cancel two trips from Amsterdam to Regensburg because of low attendance, which he attributed to younger cruisers' unfamiliarity with the port towns. I asked him if he thought the new brand would succeed. He said he hoped so. He had helped paint the former River Baroness black and did not care to spend the winter returning the vessel to its original white.
Out and about
"Punch it, Boris," Sabrina shouted at her co-U Host as we hit an open section of bike trail.
I was on the first of three guided bike rides and the second official activity of the day in Rouen, one of four ports we would visit over the week. Sabrina had kicked off the morning with an orientation walk through the medieval town. Then she set us free to chase down the three Cs of Normandy: Camembert, cider and calvados. Make that four, if you count the churches in Victor Hugo's city of "a hundred spires."
Earlier in the trip, Sabrina had issued a warning: If you have never biked before, now was not the time to try it. (Ditto for kayaking, one of the U Time outings.) Cycling in France is challenging, yet exhilarating. In Rouen, we skirted tourists frozen in place outside Rouen Cathedral and dodged students streaming out of the University Hospital. In Giverny, I slalomed around visitors focused on the floral arrangements in Monet's hometown rather than the road rules. In Paris, the ride from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame required quick reflexes and steely nerves. One of the many hazards: the Minnesota grandmother and granddaughter, who I almost crashed into by Place de la Concorde.
"It's quite energetic, isn't it?" Mavis, an 88-year-old Briton who avoided the bikes, said of the cruise itinerary.
In addition to the shore excursions, the crew organized several diversions to keep the kids amused, if not necessarily out of trouble. For the mixology class, Polish bartender Andrew taught us how to make a Cosmopolitan, an Old-Fashioned and a nonalcoholic drink with cranberry, citrus and ginger beer.
"Shot, shot, shot," a Canadian chanted when it was time to pour the vodka into the martini glass.
The empties were cleared in time for the impressionism painting and wine workshop, which was held at the even-early-for-a-mimosa hour of 10:30 a.m. Each workspace contained brushes, watercolor kits and a thick piece of paper trimmed in masking tape. (Remove it and you have a white border.) Several participants immediately chose their subjects; others waited for the wine to kick in. Vanessa, a millennial from Singapore, pulled up an iPhone photo of the buffet; Michelle selected a row of halftimbered homes she had seen in Rouen. Martha, a retired nurse from Pittsburgh, sketched the pastoral scene outside the window, until it started to disappear from view.
"My inspiration is floating away," she exclaimed as the boat departed Les Andelys for Vernon.
Carmen was one of the first cruisers to complete her painting. She held up a Monet-like landscape and another glass of wine.
"I am more of a wine drinker than a painter," the flight attendant from San Diego said.
Dancing was the primary after-hours activity. We had DJ Anger BeatsZZZ spinning tunes one night and a silent disco on another. Boris explained how the latter worked. Each headset contained three channels featuring different genres of music. Switch between pop, techno and Latin, and dance, dance, dance. Except that few did, at first. The Chilean dad traveling with his family air-drummed on the table. A quartet played foosball to their chosen soundtrack. I joined a group on the couch, where we wriggled our limbs but wouldn't commit to full-body dancing.
However, one song freed us from our private music boxes. Without breaking the silence, we spelled out Y-M-C-A on the dance floor.
Under the stars
Nearly every day I asked the U Hosts if tonight was the night, and nearly every day they told me not yet. But on the penultimate night, the answer changed. After five days of gliding from port to port, we were back in Paris, where we would remain for the remainder of the cruise. The risk of banging my head on a low bridge was gone. I could finally sleep outdoors, beneath the kleig-bright skies of the City of Light.
The staff pitched the orange-and-black tents for us, tying them to an aft railing so we wouldn't blow away. In each one, they built a nest out of a sleeping pad, duvet, two pillows and a sleep sack. And then they left us alone.
After midnight, Michelle, Jim and I climbed the stairs to the top deck to go to bed. We each packed a few supplies. I brought an extra pillow, a fleece and a Thermos of tea; they carried up a box of wine.
I slept on the Seine side. The night was silent and still. Through my half-moon window, I could see the Eiffel Tower, which peered at me with glowing eyes. Behind my tent, a replica of the Statue of Liberty hoisted her torch without complaint. There were a few mild interruptions: a garbage truck dropped a large bag of glass bottles nearby and, when I attempted to make a bathroom run, I realized I had locked myself on the deck. Security came to the rescue, without a trace of a smirk.
In the morning, I heard Jim and Michelle head down for breakfast. About an hour later, I followed them. I walked through the lobby in my pajamas, perfectly acceptable attire for U and me.
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