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.
"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.
In 2017, 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."
If that sounds like millennial bait, then you have cracked the company's marketing strategy. 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 (8-day cruises start at $1,539), 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 last 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 black-and-white photos of Britney Spears, Channing Tatum and Chloë Grace Moretz along the way.
If you want to make a new friend, simply hang around the buffet. 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 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.
Hitting the bike trail
"Punch it, Boris," Sabrina shouted at her co-U Host, as we hit an open section of bike trail.
I was on 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. Cycling in France is challenging, yet exhilarating. In Rouen, we skirted tourists frozen in place outside Rouen Cathedral. In Giverny, I slalomed around visitors focused on the floral arrangements in Monet's hometown. In Paris, the ride from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame required quick reflexes and steely nerves.
In addition to the shore excursions, the crew organized several diversions to keep the kids amused. 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. 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. Dancing was the primary after-hours activity. We had DJ Anger BeatsZZZ spinning tunes one night and a silent disco on another
Pitch a tent
Nearly every day I asked the U Hosts if tonight was the night, and nearly every day they told me not yet. But after five days of gliding from port to port, we were back in Paris, and 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.
I slept on the Seine side. Through my half-moon window, I could see the Eiffel Tower. 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.
IF YOU GO
U by Uniworld. The company offers cruises in six countries on four rivers: the Seine, Danube, Main and Rhine. The season runs April through October or December, depending on the itinerary. The seven-night "Seine Experience," which sails round-trip from Paris and visits four ports, starts at $1,699 per person double or for singles willing to be matched with a roommate of the same gender. For single accommodations, add $500.
INFO 866-784-5755, ubyuniworld.com/us