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. As 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.
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 expense 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, you’ve cracked the marketing strategy. The company set an age bracket of 21 to 45 at the start. It since has abandoned the birth-year check but has kept its radical take on river cruising. Rather than daily printouts of the itinerary, for example, the crew communicates with guests via chats on WhatsApp. The U rate, significantly cheaper than traditional river cruise prices, includes two meals a day. Brunch and all but one dinner are buffet-style. No wardrobe change is required from day to night, unless you 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 extra 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.”
At check-in, I joined the WhatsApp group chat and didn’t have to wait long to receive the first message: a text from the bar team about the special cocktail of the day. 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 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 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 — that we soon became familiar with each other’s favorite food groups and drinking habits.
Cycles and cocktails
“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 warned that if you never had biked, this 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.
In addition to 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. Each workspace contained brushes, watercolor kits and a thick piece of paper trimmed in masking tape. 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 half-timbered 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.
Breakfast in PJs
I asked the U Hosts nearly every day 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 rest of the cruise. The risk of banging my head on a low bridge was gone. I finally could sleep outdoors, beneath the klieg-bright skies of the City of Light.
The staff pitched the orange-and-black tents, tying them to an aft railing so we wouldn’t blow away. In each, they built a nest out of a sleeping pad, duvet, two pillows and a sleep sack. Then they left us alone.
After midnight, Michelle, Jim and I climbed the stairs to the top deck. 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 peering 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 tried 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. I walked through the lobby in my pajamas, perfectly acceptable attire for U and me.