Uni­world hopes to re­de­fine cruises for mil­len­ni­als

Montreal Gazette - - TRAVEL - AN­DREA SACHS

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, some hands wrin­kled with age and oth­ers 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 (ones for 2019, it seems, ap­pear to be booked up al­ready). “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 colour 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 the 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 Chloë Grace Moretz along the way. (Black-and-white pho­tos of celebri­ties adorn the hall­ways. If you book a stu­dio cabin, you will lose the 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 omelette or dessert ta­ble. That’s how I met 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 favourite 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 (110-me­tre-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. 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 ad­di­tion to the shore ex­cur­sions, the crew or­ga­nized 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 non-al­co­holic 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. Danc­ing was the pri­mary af­ter-hours ac­tiv­ity. We had DJ Anger Beat­sZZZ spin­ning tunes one night and a silent disco on an­other. 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 or­ange­and-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. The night was silent and still. Through my half-moon win­dow, I could see the Eif­fel Tower, which peered at me with glow­ing eyes. In the morn­ing, I walked through the lobby in my py­ja­mas, per­fectly ac­cept­able at­tire for U and me.


U by Uni­world is branch­ing out with “young-at-heart” Euro­pean river voy­ages, in­clud­ing the “very sporty” Seine Ex­pe­ri­ence cruise.

The B, one of U by Uni­world’s river cruis­ers, ties up in Ver­non in north­ern France, where pas­sen­gers were able to visit Giverny and Monet’s gar­den.


Painters work on their tech­nique dur­ing a work­shop on im­pres­sion­ism — and wine — at the Ice Bar. It’s one of sev­eral on-board ac­tiv­i­ties of­fered on U by Uni­world river cruises.

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