What comes to mind when you think of river cruising? A chintzy ‘floating B&B’ where couples and retirees fill their plates with below-par food at the buffet and get herded like sheep around the same old, over-visited tourist spots? Hmm, that may have been the case way back when. Now, swap that stereotype for Ibiza-inspired rooftop decks, farm-to-table cuisine, silent discos, ship announcements via WhatsApp, boutique hotel-inspired cabins with Bluetooth, and rock-climbing excursions.
Because that’s exactly what you can expect from soon-to-launch U by Uniworld: the world’s first cruise aimed at (sort-of) millennials. Sort-of? Well, when river cruise operator Uniworld first announced the launch of two new 120-passenger ships (The A and The B) last year, they had a strict booking condition: you had to be aged 21-45. Since then, the company has had some “feedback” and, as a result, recently decided to scrap the restriction so adults of all ages can now experience the ships’ Polaroid selfie stations and power smoothies as they cruise down the rivers of the Netherlands, Hungary, France, Germany, Austria and Slovakia.
The brand is still determined to get younger travellers on board and cruising is becoming more popular with millennials and generation Z. According to ABTA’s 2018 Travel Trends Report, 10% of people aged 18-24 are planning a cruise this year, and river cruising is the industry’s fastest-growing sector, as brands move away from sedentary experiences and more towards modern, exciting initiatives. Carrying our their own market research, Uniworld found 94% of people aged 18-34 would be interested in a European river cruise created with their age group in mind.
So how does it measure up IRL? Earlier this month, the company invited a group of journalists and travel agents to Amsterdam for an overnight taster of The A’s Rolling on the Rhine itinerary, which usually wends on to Haarlem, Cologne, Bonn, Koblenz, Rüdesheim and Frankfurt. Aged 32 and having never river cruised before, I was (sort of) their target audience.
First impressions? The vampy, matte black exterior with its glowing neon logo certainly
says screams ‘PARTY OVER HERE’ and is sure to stand out in any port. I felt like I was stepping onto a floating nightclub. I wasn’t – yet. The crew, sporting black hoodies and black jeans, looked more like bouncers but seemed friendly and relaxed. Check-in is, of course, paperless. Free Wi-Fi codes are given and itineraries and ship updates are sent via group WhatsApp chats (*insert applause emoji here*) or displayed on screens around the ship, which also instantly uploads social media posts if anyone’s used the hashtag #travelforU. I noticed straightaway that you’re never a few steps away from a USB port.
“The brief was modern, sexy and fun,” Uniworld’s CEO, Ellen Bettridge, told me over welcoming sliders and ‘sassy bordeaux’ cocktails in the ‘U Lounge’: the social hub of the ship. “It’s a new vacation for a new customer and we wanted everywhere on board to be a cool place to hang out.” The public spaces on all three decks are skewed towards communal chilling – there seems to be a statement booth, pod or sofa at every turn – but if I’m honest, I wouldn’t describe the design as sexy. Even with the naked-themed illustrations along the cabin passageways. Also, despite the addition of a retro photo booth, the monochrome lobby with its PVC seating felt less “Soho-House-on-sea” and more ‘dodgy-end-of-Soho’.
That said, the overall design is far from stuffy and there’s pockets of fun. Marilyn Monroe artwork by Andy Warhol and bright Tracey Emin prints hang alongside bold furniture, geometric patterned flooring and more neon lighting. Curated with an Instagram-motivated passenger in mind, the ‘Dine’ restaurant’s potted rosemary, sleek swivel chairs and industrial pendant lights give a trendy European eatery vibe, while the top deck sprinkled with lanterns, huge cabanas and Breton-striped couches are a Snapchatter’s dream.
The ship has 61 cabins divided into Suites, Balcony, Studio and Triple. The higher-priced Suites obviously pack extra perks including mini bar, free laundry and heated bathroom flooring but the budget-friendly Triple rooms, with bunk beds and clever storage, are great for groups of friends and my Balcony room ticked the ‘cool and comfy’ box. Each minimal, tech-savvy cabin with pops of red or blue features luxurious Savoir beds, whitewashed sliding shutters, wall-to-wall mirrors, marble bathrooms, flat screens with free on-demand movies and built-in Bluetooth speakers. The well-placed outlets by the bed and desk, and drinking water in the bathroom got an extra thumbs-up-slash-like from me.
Cabins are slightly cramped but this cruise isn’t really about staying in your room. Passengers are free to explore the cities and country towns by themselves but if you’re after something different, the daily ‘U Time’ excursions aren’t your traditional shore-based activity: think adrenaline-fuelled blokarting (whizzing up to 60mph in karts with sails on a beach) and local wine tasting at a 12th-century monastery where Game of Thrones was filmed. Prices range from €39 to €119 per person but several excursions are included in the overall cost of the cruise, such as guided off-the-tourist-path bike rides and hosted club nights in abandoned buildings. We were taken on an after-dark walk around Amsterdam’s old quarter, passing through the increasingly gentrified Red Light district. I preferred the private canal cruise tour through the city’s historic waterways the next morning, followed by a totally random (but nonetheless entertaining) 5D flight simulator experience and a ‘swing’ off the ADAM Lookout tower.
Most of U by Uniworld’s cruising is done overnight, but while many ships leave dock around sunset, U by Uniworld has tailored its itineraries to depart even later so travellers can make the most of the city’s nightlife. And once back on board, the party doesn’t end there. The '90s-inspired, neon-lit Ice Bar on the top deck hosts mixology sessions and silent discos. Ours remained rather empty (*insert millennial JOMO joke here*) but add some friends or a booked-out ship, plus an international DJ, and raving your way down the Rhine under the stars does seem pretty cool.
Another great thing about stopping at different ports each day? Access to daily fresh produce. Cruises aren’t acclaimed for their cuisine but I was genuinely impressed with everything I ate on The A. Tapping into the artisan, street-food scene, menus (again, displayed on screens) change frequently to reflect what’s ‘of the moment’ in each destination. It’s worth adding that on-board dining options included in the price are limited to brunch served from 10am to 2pm (early risers can grab pastries and juices in the U Lounge) and an evening meal. The idea being that once you’re out for the day, you can make the most of your time exploring. Plus, you get an optional lie-in without having to make a beeline for the breakfast buffet, which, by the way, served up some of the best (and possibly most buttery) scrambled eggs I’ve had in ages.
Actually, dinner in ‘Dine’ is where the food really shines – and not because there are more hanging rope lights than you can shake a selfie stick at. I devoured Insta-worthy sharing platters of grilled vegetables from Amsterdam’s Boerenmarkt with beechwood smoked ham and hot smoked balik salmon. The miso-marinated black cod for my main course was deliciously fresh and bursting with flavour and I heard great things about the zucchini lasagne and chicken meatballs. And as if we needed reminding that this was no ordinary river cruise, the lights suddenly dimmed, the house music switched to disco, and dessert – starring opera cake, honeycomb ice cream and fresh fruits – was prepared razzle-dazzle-style out in the restaurant by the chefs themselves. Cringe? Absolutely. Still, it did get everyone reaching for their phone.
As with any travel experience, it’s the little details that make a difference. U by Uniworld offers a free 24/7 tea and coffee station and 50 bikes to cycle through the city or countryside ports of call, as well as sunrise yoga sessions, cinema screenings of new releases or camping on the top deck – again, all complimentary. The A’s main DJ also multi-hustles as a wellness coach, yoga instructor and spa therapist. Oh, and he plays percussion so expect spontaneous ‘community drumming sessions’. If that floats your, um, boat – great. If it doesn’t, you can pound the treadmill instead in the largest gym on the river, or head to the spa. But I reckon that community vibe is what will set these ships apart. Everything from the group WhatsApps and excursions to the long, sharing tables and communal chill-out areas has been engineered to encourage engagement and mingling with like-minded travellers – and it actually creates a unique atmosphere.
Do I see a flurry of young people signing up? You could argue that a pre-packaged, self-contained travel experience is still countering many millennials' idea of authentic travel. And yet, on the flip side, river cruising is an easy way to see multiple cities in one trip, and most ports are better located than airports. Add to that U by Uniworld’s modern, photogenic and personalised offerings, a daily £156 price tag which includes meals and activities, and it is rather tempting.
Of course, the way we travel will continue to evolve beyond brunches, hashtags, Aperol Spritzes and moonlight massages on sun decks but, for now, one thing does seem clear – river cruises are no longer just for the “newlywed or nearly dead”. And this one might have got the worldwide millennial cruise party started.
Getting There/Sample Package
U by Uniworld’s seven-night Rolling on the Rhine cruises from Amsterdam to Frankfurt on The A, and costs from £1,249 per person, based on a double share departing 14th April 2018. The price includes return flights or Eurostar, 14 meals on board, 11 included excursions, two dedicated Uniworld hosts, on-board wine tasting, welcome party and local celebrity DJ party, port charges and gratuities. (ubyuniworld.com, 0845 678 5656)
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