It’s 8am in Cologne, and the low sun is bathing the Rhine in golden light. At one end of the top deck there’s a yoga class in full swing in which three plucky passengers – apparently unjaded from last night’s nightlife tour – are attempting to stand on one leg. At the other, there’s a bundle of blankets that I’m pretty sure contains a person.
I raise my coffee mug as I step over the swathes of fabric protruding from the end of the sun lounger and claim a spot on one of the stylish black-and-white striped banquettes that line the deck.
While a few joggers make their way up the gangway, a couple in perfectly planned outfits – flowing sun dresses, wide-brimmed hats and full make-up – are already taking photos at the front of the ship, branded coffee cups aloft, backs to the camera, hands twiddling strands of hair. Morning light and a background of empty streets make for the best Instagram photos.
Moored here beside the other river cruise ships, with their predominately elderly clientele and frilly curtains, it’s never been more apparent: matte black, lit from the exterior with neon lights, and with possibly the most stylish sun deck on the Rhine, The A is not like the other ships – and neither are its passengers. This is the world’s first river cruise aimed squarely at younger travellers.
“We’re making history. Absolutely. There is nothing else like it,” says Ellen Bettridge, chief executive of luxury river cruising operator Uniworld, who is onboard with us for the inaugural cruise.
The ship and her sister, The B, are the first in the company’s new “millennial-focused” line, U by Uniworld, which aims to provide “the river cruise for a new generation of travellers”.
Radically redesigned “sleek and sexy” ships, longer stays in port, a focus on nightlife, a revamped approach to dining, new destinations and more active and adventurous excursions are just some of the hallmarks of this approach.
While the A sails the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers – in our case departing Amsterdam for Frankfurt – The B sails the Seine. An Asia ship, The M, is also set to launch on the Mekong in 2020-21.
Both ships have a maximum capacity of 120, including four suites and two studio bedrooms housing three private bunks. All rooms have waterfront views, built-in Bluetooth speakers, ample USB charging ports (which are also dotted around the ship) and deliberately Instagrammable marble bathrooms.
Throughout the ship, the aesthetic is monochrome and edgy, with art by the likes of Tracey Emin. There’s also a free laundry room and extensive gym.
This is travel for the wellness-loving, social media-driven generation who want to maximise their time, as well as relax. What U by Uniworld essentially does is take the all-inclusive hotel approach to backpacking, allowing passengers to take in multiple destinations without the inconvenience of having to repack or plan.
Onboard life is decidedly less structured than your regular cruise experience. Daily itineraries are distributed via WhatsApp. There’s no breakfast because, of course, millennials love to brunch.
A vast array of juices, pastries, hot options and more is served from 10am until noon, and for dinner there are sharing plates sourced from – and featuring dishes typical to – each day’s destination. The aim is to get passengers mingling.
Who those passengers are exactly has caused some controversy. When the product was first announced, the line had a 21-45 age limit in place. But little over a month before the first sailing, this was suddenly dropped, with Uniworld citing “demand from both consumers and trade”.
An “age is just an attitude” mantra has replaced it. That said, our sailing, which appears to be around 70% full, ranges in age from early 20s to early 50s. It’s something Bettridge says
is mirrored in future bookings, with most passengers in their 30s.
“I used to travel with Contiki a lot,” says John from Miami, who is travelling alone. We chat as we sail past the plethora of castles and vineyards on one of the Rhine’s most outrageously picturesque sections. “I’m 35 now. I love that style of travel, but I didn’t want to be the old man of the group,” he says.
Another lone traveller from South Africa tells me she’s done with “roughing it”, adding: “I want to see lots of places in one trip, but I don’t want to sleep in a dorm any more. I want somewhere a bit nicer”.
And from couples celebrating anniversaries to honeymooners and friends enjoying 40th birthdays, there is a sense among my fellow passengers that the experience is an adventure and a treat.
Guests can lounge on the sun deck or at the ship’s two bars during sailing days, but this is a break for the active too. If they’re so inclined, passengers can cycle 14- to 22-mile sections of the route instead, as the ship carries courtesy bikes.
Excursions – which cost from €22 to €89, although some are included – are adventurous too. During my trip, I tour Amsterdam’s red light district, cycle the brutally beautiful Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Germany’s Essen, visit a bar on the roof of a multi-storey car park in Frankfurt, and make cheese in a former distillery in Rudesheim.
Activities onboard – including mixology classes, silent discos, drumming circles and DJ parties – seem well embraced by a crowd that is split between relaxation and partying.
After eight days onboard, my candle is well and truly burnt at both ends. But what better way to relax than to watch the sun set over Frankfurt, Aperol spritz in hand, from the balcony of my room?
Book it: A seven-night Rolling on the Rhine itinerary from Amsterdam to Frankfurt on The A costs from £1,249pp, based on a double share, including flights or Eurostar travel, 14 meals and 11 excursions. An onboard drinks package is €299. 2018 sailings run until September 15. ubyuniworld.com
Why did you launch this product?
We’re trying to offer a new vacation option, a different way to travel. It’s for consumers that wouldn’t have thought of river cruise. It is such a cool way to travel. The cabins might be smaller but they’re well appointed. You unpack once and see a number of countries and cities – some you’d never have reached on your own. And the nightlife is a key difference.
How are future bookings?
Did we expect the best sales year ever for the first year? No, but we’re pleased. A few voyages are sold out. We see this as a viable brand that will live on.
What selling tips do you have for agents?
This isn’t a cheap product, but it’s economical if you consider the cost of every transfer, cup of coffee, meal and accommodation. That adds up quickly on holiday. It’s about attitude.
You might have a 50-year-old traveller who usually likes to stay at really hip, cool hotels; they’d love this. And I think the agents also need to put together groups. It’s a fantastic group product for bringing friends together.