Sara Macefield boards the millennial-focused line’s ship The A in Amsterdam, and experiences a river cruise like no other.
The air is full of excited chatter as we all tuck into a tasty sharing platter heaving with market vegetables, salmon and artisan cheese.
I’m sitting in the sociable surroundings of the Dine restaurant aboard The A, one of the hip new vessels of millennial-style line U by Uniworld, but it feels more like an upscale bistro with strings of hanging light bulbs and Tracy Emin artwork.
Suddenly, a commotion has everyone turning towards the buffet station as an army of baseball cap-wearing chefs kick off an exuberant dessert frenzy to a backdrop of flashing lights and music.
We rush in for a closer look, whooping and clapping, as they set up a mouth-watering display of sweet treats; spraying sauces and molten chocolate between dollops of honeycomb ice-cream, fresh fruit and chocolate gateaux.
It’s like a hip version of the Baked Alaska parade which, like everything else on The A, has been given a modern and youthful twist.
But that’s to be expected of this new offshoot of established river cruise brand Uniworld whose fleet of extravagant river vessels attracts well-heeled retirees with deep pockets.
U by Uniworld is the polar opposite; a cool alter-ego originally set up to target millennials aged between 21 and 45, offering activity-packed immersive river cruises along the Seine, Danube and Rhine with a new take on entertainment, cuisine and adventures ashore.
Its launch in April was hotly anticipated, especially among those who questioned whether the young millennials it targeted would be prepared to pay a four-figure sum
for a European river cruise.
Then, in March, U by Uniworld dropped the age restriction, claiming strong interest from older clientele, including existing customers, was behind the move.
Demand by agents to open the product up to all ages, plus slow UK sales were also factors, which UK & Ireland managing director Chris Townson blamed partly on U by Uniworld’s late launch in the market and lack of consumer awareness.
“It’s not about age; it’s definitely about the mindset, and I don’t think we saw that before,” conceded Uniworld president and chief executive Ellen Bettridge.
“This is about cruising for the young at heart and those who want to have fun. Our ships are modern, cool and sexy.”
That much is true. Forget the traditional image of European river cruising; of sedate walking tours and musical recitals that strike a strong chord with an older demographic.
In recent years, river cruise lines have started to offer more active pursuits to reel in a younger audience, but nothing like this.
From the moment I clap eyes on The A in Amsterdam, it stands out in mean and moody matt black with futuristic purple neon strip-lights.
Inside, the cool, clean lines of slate and ivory give it the feel of a stylish boutique hotel with Andy Warhol trademark Marilyn Monroe prints adding vivid splashes of colour along with colour-changing mood lights and retro furnishings.
In a nod to the brand’s eco-friendly hi-tech credentials check-in is a near paperless operation. Crew members, wearing black hoodie-tracksuits, take my email address and mobile number to join the WhatsApp group that not only connects me with The A’s crew, but other passengers too – like one big, happy floating family where we share comments and pictures.
Tour confirmations and the daily programme are sent electronically, while display screens around The A carry details of the day’s activities and menus, although I was surprised screens were not interactive.
Wi-fi is free and fast, and social media fans wanting to stay plugged in while ashore can hire a personal router for €8 a day. There is also a surfeit of USB ports and charging points in cabins and lounges to ensure everyone is prepped for that next vital Instagram post.
Dining is another area of difference with two, instead of three, meals a day starting with brunch from 10am until 1pm, although pastries are available at the bar for earlier risers.
During my short stint aboard, complimentary bar snacks, such as beef sliders and sausage and chips, were offered in the afternoon, before dinner was served from 7pm to 9pm – enabling livewires to eat before heading into buzzing Amsterdam.
Venturing ashore is another area where U by Uniworld promises to break the mould with graffiti tours, vineyard hikes and cycling trips on the The A’s fleet of mountain bikes.
On the sands of Ijmuiderslag, a 30-minute drive away, I try blokarting, or land yachting. It’s a grey, bleak, freezing cold morning and it’s also blowing a gale. I’m having serious doubts, but as the wind catches my sail and speeds me along, I’m soon shrieking with excitement. This is a cruise excursion like no other and fantastic fun.
But there’s much to enjoy on board The A, too, with a gym, plus yoga and body-balancing classes included and a massage room where treatments cost from €50 for 30 minutes.
Yet, it’s the outside deck that is the ultimate chill-out zone with circular pod loungers and chic cabanas. On warm evenings films are shown on a blow-up movie screen, while guests happy to pay can enjoy Moonlight Massages and sleep under the stars in a tent made for two, waking up to a breakfast basket of pastries.
Other passengers can slumber in cabins that are a study in pared-down chic with simple colour schemes of blue or burgundy, and sumptuous marble bathrooms (a reminder of when this 124-passenger vessel was part of the main Uniworld fleet).
Most cabins are compact standard and balcony categories, although there are also four spacious suites.
I’m rather taken by the two triple-studio cabins where each bunk-bed even has its own flat screen TV and USB port. They all boast in-room Bluetooth, too, so guests can download their own playlists.
Onboard mixology classes, held in the top-deck Ice Bar inject cocktail fun, but it’s at night when this bar comes alive with its laser ‘star’ lights and silent disco where I don headphones to join groovers soundlessly throwing shapes to a mix of reggae and house music.
It’s a world away from a traditional river cruise, but perfectly illustrates how U by Uniworld is spicing up this once sedate sector with its own distinctive tempo.