Continental Europe. It’s a big old place, isn’t it?
So when you’re coming from the UK, most of us just settle for city breaks. You might occasionally treat yourself to a fortnight at a resort in Spain or Greece, or a week in the south of France. But for the most part, it’s a long weekend to whichever city takes your fancy, having painfully squeezed clothes to last twice as long into your carry-on luggage.
But what if you could have the best of both?
River cruising is essentially that. A series of city breaks linked together by a very plush, river-born hotel with the must-have amenities of a five-star resort.
My idea of what it meant to cruise were formed watching the episode of Keeping Up Appearances where social-climber extraordinaire, Hyacinth Bucket and long-suffering Richard took a trip of the queue-eeeee-toooo. A cruise feels like something for people in their dotage.
Of course, the QE2 and a river cruiser aren’t the same thing. Riverboats, unlike ocean liners, aren’t floating towns, but they’ve both attracted similar, senior audiences – until now.
Step forward U by Uniworld
Uniworld’s a long-established name in river cruising, but U is their diffusion line. It’s infinitely cool, and very much focused on catering for younger, more active audience. Think of it as Brighton rather than Eastbourne, or Princess Beatrice’s fascinator, rather than Her Majesty’s hat.
We jumped on its ‘Rolling on the Rhine’ adventure, though you can slink down the Seine or dance along the Danube – a boat on the three big rivers in Europe, basically.
Ours was an eight-night, eight-stop (Frankfurt, Rüdesheim, Koblenz, Bonn, Cologne, Duisburg, Haarlem, Amsterdam) trip, along one of the most historically important rivers in Europe.
The boat itself is a floating boutique hotel. The décor is high Euro chic. There’s a lot of polished chrome and velvet in the communal areas, but it feels very premium. Uniworld have clearly splashed out, and the ship is peppered with modern art – there are at least four Emins hung in the dining room along.
The cabins are best described as intimate. But that’s fine, as you spend so little time in them. They are, however, very well thought-out. There’s a plethora of cubby holes and storage spaces, with USB points littered about the room. The highlight was undoubtedly the bed. They’re made by Savoir and cost thousands of pounds. Each are designed to satisfy the exacting standards of Americans, who are the most frequent cruisers in Europe. They felt like climbing into a marshmallow.
The other noteworthy space is the top-deck bar. Not so for the space itself, but for what it’s going to be used for. U says they’ll be holding silent discos onboard. To an ever so slightly awkward Brit, this feels very much outside of my comfort zone. But, when in Rome, (or Frankfurt for that matter), it’d be rude not to join in…
As U is aimed at a younger audience, it’s unsurprising to find that energetic activities feature pretty highly on agenda. Long hikes up to the Germania monument (an homage to Bismarck’s achievement in uniting the disparate states that made up Germany in the 19th century), or even longer bike rides along the bank of the Rhine, are all available (for free). The boat has a veritable flotilla of bikes that can be signed out if you want to explore on your own.
Some activities, billed as ‘U-Time’, come at a price, and aren’t cheap. However, the ones we tried were worth it. The champagne-fueled, nighttime ramble around the ancient Rheinstein Castle was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, while the tour of Frankfurt’s Jewish cemetery and museum provided real pause for thought.
A note of caution: a few of the activities that were advertised weren’t actually available on the day, while others weren’t as billed. The castle trip, for example, was supposed to include dinner, and when we arrived the banquet was noticeably absent. Hopefully though, these were teething problems, and as U establishes itself, these should go away.
One of our favourite moments on the whole trip was the five-hour, afternoon jaunt from Bonn to Cologne. Sat on the boat’s generous sun deck, a glass of (surprisingly good) German wine in hand, listening to the audio-guide point out the seemingly limitless number of castles and other devastatingly pretty points of interest. We had to change our headset twice (both stopped working) but, as with the excursions, hopefully this niggle will soon be sorted.
A plus point was the numerous USB points dotted about the terrace. This is very much a 21st-century cruise; there are Instagrammable moments aplenty, and the brand’s hashtag is posted around the ship. In fact, all of the staff, including the guides, are young and attractive. It’s not Club 18-30 on a boat, but there’s definitely an effort to make every part of the experience aesthetically appealing.
Let’s take a few minutes to talk about the food
It. Is. Divine.
If you want to be up and at it seriously early, you’ll find fresh pastries and coffee waiting for you in the lounge, but wait a little longer and the fun really starts. Brunch lasts until about 1pm, and is an absolute smorgasboard of continental delights. It’s a buffet affair, so you can graze until you’re sick. We’d thoroughly recommend the waffles, but I treat a buffet as a challenge, and everything I sampled was delicious.
Please, though, save room for dinner; it is a masterpiece. Every evening was a three or four-course affair, and all of it made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients from where the boat was moored.
The same menu was never repeated, and every offering was on a par with the best restaurants you’d find in a major city. Indeed, the French onion soup was probably tastier than any we’ve tasted in France. The waiting staff were a dream; they knew who in our party was lactose intolerant, who was vegetarian, and who was allergic to shellfish, and presented equally delicious alternatives to what was on the main menu. They even remembered how we take our tea. The food alone could convince us to return.
While the price of your cruise includes food, it doesn’t include booze. Wine and beer packages can be bought (cocktails and spirits aren’t included) but, at €299/person (£267.13/$341.21), it’s a lot of cash to spend. You’d have to be fairly merry every evening to justify the price. Per-drink, prices are probably comparable with a London gastropub. This was slightly disappointing for someone who lives in London and was excited at the thought of European drinks prices.
Now all of this doesn’t come cheap. Prices start at £1,499 (€1677.84/$1913.70) per person, inclusive of gratuities. But, when you think how much you’d need to spend on flights and accommodation alone to see all of these places individually, it doesn’t seem so bad, does it? And, well, cruising’s just so much more glamorous than a budget airline.
U by Uniworld’s (www.ubyuniworld.com/0845 678 5656) seven night Rolling on the Rhine itinerary cruises from Amsterdam to Frankfurt on The A and costs from £1,499 (€1677.84/$1913.70) per person, based on a twin share. The price includes on board accommodation, return flights or Eurostar, 14 meals on board, 11 included excursions, 2 dedicated U Hosts, on board wine tasting, welcome party and local DJ party, plus port charges and gratuities. 2018 sailings run until 15 September.
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