European river cruise: For the young – and young at heart

"Everyone pray for rain so we can make it down the Danube." Not exactly what you want to hear from the captain at the start of a river cruise. Europe has been basking in a heatwave all summer and the lack of rain means the Danube is perilously low. We've just joined the ship at Regensburg in Germany but unless we get more rain we won't be able to make it over a perennially problematic sandbar near Deggendorf.

This is my first river cruise and I'd naively assumed that itinerary changes were something that only happened on ocean voyages. But according to Caspar, our head guide (or U Host) from the Netherlands, the Danube is particularly susceptible to fluctuating water conditions. "We have to improvise," he says with typical Dutch pragmatism. "And we will have fun no matter what happens."

Fun is the overriding theme of this new offering by U by Uniworld, an offshoot of the established Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. Aimed at the "young and young at heart", it made headlines when it launched this year thanks to its active itineraries, stylish ships and an age restriction of 21 to 45. Since then it's relaxed the upper limit but the ethos remains the same. As Caspar explains during the orientation meeting, "We are a fresh new approach to river cruising. Forget about daily programs printed on pillows – we use WhatsApp to communicate. We're more active – you can hike, bike and do yoga – and we're the coolest ship on the river."

It's hard to deny this last sentiment. Bearing the oddly unromantic moniker of The A, our ship is an old Uniworld vessel that's been stylishly refurbished to appeal to a younger market. The exterior is jet black and inside it's an Instagram-friendly montage of soft greys, gleaming chrome and LED downlighting (the brand's hashtag #travelforu is even written on the side). Brunch and dinner are served in the Dine restaurant, which is a bright, airy space with sleek white furniture, bare light bulbs and river views. Also on this deck is a well-equipped gym, a guest laundry, a small spa and a free 24-hour tea and coffee station. Upstairs is U Lounge, the ship's main gathering area, which is elegantly furnished with grey banquettes, contemporary sofas and screen prints by Andy Warhol. At one end is a sexy black bar with purple strip lighting; in the middle is a small dance floor and DJ booth.

There's more wow factor on the top deck, which has a South Beach vibe thanks to striped banquettes, cream cabanas and white deckchairs. The ship's late-night rooftop bar is permanently bathed in cool blue light and has funky side tables and footstools. If the boat were a cocktail, it would be a martini with a dash of Miami and a sprig of Vegas. 

Thankfully, the changes are more than just aesthetic. A scan of the itinerary reveals a range of activities clearly designed for a younger, more active audience. Every day begins with a wellness class on the top deck, such as yoga, Theraband stretching or Pranayama breathing (I confess I never make it to any of these but the consensus from those that do is positive). There are also drum workshops and silent discos (where everyone wears a pair of headphones) plus more traditional activities such as wine tasting and beer mixology classes. At most stops there's a free orientation tour with one of the two U Hosts plus a range of optional U Time excursions that can be booked for an extra charge. Frustratingly, the list of U Time tours sent out before the trip was markedly different to the one available onboard but there's still a good mix of historical, active and food-themed options.

Of course, this is only important if you actually end up moving downstream. After we manage to limp from Regensburg to just outside Straubing on day two, further progress seems unlikely when we learn that a ship has got stuck on the sandbar and no traffic can pass until it's removed. This process ends up taking two more days, during which time we get intimately acquainted with the Bavarian city of Straubing. 

It's an unfortunate turn of events but to their credit, the crew parry admirably. They organise buses to take us to Passau near the Austrian border (which should have been our next stop), arrange an impromptu tasting at a brewery and stage an entertaining barbecue with a conciliatory free bar.


When the blockage is eventually cleared, we're two days behind schedule so sadly have to bypass Linz in Austria and Bratislava in Slovakia. But we do still get to explore the impressive 18th-century baroque abbey at Melk and do what for me turns out to be one of the highlights of the trip – an exclusive after-hours tour of the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. 

We also get out first taste of the simple delight of cruising under clear blue skies through beautiful countryside. The Wachau Valley in Austria is particularly scenic – a bucolic montage of steeply terraced vineyards, medieval towns and ruined hilltop castles – all of which is brought to life by the GPS-activated commentary on our headsets.

After a full day in Vienna, we set sail for Budapest with a "Sexy Sailaway Party" featuring a live saxophonist on the top deck. At one stage we enter a lock and are flanked by two ships bearing the grey-haired demographic more typically associated with river cruising. Given the number of elderly passengers taking photos and videos, a boatload of exuberant "youngsters" is clearly an unusual spectacle on the Danube.

U by Uniworld may have relaxed the upper age limit of 45 but the majority of guests on this trip are still couples in their 30s and 40s. Most are American with the rest hailing from Australia, England and South Africa. It's a fun crowd and soon everyone is sharing pictures and videos on the communal WhatsApp group chat.

Given this trip is considerably cheaper than most seven-night Danube cruises, I was expecting noticeable compromises in the food and accommodation. But I'm pleasantly surprised. Sure, only brunch and dinner are included each day and drinks are extra (unless you buy the €299 unlimited drinks package), but the meals are excellent and often showcase the local cuisine. One night we tuck into a hearty medley of Bavarian sausages; on another we sample a traditional Austrian Linzer torte.

I'm in one of the ship's four spacious suites, so have a comfortable king-size bed, floor-to-ceiling sliding doors and a marble bathroom that's bigger than my one in Sydney. But even the standard cabins are a reasonable size and are well-equipped with flatscreen TVs and USB ports. Only the ship's two triples are a squeeze, with three small bunks and a compact but functional en suite.

We eventually sail into Budapest under bright blue skies, passing beneath the city's ornate Chain Bridge and a succession of imposing palaces and monuments. In many ways it's a fitting finale to the trip – a former bastion of formality and tradition that's enjoying a new lease of life thanks to an influx of youngsters and fresh ideas. Much like the ship that brought us here.



As well as sailings on the Danube, the company also offers similarly active trips on the Rhine, Main and Seine rivers plus seasonal Christmas departures. See


Amadeus recently announced Millennial-targeted trips on the Danube, Rhine and Rhone rivers in 2019 that will be hosted by well-known social media influencers. See


Peregrine Adventures offers small-ship adventure cruises in Europe, Asia and Africa. The company carbon offsets all trips and has banned single-use plastics. See


Surf simulators, water slides and an escape room are some of the features of Royal Caribbean's new Mariner of the Seas, a refurbished ship offering Millennial-friendly three and four-night trips to the Bahamas. See


Virgin Voyage's first adults-only cruise ship, Scarlet Lady, will debut in 2020 with interiors inspired by hip hotel brands such as The Standard, Ace and Mondrian. See


Rob McFarland was a guest of U by Uniworld.



U by Uniworld's seven-night cruise from Regensburg to Budapest starts from $2099 per person (twin share) and includes 14 meals, 12 excursions and all port taxes and gratuities. See