BUDAPEST –– As the taxi dropped me at the dock in Budapest to board my U River Cruises ship, my first thought was that the sleek black vessel looked like a pirate ship sitting alone amid a river full of traditional white counterparts.
It took a few days before I realised just how apt the pirate association truly was. From its decor and activities to its very diverse group of customers, everything about U River Cruises and its ship, the A, was decidedly nontraditional and slightly irreverent.
And while that turned out to be the perfect combination for a ship full of mostly first-time river cruisers, the "un-river cruise" attitude has also proved to be one of the line's biggest challenges, one that all river lines face as they seek to tap markets beyond the traditional 55-plus crowd.
"It's about finding like-minded people who are looking for a different way to experience Europe," said Ellen Bettridge, CEO of U River Cruises parent Uniworld Boutique River Cruises Collection.
The problem, she said, is that "they don't know they want a river cruise," and then, afterward, "They are, like, 'How come no one told me about this?'"
Indeed, that was the sentiment among most of my fellow passengers after a recent weeklong cruise down the Danube from Budapest to Regensburg, Germany. Most said they had happened upon, rather than sought out, the brand (or even a river cruise).
Originally established as a line for millennials, U River Cruises had to get rid of its age restrictions due to a lack of interest before it even started sailing in 2018. By this year, it had pulled its original ship, the B, from the Seine, taking a season off to move it from France to the more popular waterways of Central Europe for next year.
While company officials say the line was at first ferrying more travel advisors than passengers, it's now breaking even by attracting a diverse cross section of travellers with its lower price point, hip-casual style and a nontraditional approach to excursions that caters to more independent and active (not just younger) passengers.
Reaching those non-river cruisers, Bettridge said, "is a lot of work, but we're going to continue investing in our marketing and PR."
Although I admit to being one of the line's early skeptics, I loved the ship the moment I stepped onboard. The A is modern yet simple, with an open lounge that includes a foosball table as well as a table stacked with board games.
The top deck has cushioned seating and an enclosed bar for late-night parties and daytime activities such as painting classes.
The dining room is casual, with lots of communal tables for mingling, and there are interesting touches throughout, from black-and-white nude sketches and colorful prints of Marilyn Monroe in the hallways to a silver stuffed-dog doorstop at the entrance to the guest laundry room.
The gym is surprisingly spacious and offers workout alternatives to the daily exercise classes offered on deck.
Because U River Cruises' two ships are renovations of some of Uniworld's older vessels, the cabins are small, but they're surprisingly comfortable and laid out to ensure plenty of storage. I was traveling with a friend, and we were lucky that our suite had a sitting area, double vanity and extra closet space.
While cheaper than Uniworld's other offerings, touches from U River Cruises' luxurious big sisters are apparent throughout, including high-quality service and food, marble baths and the signature Savoir beds.
One particularly noteworthy extra: upholstered barriers that can be inserted between beds when they are made up as singles rather than a double. They add a surprising level of privacy.
Still, what I liked best about my trip was the diverse range of the guests' ages, nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Just as diverse was the mix of excursions.
While I fall squarely at the lower end of the traditional river cruise demographic (and I do love a nice luxurious river cruise with its fine dining and other perks), my attention span isn't well-suited to traditional group coach excursions. So imagine my delight when our cruise director announced at the outset, "We will not take you on a bus to see church No. 35."
Indeed, our first formal excursion was to one of Budapest's bathhouses, complete with a wave pool, to which we walked on a beautiful afternoon.
In Vienna, our city tour meant being guided onto the subway and to the city center, where staff gave us directions to the various highlights so we each could venture out on our own and return to the ship at our leisure.
One night we did take a coach for an after-hours visit to Vienna's Schonbrunn Palace, but that was the lone exception.
In Bratislava, Slovakia, U River Cruises offered a more traditional guided walking tour, while some opted (for an extra fee) to drive Soviet-era Czech cars.
Another day, many of us biked through the villages of the picturesque Wachau Valley in Austria, disembarking in Durnstein and reboarding 20 miles downstream in Melk.
Near Regensburg, paddleboarding and kayaking were among the excursion options.
Due to jet lag and travel schedules, my friend and I missed some of the biggest parties at the beginning of the cruise, when U River Cruises offered a pub crawl through Budapest's famous ruin bars, and at the back end, when guests visited beer gardens in Regensburg. But there were plenty of opportunities onboard, as well, with DJ nights, silent discos and the surprisingly popular tequila karaoke party.
Indeed, one of the best aspects of the cruise was never having to worry about being the last person standing. There was always something going on somewhere, and thanks to a group WhatsApp chat that guests could join at the outset of the trip, it was easy to find out exactly where the action was, whether onboard or in town.
Next year's lineup promises even more fun as U River Cruises brings the B back into service on the Rhine, with sailings to and from Amsterdam. On the Danube, the line will also sail farther into Eastern Europe, including overnights in Belgrade, Serbia, a city known for its nightlife.
The 2020 itineraries will also include more overnight stays and new excursions, including chocolate-making classes in Belgium, waltz lessons in Vienna and a tour of street murals in Linz, Austria.
Source: Travel Weekly USA