The A Entertainment & Activities
U River Cruises didn't just rethink life onboard; they reimagined shore excursion offerings on some of cruising's most trafficked rivers. U Time tours come with an additional fee -- and vary widely -- offering passengers all-day passes to a swing over Amsterdam for 5 euros or a six-hour tasting tour for 99. Some tours are tried and true, like a visit to the historic Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, while others put a spin on standard site visits. The Zollverein Industrial Coal Mine Complex in Essen, Germany is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and worth a stop, but rather than selling a cut-and-dry guided tour of the former coal mine, U River Cruises has passengers bike around the grounds with a local guide, followed by a chance to explore the museums at your own pace. If you want to stop at the scenic cafe for a beer or a bite, it's up to you; therein lies both the flexibility and the fault of the U River Cruises shore excursions.
In order to help keep costs at a minimum, lunch is never provided on U River Cruises, but during excursions this sometimes proved tricky. People are still going to want to grab a bite when they're out -- and especially when they're running around -- all day. However, the time needed to sit, order and pay for food was not always factored into the tour. This caused unevenness among tour groups and sometimes made the experience a tad disjointed. A call in advance to let the venue know a group would be coming, perhaps offer a limited menu, would help expedite the inevitable need for folks to grab some lunch during longer excursions.
Another major misstep was the lack of available water. Bottled water was never included, but nor was it available for purchase, even at some of the sites visited. Given the active nature of many of the excursions -- like the longer bike rides -- not having proper access or advanced notice about water is not only inconvenient, but dangerous. We're told that while they did not arrive in time for our very first sailing, future cruisers will be given reusable logo water bottles so they can fill them throughout the sailing and take them ashore; this is also a more sustainable solution than disposable plastic water bottles.
Not every additional tour offered on The A requires a back-breaking amount of fitness. A cheese-making workshop in a German artisanal cheese shop (with an expletive in its name) is a fine example of immersion through food -- and cultures -- in a boutique setting, as well.
QuietVox devices -- audio devices that make it easier to hear a guide -- are used on some tours, so keep them charged. Those with smaller ears will want to bring their own headphones as the earbuds could be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
As with many vacations, you can choose to do as much or as little as you want onboard The A. But with constant opportunities to explore port on a neat excursion or independently, sometimes there were very few people onboard to take part in daytime programming. As we were sailing onboard the first-ever cruise of The A, activities like an onboard mixology course or paint with wine were not offered yet, but should be on the schedule for future sailings. Daytime programming will not be included; each class with cost 15 euros.
At night, there is always a planned activity after dinner. Many nights, there is an evening walk to see the city by night and check out any happening bars and clubs as recommended by the local U Host. At times, these walks coincided with the silent disco, resulting in low turnout. Given the demographic and the interests of the passengers onboard, we like that there is always something available to do on or off the ship. The silent disco is held maybe two nights of a seven-night sailing and headphones are made available with the ability to switch to three different stations: green is a "chill" station, blue is Latin music and red is house music. The idea is to dance with the headphones on, but we saw some fellow passengers laying in the cabanas on the top deck just zoning out with headphones on and beverage in hand -- no judgment here.
The silent disco headphones will also be in use at the "silent cinema" at the back of the rooftop lounge, featuring a nearly 20-foot-high movie screen. Viewers can choose to listen to the film's dialogue, atmospheric music or other commentary.
While pricing has not been set at the time of publication, The A plans to offer the ability to rent tents (complete with supplies like sleeping bags) in order to "camp out" on the top deck under the stars. Offered only in good weather and to a limited number of participants, the camping might seem silly to some, as a room is already paid for below, but it's also an opportunity to do something different and break up the week with the ultimate outdoor sleepover party.
For such an active sailing, The A sneaks in quite a bit of enrichment. For example, the second day onboard, the wellness coach whipped out some drums and began an impromptu drum circle on the sun deck.
The included walks -- typically a morning or evening orientation walk -- not only provide you with some direction on where to go for what, but U Hosts also try to provide a bit of context about the city you’re in and its history.
During our morning of scenic sailing, we enjoyed the commentary about the passing castles and sights, but realized we preferred the traditional commentary made over the loudspeaker or in person, rather than the GPS-triggered commentary you could listen to from your QuitVox device. Since there was no good way to tell when a story was being told or when it was not, you either have to leave your headphones on the entire time or risk missing something. Despite wanting more information on our surroundings, we quickly lost interest in trying to get it from the QuietVox.
The A Bars & Lounges
The hub of The A is the U Lounge, featuring the ship's main bar, but in a last-minute decision, U River Cruises added a rooftop hangout called the Ice Bar. This indoor/outdoor sun deck space is a visual focal point of the ship and an exciting alternative venue. In conjunction with the line's sustainability initiatives, straws are by request only. When you do choose to have one in your Moscow mule, it will be made of paper and resemble a bamboo shoot -- there are few, if any, disposable plastics onboard.
U Lounge (Deck 2): Located behind the front desk on the main deck, the U Lounge is a central gathering space for passengers. The A's signature neon heart is here, along with some of Warhol's Marilyns and other more discreet pop art featuring colorful language (Hint: check the booth to the right behind the bar). Furniture is sleek and modern-looking -- gray booths with tables, charcoal couches, white chairs with low, geometric tables -- but functional.
In the morning, coffee and croissants are offered here and sunlight floods the panoramic windows, making it a peaceful place to enjoy some quiet. The ship's only meeting -- the safety drill and staff introductions on the first day -- is held in the lounge, but made relaxed by passed trays of Champagne.
The ship's primary bar is in the lounge, and this is where most DJ nights are held with a small dance floor for letting loose. During the day, a foosball table is there. A cocktail menu was created just for the ship by Jack Bettridge, a spirits writer for "Wine Spectator" and husband of Uniworld's president Ellen Bettridge. Craft cocktails are a trend by land, so the chance to try a Dutch Old Fashioned or a Sassy Bordeaux (made with tarragon grown onboard) is a welcome addition to the onboard drink menu (though prices also reflect that of swanky bars on land -- each drink will run you 9 euros). We enjoyed the availability of seven creative nonalcoholic cocktails for when you want to have a drink in hand but need a break from the booze.
Wine is available by the glass or bottle (about 8 euros for a glass). Local beer is on draft for 5.50 euros. A number of other liquors and aperitifs are also offered to create your own signature drink. If you don't feel like waiting for the screen to scroll through the entire menu, just ask your knowledgeable bartender.
The bar is open from about noon to 2 a.m., depending on the crowd and the night. If no one is there, (don't think it happened once on our sailing) the bar will close around midnight. Espresso drinks can also be ordered at the bar.
Ice Bar (Deck 3): On the top of the ship you'll find the long, rectangular Ice Bar, with windows on every side -- but nothing is actually frozen. Controllable neon lighting illuminates the bar, which does resemble blocks of ice, as well as the gray checkered floor beneath the cushioned bench seating. Small white tables and gray chairs and footstools line the space during the day, but are cleared away during silent disco nights. Morning stretches and yoga are also held here.
We found that on our sailing, the Ice Bar wasn't used as much as we had hoped, but were informed that due to noise ordinances, loud DJ nights couldn't be held here when we were in port, which was every night but one. Also, its location on the top of the ship means that in the event of low bridges, the bar has the remarkable ability to fold down.
One afternoon, enough people stayed onboard that the Ice Bar opened to serve passengers on the sun deck, and the wellness coach (who doubles as an onboard DJ) began spinning tunes for those enjoying the view.
The A Outside Recreation
The outside recreation on a U River Cruises ship is exploring in port. If you find yourself cruising or staying onboard, lounging is the number-one pastime. A striped, cushioned couch surrounds the perimeter of the sun deck (also referred to as the rooftop lounge), while the middle is filled with loungers, clamshell cabanas and anti-gravity chairs. If you are low on battery life but don’t want to head inside, the top deck is discreetly filled with USB ports beneath the wraparound couch.
Otherwise, there is not much in the way of outside recreation onboard The A. There are no pools, hot tubs or lawn games. If the weather is brisk, cozy fleece blankets are kept in baskets inside of the Ice Bar.
The bridge, where the captain pilots the ship, is located at the front of the sun deck.
The A Services
The front desk is located on the main level, Deck 2, in the photogenic black-and-white lobby at the center of the ship. Flat-screen TVs are located on either wall and flash information about shore tours and other helpful things to know. The desk is staffed 24 hours a day for any questions or needs. Here is the place to make a reservation for tours or treatments, ask about anything regarding life onboard or settle your bill at the end of the sailing. When you check in, staff will help you get on the internet and join the WhatsApp group for your sailing so you can stay in touch and keep informed.
Just to the left of the front desk is a small area lined with glass cases full of branded souvenirs, jewelry, designer sunglasses and bags, and a few practical items like water bottles. Items can be purchased at the front desk. A vending machine dispenses soda, chips, candy and other junk food for a few euros a pop. Directly facing you when you walk into this small wing is a photo booth. There is no booth to get into; simply click the button, stand back, and prepare yourself for four shots. Photos can be printed, and during our sailing, they were working to program the machine so they could be shared socially. Use of the #TravelforU photobooth is free of charge.
A self-service laundry room was specially outfitted to be onboard and can be found on the righthand side of the stairwell leading to Deck 1. There are two washers, two dryers and an ironing board. Tokens can be purchased at the front desk for one euro each (token required for a wash, dry or detergent). Laundry can also be sent out using a cloth bag in a closet in your room. You are charged per item (about 1 euro for undergarments or 3 euros for a shirt), but if time if more valuable to you than waiting for a washer, less than $20 can buy you a few day's worth of clothing.
Smoking is allowed in a dedicated section on the sun deck at the very back of the ship.
It's important to note that while there is no elevator onboard The A, there is a chairlift from Deck 1 to Deck 2.