River cruise

Heading into 2018, river cruise lines are working overtime to continue to broaden their passenger base. Most have already brought down their average passenger age in recent years, and now they are developing new and enhanced strategies to entice everyone from millennials to mature travelers, fitness freaks and foodies.

Next year, one of the most pivotal questions in the river cruising world will be whether millennials are onboard with U by Uniworld, the first attempt by a river cruise line to specifically court that demographic.

Unveiled last year and previewed during a sneak peek sailing earlier this fall, U by Uniworld officially launches in 2018 as Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection's dedicated brand for passengers ages 21 to 45.

From the get-go, U by Uniworld took a bold new approach to river cruising, engaging social media influencers to help market the product, which consists of all-black ships with interior design concepts such as communal dining tables and a hopping bar scene complete with DJs and mixologists. The itineraries have been crafted to incorporate more choice, flexibility and unique activities, such as whitewater rafting, pub crawls and even paragliding.

As buzzworthy as the product is, it remains to be seen whether it can actually be profitable. My prediction is that it will take a little bit of time for millennials to embrace a product they have shown little to no interest in. As young pioneers test out U by Uniworld, word will get out, either stoking or sabotaging the future success of the brand.

Creative food and fitness

Staying fit and eating well while cruising on rivers has been a growing trend in recent years, but heading into 2018, the creativity and innovation behind wellness and cuisine is kicking into high gear.

It's no longer enough to just offer bikes onboard (yawn). River cruise lines are going above and beyond to offer more adventurous and trendy outdoor and fitness activities, such as kayaking, spelunking, yoga and TRX suspension training.

River cruises are also catering more to the hardcore foodies out there, those who crave unique venues (both on and off the ships), creative platings and intrepid culinary exploits, as well as to those seeking healthier options.

On the fitness front, Avalon Waterways is expanding its Active Discovery itineraries to the Rhine River for 2018 after testing the program on the Danube this year. The goal behind the Active Discovery program is to offer passengers the opportunity to immerse themselves in the local culture and to engage in more unique activities, such as hiking, canoeing, taking painting classes, engaging in off-the-beaten-path culinary tours or taking waltz lessons. Avalon has said that in addition to being a more enticing offering in an increasingly competitive marketplace, the Active Discovery program is yet another effort to court younger passengers to river cruising.

Other river lines have also been upping their fitness and wellness game. For 2018, AmaWaterways expanded its wellness program, which it tested this year on the AmaLyra, to six ships, adding the AmaCerto, AmaPrima, AmaSonata, AmaDante and the AmaDolce.

The wellness program includes morning stretches, jogging, yoga, cardio, core strengthening, resistance-band workouts and circuit training, complemented by discussion groups with a focus on healthy eating and relaxation techniques.

Similarly, Emerald Waterways has introduced 17 EmeraldActive excursions on nine of the company's Europe itineraries for 2018. They include activities such as canoeing on a tributary of the Douro River in Portugal, a hiking tour of the vineyards and orchards around Tournon, France, and onboard yoga classes.

Foodies take note: River cruise lines are pivoting toward more creative and more nutritious culinary programs, a trend that is certain to continue into 2018. A prime example is Avalon Waterways' Avalon Fresh program, which launched this year in conjunction with Austrian brothers and chefs Karl and Leo Wrenkh and brought onboard locally sourced vegetarian cuisine.

Tauck, too, said it has been overhauling its onboard menus to add healthier choices and put a stronger focus on its wine selection.

Perhaps no river line is as into wine as AmaWaterways, which for 2018 will be offering more than 50 wine-themed sailings, an oenophile-driven program that continues to grow in popularity each year.

For those who would like to dig deeper still into how the local cuisine is created and executed, Scenic this year launched an onboard cooking school called Scenic Culinaire on the company's France ships, the Sapphire and the Diamond. The school features cooking stations and video cameras and screens for participants to view the maneuvers and instructions in detail.

Meanwhile, Uniworld has been toying with a new "progressive dinner" concept whereby a small group is hosted at a dinner that perhaps starts in the engine room, continues in the galley and maybe ends in the laundry room. Be on the lookout for more of these activities to pop up throughout their itineraries. The company has also partnered with VizEat to offer locally hosted meals as an alternative dining option.

News on the Nile

While there will be plenty of developments to watch on Europe's rivers next year, I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the renewed investment on Egypt's Nile. One of the most exciting upcoming developments is Viking River Cruises' acquisition of a vessel in Egypt that it stripped down to the steel and will relaunch in March, marking the first time it will own and operate its own ship on the Nile, the all-suite, 48-passenger Viking Ra.

Starting next year, luxury river cruise line Scenic will also be getting in on the Nile action with its first Egypt program (Scenic's tour operator parent company has offered Egypt before, but this is a first for the river cruise line). The 11-day Treasures of Egypt itinerary that will combine a five-day Nile sailing on the recently refurbished 36-passenger Sanctuary Sun Boat III, owned by Sanctuary Retreats, with six days touring Egypt. 

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