Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon

This summer -- and I use the term loosely because in Singapore, where I live, every day is summer -- I went on my first river cruise. In fact, it was the first organized vacation package I had ever gone on.

When I told my friends, they all thought I had gone mad.

"You'll be so bored."

"What are you going to do for 13 days with the same people, people you don't know?"

I am one of those selfish people who value my space and solitude and for whom small talk can be about as much fun as pushing a boulder up Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, the highest point in Singapore at 542 feet.

So you may well wonder why I chose to book the Uniworld river cruise on the Douro River in Spain and Portugal.

For one, I wanted to slow down. Two, I wanted to experience Portugal. Three, I wanted a holiday where I didn't have to think and make decisions. Four, I wanted to not have to pack and unpack.

And five, I wanted quality time with Kim, my 22-year-old goddaughter, who's studying in Melbourne, Australia. She's graduating next year, and I thought: whether she liked it or not, I was going to give her sage advice. Plus, exposing her to (what I suspected would be) older company would be a good thing.

She'd also be my safe haven if I felt like being anti-social. Kim would be the good cop to my surly, leave-me-alone persona.

As it turned out, we got more than I bargained for in every way.

First, we turned out to be the outliers. I think the close-to 100 people onboard, including the crew, thought Kim and I had joined the wrong cruise when we showed up for the briefing.

Not only were we the only customers from Asia -- our waiter told us we were the first Malaysians he'd ever served -- Kim and I were definitely not a part of their demographic.

Our fellow passengers were mainly retirees, mostly couples or groups of friends, ranging in ages from 60s to 80s. Most were from the U.S. and U.K., with some from Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Second, the river cruise opened my eyes to a whole new way of traveling that I had long written about but never lived firsthand -- and, now that I'm nearing my silver years, will soon be a part of.

I got firsthand insights into a customer segment that's largely overshadowed by the current hype about millennials, Gen Z and whatever generation happens to be emerging as a market this week.

These boomers are folks who've worked hard all their lives, raised their families, paid their dues and now have the time, means and desire to experience places at their pace.

There were Bobbie and David, who are retired in Florida. David was a CBS journalist and a university lecturer in media programs before he retired. He said he needed a holiday to recover from Trump-induced depression. Bobbie clearly calls the shots in this relationship, because David said it's easier that way. They've been together more than 60 years, meeting as teenagers in New York.

There were Rob and Nancy, who live in Las Vegas. Rob's a recently retired radiologist, and the couple, with their two daughters having flown the nest, are enjoying their newfound time off, taking frequent holidays at home as well as in Europe.

There was Brian, a former diplomat from New Zealand who enjoyed telling me stories about how he was a friend of the late president of Singapore, S.R. Nathan, and how he once was involved in arranging a trip made to his home country by Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first and longest-serving prime minister.

Most of our fellow passengers were veteran cruisers, and they compared notes about which cruises they've taken and which companies are better. They were their own TripAdvisor.

Some booked direct with Uniworld. One went through a travel agent he was not impressed with. Now, he said, he will book direct.

"You really need to find out from people who've been there and done it," said Martin, a retired car dealer from Suffolk in England. "You can't find out from sites like Booking.com or Expedia."

River cruising is a huge segment that has yet to go fully online, and it's certainly a growing trend in Asia. I can see it's a lucrative segment, too. Having paid for the cruise up front, these folks think little of dropping lots of money on shopping while on shore excursions.

In every stop we made, the women returned with little bags of gifts. "For my granddaughter," said one as she pulled out a little dress from a shop in Obidos, a medieval town we stopped at on the way to Porto.

They also seemed to be very appreciative customers. They listened attentively during briefings -- their attention spans are definitely longer than people I am used to. They were punctual. They were interested and curious travelers. They paid attention to the tour guides' commentaries, and they enjoyed experiences.

I may have gotten an idealized impression of them as customers -- blame it on the port and other wine we imbibed at every stop and onboard -- and I am sure there are those who complain, but overall the mood onboard was of warm camaraderie forged among strangers who had chosen to spend time together on the journey.

I now see for myself that there is indeed gold to be mined in this silver market. Boomers have the money and time, the temperament and attitude to be better travelers who benefit not only our industry but also communities they visit.

I knew they were curious about Kim and me, and some clearly felt sorry for us. One evening, Bobbie came up to me, grabbed my hand and said, "You're sitting with us tonight."

One night, as we watched couples dancing to music by Miguel, who sings everything from Portuguese love songs to Elvis and the Beatles, I remarked to Kim that there was probably 400 years' worth of marriage and companionship on that dance floor.

"It gives me hope," she said.

Likewise, it certainly gives me hope that as I age, as we all will, there are better travel experiences out there awaiting me.

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