Like many of us, I’ve always looked with envy at those TV ads showing photos of long, sleek ships cruising down the rivers of Europe, through a lush landscape lined with vineyards and quaint medieval towns. But I never thought it was in my future – until Viking Cruises invited me experience it for myself this summer.
The cruise I chose, called Cities of Light, was in fact a cruise-tour, starting with a two-day stay in Paris and travelling to Luxembourg before embarking on an eight-day cruise of the Moselle, Rhine and Main Rivers. The trip ended with an overland run to Prague, for another two-day visit.
I had cruised several times before, on ocean ships big and small — even on a recreated 19th-century sailing ship. But European river cruising was a new adventure for me. And it truly was a unique experience: familiar, yet at the same time very different. One thing was clear. however: when Viking says its cruises take you into “the heart of Europe”, they’re telling the truth.
We’ve all been on bus tours, so I’ll leave you to read about the land portions of the trip here and here. Let’s skip ahead to the moment our coach crossed the bridge in Trier, Germany and I looked down to see our ship, the Viking Odin, sitting peacefully at its mooring on the green banks of the Moselle.
Boarding an ocean cruiser is a bit like storming a castle – thousands of people lining up to climb aboard a vessel the size of a city block. Boarding the Odin was a whole different experience. With a passenger list of only 180 people, there was no mass migration, just a calm and orderly walk up a small gangway to be greeted by the ship’s crew, all lined up to offer a hello and a moist towel.
In a minute I had my room card, and in another a friendly crew member was leading me up the short flight of stairs to my cabin, on the top deck. It was nice. Not big – as you’d expect by looking at the ship – but roomy enough to move around freely, with a big bed, a good amount of storage space, and a long counter, on which sat a bowl of fruit and a bottle of bubbly.
The cabin was much as I would have expected if I’d booked a balcony room on an ocean cruise. But on this ship, most of the cabins came with a set of floor-to-ceiling patio doors leading to a slim balcony with a couple of chairs, a perfect place to watch Europe go by.
And that was a treat indeed. In fact, some of the best moments of my cruise were spent sitting on the balcony watching the passing scene: the vineyards climbing the steep hillsides, the river traffic sliding by, the medieval towns and the endless string of campgrounds filled with German families on their summer vacations.
Life on board
My cabin tour complete, I headed for the Aquavit Terrace, on the ship’s bow, to sip a glass of wine and chat with a few of the other guests. This outdoor patio, a Viking innovation, was the place to be whenever there was some spare time to relax, and a great vantage point when the ship was going through the many locks we’d be encountering.
As for the passengers, I was one of nine Canadians aboard, along with a few Brits and a genial couple from New Zealand. We were the Commonwealth contingent: the rest of the ship was American, mostly baby boomers and older, although there were a good number of middle-aged couples, a family or two, and even a few newlyweds.
And if you didn’t know your fellow passengers by the time you got on board, you met them pretty quickly. Dinner was a communal affair. Each evening we all gathered in the main-deck dining room — no specialty restaurants on a ship this size, although a buffet was laid out on the Aquavit Terrace. And since there were no tables for two, you were dining with others.
As a minority of one – a single blogger on a ship of couples and families — I would have probably preferred a table of my, at least on day one. But sharing was no problem with this friendly crowd: I quickly found a comfortable spot alongside a couple from New Jersey and another from Texas, who became good friends.
As for the food — it was excellent, with a continually changing menu, including a set of featured dishes recommended nightly by the ship’s German chef. Salmon, veal saltimboca, chateaubriand … and not the huge portions I’ve seen on some ocean ships. Enough to satisfy, but not enough to send you running to Jenny Craig when the cruise was over.
I’m usually done after the main course, but on this cruise I had room for dessert, and amazingly, there was a delicious sorbet that worked perfectly for my milk sensitivity. In fact, Viking food staff took great pains to accommodate passengers with food allergies, a trend I noticed time and again in Europe.
There was some local colour, too, including a night of German food, from sausages and dumplings to schnitzels and beer. That was a huge hit, as was the oom-pah music in the lounge afterward.
And with river cruising, the wine, beer and soft drinks with your meals are included. That entitled you to as much house wine or beer as you wanted, and it felt good not to worry about the cost if you wanted a second glass of wine (I did). The house white was a Moselle riesling, fresh and fruity; the red was a drinkable pinot noir, though a bit light for my taste. For premium wines, you could pay extra, or buy the Silver Spirits package for the cruise.
But cruising isn’t all about the food. From Paris to Prague, our itinerary was full, with at least one excursion each day. We were off the ship by 9:30, and on our way to a morning tour of whatever city we were in – all included in the cruise fare, unlike on an ocean cruise. Some days included an afternoon tour, or an optional excursion that cost extra.
And the tours were good. As promised, we discovered some of the most interesting and picturesque towns that line Europe’s great rivers, with quaint town squares and cobblestoned streets and castles on the hill. Every town had a story to tell, and many were remarkably intact — or restored — so it was an up-close look at Europe’s past.
With few exceptions, the local guides were informative – and in some cases, downright funny. Some days there was a lunch included, highlighting typical local cuisine. And if you didn’t feel like following the group, you could wander on your own, as long as you caught the bus for the ride back.
It wasn’t quite the experience I expected, however. While the ads paint a picture of the ship docking in the middle of town and passengers strolling into the ancient city centre, many of the tours on this itinerary were by bus. Sometimes the trip was a few minutes, sometimes longer. In some cases, our destination was a few kilometres from where we docked; in others, the guided walk around town may have been too much for a mostly older crowd. (Viking did offer an “easy” version of each tour for those not up to a long hike.)
This may have been a function of the cruise itinerary I chose: other passengers told me that in places like Amsterdam, you could indeed walk into town for some free time. (And to be fair, we did walk into town in some places.) However, it’s a factor worth looking into if you book a European river cruise.
There was another wrinkle I hadn’t expected, as well. I envisioned returning to the ship every evening at its riverside mooring, but it didn’t always work that way. In some cases, the ship sailed to the next port while we were off on our tour, and we met it there at the end of the day.
There’s a reason for this. On some rivers, including the Moselle and the Main, the water level is maintained by a series of locks – there are 56 on the Main alone. Getting through these locks is a slow affair, so the ship needs to make up time when it can. There are no locks on the Rhine, but it presented its own challenges – historically low water levels, due to a hot, dry summer. In one case, we had to find an alternative dock because the river was too low to use the gangway at our destination.
That said, some of the most enjoyable times were when we relaxed on board while the ship cruised the river. Many of us climbed to the top deck for a panoramic view of spectacular sections such as the famous Middle Rhine. But a seat on the Aquavit deck with a glass of Moselle wine was an excellent place to just watch the river slide by — or as I said above, you could just pass the time on your own balcony.
Through it all, the Viking crew was cheerful and professional. The waiters were friendly, my cabin steward kept things clean and neat, the desk staff were responsive and knew my name after a couple of days. And Claudia, the cruise director, kept the show running on time, with a resilient sense of humour when it didn’t.
As well, Viking’s local representative in Paris – whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten – tried valiantly to get my debit card back when a cash machine at a nearby mall ate it. Despite 20 minutes of heated negotiations on the phone, her efforts were in vain (apparently that’s the French banking system for you). But full credit for the effort.
I enjoyed my trip on the Viking Odin. For a seasoned ocean cruiser, it was an intriguingly different take on the whole cruising experience. Life on board the ship was first-rate, from the accommodations to the food and the daily routine. But the smaller crowds and the smaller vessel made it more intimate and personal: by the time the trip was over, I had probably met half the people on board.
The destinations and the tours were first-rate, as well. Despite the relatively short time at each destination (we generally spent half a day), I left feeling I had really seen this part of Germany, and gained a new understanding of European history and life.
On the downside, if you wanted lots of gourmet restaurants and non-stop on-board entertainment, this wasn’t the cruise for you. The dining options were limited, as noted, and entertainment was generally some music or a trivia game in the lounge after dark. But frankly, after walking around medieval towns every day, most of us were happy with a leisurely drink and an early night.
Which brings up another point: if you have a problem with walking, a river cruise may not be an ideal fit. Look carefully at the itinerary to see how much walking is required: it will tell you if there are many stairs or steep climbs ahead.
My only personal complaint was the amount of time spent on buses — more than I would have liked. But as noted, that may have much to do with the itinerary I chose and the places we went. Still, it’s best to understand a little about the on-shore excursions before you go: will you be walking or riding?
Overall, my Viking European river cruise was a positive, enjoyable experience. I’d do it again: in fact, I’d take a cruise just to drift down the river with a glass of wine in hand and watch the scenery drift by. I wonder if they sell cruises like that …