This spring, for the third year in a row, I took a European river cruise. These cruises are a great way to travel, especially for baby boomers who love the history and culture of old Europe. And I do my best in my posts to give you a glimpse of the stops along the way, like Strasbourg and Amsterdam. But that doesn’t really answer the question people often ask me: what’s it like to take a European river cruise?
All my river cruises have been as a guest of Viking River Cruises, the kings of this type of cruising. So I can only describe life on a Viking cruise. However, while the ships and amenities may vary from one cruise line to the other, I think the Viking experience is representative of life aboard one of these long, sleek ships that cruise the rivers of Europe (and now a few other places, like the U.S. and China).
In this post, I’ll try to give you a taste of my most recent cruise on the Rhine, in May of this year. I’ll start with the ship itself.
This time out, I was on the Viking Hlin, one of the company’s signature longships. These vessels are technological marvels, and Viking’s longships have a few unique features. One is the Aquavit Terrace at the bow, where you can dine or have a drink as the ship cruises down the river. The terrace has an indoor and an outdoor area, which comes in very handy when the sun deck on top of the ship has to be closed to pass under low bridges and locks.
Like all the Viking longships, the Hlin is 135 metres (443 feet) long and 11.4 metres (37 feet) wide, in order to fit through the smallest locks. There are three decks of staterooms. The staterooms on the upper two decks all feature either a veranda or a “French balcony”, which is more of a look-out. As well, there are suites, with a sitting room. The lower deck has water-level staterooms with a long window rather than a balcony – Viking’s version of an inside cabin. (Note: the ships are all built on the same model, so this description applies to any Viking longship you might cruise on.)
I had a verandah stateroom on the third deck, and as usual, it was lovely. These cabins aren’t huge, but they’re very comfortable – I could live in one of these. As always, the amenities were first-class: a big flat-screen TV, a fridge, a safe, lots of counter space, and European toiletries in the bathroom. No tub, but then, I don’t expect one when I’m on a ship. There’s something wonderful about sitting in your bedroom and watching classic European landscapes slide by.
The ship’s public spaces include an airy atrium, a library and a computer space. The long dining room, which occupies most of the rear half of deck two, has huge windows on both sides to enjoy the scenery. It was quite an experience to be there when the ship was going through a lock, or passing another river cruiser. Upstairs was a bar and lounge, with a pianist. Bringing up the rear — literally – was the Aquavit Terrace, where buffet meals were served for those who didn’t want to eat in the dining room. And just upstairs, the sun deck, with lounge chairs and some miniature golf.
The ship also was equipped to accommodate those who have mobility issues, with an elevator between the main and upper decks. That allowed wheelchair access to all except the water-level staterooms, and to the dining room, lounge and Aquavit Terrace. The ramp to the main entrance was also wheelchair-friendly.
If you want a more visual tour of a Viking longship, check out this post, which features a video walk-through of the Viking Odin.
I was excited by the itinerary of this cruise, called the Rhine Getaway, because it follows the course of Europe’s most important river almost from beginning to end. Starting in Basel Switzerland, we passed through Alsace, France, with a visit to Strasbourg, and then through the heartland of Germany, with stops at historic cities like Heidelberg, Koblenz, where the Rhine meets the Mosel, and Cologne. Then, after a stop at Kinderdijk, Holland, for a look at some centuries-old windmills, the cruise ended in Amsterdam.
There were also visits to Germany’s dramatic Black Forest, and a cruise through the Middle Rhine, one of Europe’s most scenic river passages, with castles on every side. And there were visits to two of the most famous castles of the Rhine, Marksburg Castle and Heidelberg Castle.
What I liked about this itinerary was the variety, We travelled through four countries, each with a very different culture, and made stops in big cities and small outposts. Seeing a whole itinerary of medieval towns can get a bit repetitive, but this trip had a little of everything. That goes for the food, too — from Swiss raclette to Dutch herring, you could sample a travelling smorgasbord.
Life on board
There are few sea days on European river cruises. Since the stops are usually close together, the ship can get you there bright and early. That means we were up most mornings for breakfast in the dining room in order to make the day’s tours. In most cases, we were back on board for lunch, and off on some other adventure in the afternoon, unless the ship was sailing.
On Viking cruises, every day features a free walking tour. In places like Cologne, where we tied up at the foot of town, we could simply follow our local guide into the old city on foot. In places like Breisach, Germany, we took a bus trip through the German countryside to a Black Forest village.
There were also optional tours, which cost extra. Mine included visits to medieval Colmar in Alsace (seen above), an Alsatian winery, the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress in Koblenz, and the beer halls of Cologne. But there were many others, including a full-day Alsatian food tour, a climb to the top of Cologne Cathedral, and a trip to a Dutch cheese farm. On all tours, an in-ear receiver let us hear the guide even if we drifted away from the group.
Importantly, if you didn’t want to do a tour, you didn’t have to. In Heidelberg, having already seen the castle, I spent a relaxing morning just wandering the old city. Helpfully, the ship supplied a little briefing sheet on each port, complete with map.
Information sessions were held around 5 p.m., to give us a rundown on the next day’s activities and some background on the places we were visiting. Occasionally there were slide show talks on the local culture or history of the region, and on other Viking itineraries.
Dinner was served at 7 every night in the dining room — except for the Aquavit Terrace, there are no specialty restaurants. And after dinner, most of us retired to the lounge for some music and drinks and socializing. Some nights, local entertainers came on board to sing some opera or offer some German barrel-house music, complete with costumes.
When the ship was in port through the evening, we were free to go into town and enjoy the night life. No problem having dinner and a taking in a show; as long as you were on the ship when it cast off, the crew was happy.
The food on this sailing was consistently good. The food has been good on all three cruises I’ve taken. However, while on the others there might have been one or two disappointing meals, on this cruise I don’t think I had one dish that was less than hoped for.
For breakfast, there was a choice of eggs cooked to order, meat, cereals, fruit and a selection of breads — all tasty. Lunch was served buffet style, with hot dishes and ready-made sandwiches, as well as a menu from which you could order dishes. I enjoyed the salmon and other fish dishes that were frequently offered.
The dinner menu changed each night. As with other cruise lines, one side of the menu featured the dishes of the night while the other offered standard dishes like steak and pasta. Vegetarian entrees were always offered. And some nights the plat du jour included local dishes, including the German food night — a huge hit on both Rhine cruises I’ve taken.
As I’ve said before, I appreciate the modest-sized portions: enough to satisfy but not enough to send you home 10 pounds heavier. The high point was the last evening, when the menu was set aside for a special premium dinner: steak and lobster (seen at top). Cooking both these for a big crowd is a challenge, but to my taste, both were perfect — the steak tender and not overdone, the lobster juicy and sweet.
One of the great features of river cruising is that on most lines, including Viking, beer and house wines are free with your meals — they’re included in your fare. I usually find the red wine a bit light for my taste, but on this cruise I liked both the red and the white. As well, I had the premium Silver Spirits package. For an added fee, this gives you an open bar, including most wines, as well as beer, liquor, specialty coffees and soft drinks. Pricey, but the wine list was extensive, and it was nice not having to drink the same wine every night.
Of course, there’s also dessert, and night after night, the kitchen sent out an endless stream of delicious-looking plates like the ones below. I don’t usually eat desserts after meals, so I stuck with Viking’s excellent sorbet. But you can feast your eyes on these.
As always, the service on the Hlin was first-rate. The staff was perpetually cheerful and helpful, the waiters and bartenders were friendly and willing to go off the menu in order to satisfy your crazy whims. And the officers were professional and very approachable.
That’s what you would expect on a ship from a major cruise line. However, Viking also has a concierge service which will go out of its way to help with travel arrangements you can’t make yourself. It will arrange for hotel bookings, taxis, even tickets to a show you really want to see in one of the ports.
This is a more personal level of service than you get on a large cruise ship. And it’s possible because of the smaller size of the ship. A river cruise ship carries about 190 passengers, so it’s more possible for the staff to get to know the passengers. By the end of the cruise, a few of them were more like friends.
And a few niggles
I was a guest of Viking on this cruise; however, I do make an effort to maintain my objectivity, and I speak with other passengers about their experiences on the trip. And honestly, there wasn’t much to complain about on this voyage. There were no bad meals or missed assignments, and if the weather didn’t always cooperate — well, that’s the weather.
Of course, you can always find some room for improvement. I found the selection on the in-room video system to be pretty limited on this trip: I ended up just using the music menu as a juke box. As well, the room amenities were great, but a bathrobe would have been appreciated. And as always, I would have liked a few tables for two in the dining room — it’s great to mingle, but sometimes you’d rather dine alone, especially if you’re cruising solo.
While I was a there as a guest, Viking’s way of handling on-board gratuities still seems a bit odd. Ocean cruise lines automatically add them to the shipboard bill: Viking asks passengers to decide an amount for the crew and for the tour director, and pay it with their bill at the end of the cruise. I’m sure most people pay the recommended amount (12 euros a day for the crew, 2 euros for the program director): why not just include it in the bill and let passengers adjust it up or down if they wish to?
Finally, there are other river cruise lines that offer a wider range of on-board amenities, like a gym or a spa. Would I pay extra for them? Probably not, but that’s a matter of taste. Still, I would appreciate a few bicycles …
The last word
So, what’s it like to take a European river cruise? That’s my take, and while things might be somewhat different on other cruise lines, I think it’s pretty representative. If you’ve had a different experience, leave a comment and let me know. What’s missing from this review is a real feeling of the places we visited: if you want that, take a look at some of the posts I wrote about the cities and towns we explored along the way. Then,. start dreaming …