It’s the little things that can make the difference when choosing a hotel, a restaurant or in this case, a river cruise line. The pretty bookmarks which were discreetly placed into the books we were reading by the cabin steward when attending to our room. The chef printing out a customized recipe for me after I gushed over the apres-concert Hungarian goulash he prepared. The mini Linzer tortes at the ship’s 24-hour coffee station during our stay in Austria. It’s those little things, along with the sublime big things, that made our Viking River Cruise trip even more than what we hoped it would be.
Boarding the Hermod, our sleek longboat Viking River Cruise, we were struck immediately by the lack of British accents. In actuality, most Viking travelers are from the U.S., along with a smattering of Canadians, Brits and others. These cruises are for an educated, cosmopolitan crowd that wants to immerse in fine cuisine, cultural experiences and social encounters with like-minded folks. But stuffiness? Absolutely not, as we saw from those who came to dinner with sport shirts, shorts and even flip-flops. If you choose to dress up, however, you’ll have plenty of company.
Our Danube Waltz cruise launched from Budapest and ended in Passau, Germany, but Viking also offers the cruise in the opposite direction. Upon arrival to the ship there is time to unpack, explore, settle in and join the crew for an orientation meeting and toast, followed by dinner. The next six days are a glorious, exciting, exhilarating melange of cultural, arts and gastronomic experiences in postcard-perfect Budapest; the fairy tale-like Bratislava (Slovak Republic); stately, beautiful Vienna (Austria); scenic cruising on the Wachau Valley; the charming town of Cesky Krumlov (Czech Republic); and pretty and pleasantly non-touristy Passau, (Germany). Walking/bus excursions are included while optional excursions incur additional charges.
We researched our options and opted for the Mozart and Strauss Vienna Residence Hofburger Orchestra concert at a concert hall in a historic palace in Vienna (and sat in the front row) as well as a tour of Budapest’s Doany Street Synagogue, the second largest in the world, and the Jewish sector of Budapest. While in Budapest, others chose to visit the famed thermal spas of Budapest, visited the renowned Hungarian horsemen in an equestrian park, or toured the Grand Market for a “Taste of Hungary” and a class in traditional pancake preparation. Such creative tour options are available in each port, but it is always an option to explore on one’s own. Some folks simply choose to stay aboard the ship to read, play cards or simply relax.
On deck we enjoyed waving to passing ships and often enjoyed flocks of wild swans enjoying the river along with us. We gazed at the ever-present terracotta rooftops, their orangey-red contrasting with the deep moss green of the hillsides and the deep tones of the vineyards and pine forests. We marveled at strolling down cobblestone streets which folks walked on 1,000 years ago, or at homes that had seen countless generations and were still inhabited. Our local guides were uniformly excellent and enthusiastic and never lost patience with our relentless questions.
We learned about architecture, religion and art, and somehow, the memories stay fairly distinct despite visiting five countries in a week. It’s not meant to be an immersion course into each country. Rather, a Viking River Cruise is invigorating yet relaxing; fascinating yet fun.
The cuisine is delectable and is tailored to each destination, offering a “regional specialties tasting menu,” but there are always several standard choices (such as rib eye steak and Norwegian poached salmon) as well as rotating specials. Breakfast is a sumptuous buffet, replete with omelet station, an array of fine European cheeses and cold cuts, fresh fruit, baked breads and pastries and usually even smoked salmon and/or other fish. Lunch and dinner are served tableside, but lunch also features a hefty salad bar. The dinnertime tasting menu is a delight, with most of us choosing that. For example, in Germany we raved over our “Ochsenmaulsalat & Knodel Carpaccio” (beef salad over sliced dumplings with cherry dressing), and our Braised Lamb Shank with Basil Oil, followed by Scheiterhaufen (baked apple bread pudding with red currant compote). Lunch and dinners come with complimentary beer and high-quality house wines.
Our evenings were spent with engaging conversations at dinner, followed by an outstanding shipboard musician who kept us dancing and singing along, as well as several visiting troupes. The large, comfortable staterooms are well-equipped, replete with heated bathroom floors, ample storage and big screen TVs with an extensive movie list and live broadcast offerings. Perfect for an evening or two if you choose to skip the entertainment and just relax.
There are many river cruise companies. But there is only one which won the “Best River Cruise Line” by Condé Nast readers last year. Viking offers guests “the thinking person’s cruise” as an alternative to mainstream cruises. Itineraries are designed for maximum time in port, often with late evenings or overnights, so guests can experience local culture at night or evening performances. Viking River Cruises knows its market and its destinations and offers a vacation experience which will linger and linger in your fond memories.
Founded in 1997 with the purchase of four ships in Russia, Viking expanded into the American market in 2000, establishing U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles. Operating a fleet of more than 70 state-of-the-art ships, Viking has grown to be the world’s leading river cruise line.
Irene Middleman Thomas travels the globe regularly, writing for many publications. When it was time to decide on a special wedding anniversary trip, she and her husband immediately decided to book another Viking River Cruise ... why stray from perfection?
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