Viking River Danube Cruise Report 2

| Monday, 29 Aug. 2011
Christening of the Viking River Prestige


I have been a fan of Viking River Cruises since 1997, when I first set foot on the Viking Danube -- one of the line's first riverboats. But the company already had a toehold on my affections before that, because I knew the CEO of Viking River Cruises was Torstein Hagen, one of the men who created Royal Viking Line (along with the infamous Warren Titus, who recently passed away). I have a lot of affection for Royal Viking Line because I worked aboard two of its ships back in 1983.

It is no coincidence that Viking River Cruises sounds a lot like Royal Viking Line. From the start, Tor intended to bring the quality of Royal Viking Line into the boats of Viking River Cruises. And with my first sighting of the main lounge on the Viking Danube back in 1997, I recognized the Royal Viking influence immediately.

I just returned from my fourth voyage with Viking River Cruises two weeks ago, this time on the Viking Prestige. I have to say that much about the experience is as good as ever, and any changes have only made it better. With the introduction of French balconies for most staterooms and free 24-hour Wi-Fi Internet access, Viking River's cruises are one of the most convenient ways possible to see Europe.

I often tell cruisers that a river cruise is the third kind of European cruise one should take, after the Mediterranean and the Baltic seas. But I should point out the differences between a river cruise and a European voyage on a standard cruise ship.

A standard European cruise means you visit Europe by day, but you experience the cruise ship by night. Generally a cruise ship will dock during the day, often in a somewhat distant port area that requires a shuttle or tour bus provided by the cruise line to get you into the heart of the city.

The riverboat experience is different. Because Europe's cities grew up around major rivers, the hearts of many cities are right on the waterway. In Budapest, for example, we docked within a 10-minute walk of the Parliament building. Right next to the mooring was a bridge that crossed the Danube to take us to the Buda Castle District.

Since we remained docked in Budapest overnight, my wife and I had a chance to walk around after dinner to see the city's nightlife – something you would never experience on a seagoing cruise. We were within minutes of the pub and bar district where locals met for dinner and drinks. The most interesting thing was the contrast between the Budapest I saw in 1997 and the one I saw this month. As the program director on Viking Prestige explained, Hungarians finally "got it" when it comes to capitalism.

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Main Street to the Cathedral   A typical Budapest food fair with onions, garlic and sausage   Budapest Funicular to the Palace area

Our first day aboard Viking Prestige started with our arrival from the airport. We arrived in Budapest at 10 a.m. and were greeted at airport baggage claim by a Viking River representative, who gave us a ride directly to the riverboat. We boarded and found food and coffee waiting -- a welcome sight after the 20 hours of flying we had endured coming from Phoenix. The only drawback: Our stateroom was not ready, and according to the boat's policy no one can enter a stateroom until all of them are ready for guests at 3 p.m.

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Standard Balcony Cabin   Standard Inside Stateroom   Deluxe Stateroom
   
Suite Living Room   Suite Bedroom   The Bridege where we waited for our staterooms

So we had to wait in the public rooms for four hours before we could use our staterooms to take a shower or a much needed nap. This is one policy I would change, since I believe the boat could manage to make the rooms for early arrivals ready first. My wife went up on the sundeck and slept in an open deck chair for two hours. I could not sleep, so I wandered around the ship in the clothes I had worn for the last 24 hours, and I checked on her every 20 minutes to make sure she was shaded from the sun.

But once we were allowed in our room it was heavenly. We left an order for a wake-up call and took a deep sleep until dinnertime. The room had a cushy queen-sized bed with extra thick pillows, a large bathroom with a vigorous showerhead, and a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door to open our room to the outside world. This is known as a "French balcony," since the door does not lead anyplace; but it does give you fresh air and the ability to lean out for pictures.

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Main Street to the Cathedral   A typical Budapest food fair with onions, garlic and sausage   Budapest Funicular to the Palace area

The boat has just one dress code for the entire cruise – elegant casual. For dinner, most people wore country club casual wear -- no ties or high heels. Lunch was more casual, with shorts and sandals allowed. The dinner featured a choice of meat or fish every night (much the same as in 1997), but now a vegetarian menu is also available every night. If you do not care for either of the two meat/fish offerings that vary daily, you can order a grilled steak, seared salmon, grilled chicken or a pasta dish any night.

My wife is on a low gluten diet, and she was readily accommodated by the Maitre D', Gabor, who fixed her a special lunch and dinner every day of the cruise. You cannot ask for better service than that – and you would never be able to do that on any kind of a vacation other than a cruise.

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The Panorama Lounge   The Lobby Stairs   The Aquavit Terrace

Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style, but with menu and table service added. For example, you can get muesli cereal, English-style bacon (extra-crisp), sausage, fruit, yogurt, etc. from the buffet; and you can also order eggs Benedict or waffles from your waiter. (By the way, muesli is yet another Royal Viking memory for me. The first place I ever tried muesli, the traditional European breakfast cereal, was on the Royal Viking Sea in 1983. I suppose a lot of younger people don't realize we did not have muesli in America until about 1990. I always enjoy seeing the traditional European serving of muesli on boats like the Viking River Prestige.)

After an overnight in Budapest, we spent the second day on a tour provided by the cruise line (most tours are included in the cruise price, but a few are special experiences that carry a surcharge). We saw all the important sites of Buda – the part of the city on the north bank of the river, which has all of the historic churches, palaces and museums. We were back on board in time for a late lunch, and we spent the afternoon sailing along the Danube. Trivia games, cards and Scrabble were available to be played.

The next morning, we awoke in Vienna and had to get ready for a very long day. In the morning, our company-provided tour of the city was the best tour of Vienna I have had. Our guide showed us the Sacher Hotel and the stables of the Lipizzaner Stallions, then left us on our own in the city center for an hour of free time before we returned to the boat. After lunch, we went out again for a special tour (at an extra charge) of the Schonbrunn Palace – the imperial home of the Hapsburgs during their reign over the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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  Downtown Vienna   The Aquavit Terrace
   
  The World Famous Lipizzaner Stallions  

If you take a Danube cruise, this palace should not be missed. It rivals Versailles in many ways, and was in fact the birthplace of Marie Antoinette. It helps to read some history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before taking this cruise to truly appreciate what you are seeing. In its day, Vienna was the cultural capital of the world. It is the city where Mozart sought the official title of Kappellmeister for the royal family, but it was denied to him. The city spawned Mozart's best work, and was also home to Beethoven, Haydn, Strauss, Schubert, Mahler, Sigmund Freud and Arnold Schoenberg.

But most importantly, it was the home of the Hapsburgs, who were more than mere royalty. The wealth and property they controlled was at the heart of European history for centuries. They were the source of all formally elected Holy Roman Emperors between 1438 and 1740, and remained as rulers of the Austrian Empire until World War I. At its greatest, the empire stretched as far as Italy, France, Denmark and Russia – nearly the whole of Middle Europe.

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Schoenbrunn Castle - the Hapsburgs   Schoenbrunn gardens   top of the Schoenbrunn garden - a mile away

That night we had the option of attending a classical music concert featuring the work of Mozart. I was too tired, but my wife said it was spectacular.

The next morning, we sailed through the beautiful Wachau Valley – where postcard tableaus were dotted with castles and open meadows. We docked at Melk, Austria, for a tour of the city before rejoining the ship for a "Biergarten" (a traditional German beer garden) deck party with free beer, sausage, bread and cheese for all. Enjoying the local cuisine as we sailed past the rolling hills with church steeples, pastures and even castles was the perfect Bavarian experience.

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River Views - Castle of Richard the Lionheart   Castle with beautiful Steeple   Deck Party with Beer, Sausage, Traditional food

The small German town of Passau brought a visit to a cathedral with Europe's largest pipe organ. The sound was so majestic that one could hear an echo for several minutes after the last note ended. In the afternoon the cruise line treated everyone to a surprise party at a real biergarten in the city.

Each day we were going upstream, so the river kept getting narrower. By the time we reached Regensburg, the river was too small for us to continue. Passengers disembarked to visit the Weltenberg Abbey, built in 1050 and continuously inhabited by a contingent of 11 monks. It also happens to be a brewery. The church was stunningly ornate, but the beer and pretzels were delicious. From here we boarded a small tour boat to traverse the "Danube Gorge," a winding turn in the river flanked by towering limestone cliffs. Our riverboat could not make this turn, so it entered the Main-Danube Canal while we were away. After our boat ride, we re-boarded the Viking Prestige to sail to Nuremburg.

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The historic Danube Gorge   Touring the Danube Gorge   Our boat arrives in Main-Danube canal to pick us up

The boat stayed in the city through the day and overnight. Guests were taken to see relics of the Nazi parade grounds and the Palace of Justice, home of the Nuremburg Trials. The rest of the day was open for self-touring, followed by packing for those flying home the next day.

The New Viking River

The newfound success of river cruising in Europe is astounding. When I first did it 15 years ago, it was popular mostly with Europeans, so it wasn't uncommon for a given cruise to be half American passengers and half British, or even German. In such cases, menus would come in two languages and the Americans would have to make sure they got on the right tour bus and attended the right lecture.

The lectures on Viking River are truly one of the best reasons to take the line. On our cruise we had talks by our Cruise Host, Marek, who spoke on the history of the region, what it was like for him to personally grow up in the Soviet satellite of Czechoslovakia as it transitioned from pure communism to near anarchy to finally successful capitalism. He also gave a demonstration on Mozart where he dressed up as the musician, and was accompanied by another beautiful Czech staff member who played his wife, Constanza. Another lecture was given by a guest who boarded in Passau and gave us the history of the European Union.

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Marek dressed as Mozart with Constanza   Dressed in traditional Slovakian costume   A local musician entertains at lunch - note the REAL beard

As soon as river cruises became popular enough with Americans that they could always fill a boat, the lines stopped mixing nationalities. I realize some people might think this is puckish, but there will always be things that a particular nationality prefers and it is easier when a whole boat can do everything in ways that please everyone on board.

For example, Europeans would insist on having every meal onboard, because they paid for it. Furthermore, they are understandably less excited about the scenery. Americans are more likely to want to eat in the city, to see local folkloric shows, etc.

Viking River now asks each potential customer if they are American, British, German, Australian or other when they express an interest in a river cruise. They now have enough customers and enough boats to keep the experiences optimized for each nationality.

The line just announced it will build two more "Long Boats" – so called because they are the longest river boats in Europe -- to make a total of six that will debut by 2012. Two are already in service. These boats have spacious suites with French balconies, refrigerators, large screen televisions, large bathrooms, queen-size beds, a large dining room, a spacious lounge for games and lectures, an open-air forward section for buffet lunches, a library in the aft section with an outside deck, and a spacious top deck with umbrella tables and deck chairs. The ships were expertly designed by Yran & Storbraaten, the same company responsible for the Yachts of Seabourn.

The ships each include:

  • A radical new patent-pending design that allows for full-size staterooms combined with full-size verandas
  • Large suites with a veranda outside the living room and French balcony in the bedroom
  • Two sumptuous 445 sq. ft. Explorer Suites with private wraparound verandas and 270° views
  • The all-new Aquavit Terrace—an indoor/outdoor area at the bow of the ship for viewing, relaxing and casual dining
  • French balcony staterooms featuring floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors
  • Quiet, environmentally friendly hybrid engines, solar panels and an organic herb garden on the large sun deck
  • Deluxe amenities like premium bath products and high-definition in-room entertainment
  • Fine cuisine, exemplary service and immersive, culture-rich itineraries

These ships will remain in Europe, but Viking River also offers river cruises in Russia and the Ukraine, China, Egypt's Nile, and will soon debut cruises of Vietnam and Cambodia.

You can book your own air, but all cruises are offered with an air package and the advantage is getting all transfers included. Viking River is a complete tour package company – you can even get your travel insurance through them. As I mentioned before, there are certain travel preferences peculiar to each nationality, and the convenience factor is one that always appeals to tourists from the U.S.

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