With the traditional smashing of champagne bottles and the celebratory release of doves and balloons, Europe's Viking River Cruises christened not one, not two, but three new riverboats in one day at a Holland shipyard recently.
Granted, only one vessel, the Viking Pride, embarked on its maiden voyage the next day - the other two will start cruising within months - but it was a remarkable event for an upstart company barely four years old.
Viking River rapidly became a major player in European river cruising by buying ships from existing companies - including the well-known, nine-boat KD
River Cruises of Germany - and by scheduling an aggressive building program for eight new [MJM1]vessels from 1999 to 2001. The Basel, Switzerland-based company now owns and operates 28 vessels plying the scenic waterways of the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, France, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Russia, Ukraine and even Siberia.
Of those, 14 vessels are primarily marketed to North Americans. That means they have an English-speaking crew, lighter cuisine than boats that cater to heavier European tastes, and a ban on smoking indoors (except for crew areas off limits to passengers). They also have twin beds that can be converted into a so-called double hotel bed--which many Americans demand but are apparently not a major desire among Europeans!
The three new vessels recently christened were identical 150-passenger riverboats that will all sail on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers. The Viking Europe begins Vienna-to-Amsterdam voyages in May, while the Viking Spirit is expected to enter service in June. A fourth sibling, the Viking Neptune, is expected to join the fleet in August.
I sailed for a few days on the Viking Pride's maiden voyage. The vessel is lovely, with a light atmosphere aided by lots of big windows and a soothing coral and light blue color scheme. The wood-toned furniture, banisters and panels were an attractive medium tone that didn't darken the brightness of the small ship, which could have given it a more claustrophobic feel.
Riverboats are generally small, long and narrow so they can fit through Europe's rivers, canals and locks. The Viking Pride is 370 feet long, and in some ports must tie up right alongside its cooperative competitors to keep the busy river free for the constant traffic of cargo barges. To walk off the Pride into the village of Volendam, Holland, I had to pass through two other riverboats that were as tightly tied to our vessel as logs on a raft.
The vessel has 75 cabins, all with outside views. The 63 deluxe cabins are 154 square feet in size - roomy and well designed, with plenty of drawers and a large closet with real hangers. The large picture window even opens, although safety authorities insisted on installing a bar across it to prevent anyone from falling (leaping?) out. And remember to keep your curtain closed when you're changing clothes if another boat is tied up alongside you - I discovered that the hard way when I looked out my window right into another cabin a few feet away! Bathrooms are typically small, but with a shower stall and plenty of shelves for makeup and shaving gear. Hairdryers aren't in the bathroom, but in a dresser drawer.
The 12 standard cabins measure 120 square feet with one twin bed that converts to a couch and another that folds into a wall. Because these cabins are partially underwater, the window is smaller and higher up on the wall.
Cabins are on all three decks, while the dining room and the lounge are on the Upper Deck. Both public rooms are pleasant, in the same color schemes. The restaurant serves a buffet breakfast for several hours every morning, when much of the actual cruising takes place. Lunch and dinner are both served with open seating at a designated time. The food was delicious, beautifully presented and inventive. There are four courses with a choice of two entrees; passengers can expect selections like local trout with a sublime sauce; or pot roast or lamb served perfectly pink in the middle. You can order wine by the bottle, or the perfectly adequate house wine by the quarter-carafe. There is no room service, although a preliminary brochure indicated there would be.
The lounge is the social center of the vessel, serving as the venue for afternoon coffee, tea and fancy cakes bursting with fruits, nuts and creams. In the evening, the lounge is the setting for entertainment, including instrumental music on an electronic piano, singing by the cruise staff, and folkloric shows by locals brought onboard. Other times, passengers play Bingo, dance or just sit in the forward observation area watching the scenery pass by.
The Pride also has a small library and two sitting areas overlooking the good-sized lobby. The top sun deck is expansive with lots of lounge chairs and huge blue umbrellas to provide plenty of shade. There is no swimming pool or hot tub.
This year, the Viking Pride operates 16-day cruise vacations from Amsterdam to Budapest, with multiple ports of call on most days. Shore excursions are included in each port, ranging from an hour-long walking tour to a four-hour motorcoach ride with stops for sightseeing or shopping. Prices for this "Grand European" itinerary start at $3,598, including transatlantic air from New York, or $2,798 for the cruise without the air. Upgrades to deluxe cabins (which I recommend) range from $300 to $780, depending on the deck.
The Viking Pride operates the itinerary through Oct. 6 and will be joined by its twin, the Viking Spirit, from June 30 through Oct. 6.
Reservations and information can be obtained from your travel agent. For additional information, call Viking River Cruises' Los Angeles office toll-free at 877-66-VIKING or visit the company's web site: www.vikingrivercruises.com.