Viking River Longboats

| Saturday, 22 Dec. 2012

The high-tech glass bathrooms walls make sightseeing easy

River cruising has become the fastest-growing segment of the cruise industry - particularly in Europe, with so many famous sites along the banks of the Danube, Rhine, Seine and other waterways. Among the contenders are AmaWaterways, Avalon and Grand Circle Cruises. But probably the most well-known line, especially to the U.S. audience, is Viking River Cruises.

I just completed a Christmas Markets cruise on the line's Viking Njord, sailing the Danube from Budapest to Passau, Germany -- a seven-day trip with stops for local tours every day. All the daytime tours I took were included in the price of the cruise - one of the main selling points for river cruises. Some optional tours were also available at an extra cost to special places or events.

My first Viking River cruise was in 1996, on a Danube itinerary similar to the one I just completed. Amazingly, while some sights like the 9th-century Melk Abbey are timeless, others have changed dramatically -- e.g., the formerly dreary Iron Curtain survivor Budapest, now a thriving metropolis with colorful shopping streets and late-night hot spots.

But the biggest change I have witnessed between my first and my most recent Viking River cruise is the cruise line itself. For luxury and comfort, river cruising now contends with the finest ocean-going vessels, something I would not have predicted 16 years ago.

The New Viking River "Longboats"

The first Viking River cruise I took also had shore tours included, but the stops were shorter and fewer. The on-board accommodations were comfortable, but confiningly small and stuffy. Even the most deluxe rooms had only queen-sized beds, no television, no telephones, and one "picture window" that would not open to let in fresh air.

But the new "Longboat" I just left is a world of difference. The new design is so appealing that Viking River has ordered 18 of these boats to be built and delivered in the next few years. Not only are these new boats more comfortable, beautiful and accommodating, but they also seem to be faster, giving us far more free time in port. On the old boat, I recall spending several hours sailing on the river towards the next destination. On this recent cruise, we remained moored in convenient downtown locations late into most of the nights.

Are you aware of Viking River Cruises? Tell us here: Cruise Forum

Longboat Layout

Schematically, the vessel can be divided into nearly equal-size front and back sections. The front section contains all the public venues -- the dining room, guest services, the atrium, and the main lounge for socializing, river-gazing, lectures and occasional nighttime shows.

The mid-ship atrium is an elegant focal point, tying together the two public decks and front and back sections. Its airy glass windows and reflective chrome beams and banisters create a radiant fusion of natural color and light.

The Viking Njord Atrium

It features a grand staircase as well as an elevator to all three decks. On the top deck are two separate coffee stations with machines that can make any kind of European blend -- espresso, cappuccino or café au lait. Take-away cups are available for morning blasts, as well as single serving packets of sugar, cacao, cream, lemon, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg and more.

Just aft is a seating area with two computers for free Internet access 24 hours a day, quite rare for a cruise; and bookshelves filled with travel guides and daily news updates from back home. With the elevator and new restrooms with automatic doors, the Longboats now offer disabled access, although the gangways may remain a challenge.

The large main lounge (forward, top deck) is completely encircled with floor to ceiling windows. During lunch and dinner hours, the central bar will pour you a glass of wine or beer at no cost - because those drinks are included with meals served in the dining room below.

The Forward casual Dining Area

Viking River Longboat Dining

The dining room directly below is the same size and shape as the lounge, with the same generous windows. Tables are well-spaced and fully appointed with white linen, glasses for red and white wine, and all necessary cutleries.

In 1996, we were asked each night if we would prefer meat or fish the following night. Today the Viking River lunch and dinner menus include a choice of three appetizers, two salads or soup, three entrees, and three desserts. There are also certain items available every night -- the usual steak or salmon.

Somewhat new to river cruising is the optional casual dining area all the way forward on deck three. It's open nightly if you want a quick burger, salmon, club sandwich or Caesar salad without the fuss of the dining room. This is also the main serving area for indoor buffet-only meals.

Lunch and breakfast are served as buffets combined with waiter service in the main dining room below. The breakfast buffet includes an egg and omelet station plus delicious oatmeal or muesli arrays - each with self-serve toppings like chopped nuts, dried cherries, raisins, brown sugar, chopped figs, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and more.

I am not a wine expert, but I found the nightly offerings fit my palate quite nicely. The sommelier will ask if you prefer red or white wine to start, and of course you can change as the meal progresses. Wine glasses are replenished constantly, with none of parsimoniousness I have seen even on some luxury cruise ships.

Personally, I preferred the local Bavarian wheat beer called Erdinger Weissbrau, which the waiter poured for me from a fresh bottle nightly, at no cost during meal hours. Even during non-meal times, this delicious beer cost only 2.70 Euro, about half what I would likely pay on a cruise ship.

Are you aware of Viking River Cruises? Tell us here: Cruise Forum

Viking River Longboat Staterooms

The aft section comprises three decks of staterooms. Deck three has the most expensive rooms, with your choice of a real balcony about 2 ½ feet deep with two chairs and a table, or a "French Balcony" which returns that floor space to the stateroom (the sliding glass door opens up to a railing only).

The generous large-screen TV shows CNN, BBC, movies on demand, itinerary information and limited U.S. network series. The king-sized bed comes with a thick feather duvet and pillows. The stateroom's most intriguing element is the bathroom, with a heated floor and transparent glass walls. You can actually sit on the throne and watch television, or open your drapes and watch the world go by, but if you have a roommate, he or she will be sharing the same experience with you. The shower has equally transparent glass walls, so you can put on quite a show for the stateroom if you enjoy such things. But if you do not, there is a switch that turns all the bathroom walls translucent, allowing light but no visual detail to get through.

Looking at my stateroom, from my shower

Mineral water is supplied and replenished throughout the cruise at no cost. Guests also get a pair of rechargeable listening devices for tours that allow the guides to "broadcast" right into an earpiece. The advantages of this system are vast - you can hear your guide easily in the most spacious, echoing marble cathedrals, and the guides can speak in softer voices to lower the footprint of noise pollution for other groups.

The Modern Viking River

Viking River has become something of a household name, which I never would have expected 16 years ago. The line even sponsors classic TV series like Downton Abbey and other Masterpiece Theater classics on PBS.

I personally know the pedigree of Viking River is first class as its CEO, Tor Hagen, comes from Royal Viking Line, a Norwegian company famous for having defined the concept of luxury cruise ships. Viking River now has 31 vessels in service, but will soon have many more with the assimilation of the 16 new longboats. Most likely some of the older vessels will be replaced, but without a doubt river cruising has become a unique and popular style of travel.

Are you aware of Viking River Cruises? Tell us here: Cruise Forum

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