When Viking River acquired KD River Cruises in March of 2000--making it the world's largest river cruise operator--company founder Tor Hagen decided to keep the two brands separate. Although Americans are always welcome on either line, he wanted to keep KD oriented toward European-style voyages and steer the Viking River experience more toward American expectations and tastes.
On my two Viking River cruises--a Danube trip in summer of 2000, just after the KD acquisition, and another in August 2001 on the Rhine--I got to see firsthand just how the company's policy is being applied. The second cruise was a far better experience, as Viking River Cruises refines the product to appeal to North Americans.
While the KD River vessels still have menus and tours presented in several languages, the Viking River boats now offer excursions and onboard entertainment only in English.
On my Danube cruise in 2000, we Americans were in the minority on a boat full of German tourists. And it seemed that we appeared as strange to the staff as the Czech countryside did to our eyes. Some might think it fun to have a separate culture on board, but I didn't. The needs and expectations of the Europeans were in conflict with ours, and it adversely affected our enjoyment of the cruise.
While we Americans ogled at the farms and villages we sailed past, our blase German counterparts appeared more concerned with the wine selection at lunch.
Their preoccupation with food became even more vexing when we realized that the shore tours were timed to keep us from missing a minute of any meal onboard. In keeping with European tradition, the chef made the menu selections; even though the food was good, we had no choice but to eat what we were given. Onboard entertainment one night was an "oompah" band, and the in-cabin TV featured American films in German with no subtitles.
But what a difference a year made.
During my second cruise, down the Rhine in August 2001 on the new Viking Neptune, I saw a vastly improved appeal to American sensibilities. The meals were much better, and included a choice of two entrees, generally meat or fish. The line also added a generous salad bar at lunch and dinner.
I also noticed changes in the in-cabin TV: It included CNN International and a movie channel with films in English. The beds on these boats are among the most comfortable I have ever slept on, and the wall-to-wall picture window--which slides open to allow fresh air--is a delight.
Company founder Tor Hagen is a veteran of the old Royal Viking Line, and Viking River's vessels are a tribute to the splendor of the RVL ships. They have floor to ceiling windows in every public room, subdued Scandinavian furnishings in soft peach and powder blue pastels, and single seating meals of continental cuisine presented expertly by friendly European staff. The Swiss Hotel management team keeps everything ship-shape.
With so many ocean-going cruise ships diverted away from Europe and the Mediterranean this year, perhaps more Americans will turn to river cruising. If they do, they'll find that it's a great way to visit Europe. They can see the treasures of the large cities, as well as the pastoral countryside, with all the convenience that cruising offers: You unpack once, spend the entire trip with interesting people, and avoid the constant quests for taxis, hotels and suitable restaurants.
In addition, Viking River now offers Russia cruises between St. Petersburg and Moscow, with lengthy stays in those two cities. The Russian riverboats carry up to 250 passengers, while the rest of the fleet is mainly smaller boats accommodating about 100.
All trips include extensive pre- and post-cruise stays in some of Europe's most intriguing cities. On some trips you stay on the boat, on others in hotels. In all cases your cruise price includes airfare from select gateway cities in North America, all accommodations, meals and all shore tours.