After having sailed on numerous mid-size/large ocean ships, my husband and I decided to try "something different" and, influenced by Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris", we made plans, eleven months beforehand, for a Rhone River Cruise beginning with 4 days in Paris (on our own) and ending with 2 days in Avignon and 4 days in Nice. After endless reading, mostly on CC, we decided on a Viking cruise mainly due to the itinerary, schedule, price, and reviews. We were not disappointed!
Our cruise left from Chalon-sur-Saone -- a short train ride from Paris since we did not qualify for Viking transfers, a subject already pleasantly addressed with a Viking representative. Our train broke down about half-way to Chalon and about 25 fellow cruisers gathered all together on the station platform. A call to the Viking Neptune -- our destination -- resulted ten minutes later in a return call from Kurt, the Cruise Director. He gave us information about the ensuing trains we should take and assured that they would be waiting for us since the ship would not sail until the following day. What a relief for all to know that those on the ship now knew of our fate -- we all felt reassured! -- plus had made friends and had suddenly become the "train people" for the voyage!
Arriving at the Neptune was a joy as the crew took over whisking our suitcases away and escorting us onboard. The ship is not new, well documented in all of Viking's advertising. I admit I was concerned after reading some very negative reviews. But I found the Neptune, in my opinion, a lovely aging gentile lady. The reception area has warm wooden floors not newer marble; there are no cabin balconies but large wall-to-wall windows; there are glass cases of saleable items not a store; there is little glitz but rather a charming spirit. The Neptune has been nicely cared for through the years and continues to be! One nice little feature was the table outside the dining room that each day greeted us with a different decorated message ~ "good morning", "enjoy your day", etc. -- what a pleasant way to begin each day! The observation lounge was very nice and lunch there (buffet style) provided a change from the dining room although a balancing challenge with the small tables -- but we happily survived each meal! The Dining Room was also nice with an assortment of different size tables. As expected, unassigned seating has its pros and cons -- and our newly formed group usually resorted to having one person go ahead to save a table. I don't think there's any perfect answer to the seating situation! Our cabin was more than adequate with a surprising amount of storage! Drawers on each side of the vanity/desk, shelves above the TV, a generous closet that included a full length shelf with cubbies on one side + a safe -- all gave us more than enough room. The bathroom vanity had 3 full shelves and another shelf under the sink ran the whole width of the room. Since our beds were together with a small table on each side we had plenty of room. There was also a wide shelf running the length of the room under the window behind the drape that I found perfect for hiding the following day's clothes!
Food is very subjective and there's no accounting for individual tastes or what a person is accustomed to or expecting. That said I found the cuisine on the Neptune very good.
To begin the day, anything anyone could think of was offered for breakfast! Plus a menu to order from! There was an array of fresh cut fruit (also vegetables), juices (plus champagne), cereals, yogurts, cold meats, cheeses, plus hot eggs, bacon, sausages, potatoes and fantastic breads & rolls plus jellies -- even "made on the ship" ones! It was often almost impossible to make a choice!! Lunch was equally complete with a daily soup that was delicious -- and I'm not usually a soup person! But that plus the incredible bread was a yummy treat! There was usually a creative salad plus a carving station and hot dishes. And don't miss the flavored lemonade -- a wonderful alternative to wine before a tour! Dinner was also very good -- usually a choice of 4 appetizers; 3 main courses; 3-4 desserts plus they always had 1-2 appetizers and 1-2 main dishes plus ice cream each evening as alternates to the rotating menu. A cheese platter was also available each evening but hint -- it had to be ordered! I found the variety very good and often reflective of the region we were sailing through. One lunch was A Taste of Provence -- with many local dishes plus two tables of chesses. Wine and beer were also offered each lunch and dinner. Yes, it was the same each day, however it was included! And there was no charge -- and I found no attitude -- if we brought our own wine for the table. Fun for the guys to buy during the day and enjoy with dinner with no corkage fee!! Plus they usually bought red and one of our women drank white so they served her from the ship's bar with no problem and no cost! (I found it a delightful contrast to either buying a "package", bottle or individual drinks on other cruise ships.)
As I stated at the beginning, I had read a lot about River Cruising and that also included service aboard the ships. But nothing really did prepare me for the fact that truly everyone helps in every way! Our room steward was a wonderful young lady and much more visible that usual since there were fewer places to "hide" on the smaller ship! She was there in the morning and would finish our room before we had finished breakfast! Because of the size, within a day or two it seemed everyone was known and that did make for a more friendly ship! And as we sadly disembarked, the Captain pitched right in moving luggage outside and into busses or cabs. As for leaving the ship, as on all cruises we were asked about our plans for disembarking -- but not an impersonal written form but we sat with the Cruise Director. As with most cruises, we had local hotel reservations. I had expected that, as usual, we'd be on the street with our luggage looking for a cab for transportation. But then I met with Kurt. I told him about our reservations and he said how nice and did I want him to call us a cab -- WOW! Then I envisioned being hauled away at 6am but he asked what time we'd like to leave the ship -- double WOW! He explained they would like the room free at 9am (great!) and suggested he arrange a cab for 9:30am -- triple WOW!!! Now I do understand it's impossible to give such individual service to 2000 people on a larger ship but I could get to liking this!! Those of us leaving on our own all received individual labels for our luggage and everyone put their bags outside their doors a half hour before they were scheduled to leave -- best yet!!
Another great way to begin the day was with Qigong, a low impact exercise that was conducted daily before breakfast in the lounge. Either Andres or Linda lead the exercise and it was a fun way be begin each day!
Internet Service was free as were lap tops that were available as the reception desk -- I'm not sure how many they had. Service was fair to good in port and sporadic while sailing. I personally found the service much better than last year's large ship cruise but that may have been because I'm now using an iphone.
Entertainment was, of course, very limited. There was a nice pianist who played in the lounge during lunch and pre/post dinner. When we were docked over-night in Lyon, a small group was brought on to entertain -- four young people who were very good. An accordionist entertained (with Kurt's help!) for A Taste of Provence luncheon. I knew before we cruised that there'd be no "Broadway" shows or piano bar, no "club" or on deck combo and, I admit, I wondered about missing that part of the experience. But I found that it didn't matter - most evening entertainment was replaced with conversation and a reasonable bed time since tours usually began about 8am!
The Ports of Call were very mixed but all interesting! To be honest, while I had heard of Avignon and Lyon (didn't know much about them except they were cities in France) many of the ports I had never even heard their name. We chose this cruise because we enjoy wine from the Rhone Valley and the Paris connection -- we had been to Normandy in 2011 placing that cruise low on our list. But neither of us regret experiencing the smaller cities and towns of France in a closer way by docking almost at their front door.
Most excursions were included in the trip and, to my surprise, I found them delightful! On most cruises we do not take the ship's excursions, preferring smaller tours of 8 to 10 people usually arranged through the ship's Roll Call on CC. Usually there were 4 tours + a more leisurely one which equaled about 30+ people in a group. But it did seem to work! We had a "quietbox" and ear speaker that allowed us to hear the guide and also roam a bit -- perfect for photos! I also found most of the guides very, very good! We could choose our group so friends could stay together. I thought the excursions and ship activities (galley tour, chocolate making, etc) provided a good cross section to keep everyone interested. And, of course, no one had to take a tour -- you could stay on board or wander off on your own, conveniently located to town.
In short, I did fall in love with River Cruising! I did enjoy not having long lines for Buffets or embarking or disembarking! I did enjoy the more personal atmosphere. But, proving that not all is perfect, I missed the lack of an active Roll Call on CC -- where were all those passengers months and months and months before sailing? (Viking is not responsible for this!) And, after a walking excursion, a dip in a pool or hot tub would have been enjoyable! Now I'm not saying we'll never sail on a large ship again -- but I am sure that we WILL sail on Viking again -- Rhine River anyone!