Review, Viking River Cruises "Heart of Germany", 10/23/05 ~ 10/30/05
We're 'veterans' of quite a number of ocean cruises, but had never tried a river cruise. We have spent a fair bit of time in Germany, much of it along the Mosel river, and had wondered what it might be like to try a vacation from the water side for a change. Having received a brochure from Viking (www.vikingrivercruises.com) with an offer of $500 per person off the brochure price, we decided to book the trip.
The Viking Pride has a capacity of 150 passengers (two per cabin). As we understand it, there are four such ships among the 15 ships in their fleet that are marketing to English speaking audiences; the three sister ships being Europe, Neptune, and Spirit. The Pride was built in Holland in 2001 and has had only one captain.
As a side note: we saw other Viking ships [e.g., the Euro Diamond] during our cruise that are not listed among their fleet on the Viking web page if you have selected either the UK or US as your home. By selecting either of these, English is selected as your primary language, and only ships catering specifically to English speaking passengers appear. In selecting your home country, you are also selecting which ships will appear based upon language. As an example, the Euro Diamond appears when selecting Germany, France or Italy, and staff and crew onboard will be prepared to handle a wider variety of languages.
There are essentially two cabin sizes no matter what you pay for your ticket; the 63 larger cabins (Category A through D) are 154 square feet and 12 smaller ones on the lower deck cover 120 square feet. All are outside cabins. The 154 square foot cabin layout is very efficient, and while small by ocean liner standards, didn't feel at all cramped. We visited all of the cabins, and the 120 square foot Category E cabins have a combination of Pullman and sleeper sofa arrangement that leaves much of the "counter" space in the cabin quite high up as it is above the Pullman. While the floor space opens up with the fold-down Pullman retracted, that layout didn't really look that appealing. It's not that much more for a Category D, but a higher category won't buy you any more cabin.
Closet space was adequate for our trip - about the equivalent of that in a normal cruise line cabin. None of the cabins offer a tub. The shower worked well. The hairdryer was a stand-alone unit, and was to be plugged into the 220V outlet in front of the mirror over the desk in the main cabin area. The 115V outlet, also located above the desk, is adequate for battery charging and the like, but should not be expected to power a curling iron or other high current appliance. Bedding was Euro-style with two duvets and two large square pillows, and the underlying business was quite comfortable.
Breakfast was served buffet style, and included traditional American fare. In addition to the normal array of eggs/bacon/sausage/cereal/fruit/toast/rolls, one could order blueberry pancakes or an omelette from the kitchen. Pots of tea and hot chocolate were available along with a decent coffee (also available in decaf). In the event that you were up before breakfast (typically served 7:00 ~ 9:00, but varied with port schedules), an "early bird" setup of pastry was available at the coffee station next to reception. That area had coffee (decaf was powdered), cold peach ice tea, various hot teas and water 24 hrs.
"Tea Time" was held each afternoon, typically between 3:30 and 4:00pm. In a return to the German concept of punctuality, the cakes were removed rather promptly. In any case, we were rarely shipboard at this time, and usually were unable to take advantage of this.
Lunch was typically served aboard ship. Sandwiches and salads were available from the buffet, and one could also order the hot meal of the day.
Evening meals were served at 7:00 or 7:30 depending upon the port of call. Seating was not assigned. Tables of from four to eight were available. The evening menu consisted of a choice of two appetizers, soup, salad, one of two entrees, and one of two desserts. While not quite as broad a selection as on a larger ship, there were no times at which making a selection was a problem. "Minute steaks" and Caesar salads (complete with the anchovy) were available as alternates each evening.
A late night snack was provided nightly at 10:30pm. We never found need of this after a succession of outstanding dinner meals.
The wine list was a bit sparse, but one need consider the size of the ship and the available storage space. Given the itinerary, it was surprising to see nothing in the way of higher end German wines. Bring them with you or purchase them while in port. There was a E7.50 corkage charge for wines brought aboard and consumed in the dining room. Wines brought for cabin use are not questioned. For those of you unfamiliar with Germany's wines, don't overlook their "Spätburgunder". Rarely exported (they consume almost all of what is produced), this wine is made from Pinot Noir grapes, and the best examples will give a typical Burgundy a run for its money.
Meals served at the table were of reasonably sized portions, and the presentation was above average.
As an ocean liner is often sized to fit into the locks of the Panama Canal, a ship capable of fitting into the river locks along the rivers of Europe is necessarily sized accordingly. At about 37-1/2 feet wide and 375 feet long, the amount of space that can be dedicated to public space for 150 people is somewhat limited. That said, the dining room never felt overcrowded, although this was perhaps in part due to the fact that we sailed at significantly less than capacity).
The tables and chairs in the forward lounge were a bit cramped even though only partially occupied, a result of the potential capacity for 150. With the full complement of 150, it would have been a cozy event.
A small library area and game room round out the interior space for passengers.
The sun deck was more than ample with good space between the many deck chairs and tables. In the event that you either pick your dates well, it's a fine place to sit and watch the scenery of the rivers go by.
Our "Cabin Fairies", as our CD referred to them, were top notch, providing the level of care and cleanliness one would expect on any top rated cruise line. We placed no special requests with them during our cruise, so we cannot comment on how well exceptional circumstances might have been handled.
The dining staff did an excellent job as well, although as we were able to snag one of the few tables set up for eight each night, we did not have an opportunity to experience the services of all of the waiters. The Maitre d' was attentive and helpful, and a great sport, even if he didn't really have the voice for John Denver songs (see below: "Entertainment")!
The front desk resolved problems, answered questions, and generally kept the whole process of getting us on and off the boat each day well lubricated. As these ships do not have electronic card readers at the entrances, the presence of passengers is assured by always dropping the card keys at the front desk in return for paper cards when leaving the ship at ports. This allows the staff to know for certain that all passengers are on board before departing for a new port. The paper cards also serve as information for a safe return to the ship with phone numbers, etc. Upon re-embarkation, the paper cards are again swapped for the cabin key cards.
Our Cruise Director and all of the ship's officers were most congenial, and the small ship allowed for frequent interaction, especially with our lower than normal passenger count. The Hotel Director's office was right in the main drag between reception and the forward lounge and his door was always open.
Customs of Note
There are a few things that experienced ocean cruisers will find different about this experience. Some of these are outlined below.
Your onboard account for drinks and purchases are not automatically billed to the credit card account used to book the cruise. Neither is a credit card number taken upon initial embarkation. Accounts are settled on the last morning using either cash or credit cards. Since most cabins will be using a single account, it would seem typical that as many as 75 would be settling accounts in the morning, but it does manage to get done efficiently and with a minimum of fuss.
If you have booked your air through Viking, your airport transfers are included, and Viking assures that transportation to the airport is available dockside at the right time. Bags are tagged with colored strings to indicate time and are picked up outside your stateroom early in the morning. However, those who have not booked air or shore transfers through Viking (known as "independents") leave their luggage in their cabins until departure time. That luggage is then brought up by the crew just prior to the time you have requested for your departure, and even though you are "on your own" for transportation, Viking takes care to arrange taxis to the airport or other locations for you at your requested time - a very useful service indeed. A sign-up list is provided for independents and all of this transport is arranged on the second night prior to disembarkation.
While the ship does offer laundry service, it does not offer any dry cleaning services. Men, eat neat - the ties you bring are the ties you'll live with.
Bridge tours, a rare thing on ocean liners, are conducted for all passengers. Approximately fifteen people at a time are invited to the bridge in shifts.
Although the documentation prior to the cruise spoke of only one "dress up" night in particular, there were indeed two. The first was the Captain's greeting party, and the second the Captain's farewell dinner, held on the last night of the cruise. Fancier dress was entirely optional, but a fair estimate of those with either Informal to Formal dress (as one would identify it on an ocean cruise) was about 50% for both events. Attire tended to Casual for all other evenings.
No production shows or dancing troupes on a ship this size. Our "piano man" Otto played and occasionally sang each evening during cocktail hour up to dinner. One evening, we were treated to a father/daughter/mother group from the port where we'd stopped, and on the last night, a glass blower came aboard to show us his talents and wares. As noted earlier, our Maitre d' gave us his rendition of John Denver, but he'd been coerced, so we don't fault him for the results, and he received high marks for effort. The crew put on a few skits on night for our entertainment. Apart from these things, we were on our own to amuse ourselves, but as there were a number of opportunities to go ashore in the evenings until quite late (a rare event on an ocean cruise), we didn't lack for evening entertainment if we still felt up to it after dinner.
Ports of Call
Let me preface this by saying that this could have easily been turned into a 10 day cruise instead of 7, using the other 3 for an extra full day in certain ports, and that this would have allowed adequate time for the length of visits to such sites as the Gutenberg museum as they really deserved. In the end, we felt that this turned into a bit of a "sampler" cruise - many new sites now exist on our list of places that require a "revisit" at some point in the future because we felt that we were unable to do them justice in the time provided on the guided shore excursions.
Sunday 11:00am, Docked in Frankfurt Embarkation Begins (Technically) A light lunch was served buffet style until 3:00pm. Passengers arriving early on 7:30am flights actually began to arrive much earlier. New arrivals were led to the forward lounge to relax and eat if they liked. Cabins were made available promptly at 3:00pm. Until 6:15, pax were free to wander about the town square - an easy walk from the pier. At 6:15pm, the "Cruise Manager" (aka Cruise Director) provided basic information about the ship, the cruise, and safety features of the ship. 10:00pm, raise anchor and head for Mannheim.
Monday 8:00am, Arrive Mannheim 9:00, Via coach to Heidelberg 9:30 ~ 1:30, Guided walking tour of the city castle, city streets, and cathedral. 2:00pm, Ship departs from Mannheim 3:15pm, Ship arrives in Worms Free time to explore Worms 6:00pm, Departure from Worms 9:30pm, Arrive Mainz, docking overnight
Tuesday 9:00 ~ 11:00, Guided tour of the town's cathedral and the Gutenberg museum (not nearly long enough!) 1:30pm, Departure from Mainz and sail for Rudesheim 3:30pm, Arrive Rudesheim, docking overnight 3:45 ~ 5:30, Guided tour of Siegfried's, a mechanical music museum, and free time
Wednesday 8:30am, Departure from Rudesheim During this leg, it's said that you see a castle about every 2 minutes. Fantastic photo opportunities, but you'll want a 5X zoom for some of them. Free weisswurst, beer and pretzels served topside at 11:00 as we meander down the Rhine. 1:00pm, Arrive Koblenz, docking for most of the night 2:00 ~ 3:30, Guided walking tour of Koblenz including the Basilica, and free time after
Thursday 4:00am, Departure from Koblenz 9:00am, Arrive Cologne, docking for most of the night 9:30 ~ 12:00, Guided walking tour of Cologne, including the Cathedral and the Kolsch brewery. Consider eating at the brewery while you're there. Plenty of additional time is available for wandering the town.
Friday 4:00am, Departure for Koblenz 1:00pm, All shore excursion pax disembark in Koblenz, ship continues to Boppard Ship continues to Boppard while pax tour upper Mosel, esp. Cochem 1:00 ~ 6:00, Coach tour to the Moselland wine cooperative and Cochem. The wine tasting at the cooperative isn't done particularly well. After the walking tour in Cochem, the coach continues on to Boppard to meet the ship. 3:30pm, Ship arrives in Boppard, docking overnight
Saturday 8:00am, Departure for Eltville 2:00pm, All shore excursion pax disembark in Eltville, ship continues to Mainz 2:00 ~ 5:00, Guided tour of the Eberbach monastery. 3:30pm, Ship arrives in Mainz 10:30pm, Departure for Frankfurt
Sunday 4:00am, Arrive Frankfurt 6:00~11:00am, disembarkation.