Background Information -- this was our first river cruise after many ocean cruises with the kids. This time, it was just my husband and I. I have to say, I may never do another ocean cruise. I loved the river cruise so much more! Between the intimate size of the ship, the excellent shore excursions and the up close exposure to local culture and history, this was by far the best cruise we ever took.
We chose the Windmills and Tulips tour because Holland was on my husband's bucket list. Not mine. This turned out to be a good thing, as I did not have unrealistic expectations for this trip. But the trip far exceeded my expectations. We saw lots of windmills, but no tulips on the fields. Holland was experiencing its coldest winter in 60 years! Fortunately, my husband and I brought warm clothes and long underwear.
Travel To Port of Embarkation -- We flew from Richmond through Dulles to Amsterdam. We chose to pay the extra $50 to be able to choose our flights and I'm glad we did. Another guest we met on the cruise had flown from Florida to Amsterdam via Detroit. The woman from Viking with whom I worked couldn't have been nicer and reviewed several options with me before I chose our flights. Our flights were on time and we arrived in Amsterdam at 7 a.m. The Viking reps were at the airport waiting for us. They were waiting on behalf of several groups, so we waited about Â½ hour before boarding our bus. Luckily for us, the ship had not just returned from a cruise, so we were able to go to our rooms right away (8:30 in the morning!). We took a short rest and then went to explore Amsterdam.
Stateroom -- We chose cabin 206, which was on the same floor as the reception and the dining room. The location was so convenient. And even though we were just a few steps away from this main area, our cabin was never noisy. 206 is a "French balcony", which means it had a large sliding door that could be opened, but no balcony. I didn't really miss the balcony because of the cold weather. The size of the stateroom was comparable to an ocean liner. Small but efficient. The bed was extremely comfortable. The closet was plenty big for us. We tend to pack light, so we had just enough room in the drawers. The true balcony staterooms get an extra dresser. The bathroom was small, as expected, but the shower was larger than the one we had on our last Royal Caribbean cruise. Even so, I don't know how overweight people could fit into it.
Ship Info -- the ship was gorgeous. Christened in 2012, this was only its second year on the water. If there were any bugs, they had been worked out. The dining room was just large enough for everyone at dinner. This was not a problem at breakfast or lunch as most people wander in for these meals, but everyone eats at the same time for dinner. Even so, service was efficient. There was just not a lot of room between tables. There was also a lounge right above the dining room, so it was the same size. They served lunch there, which I did not like because there were only four tables to eat at. The idea is to eat outside, but with 30 degree temps during the day, no one was doing that. The lounge was the place where the nightly briefings and entertainment was held. I loved the lounge and turned into a real bar fly during this cruise, mainly because there was not a lot to do at night, and I could not go to bed at 9 p.m.
Dining -- the food was very good. My husband is a retired chef, so food is very important to us. Perhaps because of the average age of the passengers (65+), the food was not always well seasoned. But there was a lot of variety at breakfast and the menu was inventive. The executive chef came out every night to check on us. I loved that.
Activities --not much on the ship. There was a small library and free WIFI. Most of the passengers seemed to read as their main activity. That's ok, because the purpose of this cruise is to experience the amazing sights in Holland and Belgium, not play bingo or poker. On the top deck there was a huge chess set and shuffleboard, but it was way too cold to do anything outside.
Children's Clubs --none. This is definitely not a cruise for children. There was only one teenager on the cruise with her mother, and she seemed to have a good time.
Service --was wonderful. The program director, Stein, did everything pretty much on his own. He did all the briefings, went on the excursions, handled questions from the guests, and introduced the entertainment. He did it all with charm. I don't know how he stayed sane fielding calls from some folks who were picky about everything and anything. We did not find anything to criticize. The concierge, Viktoria, was delightful. The wait staff was efficient and friendly. Because the ship was so small, we got to know everyone well by the end of the cruise. The service was so good it was the first time that I wanted to tip everyone extra. The bartenders, Nico, Johnny and Seta, were terrific. Everyone was so cheerful. They felt like family by the end.
Entertainment -- At night there was some sort of entertainment, which ranged from the sublime (the Shanty Chorus) to the silly (wooden shoe making demonstration.) Mostly I sat at the bar with my new friends and laughed.
Port & Shore Excursions -- most of the excursions are included. These consist of walking tours, a canal boat ride, trips to a palace and a cathedral. There were also a couple of optional cruises, which cost about 50 Euros per person. We took the optional tulip tour and Armhein battlefield tour. If you like culture and history, this is a great cruise. In Amsterdam, we took the included walking tour and canal boat ride. There was also an optional tour to a diamond factory, which we skipped. We also skipped the included excursion to the Keukenhof Gardens on the last day because we preferred to walk around Amsterdam. It is a great city--crowded and full of bikes, but a lot of fun. It was relatively clean and we felt safe everywhere we went. Most of the people in the shops spoke English. Everyone was friendly. Note that several of the museums were closed for renovations. In fact, it seemed that everywhere we went, something was closed for renovation. When buildings are 1,000 years old, this is to be expected. One thing I should warn you about Amsterdam. They are extremely tolerant about sex. Many of the souvenir shops sell X-rated items. My "favorite" was the salt and pepper shakers shaped like a certain male body part. Also, the postcards, which are exhibited in plain view, were at times explicit. I'm not a prude, but I winced at a few of them.
We wanted to tour the Anne Frank house, but the lines were long. I tried to buy tickets online, but had waited until just a day or two before the cruise, so the online tickets were gone. I recommend getting tickets online and getting them far ahead of time.
Hoorn--we took a guided tour of this delightful fishing village. We learned about how the Dutch have reclaimed much of their land from the sea. The best part of this town was the visit to a local home. We broke into groups of four and six and spent an hour with a local family in their home. This is the first year Viking has done this, and judging from the remarks from the other passengers, it was a big success. I thought it might be awkward going into a stranger's house, but the family we met with was so friendly that we soon felt at home.
Armhein--we took the included excursion to the Paleis Het Loo, which was the winter "hunting lodge" for King William and Queen Mary. As a graduate of their namesake school, I was particularly interested in this. This was also the first real palace I had ever seen. It was restored beautifully. There was also an exhibit of the former Queen Wilhelmina's clothes (she was a sturdy woman) and the various household items she used during her rein. There was also an exhibit of portraits done of Queen Beatrice by Holland citizens. Awesome. In the afternoon we took the optional battlefield tour for the failed Operation Market Place battle during WWII. We visited several places during this tour, including the bridge that the Allies failed to protect, the Airborne Museum, and the cemetery. Our guide was a native of Armhein and shared some personal experiences from the war. If you like WWII history, you must do this tour.
Speaking of guides, they were wonderful. Each was a native of the town we visited. Each provided personal views and insights. Most of them were very funny. All of them were informative and entertaining. These excursions were one of the highlights of the cruise.
Kinderdijk--this was a short stop in a very small town, where we got to see the inside of a working windmill. This, like many of the excursions, was much better than I expected.
Antwerp-- Belgium. Another walking tour with an excellent guide and a trip to a cathedral--my first cathedral outside the U.S. It also housed several Ruben paintings. This city, like Amsterdam, had beautiful architecture. Plus, being in Belgium, there were plenty of shops selling chocolate and lace. In the afternoon we walked around and walked the tunnel that ran under the river to the other side of the city. To get down to the tunnel we rode a wooden escalator. Pretty neat.
Brugge and Ghent. We did both cities in one day, and we could have used a day for each city. The walking tour in Brugge required a lot of walking. Stein warned the older passengers that it might be too much walking for some of them. Plus, all the cities have cobblestones so the walking is uneven. Be prepared for this if you are not steady on your feet. Both cities were delightful but as I said, I wish we could have spent an entire day in each one. On the way back, we stopped at Rotterdam, but we did not get there until dinner. They offered a walking tour at 9 p.m., but with temps below freezing, we opted to stay indoors. We left Rotterdam at 11 so we never got to see the city.
DeltaWorks -- back to Holland on Day 8. Today we learned more about how the Dutch keep the sea at bay. Engineers would love this excursion. I did too. We also visited a museum commemorating a huge flood in 1953 that resulted in the building of the dam and lock system that we visited. The museum was highly interactive. Here, our guide, who was a child during the flood, told us a personal story that sent chills!
Disembarkation -- this went very smoothly. Stein posted a list of disembarkation times for each cabin number and gave us color coded luggage tags. Unlike the ocean cruises I have been on, we did not have to put our bags outside our stateroom the night before. Instead, we had to put them there only Â½ hour before our assigned time. We were whisked off to the airport where we boarded our plane for home.
Summary--we were very impressed with our first Viking River cruise. Although the average age of the passengers was older than us (I'm 53 and my husband is 62) and less energetic than us, the trip was wonderful. I highly recommend a river cruise and Viking.