I've been a travel agent for over 30 years and have taken twenty-some cruises - all ocean liners. My teenaged daughter wanted Europe for her senior spring break, so we decided on a river cruise - and the rest of my family came along. Travelling with eleven people, we had a 10, 12, 18 and 22 year old. The "adults" ranged from 46 - 72. The kids had a good time on the cruise; they knew it was not rock climbing walls and pool games from the start. Granted, it was in the 30's and 40's weather wise, so there was not much "sun deck" activity to be had, but they enjoyed the small French towns, the sights and monuments of Paris and the Normandy Beaches.
MEALS: I was impressed with the staff; they went out of their way to make the "young ones" feel welcome. They accommodated every request (and there were a lot, considering we were 11 people). Joseph ran the dining room with professionalism and was quick to help with any need; he set up a special table to host all 11 of us. They could not "reserve" a table for us, but one of us went early each evening to hold the table for 11. We could not sit there on the Captains Farewell dinner, as the Captain needed it. We told them we'd have been happy to have him pull up a chair; apparently he found other guests that he preferred to dine with! Eva was our server most nights, and she was so quick and friendly. All the staff was happy to accommodate any menu special requests. Food was very good, and since portions were not hugh, we ordered more than one entree at times. We actually drank the entire supply of Diet Coke the ship had, so on day #4, they bought more for us to keep us supplied the rest of the voyage. We were known as "that family" to fellow passengers and crew. We did not, however, exhaust their endless supply of chardonney and merlot. I think Viking should have more staff just to ease the burden on the servers, but they did an excellent job of running at top speed to keep on top of everything. Wine and soft drinks were included with meals.
ROOMS: Compact and efficient. This is one of their older ships (built 2001) so did not have balcony staterooms. The beds were wonderfully comfy - cabins didn't have much "hang out" space so you did not stay there much. One chair, desk, and dresser space, but we did not need more than that. One suggestion - room darkening curtains as some nights the city lights intruded the darkness. Only one outlet in each room - remember your converters!
BOARDING: We arrived early afternoon, and were welcomed with lunch. Rooms were ready shortly afterwards. Security - or lack of - was surprising. I am used to X-ray machines and the like. The only "security" was a sign out front that said "registered guests only". You could have walked on off the street, but I think they know the guests after the first day.
TOURS: They left ON TIME. Happy about that. Some were better than others; some guides were on the boring side and some were entertaining. Suggestion: they have a leisure group (slower walkers) but they need to have a "faster group". The pace of the tours was slow to accomodate all fitness levels. An accelerated group would have been able to cover more ground in the same amount of time. We tipped each guide at the end of the tour about one Euro per person.
Definately needed more time in Normandy and the Beaches...way too rushed.
When you went off the ship for a tour, you turned in your room key and they handed you a card with your group number. This is how they know if you are on/off the ship. When you return from the tour, you have to wait in line and trade your group card for your room key again. Sometimes this took a while - you would think they would come up with a quicker system for this process. You had to wait outside until the line progressed, so I can see this would be no fun in the rain.
ENTERTAINMENT: none that I saw. They had a music trivia, a dance night, a couple speakers, and such events. I can't say how they were either way as I never went. We had more fun hanging out in the lobby playing games and chatting on our own. They did have movies in the cabins that often related to the ports, and were great for downtime.
INTERNET: Free and worked well most of the time, depending where on the ship you were.
WEATHER: April in Paris is more like December in Michigan. In the 30's and 40's- but we knew it was a gamble. Bring mittens, scarfs and warm coats. Skip tennis shoes and track suits - passengers who wore them looked like transplanted American tourists. We wanted to make an attemp to blend in!
LANGUAGE: Ship personnel spoke English well, and we tried our Rosetta Stone French. Locals spoke some English in the smaller towns, and some not at all. No issue in Paris -most everyone would speak English, especially when you tried to speak French to start. They thought it way easier to speak English rather than listen to our French.
FELLOW PASSENGERS: All well travelled. Mostly couples in their 50's - 80's. Some mother /daughter pairs on board, but the majority of guest were in their 60's/70's.
DRESS: casual. Daytime we were in jeans/pants and sweaters/shirts. Dinner attire was pants and sweaters or shirts, for summertime you would be fine in capris, pants or skirts with polo or dress shirts. The Captains farewell dinner was a bit dressier - I only saw a couple dresses, but most people had nice blouses and dress pants or dress shirt/pants for men.
VALUE: I liked not having to pay for every little drink and tour. We all spent very little as we bought one optional shore excursion and a couple drinks when we had beverages outside of meal times. The cruises are expensive, but at least you are not nickeled and dimed for every little thing.
Overall I'd travel on a river cruise again, but not every year. It was a great change and I loved docking right in the center of the towns. You felt like you were walking in the Beauty and the Beast Movie - the smaller towns were just like the village in the movie. Viking staff did their utmost to make the week a success. Kudos to the staff of the Viking Spirit.