Travelled with Uniworld on the French rivers Saone and Rhone 18 months ago - first river cruise, countless ocean cruises, mostly small ships - and loved every minute. However, when offered two for one and free airfare on the Viking Grand European from Amsterdam to Budapest, we couldn't say no. So we went with some trepidation, both because we suspected no other line could match Uniworld, but also due to the risk of late October weather and ports we didn't find quite as interesting as Burgundy and Provence.
I won’t bore with details, just the primary minuses and plusses, minuses first because they were few:
• Too much busing to suit me, not Viking’s fault, just a function of the itinerary. One of the things I loved about the Uniworld/Provence trip was the ship was docked in the center of the towns at all ports, so it we could walk on and off the ship as we pleased. This time, only half of the ports allowed such freedom; the rest required a shuttle or subway ride which makes taking a break in the middle of the day difficult.
• Having passed through two major wine producing regions, I would have really enjoyed a couple of wine pairing dinners as done by Uniworld, a real highlight of that cruise. Viking has a relationship with its own vineyard which produced the reds and whites included at meals, both very nice, but I think this is a missed opportunity.
• Even for a river cruiser, the cabin was tiny. I would have loved just one small chair tucked in a corner somewhere.
• No robes.
• No map of our progress readily available.
• Beverage service was slow (maybe fewer staff than needed), although this improved as the days went on.
OK, I stand by my minuses but admit they are nitpicky especially considering the positives:
• The Baldur is only two months old and gleamed.
• The staff were incredibly eager to please from the captain all the way to housekeeping. They constantly had ready smiles and were always asking how they could help. The cruise director, Luk, was funny, knowledgeable, helpful and entertaining, worth the price of the cruise alone, but unfortunately ours was his last voyage.
• The food was really, really good, even excellent some nights, and I am a tough critic. It constantly amazed me how Karl-Heinz and his staff could produce such high quality cuisine for 180 people all sitting down at the same time, night after night. Never once was the meat overcooked or dried out. I had chicken one night, which I rarely order, just to test them, and it was juicy and flavorful, just right. They also covered all the bases as far as variety is concerned: lamb, duck, steak, pork, chicken, a number of different seafoods, etc, etc, all cooked with interesting sauces and sides. Karl-Heinz even took those interested on a tour and tasting in the Viennese open air market and offered a tour of his spotless galley. The Uniworld food was wonderful (we were in France, after all) but Viking managed to match them.
• Most of all, the Viking service was outstanding. We usually do our own pre-cruise, get-over-the-jet-lag three days, but for a number of reasons, opted to try the Viking version in Amsterdam. It was a pleasure to be met at the airport and led by the hand to the hotel and a nap. Even better was having our own private transfer to the Budapest airport (no lumping all the morning and all the afternoon flight folks into two big groups for Viking; we arrived at the airport exactly 2 hours before our flight and were therefore able to enjoy ourselves on board ship for a few more hours rather than more time hanging around the airport). And, at the airport, there was a Viking rep waiting to direct us the appropriate line and get us through as quickly as possible. He even walked us to security. This mirrored the staff on board. Can’t say enough about their organization and eagerness to please as well as their expertise.
Many of the ports were wonderful, but they are the same for any line, and I suspect the local guides are the same as well. We do not chose a trip based on the entertainment, but the passenger talent show and a couple of silly game nights were fun. We also enjoyed watching a couple of movies in the cabin although it would have been fun to have a few that were itinerary based. I could say a lot more and will be happy to answer any questions, especially while the trip is fresh in my mind. In my opinion, you cannot go wrong with the Viking Baldur.