NOTE: Our cruise started in Basel, Switzerland and TERMINATED in Amsterdam, Netherlands
My wife and I booked this cruise, our fourth river boat cruise and first with Viking, pursuant to an offer we could not refuse. Overall, we were NOT disappointed. Since this was our fourth river boat cruise, I have a considerable basis for comparison. Based on previous experience with two other river cruise companies, I can highly recommend Viking.
A river boat cruise is vastly different from an ocean cruise. River boats transport approximately 200 passengers. Ocean cruise ships now transport as many as 5 or 6,000 passengers. The entire experience is very different. River boat cruising is intimate and personal. Ocean cruising is impersonal and being part of a herd. River boats allow you to get to meet and know many or even most of your fellow passengers. This is simply not possible on most of today's monster ocean cruise ships. On the other hand, the monster cruise ships offer Broadway style entertainment of varying quality and casinos. River boats do not.
The Ship and Accommodations
The Viking Atla is a fairly new ship. I believe it was around 6 months old when we boarded her on December 20. The ship is clean, beautiful, and nicely laid out. It even provides an elevator for those of use who have difficulty with the stairs. The dining and "lounge" (where briefings and entertainment were provided) areas were spacious and comfortable. The upper deck offers two small putting greens and, unfortunately*, a jogging track. The staterooms were very spacious especially compared with some ships of competing river cruise companies. The bathroom was well designed with a shower large enough to allow movement. If you have ever been on an older river boat, you know what I mean! Our stateroom was equipped with a modern, LARGE, flat screen TV (see comments under entertainment). The bed was comfortable, but the pillows were MUSHY and no firm ones were available. We did have ONE significant problem with our stateroom and understand that other passengers experienced a similar issue. There was something wrong with the stateroom thermostat from the beginning of the cruise all the way through. Regardless of the temperature programmed on the device, the temperature in the room consistently dropped to 64-65 degrees F (about 18 degrees C). This is too cold for comfort; especially when you just come out of the shower. We reported this problem and the staff, both hotel and ship crew, did try to remedy the problem. The ship's engineer investigated the problem twice and reported that the thermostat's programmable ship was likely defective. He did not have a replacement onboard but he said that the issue would be addressed either in Amsterdam or when the ship was docked for the Winter.
* "Unfortunately because some drunk was jogging at Midnight, directly over our heads!
The Crew and Service
Everyone aboard the Viking Atla were very dedicated to true customer service, although we found our cruise director to be a bit abrupt. We understand that he was not originally scheduled for this cruise. Perhaps he wanted to be with his family Christmas week and was not a happy camper. Perhaps. The crew is divided into sailing staff and hotel personnel. The Captain was VERY personable and approachable, as were all of his officers and sailors. The hotel staff, headed by Michael Schmidt, were wonderful. They were friendly and helpful, or at least tried to be helpful, regardless of the situation or time of day. The dining room staff were terrific. As a gluten free passenger, I can testify to the care and special attention given to my dietary needs. I do need to point out one individual for special mention because she seemed to be everywhere whenever we needed ANYTHING. Her name is Agnes. Technically, I believe she was assigned to bar duties, but I truly found her trying to help us wherever we were and whatever we needed!
One of the reasons you go on vacation is to avoid cooking for a while. Ocean cruises are (in)famous for feeding you 24/7. River boat cruises are different in this respect, too. The Atla offered two styles of dining; informal upstairs and formal in the dining room (not formal in the clothing sense). Breakfast aboard the Atla was excellent. The omelet chef was a whiz and made the omelets with very little oil. Breakfast choices were quite varied, but there was no gluten free cereal for me. Something I hope that Viking will change in the future as more and more people discover their sensitivity to gluten. Lunches were good, but not spectacular. My wife and I were spoiled by the creativity, especially in making soups, by another river boat company. Again, the crew attended to my special dietary needs (there were at least two other gluten free passengers onboard) with gluten free bread and pasta, as well as gluten free beer. Dinners were excellent, although somewhat lacking in creativity and imagination. In their defense, when you cook for large groups, you cannot make foods with sharp, spicy, or highly unusual spice palates. I eat a lot of fish and was pleased that the Atla offered a different specialty fish every evening including halibut, in addition to the salmon filet that was always available (and which they made in accordance with my lemon and caper request). Sadly, the fish was very overdone one evening. Thin filets cook very quickly and are easily overdone. One evening, lobster and filet steak were offered. River boat cruises offer all you can drink house wine or beer during meals. Ironically, if you order either outside of meal times, you are charged for the beverages.
This is the one area of this cruise that was disappointing, especially when compared with the other two river boat companies we have tried. In fact, one of the reasons we chose Viking for this cruise was our observation of a cooking demonstration on another Viking ship that we were alongside of on a different river boat company's ship! Most evenings had no entertainment other than the mediocre onboard musician. Local musicians were brought onboard at one port. They provided an excellent piano plus violin program, but I really do not recall much else other than a sort-of German language lesson from the cruise director. Other boats that we have been on offered local beer and wine explanations and tastings, history discussions, several local musicians at different ports of call. As noted earlier, we witnessed a cooking demonstration on another Viking cruise along side of us! Most cruises, ocean and river, offer a crew show that is usually extremely entertaining. The closest that the Atla came to this was a brief "joke" about mixing a drink. In the stateroom, there was a very large, modern, flat screen TV. BUT, the viewing choices were severely limited and NO programming schedules were available. Other companies provide American sitcoms and programming schedules. Viking sponsors the "Downton Abbey" series to which my wife and I are now addicted. Even the availability of this show was limited to only 6 or 7 episodes of the third season but omitted the season finale. I realize that you do not spend a lot of time in your stateroom, but why provide a nice TV if you are not going to offer something decent to watch?
Ports of Call
I can honestly say that I enjoyed all ports of call on this cruise. The Rhine, of course, was a major highway throughout the history of the area. The only disappointment was Cologne Germany because we were there on Christmas day and everything was closed! We were disappointed that neither the cruise nor the before trip extension included even a walking tour of Basel Switzerland, the port of embarkation. But the precruise stay in Lucerne Switzerland was wonderful. At the terminus of the cruise, Amsterdam Netherlands is NOT to be missed!
Note on Transfers
My wife and I took advantage of the precruise offer of an extra two nights in Lucerne Switzerland. Since we booked our hotel stay at the WONDERFUL Radisson Blu in Lucerne with Viking, Viking handled our transfers and transportation to Basel, the actual port of embarkation for the cruise. As note above, we were disappointed that no time was allotted for even a walking or driving tour of Basel. What was worse was the timing of departure from Lucerne that placed the bus in the WORST of the Friday rush hour. The last thing you want to do when on vacation is to sit in rush hour traffic! Had the bus left 2 hours earlier (around 2PM, comfortably after lunch, instead of 4PM), we could have at least had a driving tour through Basel instead of sitting in heavy traffic.