Overall, pretty much what I expected, having read many threads and posts on the Cruise Critic message board, as well as other sites. As we were going during Christmas, I was expecting very cold weather. As it turns out, we got very lucky and had mostly unseasonably better weather than you normally get this time of year. I had bought a new, heavy duty winter coat, waterproof boots, and other winter paraphernalia. I only wore my big coat a few times, and got along with a lighter coat, supplemented by a layer of a long sleeve tee shirt and a light sweater. I also used gloves and a hat most days. The temperature was usually in the 40s, the only bad weather was the last day in Kinderdijk, the windmills, when it was cold, rainy, and very windy. Most of the time the weather was ok, making the trip much more enjoyable. You never know about the weather, though. Just the week before, there had been a major snow storm in that part of Europe. We saw the remains on the mountains in the Black Forest, but that was the extent of snow that we encountered. I probably should mention that we are from New Orleans, so when the temperature gets below 50, we get cold. My wife was also very comfortable wearing a variety of coats, and other layers.
The cruise started in Basel, Switzerland. We booked our cruise, including flights and a two-day post cruise extension in Amsterdam, directly through Viking. We worked with Ceasar Reyes [Ceasar.Reyes@vikingcruises.com], who was extremely helpful, accessible, and knowledgeable about the various tours. He originally suggested the Rhein Getaway cruise when my wife first talked to him. Of course, I then took over the process and was leaning to the Danube Waltz, with a chance to visit Vienna. Ceasar told me he thought the Rhein Getaway would be a better cruise for our first one, and he was right. I'm sure the Danube Waltz cruise is great also, but the Rhein cruise was perfect for us.
As this was our first river cruise, after several ocean cruises (Carnival and Windstar). We picked Viking based on a recommendation from some friends who have traveled with Viking several times. Viking did not disappoint us, but I will talk more specifically about Viking later in this review. We also decided to let Viking handle all of our travel arrangements for several reasons: the price seemed reasonable, if anything caused us to be late getting to the boat and we were on a Viking sponsored trip, they would hopefully hold the boat, and we figured if we ran into any problems getting to or from the cruise (weather, in particular), Viking would help get us to where we needed to go better than if we were doing all of this on our own. I know there is a lot of debate on these message boards regarding using the cruise company for all or your travel arrangements, using a travel agent, or doing everything other than the cruise on your own. I think it is all up to the individual and how much risk, you are able to stomach. For us, using Viking for everything made sense, but I can see doing other things on your own, or using a TA to work for you. As a side note, on the last couple of Carnival cruises from New Orleans to Mexico, we have booked our own shore excursions outside of the Carnival offers, and it worked out well. The only thing you have to make sure is to give yourself enough time to get back to the boat before it sails, because they will leave you.
Our travel arrangements were from New Orleans to Washington Dulles to Frankfort, Germany to Basel. Returning was from Amsterdam to Chicago to New Orleans. All of the flights were either United or Lufthansa or their subsidiaries. The flights, though long, were acceptable. Going over was the weekend before Christmas, so the planes were full. We were on a really big Lufthansa for the Washington to Frankfurt flight, one with a 3-5-3 configuration in steerage class, and I was sitting in the window seat on the right hand side. I felt cramped in my seat on this flight. We looked into upgrading, but the costs of 1st class or business class was too expensive. We were able to upgrade to more legroom using Economy Plus on the Amsterdam to Chicago flight for $274. I thought that upgrade was well worth the money, as that was the longest leg of the flight, nearly 9.5 hours. The New Orleans to Washington flight was delayed about a half hour, but we still got to Washington in plenty of time to make our Frankfurt connection. All of the other flights were on time and we had plenty of time to get to our connections.
One thing I have learned regarding traveling to Europe is that it is a very long flight, so you just have to make the best of it. If you can afford, or have mileage, to upgrade, by all means, do it. We used the neck pillows you can buy in the airport gift shops, as well as the pillows and blankets the airline gives you. I had looked into sleeping pills, but after hearing some horror stories about Ambien, I decided against that and we went au natural. I will tell you that no matter how difficult or inconvenient it is to get to Europe, it is well worth the hassle.
The cruise took us from Basel to Breisach to Strasbourg (Kehl) to Heidelberg (Mannheim) to Koblenz to Cologne to Kinderjik to Amsterdam. Seven nights. All of the ports where nice. The point of this cruise was the Christmas markets and spending Christmas day on the Rhein. Each morning, there was a planned excursion (free), and in Breisach, there was an optional tour to Colmar, France. In Strasbourg there was an optional tour to the Alsace wine country to the town of Obernai, and in Cologne, there was an optional tour to 5 different brew houses to sample the local beer, known as Kolsch. Each of the optional tours was around 35-40 Euros. Euros are about 1.4 times the US dollar, so 40 Euros = around $56 US. There was also an optional tour normally scheduled in either Heidelberg or Koblenz, but it was not offered because of Christmas. I thought the optional tours were well worth the time and money. We went to a small vineyard in the small town of Obernai owned by Robert Blanck. He took us into the cellar, explained the wine making process, and showed us two barrels that have been in use by his family since the 1700's. I continue to be amazed at how old and how much history there is in Europe. We live in New Orleans and think we have a lot of history here. Compared to Europe, we are limited regarding history. This winemaker in Obernai, France has wine barrels older than the US. Strasbourg, France was founded in 5 BC. Just one other reason to visit Europe as often as possible. One other interesting note regarding wine production is as you go North in France and Germany, white wine is more predominant. Due to the colder weather in that region, the white grapes are hardier and can withstand the colder temperatures better. Some red wine is produced in the region, but most red wine is produced in the southern part of Europe.
The tours were very well organized, and most people on the cruise participated in the ones included in the cost of the cruise. The tours always included a non-strenuous group, so pretty much everyone on the cruise was able to go. We also used little radio devices with an earpiece that allowed us to hear the tour guides very well. The radios are kept in chargers in your room and you take them with you on each tour. Another nice touch that Viking provided was a bottle of water and maps for each of us as we left the ship for the tour. On several occasions there was also some food waiting at the boat when we got back. Nothing big, but a small sample of a quiche lorraine for example. The tours do involve getting on and off buses, but really, there is no other way to get you from the river to the various sites within a reasonable driving distance of the ports we docked at. The longest bus ride was to and through the Black Forest, but we stopped twice, so the amount of time spent on the bus was broken up adequately. The tour guides we had were great, spoke very understandable English, had great knowledge of the areas we were touring, and were extremely pleasant and helpful. I usually tipped them 10 Euros, which I thought was well worth it. One thing to say also about the tours regards the bus drivers. These guys really don't get much appreciation, but they are essential to making the tours go smoothly. Some of the roads they have to navigate are very narrow, or winding, or up and down mountains. On the same tour, they may encounter a mountain road with snow, ice, or rain, a small local narrow road, or even the autobahn. They also stay with the buses while you are off, allowing you to leave your packages or coats, without worrying whether they will be there when you get back. I thought they did a great job and I would give them a 5 Euro tip at the end of the tour. I know tips are an issue to a lot of people on these cruises, as well as on other cruises. My rule of thumb is that if the person provides a service of value, then they should get a tip. Again, you have to decide individually how you feel about tipping and go from there.
As far as the Christmas markets go; that is a very subjective discussion. First, most of the Christmas markets close on the afternoon of the 23rd. If your main reason for taking a cruise this time of year is to spend time at the markets, I would suggest you go earlier in the month. I believe most of the markets open around our Thanksgiving time. We were able to go to the markets in Basel, Colmar, Strasbourg, and Obernai. We did find other markets open in Cologne after Christmas, but the one there was a little different from the ones we visited before Christmas. One other thing to note. In Germany, Christmas is celebrated on the 24th, with the 25th and 26th being holidays. Starting the afternoon of the 24th, stores started closing and hardly anything was open in Koblenz on the 25th, while more stuff was reopening when we got to Cologne on the 26th. Just beware that around Christmas, lots of things are not open, so plan accordingly. Again, having done a lot of research prior to the trip, we were not surprised or mad because of it. We knew what we were getting into before we left.
My opinion of the Christmas markets was that once you saw one, you've seen them all. I was expecting more of an arts and crafts type market. While there was some of that, there was also a lot more commercially produced items for purchase. We still enjoyed going through them. The best part of them, to me, was the food and drinks available. The bratwurst and knockwurst grilled over open fire pits were awesome. If you've ever been to the Salt Lick barbecue joint outside Austin, Tx, you will see where they got their idea for their fire pit that they cook on. They also have hamburgers, called meatballs, that are excellent. There is a wide variety of pastries and other desert items. Drinks include beer (very, very good) and Gluhwein. Gluhwein is hot red or white wine, with some cinnamon, sugar, and citrus peel added to it. It is served very hot and you get to keep the mugs it comes in after you pay for it. I think it is an acquired taste, as after one, I didn't need any more. The market we found in Cologne was different from the others in that it stays open for a few weeks in January, after Christmas. It had a lot of food and beer available. We actually had a tequila shot, which is served with a piece of bacon, rather than a lime. Got to love the Germans and their food. We also found a curling rink there, which was great, as I love watching the curling competition in the Olympics which is coming up shortly. Overall, the Christmas markets were enjoyable, but we did not take the cruise just for that reason.
Also, getting money is no problem. There are ATMs everywhere. You can access them easily. The only problem I had was in Basel, which uses Swiss francs, when I couldn't figure out how to get Euros out of the machine. Since we got francs, which are only used in Switzerland, we used them all in Basel before we got back on the boat to start the cruise. I did let my bank know that we would be in Europe over the dates of the cruise before we left and had no problem using our debit cards anywhere we were. I did not let American Express know that we would be in Europe, and we got a call from them in Amsterdam, after we had used our card at the Heineken factory. The AmEx website said that there was no need to let them know if you would be traveling, but next time, I will let them know as well. It's good to know that they are looking out for you. A lot of the market stands took AmEx as well as cash.
I was really interested in seeing Strasbourg as I have always heard what a fabulous city it is. I was not disappointed. Strasbourg is fabulous. One of the things we really like visiting in Europe are the churches. The cathedral in Strasbourg is no exception. It is incredible. At this time of year, with schools out and people getting ready for Christmas, the crowds are pretty big in the cities we visited. Especially in Strasbourg, Cologne, and Amsterdam. We were able to get into the cathedral and tour it, even with a lot of other people trying to do the same thing. They have a little gift shop right in the cathedral that we were able to buy a few Christmas presents. I found some first day covers (envelopes) commemorating Pope John-Paul II's mass he said at the cathedral in 1988. Those are some nice Christmas presents for some of my friends who collect stamps. All in all, Strasbourg was everything I ever heard about it and was great getting to see it.
The Black Forest was another area that we really wanted to see. The weather turned out really nice, as we had a lot of sunshine as we rode up and down the hills and mountains. Lots of leftover snow, but we didn't have to deal with it, just look at it from a distance. We stopped at a church in one of the small towns in the forest. Just spectacular. We then went to the cuckoo factory, which also has the restaurant serving Black Forest cake. We were also offered the opportunity to hike part of a trail leading into the forest, which we did. Trail follows a mountain stream and because of the weather the past week, there was still some icy patches that you had to maneuver over. This was a somewhat strenuous hike and if you are the least bit mobility challenged, I would forgo this excursion. You were able to go as far as you wanted and we probably walked about a half-mile up and a half-mile down. Plenty of exercise for me. My wife, who works out daily, was having some withdrawal issues with not having gym facilities available on the boat. I kept reminding her that she was getting plenty of exercise during these excursions, even though she didn't feel like she was working out. We ended up in the clock factory. We bought a really nice one, as well as several other items. The good thing about this store was that they will send everything home for you. That came in really handy as at the end of our trip, we had no room left in our suitcases to get everything else home. The cuckoo clocks come in a wide variety of prices, so if you want to get one, I think everybody can find an affordably priced clock. They appear to be well made and the people working in the store where very helpful and spoke very good English. The price of the items we purchased, plus the shipping and insurance came to about $500 US, which I thought was a pretty good price. We found other cuckoo clocks in other places we visited on the cruise and all of the prices were similar. At least I can say that ours came from the Black Forest. We didn't get a chance to try the BF Cake, but from folks who did it sounded like it tasted pretty good. Maybe next time.
So after Strasbourg and the Black Forest, I was very happy with the cruise, because those were the two things I really wanted to see. And then we got to Cologne. Let me just say that Cologne in the nicest place I have ever been to. In fact, I am now reviewing my retirement plans to see if I can retire to Cologne. Cologne is clean, civilized, and the people are extremely friendly. The cathedral blows away every other church I have ever seen, including the cathedral in Strasbourg that we had seen just days before. Cologne, as was most of Germany, was destroyed during WWII by around the clock bombing for over a year. In the daytime, the Americans bombed it, and at night, the English bombed it. Everything was destroyed, except for the cathedral and the original brew house. Don't know how those two structures survived, but they did. Someone must have been looking out for religion and beer during those horrible times. The Germans blew up the bridge over the Rhein as they retreated when General Patton and the US Army showed up. Everything had to be rebuilt, so most of the city is around 50-60 years old. So even though Cologne has been around a very long time (founded in 38 BC, 38 BC!), it is a very modern city. As I mentioned before, we did a pub crawl that evening after dinner and sampled the really good Kolsch beer brewed in Cologne. That was a lot of fun. Also, as everywhere we went on this cruise, even after dark, I was never concerned for our safety in any of the areas we were in. During our entire 10 day stay, I only saw three policemen, and they were all in Amsterdam. I am sure there is a police presence in Europe, they just blend in very well or I didn't know where to look for them.
On Christmas Eve, we were in Mainz, which was pretty well closed down by the late afternoon. We did find a nice Catholic church about 3 blocks from the boat that had a mass at 5 or 6 pm. Can't remember exactly the time. It was a very easy walk to the church and we got there about 20 minutes before the mass started. As all churches are at Christmas and Easter, this one was packed, and it was a good size church. We were able to find a space to sit on the side of an alternative alter in the very back. Couldn't see the alter, where the priest was, but could see a little on a TV monitor about 50 feet in front of us. Although the mass was in German, we could pretty much keep up with it, as the mass was said in the same order it goes at our church at home. My wife was able to take communion fairly easily, as they had a number of Eucharistic ministers and assistant priests giving communion, so it did not take very long to minister to the entire church. It was nice to get to the mass, especially since it wasn't at midnight.
On Christmas day, we cruised up the Rhein, viewing all of the castles on both sides of the river. It was very enjoyable and a really unique way to spend Christmas. I was a little worried about my wife on Christmas day, as we would be away from our kids, but especially that we would be away from the grandkids. It worked out fine as we were able to face time all of them on Christmas day, which allowed us to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and make sure they were all ok. We were able to keep up with work, home, and the world while on this cruise. I have an Apple iPhone 5s, and my wife has an earlier iPhone model. We were able to stay connected to the internet on the boat most of the time. The only time we lost reception for any sustained period was when we cruised up the Rhein on Christmas day. I think it was because the mountains were the highest there and the river is the narrowest there. That was the only time we didn't have internet access, and I'm talking only 1-2 hours. I was also able to access the internet through my Kindle Fire while on the boat.
The last stop on the cruise was Amsterdam, where we had booked a 2-day extension. In hindsight, we should have planned a pre-cruise extension and left immediately after the cruise to fly home. I woke up on Saturday in Amsterdam with one of the worst hangovers I have had in a long time, on top of a lack of sleep catching up with me. Needless to say, we had a great time at the Captain's dinner and the last night in the bar the previous night. We were taken to our hotel, the Radisson Blu, and while waiting for our rooms, we were taken on a two hour walking tour. The tour was great and the guide was extremely knowledgeable and helpful, especially after the tour during the rest of the day and the next day. However, nursing a hangover and needing some sleep, a walking tour was not the best way to recover, especially as the weather had turned cold. We made it through the tour and back to the hotel, where we got into our room around 2:30 pm, and were able to get some much needed rest, before tackling the crazy city of Amsterdam. Amsterdam is nice, but honestly, don't think we will be going back, other than using the airport. Amsterdam is noted for the red-light district and the availability of marijuana. And yes, there is a lot of both. However, once you've seen the red light district, you don't need to see it again. And even though marijuana is not legal in Amsterdam, a huge misconception, it is, in the words or our tour guide, "tolerated". Also, after the cruise is over, being as tired as we were, it would have been better to have gone straight to the airport, got on the plane, and slept on the way home. Oh well, you live and learn. Even though a pre-cruise extension would have worked for us, a post-cruise extension may work better for others. Some people may also want to extend the cruise at both ends; nothing wrong with that approach either. We did get to tour the Heineken factory. It was great and we picked up some presents for my son and son-in-laws there. We also did one of the get on/get off buses, which gave us a chance to see all of Amsterdam, from a distance. Also, the Radisson Blu is a very nice hotel, very well located. Our room was great. Good choice by Viking.
The airport in Amsterdam is great. Very organized and easy to get around in. Line to check in Monday morning (12/30) was extremely long, but it moved fast as they had plenty of people working the counter. I think we only stood in line for 30-45 minutes. As we kept getting closer to our gate, I kept waiting for the security lines, but they never appeared. It turns out that the security checkpoint is at the individual gate. Once we got to the gate we went to a little stand where we showed our passports and tickets and were asked the usual questions, did you pack your own luggage, has it been in your possession the whole time, etc. We then went through the scanners. Pretty easy for the most part. My wife got a pretty thorough hand search, but that seems to happen to her every time she flies. Also, the other thing that I liked about flying into Europe was once we got through customs in Frankfurt, we were done until we left Amsterdam. Because of the European Union, they have removed border checks for passports, so once you get into a country you can to everywhere else without having to be checked. Made for traveling through 4 different countries very easy.
As I said, we really enjoyed the cruise. It was pretty much what I expected based on the research I had done before we left. Let me take the opportunity, before I forget, to thank everyone who participates on these boards, allowing folks like me and my wife, to do a lot of research before any of our trips. There are a lot of issues with the internet, but the Cruise Critic website and the message boards are part of what is great about the it.
The Boat: Viking Rinda
The Viking Rinda, which is named for the Norse god of the frozen earth, or at least that's what I think the description of the picture at the top of the staircase said, is the river boat we sailed on. It is one of the newer Viking longboats, and I think it is only a couple of years old. It is very efficiently designed, using limited space optimally. When you enter the boat, you generally come in on the starboard (right) side. You walk into the "lobby" with the front desk and concierge located to your left. There is a small gift shop on the far wall. The entrance is on the second deck, there being three decks all together. We were in Veranda Suite 304 on the 3rd deck. We had the first room as the rooms start, which gave us great access to the lounge, which was at the front of the ship on the 3rd deck. The Veranda Suite includes a sitting room with a couch, chair, and TV. The front room is where the balcony is located, accessible through a sliding glass door. There is also a mini-refrigerator located there. The bedroom had a sliding glass door that accessed the outside. We had a nice size, probably queen, bed. Very comfortable. Their is also a TV in the bedroom. The bathroom was adequate, located to the right of the bed. Very narrow, with the shower on the right, the sink in the middle, and the toilet to the left. The bathroom has a pocket door that closes very easily. It is also a step-up into it, so be careful if you have mobility issue or have had too much to drink. There was a closet with a small, two-drawer dresser located at the bottom of the closet. To the left of the dresser was the closet floor, used for storing shoes and dirty clothes. Overall, the room, much like the ship, uses the limited space very efficiently.
Storage is an issue, as there is not much of it. Part of it was our fault as we, mainly me, way over packed for what we did and what the weather turned out to be. My wife insisted that she used everything she brought, so I am not going to try to describe or explain packing from the female perspective. Hopefully, there are other threads that the women can get some ideas as to what is needed in the way of clothes, coats, and other items for a trip of this duration during this time of year. I will say that I brought a lot of stuff (bathing suit, short sleeve shirts, too many pairs of socks) that I had no need of nor use for. What I did end up needing more of was long sleeve t-shirts and light weight sweaters/sweatshirts. I only brought 4 long-sleeve shirts, so I used the on-board laundry service to wash them, so that they lasted through the trip, including Amsterdam. The laundry service was very easy to use. You put your clothes in a laundry bag left in your cabin, fill out the sheet describing the articles you need cleaned, and leave it in the room. Your steward picks it up and delivers it back to you the next day. Again, we were extremely lucky with the weather, so most days I went out in a pair of jeans, a long sleeve t-shirt, a light weight sweater/sweatshirt, and a lighter nylon coat, which I threw in my suitcase just as we were leaving the house. I always had my gloves and ski cap, which I used probably 50% of the time when we were outside. We did get a little bit of rain, never enough to really cause problems, it was more that it had rained and it was wet in some of the areas we went to. I wore my waterproof boots on most occasions when it was wet or looked like rain. Other times I wore my new balance walking shoes, or my crocs (with socks). I had purchased 3 pairs of wool socks. I only wore one pair once and it was just too hot, so I stuck to regular socks the rest of the trip. I also brought two pairs of dress pants, several dress shirts, and a blazer. I really didn't need any of that as the cruise is extremely casual. I could have gotten by most nights with what I wore during the day on the excursions. What we generally did, was return to the ship before dinner, shower, and change clothes. I never wore my blazer and only wore one pair of dress pants the first night and the last night, which was the captains dinner. I only wore 2 of the dress shirts, so I could have left probably half of the clothes at home and never missed them. The other thing to think about when packing is that you are in a town or city every day and there are stores available if you forget something or find you really need something you forgot. These cruises are not like going down the Amazon, or to the Galapagos, or to Antarctica. Europe is pretty civilized. As casual as this cruise was, I am curious as to how the dress is during the summer. Are shorts acceptable in the dining room, or are you expected to wear pants?
I didn't see any of the other rooms, so I can't really comment on space or storage in them. I will say that because of the time of year, the balcony in our cabin went unused, except to occasionally go outside for some fresh air or to cool off, when the cabin got hot. The boat was extremely warm. I never needed a jacket or coat while on the boat. In fact, we usually slept with the window open in the bedroom to keep the cabin cooler at night. For some reason, I found the boat and most of the buildings we went in very hot. I don't know if people complained that the boat was too cold or if it takes so long to heat things up that once they get warmed up, they don't get cooled off. The first morning, in Breisach, it was pretty neat to go out on the balcony and see all of the ducks and swans hanging out around the boat. I think in the future, we will look at the French Balconies, due to a lower cost and since we didn't spend much time in the room other than sleeping, we can probably get by without the balcony. Although, it was nice to have the extra sitting space.
The TV content is interesting. Several channels including CNN, BBC, USA, MGM, and a couple of others that I can't remember. Most of the content was in English, but it seemed to change to German in the mornings. Weird, but we didn't spend a lot of time watching TV. There was also a pretty good selection of movies to watch, all made in the last 10 years or so, with a lot of variety. There was also several music channels, which is probably what we kept the TV tuned to most of the time. There was Country, Pop, Musicals, Classical, and a couple of other channels. Very good variety and kept a nice atmosphere in the room. The TV also had the current weather and two boat cameras, one on the bow (front) and one in the lounge.
The Dining Room is located on the 2nd deck, to the right as you enter the boat from the starboard side. It was again a very efficient use of space as everyone usually ate dinner in it, since there is no room service, and the only other food available is in the lounge. (More on that in a minute.) Most of the tables seated 6 people, I think there may have been a few 8's and maybe some 4's, but I don't think there were any 2's. Most people seemed to sit at the same tables with the same people starting about the 3rd night. We didn't eat in the dining room, other than the nightly meal, so I can't comment on breakfast or lunch. The wait staff was pleasant for the most part, but did seem to be a bit hurried in getting folks in and out.
The meals were ok, nothing that overly impressed me. I wasn't expecting a 5 star dining experience, but I did expect a different menu than what was offered. There was always a meat, fish, and vegetarian entree, as well as a steak and chicken entree available. The appetizers were good, and the desert was ok. I generally had some ice cream each night which was very good. Again, the food overall was not an issue, I just think it was more what I like to eat and what I don't like to eat. My wife, and everybody else on board, seemed to enjoy the meals and there weren't any complaints that I was aware of. If your interests in taking a cruise is based on food, both quality and quantity, that is not what you will get on this cruise. It is not a Carnival cruise, where you can stuff yourself 24 hours a day. Again, the food was fine just not a lot that I cared for. (I will address the Christmas dinner later, though.)
On the 3rd deck, where our stateroom was, there were two computers set up. I didn't use them as our phones and my kindle fire had internet access. They were always in use, every time I went past them. On both sides of the ship, there is a coffee service, which includes tea and hot chocolate. I don't drink coffee, so I can't comment on it, other than to say my wife, who is a huge coffee drinker, liked it. During the day, there was always some pastries and cookies there also. They were very good.
On the starboard side was the elevator. So for people with mobility issues, there is a way to get from floor to floor. I don't think the elevator went to the top deck (outside), but I could be wrong. I didn't find the elevator until the next to last day, as it was on the opposite side of the boat from where our cabin was.
I want to finish this part with the lounge, but first let me mention the top deck. It obviously was not used much this cruise due to the weather. I am sure during the summer and warmer parts of the year, this deck is used a lot. It has a lot of deck chairs and a place to get towels. There is some shade setup, but most of the deck is open. It has a running track, two putting greens, and a shuffle board court. It also appeared to have a smoking section, but I could be wrong about that. Again, I am sure this deck is used a lot more when it is warmer. One morning, when we did not have to get up, we did hear someone running on the track above us. Our cabin was just below the track, so you could hear it pretty well when someone was up there. Something to think about during other parts of the year if you get a cabin on third deck. Also, the bridge or pilot house is located here. Very interesting. The whole bridge is moves up and down, hydraulically, in order to get under some of the bridges on the river. Again, a very well designed feature on the boat.
Back to the lounge, where we spent most of our time on the boat. What can I say, except it was a great place to spend some time. Of course the bar is located here, there is a piano and piano player, who entertains at lunch time and in the evenings. It is also where breakfast and lunch are served, which is where we ate those meals. Both are buffets and the food was good. Always a couple of choices, hamburgers one day, pizza another, as well as soup, salad, bread, and desert. They also had pickled vegetables every day for lunch, which were great. Breakfast included toast, english muffins, etc, with a toaster to toast the bread. Butter, margarine, philly cream cheese, and jelly was available. There was also a selection of cold cuts, ham and salami, and cheese every morning. There was also some pastries available. Fruit was also available both at breakfast and lunch. The fruit, especially the citrus, was very good. Not sure where they got it from during this time of year, but it was very tasty.
The dinner menu in the lounge, would have suited me fine if we had eaten there every night. The menu included burgers, quesadillas, ceasar salad with chicken or steak, etc. Basically, bar food. And very good bar food. We ate there twice, once because we wanted a change from the dining room, and once because of some issues related to the Christmas dinner, which I will discuss later.
The bar was located in the lounge and it had everything you could want to drink, including soft drinks. Diet Coke is Coke Light in Europe. Tastes better too. We decided to buy the Silver Spirits package right after we booked the cruise, which cost $210 US each, and was well worth it. During meals, beer and wine do flow. You can get plenty of each while you are eating. However, outside of meals, you pay for your drinks, including soft drinks. In looking at the drink menu, for example, Grey Goose vodka ran 7.50 Euros per drink or about $10.50 US. I needed to drink about 20 drinks over the course of the cruise to come out even on the package, which I think I did the first night. The part of the package I wasn't sure about was that anything you wanted to drink, any brand, any amount was included. I asked Ceasar specifically about that and he assured me it was. He was right, anything you wanted at any time, in any quantity was available. It was nice to just order a drink and have it served with no "paperwork". Like most cruises, if you didn't have the package you had to sign a tab for your drinks each time you ordered one. There was also a wine list, different than what was served with meals, that you could order and take to dinner with you. We drank a very good red wine from the Czech Republic that was excellent. The beer was also excellent, as it was all across Europe. When the bartenders and waiters figured out that I like beer, they started serving me in a bigger glass. Very perceptive, those boys and girls. I would highly recommend buying the package. It is well worth the money. I'm not sure, but I think you can buy it on board before the ship sales. You can ask about that if you are interested in purchasing it.
Every night in the bar before dinner is a presentation by the cruise director as to what is going to happen the next day. Times, places, etc. There was also usually some type of local entertainment each evening. We usually attended the briefing each night, had a few drinks before dinner, went to dinner, back to the lounge to finish the night. We were generally in our room around 11-11:30 pm each night. So it wasn't like we were staying out until dawn, but we did spend a lot of time in the lounge.
There was a piano player with a really great little electric piano he played. It looked like a small grand piano, I mean really small, but was hooked up to an amplifier and had all kind of accompaniments, including background singers to go with the songs. The guy playing the piano was superb. I'm not sure where he was from, but he could really play and sing. All types of music. We were very fortunate that several of the guests turned out to have very good voices, and they did some singing both solo and as duets, during the cruise. We also were able to dance on the small dance floor by the bar. By the last night, there was more dancing and singing than any of the previous nights, even though most nights there was a good crowd in the bar. I'm not sure how that works during other times of the year. You have to realize that it got dark around 4 pm every afternoon, and didn't get daylight until after 8 am in the mornings. It was also too cold to really be outside. In the summer I would imagine there is more use of the outside deck in the evenings, so the lounge may not be as crowded as it was on this trip. There also may be entertainment at night outside also.
All in all, the boat is self was perfect for the cruise. Viking has done a very good job with design, functionality, and efficient use of the available space. One other thing, I had read about being docked next to 3-4 other boats in some ports. We only experienced that once, in Koblenz, when we were tied up next to a Tauck boat. It was very easy to get from our boat to theirs to the dock. You went from the top deck, across a little gangway, to the Tauck boat, down some stairs and out there entrance. Nothing difficult at all. BTW, the Tauck boat was really nice, very nicely decorated for Christmas. Since nobody was spending much time outside or on their balconies, I don't think being docked next to another boat was a big issue. However, at other times of the year, it could be an issue for some.
One other thing I should mention is the sounds and motion of the boat. Remember, you are on a river so the motion, for the most part, was not really noticeable. From where our cabin was, it was pretty quiet also. You could feel the engines running, but it was more a discreet vibration that seemed to be a part of the "noise" of the ship. Kind of like running your air conditioner at home. Not unpleasant at all. It could be that other parts of the ship may be noisier, but I didn't experience any of that. Also, you need to go outside, regardless or the weather, at least once when going through a lock. It is an incredible experience and a real engineering marvel to see how they are built and how they work.
I was extremely satisfied with the cruise, the staff, and the arrangements Viking made for us. In fact, we are trying right now to book another cruise this year, but the dates we want are sold out for just about all of the cruises. That should tell you something about the quality of the Viking cruises.
The staff on the boat was incredible. They were always there. I don't know when they sleep, because they were always working. The staff in the lounge was particularly helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly. I think it was by the night of the first day, that most everyone in the lounge new our names, our room, what we liked to drink, etc. There was always somebody cleaning the common areas on the boat. The cruise director, Henriette (I believe), was everywhere. She would be seeing us off on a tour, waiting on us at the bus stops, and welcoming us back to the boat at the end of the tour. I was convinced that she was a twin, if not a triplet.
The room steward cleaning our room was great. She was very unobtrusive and did a great job keeping our room cleaned. She seemed to know when we weren't there, to get the cleaning done. When we did run into her, she was very pleasant and friendly. In fact, I never saw anything but smiles from all of the folks working anytime you came across them.
To sum up the quality of the people working for Viking on this cruise, early in the cruise one of the windows in the lounge was broken. They taped it up and put a curtain over it during the rest of the cruise. I figured they would fix it when we got to Amsterdam. Sure enough as we got off the boat around 9:00 am, I noticed that the window had already been replaced. And it was a little cold that morning.
One other thing I really liked about how Viking treats its passengers was coming and going from the boat. When you left, you picked up a card with your name and cabin # on it. When you came back, you handed the card back in. Upon return, there was no security scans to go through. If you bought something in town, wine for example, you could take it back on board and drink it, if you so desired. That is a very different policy from the ocean cruises I have been on, where bringing booze back is frowned upon, and held for you until the end of the cruise. A small thing, but, in my opinion, a really customer friendly position to take by Viking.
I am not sure how these cruises are marketed. Obviously, we see the commercials almost daily on TV and we get the fabulous brochures in the mail. Plus emails almost daily, so I know there is a substantial marketing budget for Viking. I couldn't figure out how this cruise ended up being 100% geared to an English speaking group. As best as I could tell, the cruise was made up primarily of Americans, with some Canadians, some English, some Aussies, a couple from Bermuda, and a family from Mexico City. Everyone I ran into spoke English and all of the tours, events on the Boat, menus, etc. were in English. I wondered what happens if someone from Italy, for example, who does not speak or understand English, calls Viking to book a cruise. Does Viking refer them to a different cruise or cruise line that can accommodate an Italian speaking group? Or does Viking have an ability to accommodate non-English speaking passengers on any of their cruises? Don't know the answers, just curious.
The age of our cruise was much younger than I had been led to believe regarding the age of most river cruise passengers. I thought that the cruise would be primarily 70-80 year olds, but I would say the average age of the passengers was probably somewhere in the 40's. There were a number of teen-agers on board, which contributed to the lower overall age than normal. I don't know if the age of our cruise was lower because of the time of the cruise (Christmas, kids out of school) or if river cruises, particularly Viking, is attracting a younger crowd. I would not bring any kids on this cruise unless they were at least teens. I don't think the cruise had any activities for small children, who, I think would have been totally bored on this cruise. The good news is, there are plenty of other cruises that cater to smaller children. We hung around with a couple from California that had their teen age daughters with them, and a Mother and her college age daughter from Nova Scotia. All of the "youngsters" seemed to really enjoy the cruise and liked the tours, meals, connectivity, and overall mood of the cruise.
Complaints (and they are very minor)
We had one issue in the dining room, on Christmas night for the Christmas dinner. There was a scramble to get to the dining room, as everyone on board wanted to eat there that night. We sent the "teen-agers" I mentioned above down to grab a table, while we adults finished our drinks in the lounge. They got a table, but were chased away from it, by a fellow passenger who told them that that table was hers and that she and her group always set there. The kids, being very well mannered and not wanting to create a scene, left and came back up to the lounge. After we went got down to the dining room, there were no tables left, or seats for that matter. Reluctantly, we went back to the lounge to eat there. As soon as the folks in the lounge heard what had happened, they immediately set up tables to accommodate all of us. When we asked if we could be served the Christmas dinner there instead of the bar food, they went and talked to someone. The next thing we knew, we were studying the Christmas dinner menu, trying to decide what to order. A small disaster averted by the very understanding crew in the lounge. We ended up having a great Christmas dinner with some new friends we had made on the cruise, while we continued sailing up the Rhein.
The only other complaint I have, and again a small one, is the Christmas Eve masses in Mainz. There was a group taken by one of the Viking crew to a church for the Christmas Eve services. We were given appropriate notice as to when the group was leaving and what time to be in the lobby. We didn't make it in time to join the group, realizing that we could get to the church on our own as it was only a few blocks away from where the boat was docked. The fact that we missed the group excursion, is not Viking's fault, it was ours. However, it would have been helpful if the staff had provided a listing of churches and times for their services, so we could have decided when to leave and where to go.
That's it. That's all the complaints that I have.
What we would have done differently
We would have done the pre-cruise extension than the post-cruise extension. Although it looks like we have just booked our next cruise in May for the Portraits of Southern France, with a post-cruise extension in Paris. Going to have to get a little more sleep and drink a little less the last night on board to be ready for 3 days in Paris. Getting there a day early will help you get acclimated to your surroundings after spending close to a day getting there. We may try to get to France a day early, closer to where the boat leaves for our cruise in May.
We might have looked at going to Paris after the cruise once we found out how easy it was to get there from Amsterdam by train or car. The folks we hung out with were both going to Paris for a few days, one group by car, the other by train. It is very easy to get around Europe, especially by train, and most places are fairly close to each other. For example, Amsterdam to Paris is 5.5 hours by car and 3 hours by train. Something to think about next time.
We also will probably try to eat one meal (dinner) off the boat at one of the stops. Not that the food on the boat was not good, it's more that there are some really great restaurants in the ports we visited and we should have taken advantage of that while we were there. Again, maybe next time.
I plan to pack much less next time and take advantage of the laundry service on board the ship. Like I said, I way over packed by bringing items I could never wear in the weather we had, and I really only needed casual clothes. Just one more thing I really like about Viking.
Next time, I plan to write down the names of all the people, both on the boat and with the tours, so I can name them when asked or if I write another review. As I said before, they were all great, and I should have taken the time to acknowledge each of them properly.
We were very pleased with the cruise. I was very pleased with all of the Viking folks, on the boat, on the tours, and behind the scenes. They all worked very hard to make our trip memorable. For comparison purposes, this Viking cruise was very similar to our cruises we have taken with Windstar. It is a smaller boat, I heard there were 160 passengers on our cruise, which gives the crew a chance to know who you are and what you like, especially in the bar. There is no casino or workout facility. No spa or 24-hour food service, but we never missed or wanted any of that. Everything about the cruise met or exceeded our expectations, and as you can see, we have already booked a second one. I thought we received great value for the cost of the trip.
Overall, I would rate Viking and our cruise on a scale of 1-10, between an 8-9, with a 10 being unobtainable. In my mind a 10 would include sensational weather, unbelievable accommodations and service, and at the end of the trip, we would get our money back. I would highly recommend river cruising, particularly with Viking. We plan to take many more cruises with this very well run company.