Our cruise along the Douro River on the beautiful new Viking Hemming departed from Porto, Portugal, but Cruise Critic does not list it as an available port. Lisbon isn't too far off, since all passengers spend the first two nights in Lisbon at the Tivoli Hotel and are then bussed to Porto. The Tivoli Hotel is along a wide tree-lined boulevard and is about a 10 minute walk to the pedestrian area of the old city. A Viking River Cruises hostess has a desk in the lobby and helped with any cruise or bus related needs. Our tour guide for both Lisbon and the drive up to Porto was very knowledgeable about her country and her commentary was as good as it gets. The bus to Porto stops in Coimbra, where we get to visit the University and its magnificent centuries old library. We also have a chance to speak with a few of the students. Our lunch in Coimbra included a Fado concert by three very talented musicians.
We arrived in Porto right on time and were greeted during embarkation by the entire crew. This new ship is just gorgeous with a very creative use of space. There are two main public rooms: the dining room and a lounge that is really a multipurpose room. It serves as a bar, theater, lecture hall and an inside observation deck. The cabins, though smaller than on a traditional cruise ship, are well laid out with plenty of drawer and closet space. There are several European and North American style outlets with both 220 and 110 voltage throughout the stateroom. The top deck, including the wheel house, actually folds down to just inches when passing under low bridges. One night we had a barbecue on this open deck watching a beautiful sunset on the border of Portugal and Spain.
Viking's program director Patricia is a cross between a cruise director, chief guide and a cultural lecturer. She was intimately involved with itinerary planning and arrangements. The entire crew had to be very flexible due river and lock related problems resulting in some changes to the port scheduling and itineraries. There are three buses that accompany the ship from port to port. The buses are modern, clean and comfortable with lots of legroom. All the drivers inspired confidence and drove carefully and safely. The buses are basically used to take passengers on the included shore excursions. As a river lock broke on our last day, we terminated the cruise upriver on the scheduled disembarkation day and the buses took us back to Porto to either a hotel, the airport or train station.
I expected good institutional type food as is typical on cruise ships and that is what we were served. No major complaints. However, pastas, pastries and desserts were to die for. We were served different Douro River wines each day for lunch and dinner. Two dinners were off the ship: one at a former monastery and one at a private winery. We had a buffet luncheon banquet at a palatial hotel in Salamanca, Spain.
Now, why I can't give the Viking Hemming five stars. The dining room service was the worst we have had on 28 cruises! The dining room stewards were friendly and worked very hard. They were always running around. However, there appeared to be a lack of organization and they tended not to scan the dining room for passenger's needs. Only on one occasion were our water glasses refilled without having to ask. Sometimes I would have to ask three times and still got no water. Once I asked the Maitre D for water which he graciously refilled. However, the people at the next table just inches away from ours also needed their glasses refilled, but the Maitre D just walked away and didn't see that they needed water as well. We were a party of four. Three people would be served their entree and the fourth one just forgotten about. The waiters did not bring the fourth dish unless asked about it. Typically the three who had their entrees would be all done before the fourth entree was brought. Sadly, these events were the rule and not the exception. I invited the Hotel Director to our table and we shared with him our concerns.
The service on the rest of the ship was excellent including the cabin stewardesses and front desk. Officers were very visible and accessible.
A representative from Viking headquarters emailed me and asked me to call to discuss the dining room problems, which I did. Our friends have sailed on Viking before and said they never encountered problems like this.
However, there were so many positives about this cruise from the layout of the ship and staterooms, to the quality of the included shore excursions, the buses and guides, the laundry service, the flexibility of the crew in response to river and lock conditions, that we would not hesitate to sail on Viking River cruises again. We believe the poor dining room service to be an aberration rather than indicative of Viking in general.