The Viking River Cruise of the Douro that my wife and I took at the end of March did not call at a series of ports according to the planned “cruise”, and the only day of movement on the ship that we all experienced was the last day when it was able to take advantage of the downstream current and cover over 100km in just over half a day.
As happened last year, there was a high water problem on the Douro River. Our new ship, the Viking Hemming, overnighted in Porto, and on Monday there was a tour of the town (in the rain), and after lunch an optional excursion. This joined the ship again (it was a little late) at the deserted mooring of Bitetos. There is nothing in Bitetos except a car park and a cafe. We expected to set sail the next morning, but it was delayed a couple of hours and then later that day, and then indefinitely. The boat remained moored in Bitetos for three days. Regrettably Viking, who may or may not have known that this would happen, did not come clean, and kept promising that we would be moving soon, but that we were at the hands of the Port Authorities (not sure if they meant the river or the drink!). We were eventually offered excursions from Bitetos, but these were a diluted form of what we were expecting, and because of the location and the nature of the roads, necessitated long coach journeys. Whether or not it might have been a good idea to cut everyone’s losses and go back to Porto was never considered or offered. As passengers we were kept pretty much in the dark, being reassured that Viking was doing everything it could to assist passenger needs, but the one thing that was not happening was cruising. We spent 3 days with a great view of the mooring wall from our “state room”.
It needs to be noted that the river destinations on the Douro are not the ‘inspiring’ ones promised by Viking literature. Some of the destinations, confirmed by the guidebooks, might only have one attraction, so a two hour journey to Pinhão on a coach was only to see the wonderful railway station with its decorated tile panels. One thing that Viking did was to get in visits to a series of vineyards such as the Quinta do Seixo where Sandeman comes from: this trip was not short of port-tasting opportunities. These helped provide some 'glowing' memories of the cruise, dulling some of the anger and disappointment.
Eventually the ship moved (apparently at such short notice that one set of people who were passing the time walking the country roads were abandoned and were brought along subsequently by taxi) whilst most were on another coach trip, to the town of Regua. This is a main transport interchange, but the only thing really worth seeing is the Museum of the Douro. At last we could look out of our stateroom window, but that only lasted 6 hours, as another cruise boat of identical proportions, running the blockade, tied up alongside, and we were plunged into darkness.
By this time it was clear that the cruise would never reach its final destination before coming back, and we were given poor choices for excursions on coaches. The choice we did not make was a four hour trip to Salamanca for a four hour stop (of which 1.5hrs was a lunch). Only 4 of 83 passengers chose to do that.
So the good points were that the Viking Hemming is a brand new boat ( it was the maiden voyage) which is well kitted out with televisions and wifi in every room. The food was mostly good, being heavily influenced by local cuisine, and there was plenty of wine. In principle this could be a very interesting tour if it happened.
The down side was that there was seemingly inadequate contingency planning, and the information given to passengers was of such poor quality that it resulted in excessive speculation and became the dominant topic of conversation of the trip. People started to compare disaster stories rather than enjoy the events. Whether or not Viking knew before departure that the trip would not be completed is debatable, but from hearsay, it seems that some of the crew knew that ships simply would not be moving that month.
Towards the end of the trip all passengers received a standard letter indicating that there would be compensation from Viking. Even the Captain (who did not have a great command of English or public speaking) admitted that we had only had half a cruise. Tempers started to fray and a briefing meeting was impressed by some passengers who insisted, in strident tones, that we should have a 100% refund. Other passengers talked of failed river cruises where they had been given 75% off their next cruise.
Before we had even completed our return to Porto, where the cruise had started, a letter had been sent out from Viking offices to our homes with a derisory offer of 25% of what we had paid (i.e. not the book price but the final negotiated price(+) against another cruise taken before the end of 2015. I hope this will be improved upon, as the company has done significant damage to its reputation, and came across as an organisation which we felt we might have difficulty in trusting. Whilst the ground part of the holiday worked fine in Lisbon, and we had a floating hotel, board and drink, and some of the excursions, this was not the holiday we signed up for. At the moment, subject to my further negotiation with Viking, it is difficult for me to feel that the company want to make me feel any better about this sad experience.