REVIEW OF VIKING SCHUMANN CRUISE ON THE ELBE RIVER (PRAGUE TO BERLIN) SEPT 07
Viking bills itself as the premier river cruise line in the world. Our recent cruise challenges this assessment. My wife and I, along with another couple, are experienced cruisers on large ships (15 sailings), with this being our first river cruise. River cruises are different. While we enjoyed the unique Viking itinerary through the Czech Republic and the former East Germany, we were disappointed with Viking.
THE SHIP. Build in 1991 and refurbished in 2001, the ship is past its prime and should be beached. Cabins are efficiently designed but very tight at 120 square feet, with a fold down single bed and a sofa convert. Capacity is 124 passengers in 60 cabins. The restaurant and lounge bar areas were pleasant. There is no shop on board. The top deck is open with shade cover, a nice place to watch things go by. Stairs between the three decks are steep with chair lifts available. The telephone in our cabin was inoperative. Several people complained of diesel odor in their cabins, which the staff first ignored, then eventually came in with scent spray to mask the smell. Our TV suffered from vertical roll. However, the ship interior was clean and well maintained.
THE STAFF. The Cruise Director, Martin, organized things onboard and onshore quite well. Unfortunately he has zero passion, a very dry personality, totally lacking warmth. There was little bonding with passenger guests. His response to our friends who came down with intestinal flu (nanoviris...a number of passengers came down sick..Viking needs to scrub this ship) was impersonal and devoid of empathy. He is in the wrong job. The Ship's Captain failed to play a traditional welcoming role, unsmiling and all but mute on public occasions such as the Captain's Welcome Party. He should be piloting a freighter. Fortunately, barkeep Thomas, waiter Stephan and cabin attendant Petra showed signs of friendliness and helpfulness. The Maitre d' Janos was terrific, but there were amateurs in the kitchen. Reception was pleasant.
ONBOARD DINING. Marginal at best in terms of quality. Breakfast was the highlight, lunch also good, dinner usually disappointing. Our first night's entree of whitefish was undercooked and tasteless. Several night's selections proved to be extremely bland. Serving size portions were modest but "seconds" were always available. We didn't go hungry but this wasn't multi star dining by any means. Dining room service was fast and efficient. Wine, beer and alcoholic fans could order a 7 day inclusive package costing 300 euro ($430 USD) per cabin (double occupancy). This package was presented as a hard sell by the Maitre d' the first night, but didn't prove to be worth it. The deal was not available to just one person in a cabin, disappointing since my wife is a non drinker. There was no flexibility on this company policy.
LAND TOURS. Very interesting. Started with two nights ashore in Prague at the Hilton, a non-centrally located hotel. Half the rooms were renovated, the other half older and darker. Cruise stop highlights included Bastei, Dresden, Meissen, and Wittenberg. Seeing how the cities are changing in the former East Germany since unification was fascinating. Worlitz Gardens found us on a gondola boat with a guide who didn't speak English. Tourgau was limited to an hour's walk in the dark. Viking's practice of frequently cruising during daylight hours and docking overnight prevented sufficient daylight time onshore to adequately explore several stops. Little time was available for shopping. A printed guide describing every "mile marker" on the river was unfortunately not distributed to passengers until day 3 of the cruise. At end, we disembarked in Berlin, staying for two nights as the Melia Hotel, centrally located and top notch. Viking provided a 4 hour bus tour of the city. The itinerary is unique and very nice.
ENTERTAINMENT AND ACTIVITIES. How can you critique nothing? One single night out of seven offered a brilliant young trio playing classical music onboard. Most night's offerings were hour long amateurish slide presentations by the Cruise Manager on such topics as the European Union and the Ship's design. Music was provided by the same single dour musician Gabor playing either the accordion or piano with pre-recorded beat background. Bingo was held one afternoon, with only 8 participants interested. Very few raffle tickets were sold over the several days, no wonder since the "prize" being a Viking T shirt. There is no internet access.
RATES. Viking charges more than competitor Grand Circle. Listening to comparison comments from other experienced river cruisers on board who have traveled both lines, the higher Viking rate is not good value for money. If you go Viking, be sure to get the early booking discount.
SUMMARY. Perhaps Viking is a premier corporate act, but this particular ship must be on the lowest rung of the company. Replace the ship, its leadership staff, the kitchen chef, and scrub away the nanovirus bugs...you could have a winner here. Otherwise, go elsewhere.