Although this was our first river cruise we had already been on two small (less than 300 passengers) ships. Viking attracted our attention through their 2 for 1 pricing and discounted air fare. In actually, without those discounts the cost would have been too high and I am not sure would have provided value for the money. That said, using their discount made for a trip of a lifetime.
The ship: This very attractive river boat uses every inch of available space on board to the advantage of the customer. It has a lovely dining room that holds all the passengers at once and a large lounge that also could accommodate all the passengers. These are basically the only two public areas and only the lounge is open all day. There is a very small library and lounge section as well. There is ample outside seating on the main level and a beautiful roof area that never seemed crowded even on warm, sunny days. One of the real adventures is watching the ship go through the locks to raise the boat to the next level. Many passengers would step outside or go above to watch the captain perform these maneuvers that left only inches on either side of the ship.
The staterooms are on several levels with only the A & B cabins having windows that opened. Although it was nice to get fresh air I think if only the other cabins were available I would take them as well. One of the quirks of this river cruise was when we had to share docking space with another ship. Another ship docks parallel to your ship and it passengers walk across your ship's lobby to get on land. This happened at three ports and the result is that the other ship effectively blocks light from the state room as the ships are merely feet apart. I know that there is nothing that can be done as I guess docking space in some of these little towns is at a premium but it created a dark stateroom. The room itself is small but well organized, the bathroom and shower as small as most cruise ships. There was, however, plenty of storage so overall, it was fine. The housekeeping crew was less noticeable than on other cruises but they did a better than average job of cleaning and neatening.
Food is always of interest to cruisers and on this ship meals, snacks, etc. tended to break up the days when we were sailing through the magnificent countryside. it seems there was always coffee and buns, etc. available very early in the morning. Breakfast in the dining room was truly terrific, a great buffet with wonderful fruits, meats and cheeses along with typical breakfast fare but many folks choose to order eggs or other breakfast hot items from the waiters. It should be noted that folks sat at different tables each morning and usually at night so there was no established personal waiter as there is on large cruise ships. So, we all got to know the entire wonderfully professional waiters of the dining room. Each and every one of them was tremendous. Although the tipping procedure of the boat was to split the tips among all the crew, many diners were tipping the waiters separately as well and they were worth their weight in gold. They made each meal a delight by their professionalism. Lunch was either in the lounge (a really nice different buffet) every day or in the dining room.
Lunches and dinner were limited menus but always interesting. Also, you could always order salmon, steak or chicken if you were not pleased by the entree choices. The food was on a very high quality and served in European portions which was perfect. Complimentary wine was served and many diners lingered over the cheese course with wine and the staff never made us feel uncomfortable. By the way, the head chief, Magaley, is the star of the fleet.
The rest of the staff members were just as terrific as the wait staff with the cruise director being PHENOMENAL. She and her two assistants are always available to help and organize and the organization was also of the very highest level. They have this cruise down to a science. If a passenger is unhappy it has to be the passenger's fault for not seeking out help from the cruise director's desk. I watched her help cruisers resolve issues with phone, travel agents, car companies, etc and always with style and grace.
The ports and excursions are what make this cruise truly special. The guides who all spoke perfect English and used a sound system were of the highest level. Even though five groups might go out, the passengers all seemed to think they had an excellent experience. The small towns are truly magical and the larger cities are wonderful as well. The planning and execution of the many excursions were flawless taking every opportunity to make the passengers happy and comfortable.
Embarkation and disembarkation were a breeze with EVERYONE, including the captain, helping! They use an old fashioned system of handing in your room key when leaving for excursions or just to go ashore that sometimes created a little logjam but it was not objectionable to me as I knew that no tours would be started until everyone was accounted for.
I am sure I am forgetting some very important things but suffice to say, this is wonderful, experience for anyone interested in provincial French life.
None of the ports were a disappointment but Lyon was a particular favorite. I wish we had stayed in this, the 2nd largest city in France, longer and had more opportunities to eat ashore. Note: The food is so good on the ship that most people went back for lunch but in hindsight I wish I had eaten in a little cafe or bistro instead just for the experience.
Arles was also really terrific as was the final port, Chalon sur Saone. All the little towns were charming with maybe, Beune being the most interesting. But, as I have said earlier, each port was wonderful. Note to all Americans -- any attempt to speak French was met with kindness and enthusiasm by the French. Carry a phrase book, extend yourself and the French will extend themselves. To a person, every attempt in communicating in their language brought a genuine smile.
We took the extension to Paris as did almost 20 others -- great! They got you from the ship to your hotel in style with a wonderful stop along the way in Auxerre. The hotel is a four star hotel and they have a representative there to help. If you stay there make sure you avail yourself of the complimentary breakfast. As can be seen, Viking doesn't leave too much to chance. Right to our 5:30 AM departure, Viking showed great concern for our comfort.
Any concerns or criticisms are of a very minor nature, i. e. the ship did have wifi but it was not very reliable (they are working on it), the double docking of the boats that created dark staterooms.
All in all, they said they only had 37 crew members so I really am amazed that they can perform as such a high level with such a small crew.