Majestic castles, towering cathedrals, charming towns—there’s something special about watching the world go by on a river cruise ship. That experience has not changed in 2022, as I discovered while sailing along the Seine River last week with Viking River Cruises.
According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the current crisis in Ukraine does not seem to be having as much of an effect on travel trends as some might perceive. Cruise lines are noting that river cruise bookings are actually up for the year. The only river that is seeing a decline is the Danube River, presumably because some of the countries it flows through border Ukraine, including Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
I have been lucky enough to sail quite a bit since the restart of cruising, but not on a river ship, so I was wondering just what things would be like back on board. It turns out that the experience on Viking Radgrid is almost exactly as I remembered it.
Most meals on Viking are a la carte and served from the kitchen, but it was nice to have the option of a lavish Champagne breakfast buffet each morning as well as self-service coffee, tea and pastries at all hours. Sanitizing stations are all over the ship.
For lunch, it felt so good to bask in the sun on the Aquavit Terrace with a glass of rose. Cooking demonstrations, a presentation from a master cheesemaker (who has supplied some of Europe’s finest Michelin-starred restaurants) and daily port talks enriched the cruise experience. That’s one of the things I love about river cruising. No matter how much you travel or how many places you have sailed, you will always learn something new.
Viking makes sure of it. Even the small library and lounge on the third floor, which has hundreds of books curated by a London book seller, overflows with entertaining and informative books. I leafed through guide books and ogled coffee table photography books as we sailed one afternoon.
The wireless internet, which is free on Viking, worked well during most parts of the sailing, and it’s nice that the ship has a small business center with computers that guests without their own devices can use.
The staff seemed especially happy to have guests back on board, and as usual, they were as cheery and focused on providing spot-on service from start to finish. It amazes me how they can remember your name, your drink and dining preferences, and even details about where you’re from given that they see so many people.
There were two exceptions to the way things used to be: mask requirements on board and daily testing. On Viking, however, masks will no longer be required starting April 1. While the river cruise leader will continue to conduct daily testing for passengers, it does provide comfort knowing that those you are sailing with are all healthy.
Viking built COVID-19 testing labs on its ocean ships and partners with shore-based labs on its river ships. This (expensive) strategy has worked. Viking confirms there have been no outbreaks on any of its ships since last summer. Dr. Raquel Bono, previously a vice admiral in the Navy, has served as the line’s Chief Medical Officer and has led the company through challenging times.
Viking’s daily testing for Covid-19 is very unobtrusive. They leave a small test tube in your cabin during turndown service, which you spit into and return to the front desk. The extra reassurance that everyone around you is negative adds to the positive experience.
One thing I noticed is that glass barriers have been put up at reception and in between the tables in the lounge, but they look almost decorative. Unlike in some hotels and airports where the look is rather sterile, Viking has integrated subtle changes into the décor without much interference.
Part of the fun of river cruising is that you can easily head ashore and visit smaller towns and sights that you may otherwise not do. Curious to know what those would be like now, I was open to the idea it might be vastly different. But, it’s not. With the exception of having to wear masks on the bus and indoors, my tour to the town of Verbier and the village of Giverny (of Claude Monet fame) was wonderful. In fact, the guides seemed extra enthusiastic to welcome travelers back after such a quiet period.A city bus tour of Paris, which also required masks, was otherwise as special as before the pandemic. Unlike onboard, shore excursions in some destinations will continue to require masks based on local regulations, even after April 1 when Viking lifts its onboard requirement to wear one. That’s fine by me as long as I can still enjoy all the hallmarks of a river cruise.
I am still dreaming of the crusty baguettes and savory cheese plates served in the restaurant, the ideal French finale to my Seine River sailing. Knowing that river cruising is bouncing back, with a few minor tweaks, is something we all can celebrate.