Viva Cruises is likely to be a river cruise line you've never heard of -- but all that's set to change. The Germany company that was formed five years ago is now marketing its international English-speaking cruises in the U.S., U.K. and other countries.
It comes with a long-standing river cruise legacy as it is the tour operator arm of the parent shipbuilding company Scylla, which constructs and charters ships to well-known brands including Tauck and Riviera Travel and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Viva is unusual as it's the only river cruise line to sail year-round, which means you can book vacations from January through March, when other lines are shut and have the rivers all to yourself, aside from commercial traffic and pleasure boats. There are also some surprises aboard its ships.
Cruise Critic is just back from a seven-night round trip Vienna sailing with the first group of North Americans to experience the brand-new riverboat Viva Two. The ship carries 190 passengers and 52 crew members and sails on a variety of itineraries on the Danube, including Christmas market sailings. Here are some of our impressions of what to expect from Viva Cruises as you sail on one of Europe's most popular waterways.
This is a premium cruise line where you don't need to worry about ending up with a huge bill at the end. Viva Cruises' fares feature a high number of inclusions, covering a daily shore tour (as part of the North American product offering), unlimited alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, all meals and snacks -- including the two speciality restaurants -- Wi-Fi and gratuities.
We enjoyed unexpected treats such as pre-dinner canapes, a birthday cake celebrating Viva and Scylla's respective 5th and 50th anniversaries and a Slovakian wine tasting. The only extras are optional shore excursions, spa treatments and laundry.
Two of the standout features on Viva Two are dining and mealtimes. The majority of river ships have a main dining room and alternative casual dining venue or food served in the lounge. We were particularly impressed that Viva Two has three distinct standalone restaurants; all with a very different atmosphere.
The main Riverside restaurant seats 130 passengers, but it is unlikely to ever be completely full due to the other two options and flexible dining times. Most river lines have fairly short windows at lunch and dinner with everyone going into the main restaurant at the same time, which can lead to lines to get in and the room feeling crowded. On Viva Two, breakfast is typically available across the ship from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., lunch from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 7 p.m. through 9 p.m. This is great for folks that prefer to dine later or not feel rushed to go straight into eat after returning from a shore excursion.
Making its debut on Viva Two is the specialty Moments restaurant (which will be replicated on the identical sister ship launching in 2024). This intimate 60-seater restaurant has the feel of a restaurant on dry land with its split-level design and mix of tables, including several for two. Serving a pared down version of breakfast in the main restaurant, at lunch and dinner it serves Mediterranean inspired meals and dinner is a very special affair of five courses with wine pairings which is slow-paced and typically lasts two hours.
In a panoramic spot at the back of the ship is Viva's Bistro, open for lunch and dinner and service fish and seafood dishes, along with items such as burgers, in a casual atmosphere surrounded by maritime decor. The two specialty restaurants are available to all passengers at no extra charge, although to manage numbers, dinner reservations need to be made in advance. Subject to availability you can dine in both as many times as you like, but in reality you probably wouldn't as the lunch and dinner menus stay the same and change seasonally every three months. Both of these venues have a great atmosphere and felt like a real treat --albeit at no extra cost which is even better.
The lunch and dinner menu in the Riverside restaurant has a daily vegan selection menu and at the evening meal this includes a salad, soup, entree and dessert. The "watermelon tuna" poke bowl with sesame, roasted pecan nuts and lime vinaigrette was one of the best and most imaginative veggie dishes we've had on a river cruises.
Thinks all river vessels are the same? Then it's time to think again. Limited in size by having to go through locks and under low bridges, virtually all river vessels on the Danube River follow a tradition design pattern with a combined bar and lounge with a main dining room below. Viva has thrown the rule book away and come up with a different split-level layout that makes the ship feel extra spacious and airy.
There is a dedicated lounge and a separate bar right at the front of the ship, which is accessed by a staircase from the lounge. The main dining room below only has a partial ceiling, with part of it visible from areas of the lounge and bar, and this in turn makes the room seem much brighter and also helps keep noise and heat levels down -- both of which can be an issue when dining rooms are fully enclosed. Additionally, another set of stairs lead to the main dining room from the bar which means it can be accessed from two entrances and cuts down on congestion at busy times and makes it easier to find a table.
Although Viva Two carries up to 190 passengers (the same as Viking Longships) it has still found room to accommodate a splash pool, small gym, massage room and a spa with a steam room, sauna and shower; amenities you don't find on many river ships.
Viva Two is a particularly friendly ship and crew members make passengers feel very welcome. They always have time to stop and chat, if you want, and this makes for a very relaxed and personable experience.
They are also very intuitive. On the first night we hadn't realized there is a daily specialty regional dish on the dinner menu. We had already ordered our entrees and the waiter heard what we were saying and without being asked he came back with a Wiener schnitzel for us to share. A nice touch. Similarly, at other times we dithered between the choices available and waitstaff were happy to bring a couple of half-size portions.
The cheerful chief bar tender got to know our favorite cocktails by day two and room stewards checked to see if we wanted different beverages to suit our tastes stocked in the mini-bar.
OK, we know that a lot of the fun of river cruising is the small size of the ships and free seating at mealtimes which makes getting to know people very easy. However, there are times when you might just want to sit with your partner or traveling companion or maybe choose to dine alone if you are a solo passenger.
Usually, tables for two are non-existent or a rarity. On Viva Two, there are plenty of tables for two in the two speciality restaurants Moments and Viva's Bistro. If you are celebrating a special occasion a complimentary bottle of Prosecco comes as standard in all cabins and there is sparkling wine at breakfast so you can start the day with a mimosa.
As Viva now attracts international passengers, you can expect a really cosmopolitan onboard vibe. This was something we really enjoyed so just be aware your nationality probably won't make up the majority of guests onboard. The two main onboard languages are English and German.
The line prides itself on offering a flexible river cruise experience and understands not all passengers are the same. This means that you won't feel overly organized and there is plenty of opportunity to do your own thing and go out and about independently if you want to skip shore tours, again something we appreciated.
In short, if you want to explore the Danube in a different way on a ship that is different from the rest, then Viva Cruises will suit you.