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What It's Like on a River Cruise with Viva Cruises: Just back from Viva Two

Contributor
Jeannine Williamson
U.K. Executive Editor
Adam Coulter

Last updated
Feb 29, 2024

Viva Cruises is likely to be a river cruise line you've never heard of -- but all that's set to change. The German company was formed five years ago and 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 most other lines (note Viking tested the water this year with winter sailings, but is not running them next year; AMAWaterways also offers limited winter sailings) 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.

And following Viva Two's success in the Editors' Picks U.K. Awards, we got back on board in February 2024 to sample the line's winter sailings, taking a short (four-night/five day) cruise from Dusseldorf to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Nijmegen.

So Much is Included in the Fare

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, a Slovakian wine tasting and on our winter cruise, ginger tea served on the Sun Deck during a chilly navigation. The only extras are optional shore excursions, spa treatments and laundry.

From Dining to Timing, There Are Multiple Meal Options

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.

Vegetarians and Vegans Won't Feel Left Out

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.

Viva Two Showcases Some Clever Design Details

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 Has a Great Spa and a Gym

Gym onboard VIVA Two
Gym onboard VIVA Two (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

VIVA has somehow managed to get three restaurants, a gym and a spa onboard, and I’m still trying to figure out how. The spa includes a separate massage room, a sauna, steam room, shower and toilet; with a small gym with a treadmill, bike and rowing machine opposite.

Crew Members are Excellent

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.

Viva Two is a Good Choice for Couples

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.

Viva Offers Some Excellent Shore Excursions

A so-called brown bar in Amsterdam complete with blue and white tiles
A brown bar in Amsterdam (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

As well as great value (the paid-for shore excursions were just €24 per person – about the same in USD), VIVA makes a point of sourcing excellent tour guides, one of whom was Marieke, a local who tailored the “Tastes of Amsterdam” tour to the four English-speakers onboard, dispensing with the quiet voxes as there were so few of us.

Our short walk took us along the canals, toward the Nieuwe Kerk in the heart of the city where the kings and queens of the Netherlands are crowned, to the former site of the first Heineken brewery.

It’s a beautiful space, the bar lovingly restored to its former glory, lined with blue and white Delft tiles, and with dark wood furniture – a so-called “Brown bar”, which might translate as a “cozy bar”.

Bitter ballen in Amsterdam
Bitter ballen in Amsterdam (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

Along with the German group from our ship, we were the only group in there. We drank a beer, ate “bitter ballen” and talked about the city. Marieke is a local and appraised us of the forthcoming ban on big ships, the removal of the Red Light District and the big push to change people’s perceptions of the city.

The amazing design of Markthal the market hall in Rotterdam
Markthal Rotterdam (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

In Rotterdam the weather was even worse, but after a short walk through the old port, we soon found ourselves in the stunning Markthal (Market Hall), where the ceiling soars 40m (120 feet) above, painted with stunning murals and interspersed with apartment windows (yes, people live up there).

Eating waffles in Rotterdam
Eating waffles in Rotterdam (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

The main floor is full of market stalls and where we treated to the tastiest waffles I’ve ever had (included in the tour), plus an array of cheese shops and street food stalls.

Cube Houses in Rotterdam
Cube Houses in Rotterdam (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

A few minutes' walk away, you'll find the famous cube houses, built in the 1970s by architect Piet Blom to find a way to build a housing complex as a bridge to connect two parts of the city that were zoned residential. The result are some unique residences, one of which can be visited for €3.

VIVA Includes Some Thoughtful Touches

Nespresso Coffee Machine and water bottle on VIVA Two
Nespresso Coffee Machine (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

Although we did miss a towel animal on our bed each night, we did welcome the chocolates on the pillows (though on a couple of occasions they were handed to me at turn down, which was new).

Every cabin also has a Nespresso coffee machine, which actually serves better coffee than the machines onboard.

We also love how the line wears its eco-credentials firmly on its sleeve, with free water bottles (to take away in every cabin); a water filling station, no straws and no single-use plastics. And, you have to insert your key card to turn on the lights in your room.

Is There Anything to Be Aware of on Viva Two?

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, so don't be afraid to speak to cruise director if you wish to sit with fellow English speakers. 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.

Publish date May 12, 2023
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