From fields of sunflowers, bottles of fine French wines, fresh Provencal herbs and lavender soap to quaint villages, stately cathedrals and preserved Roman ruins, a cruise aboard Viking Heimdal delivers everything one might imagine of a visit to southern France.
The ship, one of Viking's Longship series, is airy and elegant, a showcase of streamlined Scandinavian design with fine wood accents and soothing earth-tone decor. The centerpiece, bright and inviting, is a two-story, glass-enclosed atrium with backlit marble panels, terrazzo floor and skylight. There's a self-serve coffee, tea and sweets bar near the elevator and a mini-library nearby with computers and regional books and magazines, from birdlife and botanicals to vineyards.
Built in 2014 and named for a Norse guardian of the gods, the 190-passenger Heimdal appears immaculate at all times, kept spic and span by a discreet housekeeping crew that slips into staterooms when passengers are away. Public bathrooms are always spotless.
Characteristic of a Viking Longship, accommodations include two of the largest suites on a European riverboat (each with separate living room and bedroom) and seven slightly smaller suites. Staterooms, in several sizes and price-points, are comfortable and well-appointed -- many with full verandas or French balconies**,** good lighting and storage space, 40-inch Sony flat-screen TV and easy hookups (you don't need converters or even special plugs for your devices). Bathrooms are small but efficient with a separate enclosed shower, heated floors, plush towels and L'Occitane amenities.
Passengers gather for pre-dinner cocktails against a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling glass doors in the Viking Lounge, where the cruise director details the next-day's excursions. Ports may include Lyon, Provence, Burgundy/Normandy and Paris, depending on passengers' chosen itinerary and length of cruise. The chef also arrives to discuss the evening menu --- a gourmet selection of fish, meat and vegetarian fare -- and recommends seasonal dishes and desserts such as ginger-lemon brioche with rhubarb compote.
Open seating means passengers may move around each night and meet new dinner companions, typically an international mix of Americans, Brits, Canadians and even the occasional Australian. Dinner, with free wine and beer, is served by a largely Eastern European wait staff. Though some speak English better than others, they're all quite accommodating, remembering shellfish allergies and personal preferences even when passengers switch tables. As an alternative, passengers may enjoy meals in Aquavit Terrace on the ship's bow. The casual cafe, with indoor-outdoor seating, is something of a river cruise rarity. It's also a favorite place to enjoy drinks and watch the scenery glide by.
If you're inclined to spend most of your time relaxing aboard ship, however, this cruise may not be right for you -- it's almost like a busy, river-based bus tour with a packed itinerary. While lounging, of course, is a personal choice, much of Heimdal's actual cruising is done at night; most days -- or at least half-days -- are spent in port. There's just so much to see and do ashore it would be a shame to miss any of it. Highlights may include touring medieval churches and Gallo-Roman ruins, discovering charming markets and museums, visiting French wineries, tasting chocolate and cheeses and, in Arles exploring the haunts of Vincent van Gogh along cobblestone streets and gorgeous gardens.
Daily excursions are included in the cruise price. They're led in each port city by excellent English-speaking tour guides using audio headset technology that lets tour-goers stray a bit to take photographs and still be within hearing distance. Optional shore tours, such as cooking schools and more wineries, also are available at extra cost.
Back onboard, passengers enjoy watching as the ship negotiates the many river locks along the route (especially the Rhone), most so narrow you could almost reach out and touch their concrete walls. Many bridges over these inland waterways are so low that the ship's wheelhouse must be lowered to pass under them (and this is also what makes this itinerary challenging when the river levels fluctuate).
As a bonus, Heimdal boasts several cutting-edge, "green" advances, including hybrid diesel-electric engines that burn less fuel and produce fewer emissions, making the Longships series cleaner and quieter with less vibration and a smoother ride. Solar panels visible on the ship's sun deck help to fuel the engines. And, on the upper deck, the chef maintains an organic garden during growing season.
The general age for river cruise passengers is 60 and older, but Heimdal and other Longships, with their contemporary design, were built with an eye toward attracting a slightly younger traveler. Regardless of age, passengers tend to be well-traveled (though many are visiting Europe for the first time).
Casual, comfortable attire is encouraged for both ship and shore on Viking Longships. The must-pack item is, without question, a comfortable pair of walking shoes for shore tours. As the ship sails in Europe, with its lovely and historic landscapes, tours frequently involve cobblestones and other uneven surfaces. Both the staff and the daily program provide ample notice when this is the case.
Generally, passengers "dress up" to varying degrees in the evenings, but never to the level of a big-ship formal night. Most don the kind of attire worn at a country club dinner, but others don't bother to change from their sensible shore excursion gear. Save your best outfits (maybe casual dresses for women and collared shirts and blazers for men) for events like the Captain's Welcome and Farewell Dinners.