This Christmas Market cruise from Amsterdam to Basel was our first experience on a river cruise. If you are an ocean cruiser (as we are), you will find river cruising a very different experience from ocean cruising. On ocean cruises, the ... Read More
This Christmas Market cruise from Amsterdam to Basel was our first experience on a river cruise. If you are an ocean cruiser (as we are), you will find river cruising a very different experience from ocean cruising. On ocean cruises, the cruise is often all about the ship especially since you will have several at sea days during your voyage. River cruising, on the other hand, is focused on the various towns that you visit during the cruise. We would describe river cruising as more like having a floating hotel accompany you during your voyage. Your room and dining facilities basically travel with you from location to location. We found river cruising to be a convenient way to explore Europe. Since this was our first experience with river cruising, and our first extensive trip to Europe, we opted to book our entire trip through Viking – air travel, the pre and post excursions and, of course, the cruise itself. Viking did an excellent job in arranging the details of our trip.
We arrived in Amsterdam and found a Viking representative right outside of customs waiting to greet us. We were among several Viking guests who arrived at about the same time and after a brief wait we were escorted to a Viking motor coach for the ride to the Moevenpick hotel. Our two day stay in Amsterdam included a tour of the city (led by a very knowledgeable Viking host), breakfast and access to a Viking host during our stay. While in Amsterdam we booked a canal tour (with the assistance of the Viking host) and visited a number of historical sites and museums. The Moevenpick Hotel was pleasant and the breakfast buffet was excellent. The hotel is located a distance from the town center, however, and to get into town you have to either walk (about a 15 to 20 minute brisk walk) or catch the tram which stops in front of the hotel.
On Saturday we boarded the Viking Bragi. By ocean liner standards, the ship is small – three stories, one of which is partially under water. You can get from one end of the ship to the next in minutes. The ship itself is nicely appointed, although this being a Christmas Markets cruise, I expected to see more Christmas decorations on board. The rooms are small with barely enough room for a king size bed. Despite that, we had enough space to store all of our items (in the closet, shelving and drawers). Our suitcases fit under the bed. The bathroom was a standard size with a very nice shower.
The Cruise Itself
Cruising the Rhine River was a pleasant experience. The river is calm and peaceful. The Rhine is a busy thoroughfare and during our seven day cruise, we passed other river cruise ships as well as numerous cargo ships. The highlight of the cruise was visiting the various towns which border the Rhine River. At each stop, we had an included tour of the town and its major attraction. Overall the shore excursions were excellent and well organized. The guides at each stop were experts on the area. Tours generally lasted 1 to 1 and ½ hours. Our favorite stops were Cologne, where we visited the cathedral and had plenty of time to tour the Christmas Markets and town; the visit to Marksburg castle (not to be missed); the town of Heidelberg (the tour of the castle was mediocre but the view outstanding); and Strasbourg and its Christmas Markets. The only problems we encountered were with our optional excursion to Colmar and our visit to the Black Forest. The Colmar tour was very poorly organized (being an optional tour we paid extra for it) and we felt Viking should have done a better job of planning the excursion. There simply was not enough time to visit the town and Christmas Markets in the short time allotted. We enjoyed our bus excursion to the Black Forest (the scenery was breathtaking and tour guide very informative), but we spent too much time at the Best Western Hofgut Sternen. At this location we were promised cuckoo clock and glass blowing demonstrations but saw none. The stop basically consists of a hotel, two stores (with nice but we thought overpriced souvenirs), and two restaurants. There was also a Christmas Market with an admission fee so many guests skipped that.
Dining On Board
We enjoyed breakfast and lunch each day on the ship. For breakfast, you have a choice of various buffet items (including eggs cooked to order) or you can order from the menu. Lunch was similar with an extensive buffet and various menu selections. Where Viking fell short was with dinner. We are not keen on having to dine at a specific time (there is only one dinner seating at 7 pm sharp) and for some reason cooking for 190 people at the same time seemed to undo the kitchen staff. While we found the menu items at lunch always good, at dinner the same food was tasteless and often served lukewarm. If you don’t want to dine at the prescribed time, you have the option of eating when you want in the Aquavit Terrace but we never did. The food just wasn’t that appealing.
There is virtually no entertainment on board in the evenings. One evening we had what was billed as a “childrens’ choir” come on board to entertain and, quite frankly, they were embarrassing. Another evening, the entertainment was two young ladies who played the guitar and violin and sang. They were mediocre. During “German night” we were serenaded by a guitar and accordion duo and they did a nice job. The last evening we listened to a French singer, who was accompanied by an accordionist, and we enjoyed her performance. In terms of entertainment, Viking leaves much to be desired. We were certainly not expecting elaborate productions on board this ship, but on a continent where you can find talented musicians on virtually every street corner, we were surprised at the poor quality of the entertainment. On the positive side, the onboard pianist was good.
The focus of this cruise was the Christmas Markets and they did not disappoint. European Christmas Markets are a unique experience with their eclectic mix of stalls filled with ornaments, crafts and local food. The markets are known for their Gluhwein (basically mulled wine) which you purchase along with the souvenir mug. Each market has its own unique blend of Gluhwein and decorative mug. The markets are full of interesting items, although it is difficult to find pieces that are locally made. We had better luck shopping at some of the stores in town we visited, especially the Kathe Wohlfahrt shops, where you can find items that are crafted in Germany, France and other European countries.
Although this cruise is advertised as an eight-day excursion, it is really only seven days. We arrived in Basel, Switzerland on day 8, disembarked from the ship at 9 a.m. and were taken by motor coach to Lake Lucerne for our post cruise excursion. Again Viking handled our transfer flawlessly. The Schweizerhof Hotel is elegant, our room was spacious and we had a nice view of the city and the Alps. Breakfast here was not as good as at the Moevenpick but adequate. We took advantage of the included tour of the city. We opted to spend Sunday touring the city on our own rather than doing one of the optional tours offered through Viking. We booked a cruise of the lake (with the assistance of the Viking host) and it was pleasant and very informative.
We enjoyed our first river cruise. Viking does an excellent job of organizing the excursions and transferring guests to and from the various locations. The ship is clean, neat and efficiently managed. The staff on board the ship is outstanding from the hotel manager to our room attendant to the wait staff in the restaurant. We liked the fact that the cruise was all inclusive (guided tours at each stop, unlimited wine, beer and soft drinks at meals). Gratuities are extra and according to Viking should be calculated for eight days. We paid the recommended amount for seven days since day 8 was basically breakfast and the transfer to the hotel in Lake Lucerne. Viking recommends that you pay gratuities to the bus drivers and tour guides but we noticed that only about half of the guests did so which was unfortunate since we found the drivers excellent and most of the tour guides extremely knowledgeable and entertaining.