I call this review A Tale of Two Cruises because there was everything that happened on the boat and everything that happened off the boat. For that reason, this review is in 4 parts, three referencing off the boat issues and one ... Read More
I call this review A Tale of Two Cruises because there was everything that happened on the boat and everything that happened off the boat. For that reason, this review is in 4 parts, three referencing off the boat issues and one referencing on the boat issues:
1. Pre-cruise. We booked this cruise 18 months in advance. First mistake: We called Viking and asked them their opinion regarding itineraries. Viking is in the business of selling cruises. They don’t care which one you take. You need to get a travel agent. Contrary to the impression you get from their brochures, Viking is not a travel agent. I was totally unaware that you could book a Viking tour through an agent and that it wouldn’t cost you more money to do this. In fact, it could save you both money and aggravation (and no, I am not a travel agent).
We decided to book a week-long Rhine cruise from Amsterdam to Basel for the end of July. The boat is a newer one called the Tor.
About a month in advance of the cruise, I suggested to my husband that we look at the itinerary because it included free time in the ports.
Two suggestions learned from this:
a. Book tickets for the Anne Frank house a month in advance. Tickets sell out quickly after that. The wait in line without tickets can be as much as 4 hours.
b. Be careful, most important attractions in Cologne are closed on Monday. (Viking won’t tell you this even though they know this.)These include 2 major art museums and the chocolate factory, both of which Viking suggests you visit but does not mention that they are closed on Mondays, the day the cruise goes there if you start the cruise in Amsterdam. There is also the NS Documentation Center, documenting Germany’s role in WWII and the Holocaust. Apparently each large city in Germany has an NS Documentation Center but this is supposed to be the best one in Germany. It is closed on Mondays.
This all would have been quite disappointing but it was compounded by the fact that the walking tour was done so poorly that it was a total waste of time. I complained to Viking about not warning us regarding the Monday situation. Viking offered us an alternative and a free trip to Pilatus. The Pilatus tickets were supposed to be waiting for us in Lucerne. They were not. And, the taxi that was supposed to meet us in Cologne to take us to other sites we wanted to see, never arrived. We ended up just catching a taxi by ourselves.
After seeing the cathedral, we took the tour of the Farina House. I found it to be quite entertaining.
2. The boat. We had a French balcony room (208). The only bad thing I have to say about the boat is that the décor was bland. And that is the only bad thing I have to say. The boat and the crew were great! The room and the entire boat was clean and bright and very well designed for max efficiency. The bathroom and shower were of ample size with plenty of hooks and shelves. The shower was delightful with bath products from L’Occitane. There is also a drawstring for hanging light washables. I don’t think there is a bad room on the ship but our room was good because it was only a few doors down from the lobby and central to everything. The boat is quiet because, well, us older people don’t make a lot of noise. It is also a quieter running ship. The only thing I would change is to get a room where the bed is facing the direction the ship was going in. In our room the bed was on the opposite wall so we were kind of cruising backward. No big deal really.
The food was very good. They have healthy options at every meal. You can have a lite breakfast on the lounge/terrace level or a regular buffet breakfast in the dining room. There is a chef to make custom omelets. There are waiters to help you everywhere. Lunch is served both in the dining room and on the lounge/terrace. Dinner is served in the dining room. Tables seat 6 or 8 so you are seated with other couples. This was a very nice experience. Apparently Viking advertises in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK because it is marketing to an English speaking audience. On our cruise about half the travelers were British and they were a hoot. There were a sprinkling of Australians and Canadians and about 25% were fellow Americans from all over the US (although quite a few were from Texas). Everyone was very well traveled although for most this was their first cruise with Viking.
In your stateroom, there is a ‘quiet vox’ audio system. You wear this for your walking tours. This is a great advance in tour tech. You can hear the guide from as much as a block away even with background noise.
My favorite things onboard were the coffee machines on the lounge level. They make every imaginable kind of coffee drink and great hot chocolate. I also enjoyed meals on the terrace.
3. Off the boat. This is something everyone is going to have a different opinion about. My husband and I booked this cruise because of the castles on the Rhine and we wanted to see the Alps. I really could have skipped almost everything else but I did want to experience a river cruise. My favorite ‘off the boat’ things about this cruise were the Black Forest trip (although I wish it could have been a whole day), the Windmills and the Marksburg Castle.
We had two good tour guides in different ports, Valerie in Strasbourg and Jack in Colmar (although I do believe that Jack was also there on the Black Forest tour as well). Both balance their knowledge and sense of humor well.
Very disappointing was not being able to take the tour of the Castle in Heidelberg. The guide made it all seem so boring. There is an earlier castle tour on the itinerary, the Marksburg castle in Koblenz. This tour is so good it makes you want more and it’s disappointing that this is the only castle tour.
Best meal off the boat? In Strasbourg right around the block from the cathedral there was a small bistro called Bistrot & Chocolat. After a very tasty lunch, we bought a chocolate bar for dessert and it was the best chocolate!
4. The add-on trips. We elected to add Amsterdam as a pre-cruise trip and Basel as a post-cruise trip. Viking advertised certain hotels in each of these ports but even though we were booking 18 months in advance, we were told those hotels were full and that we had to stay at other hotels neither of which were rated as highly on Trip Advisor. In Amsterdam, we stayed at the Movenpick. It is not a bad hotel. It's a little out of the way. Being in Amsterdam, the thing to do is to stay in a hotel on one of the canals. But, that is not convenient for Viking so…. In Lucerne, we stayed at the Ameron Flora. It’s like a Holiday Inn. Except we paid Hilton prices. The one good thing about the Flora is its location. It is very close to the Information Center which was great for us. It is also close to the train station and the pier where you get the ferries to Mt. Pilatus and Mt. Rigi. I think that you can get a train to Mt.Titlis at the station although we did not elect to go there. Viking offers a trip to Mt. Titlis. It is the highest of the three peaks and there is a revolving cable car that takes you up there. It all just seemed too scary to me. I am a little afraid of heights.
The Flora is also just a few steps away from Lucerne’s famous covered bridge and old town. So, the air conditioning barely works in this hotel and the breakfast buffet is pretty bad but you have to weigh that with the location. But, you may want to book your stay on either end through a travel agent and not though Viking because I can think you will get a better hotel rate but I don’t know how the transfers work if you book your own hotel.
Lastly, before we went, we tried to find information about the sites to see in Lucerne. I wanted to see the Alps. Finding this information seemed unduly complicated and Viking was of no help. We went to the Swiss tourism office in NYC, asked people on Trip Advisor and then, when we got to Lucerne, went to the Information office right around the block from the train station (next door to the Burger King). We bought a 2 day Tell Pass. It’s about 170 francs per person but it’s worth it. The people at the Information office in Lucerne were VERY helpful.
We arrived in Lucerne, skipped the walking tour and with the Tell Pass took the ferry to Mt. Rigi (Vitznau). It’s about an hour ride. Then, you get on the Cog Railway (with the Tell Pass) and go to the top of the mountain. You can have lunch up there. You then take the cable car down to the other side of the mountain to Weggis (with the Tell Pass) where you catch the ferry (with the Tell Pass) back to Lucerne. The whole thing took about 5 hours. When we got back to Lucerne, we went back to the information office to ask if there was anywhere else we could take the train for the evening. They suggested Sarnen. We took the train there (it’s about a half hour ride from Lucerne). This town has a small river you can walk along leading to a large lake and there is a small restaurant on the lake where you can eat hot dogs or hamburgers (or the meal d’jour) out back on the deck. It is all locals, no tourists (except us) here.
The next day in Lucerne, we walked across the covered bridge, explored the old town, then took the ferry to Alpnachstad (with the Tell Pass) to Mt. Pilatus, took the funicular (they call it a cog rail but it seemed more like a funicular to me) all the way up the mountain in the craziest ride ever. We had lunch up there. Because it started to rain we did not stay up as long as planned. We took the Cable cars (there are two – you need to transfer from the large cable car to the smaller ones to get to Kriens. The cable car operator will tell you how to do this) back down the mountain to Kriens and took the bus back (with the Tell Pass) to Lucerne. That did not take long either. So, with the rest of the afternoon we took a train to Interlaken. Note: They are apparently doing work on the cable cars at Pilatus and the system will be closed temporarily starting in September. Check online or with your travel agent about this.
Interlaken: it’s a two hour train ride each way and you won’t be bored for a second. Don’t forget your camera. This is the Switzerland you read about in storybooks. You can spend a whole day in Interlaken. Mt. Jungfrau is there. However, after seeing Pilatus and Rigi, I was not interested in seeing any other mountains although the train to Interlaken takes you over another mountain that is far less scary. We took a bus ride (4 francs each) through the town and walked back to the train along the river that connects the two lakes. We could have had dinner in Interlaken but just had some pastries and chose to wait until we returned to Lucerne to have dinner.
Note: Upgrading to first class on both the boat and train. There are at least 3 styles of ferries. Two of them have better viewing on the upper deck, front of the boat in first class and it is worthwhile upgrading. The third type of ferry does not have seating in the upper deck front of the boat and it probably is not worthwhile upgrading. The catch? You don’t know until the boat arrives. You can upgrade on the boat, but I think you will need cash (Swiss francs) to do this. I don’t think they accept credit cards on the boat.
Upgrading to first class on the train can also be done and we thought it was well worth the $50 that it costs. Again, if you do this on the train, you will need cash. If you want to do this with a credit card, you need to do this on the lower level of the train station. They have an office there that takes care of this.
Interestingly, only rarely did guides on tours help interpret signs. I would have liked to have learned more of the languages that I was exposed to.
The only optional tour we took was to Colmar. It was ok, not great. The other thing, and I know this sounds really touristy, is that when there were bus tours, the guides never warned you about when sites were coming up so I continually missed all the photo opportunities. I have never experienced that before. It seemed like all they were interested in was getting to the destination. Usually guides like to warn you when something photo worthy is coming up. The only guide that did this was the guide that took us from Basal to Lucerne.