As a regular ocean cruiser, first time river cruiser, I found that my river cruise* on Viking was more like an ocean cruise than I expected. The free beer and wine with dinner and included shore excursions were a nice change, though. ... Read More
As a regular ocean cruiser, first time river cruiser, I found that my river cruise* on Viking was more like an ocean cruise than I expected. The free beer and wine with dinner and included shore excursions were a nice change, though. This river cruise was also more like a bus tour than I expected.
There is an optimal experience that the ads portray...eating, drinking, and laughing with other passengers, outdoors with blue skies, and beautiful scenery floating-by. Of the six days and 20 hours from bonjour to au revior, about 20% of the cruising was when we were aboard** and it was not during sleeping hours. But about half of that was spent either waiting in front of a lock, or in the lock. The first time, the lock is cool, but it's preventing the optimal experience, especially since it looks like it's midnight and there's a slimy concrete wall an inch from your nose. So an average of 2.7 non-lock cruising hours per day. Although the rivers were low at the time, the top deck was often closed for bridge clearance, so having the optimal experience was limited to the bow, which held about 40 people (out of the 180 on board). Not that you couldn't enjoy the view from your stateroom, but not enjoying the view with other passengers. So if you were on-board, it wasn't raining, you found a spot outside with likable acquaintances, there's something besides the inside of a lock to see, well, you get the idea. I think this happened once for me. I predicted this would be the case, but make sure you have your expectations set appropriately.
I've only been on one bus tour in my life, and that was with a single bus and 35 other students (a long time ago). Sometimes our ship would be parked where we could walk to the city/town. Often we were out of town, so boarded four huge coaches. Either way, I found myself walking around a couple of city blocks or a tourist venue with a gaggle of 180 other passengers. At times I was engaged with what I was seeing, but other times, I just wanted to be away from the crowd. If you wanted to see these same sites, you could drive from start to finish in a rental car in 4 hours. So a few strategically place hotels would mean you'd only need to move once or twice and do day trips to the sights. If you really wanted to see the city from the river, you could book a afternoon or evening cruises. And if you did it with a car, not only could you be away from the gaggle of other passengers, but also wouldn't be tied to the river geography. Again, if you expect to be with a big group, and don't mind that, then having a turn-key vacation where Viking does all the planning might be a great way for you to see the sights.
A word about the beer (most people will skip this paragraph). On board we had a decent line-up of German beers. One on tap, Bitberger, plus Budweiser Budvar (the original Bud from Czechoslovakia), Kostritzer Schwarzbier, Benediktiner Weissbier, Kronenbourg 1664 Pilsner. Off-ship, I found two beer places that looked interesting, but didn't work out, timing-wise. In Lyon there was a place called "Le Palais de la Bière", lots of taps, but it wasn't open when I could get up there. "La Chope de Lug" was a bottle shop that looked promising, but it opened only after we sailed that day. Mostly the convenience stores had things that proclaimed the ABV in a big font. Although I couldn't read the label, I figured they were akin to Colt 44, so I left those on the shelf. I found a Belgian (3 Monts) in a general store (along "Place Raspail" in Lyon, a couple minutes walk from the dock). The 3 Monts was pretty good, tasted belgian-like, so I'd call it a "bière de garde" although it said "Bière De Flandre" on the label. The Viking rooms all have refrigerators and they even let you bring your own beer to dinner without a fee (but I drank this one in the room anyway).
We found plenty of fun other passengers to hang around with. The first day aboard, at lunch, the situation looked dismal; nobody looked less than mid-sixties, a few quite a bit older, and there were some walkers (we're mid-fifties). But the next night they had a disco night. We only sat in for a beer, but that's when we realized there were quite a few people near our age. Even a few twenty-somethings (with their parents), and also a few thirty somethings (their own).
Well, there you have it. A few nice moments that made use of the fact we were cruising on a river, quite a lot of time on buses and in a crowd of other passengers and finally a passable beer experience, given that it was included in the price, and that this is wine country, so what can I expect? The bottom line is if you want a turn-key operation, you don't want to pack and unpack, you don't mind touring in crowds, this is real easy for you, albeit not cheap ($600/day for a couple, not including airfare). If I really wanted to see these sights (which, eh, I'm luke-warm on many of them), you could see them all for much cheaper and not always be in a crowd if you rented a car and stayed in a few hotels.
* An August 2015 cruise of seven nights called 'Portraits of Southern France' (Avginon to Chalon-sur-Saoneon) on the Viking Heimdal, a 3 deck ship first launched in 2014 (the previous season). A really clean ship, tight but efficient rooms. Great staff...MUCH better service than the ocean cruises where the tips are automatically added to your bill. I loved the small size compared to most ocean vessels.
** Sometimes were were off on a tour and the ship moved and picked-us up at a different dock. Read Less