We've just completed Viking's Portraits of Southern France on Viking Hermod (south to north). It was mostly enjoyable but the weakest out of our six European cruises. We really enjoyed the friendly passenger mix of US, Canada and several from Great Britain making for good conversation and company.
The ship: Hermod was lovely as is usual with Viking's ships. Not enough seating in the lounge however and we had to stand several nights at the pre-dinner talk along with many others who stood or skipped the activity. Husband found the cabin fine but I did not like the tiny window (too dirty to view from this cruise) and increased ship noise. In general, I do not like the cabin size in the new Viking French balcony rooms (same on lower deck even though they list them as larger - must include the high shelf space in front of the window?) which have no space on either side of the bed and a useless bedside shelf where bedding easily swipes anything off of it. Room and bed comfort and closet and storage space (improved from first longboats) are otherwise very nice. Everything in the cabin worked well and the plugs are numerous and very handy.
Internet: Very poor. I was surprised because we'd heard that it had improved this year. We had trouble even getting on for several of the days with both an i-Pad and a Samsung tablet. So did others around us. Unusable in the lower cabins but also very poor upstairs. It seems that the antennae is lowered often on this cruise and the signal is not a strong one at the best of times.
The crew: The crew with one exception were friendly, enthusiastic and went out of their way to be helpful. The front desk and dining room staff were especially good as was the Chief Engineer. He always had a moment to interact with passengers and we enjoyed his company the most. The program director might be good at organizing but is not a people person. His talks were short, data driven and included little other than what was in Viking's written material. He did not enjoy or encourage questions. We found his lack of enthusiasm affected our choices of activities. This is the first trip that we haven't done most or all of the optional tours - this trip we did none because they seemed boring before we even signed up after listening to his brief, dry descriptions. We hope they were better than that. The room stewards were terrific with very fast laundry service and everything onboard was sparkling clean except cabin windows (on the outside). We had trouble seeing out with all the bird and waterspots on our lower deck window (worse than other ships) and they weren't touched the entire trip. We didn't dock often next to another ship and that was a big plus or would have been if we could see out.
The food: Very good. The chef and his crew were quite skilled at presentation and did a good job. All the meat we saw was rare even when ordered otherwise (we find this the usual case on board V ships). We do find Viking's standardized menus a bit predictable and how can they not have fresh, from scratch pastry when in France!?! What a waste of opportunity to please and impress.
The entertainment: Lacking. Before I start, we really enjoyed the pianist. He was wonderful. Talks were not inspiring. The cooking demonstration was appreciated but very simple and not special for being in France. Evening entertainment was almost non existent this trip. We were really spoiled on our Christmas Douro trip with two lunches included off the ship and two dinners off the ship which added so much atmosphere and felt very special with the entertainment offered at each as well as onboard. This trip had the least special touches of our six cruises.
The itinerary: Great potential but mostly unrealized. Too much time was spent getting from airport to ship at both ends of the trip. The airport greeter was just that - she was nice but only got us from the main lobby to the bus and then left for home. There was no help with luggage at the airport either direction. Another loss of meaningful time was that spent in getting to and from destinations from uninspiring docking points. There was little sightseeing where docked and even less information given about options. The south to north itinerary seems negatively affected with some of the more appealing optional tours unavailable in this direction. Scheduling tours around the lunch meal (both morning and afternoon tours) back onboard was a real negative. Tours were continually rushed to get us back in time for lunch or dinner with insufficient free time other than the scheduled stops. The few choices where you could stay in town (some distance from the ship) were all day or nothing it seemed. We would have loved to stay in town for lunch and have an hour or two to explore rather than have to stay all day or nothing. We like a little time to relax before dinner and this itinerary did not allow for good choices. This itinerary offers nothing extra and nothing that felt special especially south to north.
Arles' free time was only shopping in a gift shop at the Van Gogh hospital stop unless you chose to stay the entire day. Tain l'Hermitage's free time was only at the chocolate shop. Our favorite stop here was the Musee Pierre Palue. Beaune's free time was so short we had to skip the wine tasting to even have time for a cup of chocolate in a local cafe. Avignon's free time was also short but it was one of the few places we could walk back to the ship on our own which we did. Lyon's free time was on a holiday so stores, etc. were closed and we didn't know that until the night before. The restaurant recommendations were all very high priced in Lyon.
We really missed the previous Viking system with a program director and a couple of assistants who usually stayed with each group in addition to the local guides. Our previous program director's were more hands-on and interactive with the passengers. The program director seemed to do little other than take a few photos and discouraged questions at his short presentations. The new concierge system seems lacking in value even though she was nice.
Note that the upper decks is most often closed on this cruise due to the numerous very low bridges on the river. One in particular we were holding our breath when we went under and the chief engineer was on the stairs watching inch by inch to make sure we cleared. I don't know what they do if there is rain that brings up the water level.
The local guides: We were very lucky with our local guides and each day they were the value added. They knew the locales, the stops and the local people at each. They shared their enthusiasm as well as their extensive knowledge. They made the trip for us and were the highlight each day. Without "great" guides our ratings would be lower.
The air arrangements: We tried this for the first time using Viking's air arrangements. In spite of Viking's efforts, it was not something we want to do again unless we have to. They use a computerized system which does not take into account time for immigration, customs, terminal transfers for local to international, etc. Transfer times at airports (such as Paris) were too short and we found planes already boarding before we could even get to them while rushing all the way. We were especially displeased with having to arise before 5am in Lisbon to get to Marseille and our boat by 7pm -- we were routed Lisbon to London to Marseille. A direct flight is less than 2 1/2 hours and we chose the south to north route distinctly because there was a direct flight from our pre-cruise stay in Lisbon. Also we were not pleased with having to leave the ship before dawn because Viking backtracks so far to the airport at the end of the cruise. Thanks to Viking's efforts, we did enjoy entering the US through Seattle instead of San Francisco avoiding the usual nightmare. Delta reassigned our confirmed seats the week before we left on the trip necessitating upgrading our seats to avoid sitting next to the lavatory or in the back row. We felt trapped into this and wonder if that is Delta's usual way of handling discounted tickets in order to sell upgrades.
The value: Because we got a good sale on the trip with air we felt we got our money's worth - sort of. We would rather have better discounts on the trip itself and leave the air arrangements to us. We did not feel that the itinerary or entertainment was up to Viking standards. We love France so we're disappointed that the trip felt so rushed and generic when such potential went unrealized. Viking can do better and, in our experience, usually does.
Small window was so dirty the whole cruise that you could not use it for viewing let alone take a photo. You also have to be tall to see out.