From the rivers to the oceans and back again, what we're learning after a few days on a brand-new Longship from Viking River Cruises is that the most recognizable river cruise line to North Americans keeps on improving.
We're on a "mini-cruise" following the christening of Viking Herja and Viking Hild, which number 47 and 48 in the Longship fleet. (Viking River Cruises has other non-Longship vessels, as well.) The debut of the two 2017 Longships comes in the same year that the company is launching its third and fourth ocean vessels, Viking Sky (which had its maiden voyage in February) and Viking Sun, arriving fall 2017.
Viking has often touted how signature features from its river cruises -- such as free beer and wine at lunch and dinner, at least one shore excursion in each port, and complimentary Wi-Fi -- have influenced Viking Ocean Cruises.
But what we're finding here is that the ocean cruise ships, which have been received with enthusiasm (dominating the mid-ship category in the 2017 Cruise Critic Cruiser's Choice awards), are also influencing the company's approach to river cruising.
Such cross-pollination was bound to happen. During the mini-cruise, both Viking's Founder and Chairman Torstein Hagen and Richard Marnell, senior vice president for marketing, emphasized the importance of river cruising to Viking.
"We must not forget that what has created this company is our unique position on the rivers and our ability to deliver an excellent experience on a small ship at a reasonable cost," Hagen said at a press conference before the christening.
"The majority of folks who are traveling with us on oceans are coming from rivers," Marnell said. "We're finding that they like the products for different reasons, but they like to come back to both."
Here are some of the improvements that have come to Viking River Cruises as a result of the newer Viking Ocean Cruises line:
My Viking Journey:
The online pre-vacation planner was born of necessity; on a larger ocean cruise ship, passengers want the ability to make restaurant reservations and schedule shore excursions. But the company found that its river cruise passengers like to plan ahead too.
Now, once you're booked on a river cruise, you can use the interface to examine the itinerary, alert the company to food allergies, make special requests of the concierge and reserve both included and optional shore excursions. There's even a reading list geared to each itinerary. As we know from our loyal Cruise Critic readers, the more information passengers can get about their cruise, the better.
More Shore Excursion Choice:
Viking Ocean cruises offer multiple excursions in each port. Normally, one or two tours -- almost always walking or coach trips -- are included in the fares; more specialized tours are extra. After watching shore excursion booking patterns, the company realized that river cruise passengers might also pay for optional tours, noted Karine Hagen, Torstein Hagen's daughter and company vice president.
"They want a choice," she said.
Now on a Viking River Cruise, the city walking tours and bus trips still remain, but there's also a host of other activities that follow the same "pillars" as you'll find in the ocean cruises. Local Life excursions might visit a local market with the ship's chef. Working World tours, such as a tour of a Mercedes plant in Germany, help passengers understand the local economy. And Privileged Access tours give small groups of people a special experience, such as a private wine tasting at a winery owned by Princess Stephanie Lowenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg (who happens to be Viking Hild's godmother).
The market visits mentioned above stem from the successful Kitchen Table experience on Viking Ocean ships. Developed by Viking Culinary Director Chef Anthony Mauboussin, the Kitchen Table starts with a group of passengers visiting the market with the chef and then eating the food later that night.
Requiring a separate space, the Kitchen Table program is too involved to translate directly to Viking's river ships. But Hagen noted that the culinary program will receive some tweaks. Mauboussin has now taken over direction of the river menus too, and some of the more successful dishes from ocean vessel restaurants like Manfredi's and Mamsen's will appear on river cruise menus. (Hagen's favorite dish, poached salmon in dill sauce, has already been added as an "always available" option.)
The Aquavit Terrace, too -- which is popular for light breakfast, lunch and dinner on the Longships -- is going to expand with its menu for the 2018 season; there are more details to come, we're told. That will finally give ship's passengers the ability to dine at a table for two, which can bring a welcome social respite from group travel.
And, finally, it's the details that can make a difference. For years, Viking River Cruises featured L'Occitane toiletries in its bathrooms. After debuting Freya-branded products on the ocean ships, Hagen decided to bring them to the river ships. Why? The bottles have large, easy-to-read lettering so passengers can see what they're using -- without their reading glasses.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor