I must begin this review by noting that: (1) this was our second Viking River Cruise, (2) we are vegetarian, and (3) I am a bit of a wine snob (a self-proclaimed oenophile is the nicer way to put it). This background is essential for our ... Read More
I must begin this review by noting that: (1) this was our second Viking River Cruise, (2) we are vegetarian, and (3) I am a bit of a wine snob (a self-proclaimed oenophile is the nicer way to put it). This background is essential for our first cruise, The Romantic Danube was remarkable and set the standard, and our expectations, for Viking. This cruise, the Portraits of Southern France, when measured against the Danube cruise, failed to measure up, in small and significant ways.
The Viking Delling is one of the newest of the Viking Longships, first placed in service last year. It is the standard model of Longships, and but for decorating touches, could easily have been the Viking Idun on which we sailed the Danube. Modern, thoughtfully laid out, it is an excellent craft, but not (see below) particularly well suited to sailing the Rhone River.
Viking contracts with Delta Airlines, certainly not my first choice of airline, but we had Viking book the travel so they handled us from home door to home door. The flights to Europe were good, leaving home on a 6 PM flight on a Saturday and arriving Nice at just before noon on Sunday. The transfers went well. So far, so good.
THE NICE EXTENSION
We opted for the three day Nice extension on the front end of the trip. We felt we couldn't do Paris justice in three days (the back end extension) and would rather visit that city for a longer period. Our hotel was Le Meridien, which sits across the main road from the beach in Nice, a great location to be sure. Our room, on the other hand, was small, and remarkably dark. Le Meridien describes this as "Classic rooms at Le Meridien Nice overlook the quiet hotel patio." It sounds nice enough, but the "patio" was a central courtyard of large pebbles (onto which you cannot go) with four or five large plants in oversize terra-cotta pots. Your view is other rooms (the building is essentially square). And the bed, which seems over large in the hotel's photos, is actually two twin beds pushed together. They are made up separately, so a couple ends up half unmaking the beds to push them together. But try and sleep on them as though they were a king and soon enough they become somewhat. They ought to come with a UK Underground Sign: Mind the Gap. The hotel has a rooftop restaurant with a lovely view of the beach and sea. The menu, at least for vegetarians, is woefully limited (salad anyone, or gluten free penne with red sauce). The only other dining option is the cafe (same menu) located in the Lobby (First) floor, home of the surprisingly good daily breakfast buffet.
The tour of Nice was very well handled and the Viking desk (only open a few hours each day) did have suggestions for things to do. We skipped the recommended optional tour to Monaco, not being fans of luxury cars and a preset dinner "with a vegetarian option" the Desk could not describe. We made our way around the city, quite easy to do, for shopping and a stop at the Chagall Museum, one not to be missed. We also visited the street market (on the tram line at Liberation) which made me want to shop for fresh produce and run home to my kitchen. The only real issue I have with Viking is the day of transfer to the Delling. Rather than departing "after breakfast" as the Viking Itinerary says, we were told we would leave at 2 PM. It could have been most of another day in Nice but note that Museums, etc., don't open until 10, you have to get to and from them, and you have to check out by noon. No extension of checkout time was possible (though I wonder if we had upgraded the room at significant personal cost if this would have been the case.)The bus trip to Avignon wasn't bad, but the stop at what would best be called a very nice "NY Thruway/Florida Turnpike rest stop was the highlight of the trip.
We had the same stateroom (Veranda) as on our prior cruise. The room was identical (although the Delling has more 110V outlets than the Idun if memory serves, a real plus for U.S. travelers). And shortly after boarding, things took a turn, not for the better.
The Food: We had advised Viking we were vegetarian. On the Danube Cruise we advised the Maitre'd. He said he would review the day's meals with us each morning, advise what was vegetarian, what could easily be made vegetarian for us. If that did not suffice, the chef would go "off menu" to prepare something for us. While the food on that trip leaned toward pasta, it was always well made, al dente and with interesting sauces and accompaniments. Our food on the Delling (and many complimented the non-vegetarian offerings) was adequate at best. The pasta was often overcooked, there were no other grains (save one night of quinoa (also overcooked). There was precious little protein to be found (although, ironically, the only night there was tofu it was served with the quinoa doubling down on protein). Our principal protein source became eggs at breakfast. One lunch meal featured a main vegetarian course of gazpacho (well made, but generally regarded as soup and not an entree).
On the third day of the cruise, I did take the Maitre'd aside and explain how the food was not up to the standard set by the Idun. He said he would speak with the chef and would prepare special meals for us. After three days of asparagus and zucchini squash, we looked forward to tasting the chef's creativity. The special meals generally consisted of the standard vegetarian menu item with plain rice or steamed broccoli and cauliflower on the side. Lunch was most often from the salad bar (nicely done), but most prepared salads featured fish or meat, so even they were off limits. All in all not a pleasant experience, and by day four I was beginning to miss my own kitchen.
And the wine -there was an experience. On the Idun, we considered upgrading to the Silver Spirits package but opted to try the house wines. They were quite good varietals (white was an Austrian Gruner, red a Hungarian blend) with character. So we figured if we are cruising the Rhone, one of France's premier wine regions, the wines would certainly be serviceable. Not so, not at all. Both were Vin du pays (not entitled to claim an appellation) Chardonnay and Merlot. They were simply mediocre wines with no varietal character whatsoever. Only on two occasions did the red served at dinner reflect the local wines, and while hardly good examples, they were at least serviceable (the white wine stayed poor throughout the cruise). A bit of time on the internet disclosed that the Elegante Chardonnay and Merlot were selling at retail in Europe for the equivalent of $5.50 per bottle.
A look at the Silver Spirits package (which would include cocktails and upgraded wine for about $420 as a couple) was equally disappointing. The whites, as an example, reflected few choices from the region through which we were traveling. And the bottle prices (glass prices even worse) shown were between 3 and 4 times the retail price for the same wine in New York. Very few of the wines had a rating higher than 82 on the 100 scale. One fellow traveler who bought the package was told at lunch on the second day (so one meal into the cruise) that regrettably the ship was out of rose wine (the principal wine of Provence). By day three, they were out of her second and third choices as well.
The Gift Shop: Normally this wouldn't merit a comment. With limited excursions and a shipboard credit of $125 to spend or lose (it's a benefit from Viking, but we all know it is buried in the cruise price), we decided to purchase some gifts for family and friends (given the precious little shopping time once we left Nice). Oddly the ship was out of many items, the fleece jackets were available in XS or XL or XXL only. "Sadly, we are out of that" became the watchword of this cruise.
Shipboard Life: One of the things we liked about the Danube cruise on the Idun was the ability to sit in a chaise lounge on the upper deck while sailing. There you could actually take good photos, read, walk on the walking track, and just relax. Only rarely, on one stretch of the Danube was the deck unavailable due to a couple of low bridges. On the Rhone, even though the water levels were slightly below normal, the upper deck was available only twice and briefly at that during the entire cruise. Here the standard Viking Longboat design failed given the river on which it was being used. Instead, we had the option of our rooms or the lounge, which doesn't actually accommodate the full passenger compliment. Photographs through plate glass windows of the lounge or the plexiglass surrounding the small forward deck were uniformly bad, regardless of the camera used. We did note that other Cruise Lines with similar (if not as new or seemingly elegant) boats had their sun decks usable much of the time.
The Places and the Tours: One principal difference between the Romantic Danube and this cruise was the tours in the stops along the way. The POSF stops in smaller towns which, in turn, means the walking tours tend to be more focused on a few sights. The tour guides were, on the whole, excellent, passionate about their home areas and the history to be found there. They do tend to go on at length. When you have fewer sights to see, and the guide feels obligated to talk for the full 3 hours or so, you often get more depth than you ever wanted. Arles' Roman Amphitheatre was interesting, but a shorter visit and less history would have sufficed (since there were other Roman ruins later on the cruise). The Palais du Papes, in Avignon, was initially fascinating. The two hours spent (I don't really care what they ate or whether they had forks [they didn't - they weren't invented in the 13th century]) was exhausting to the ears and feet. More time to shop and to investigate would have been much appreciated.
In fact, the only significant shopping time during the cruise was in Tournon. That port of call left us a couple of hours before the main tours to Tain Hermitage (a wine tasting) and the Steam Railroad (which we canceled at the last minute given the heat, only to discover fellow travelers returning to the boat covered in coal soot from the engine). The one exception to the quality of the tour guides was the afternoon walking tour of Lyon. For me, it evoked painful memories of forced marches in my military training may years ago (when I had younger legs and more patience). What was lacking (and often will be on such cruises) was any meaningful interaction with the local population, unless you stopped in a small cafe and made your own contacts (and the French aren't the most welcoming of Americans). Another problem, particularly for my wife who wears hearing aids (not uncommon with the passenger profile Viking draws), is the QuietVox system. In Nice they use a version that has a standard 3.5 mm plug. My earphones would work, many audio assist devices would work. On the ships, they use QuietVox systems with a proprietary connection. Only their earpieces (one over the ear) would work. They have very cheap speakers (since they don’t recycle but dispose of them). A tinny sound is available at best, and for my wife I had to become here simultaneous translator.
The Last Stop: One of the greater shocks of the tour was our arrival in Chalone-Sur-Saone. Cruising past a lovely town center (where another line River Cruise Ship was docked), this seemed like a perfect town in which to end the journey. But we cruised on until we docked at a worn down commercial pier outside of town with rusting pier buildings and rusting cranes. The tour to Beaune was lovely, stopping in a vineyard along the way, and may well have been the highlight tour of the trip (with a bit of shopping time, if only we had the energy to actually shop).
The Bad News: We were in for one more unpleasant surprise, and another example of the “marketing hyperbole” of Viking. Remember, this was sold as an 8 day, 7-night cruise. Day one, for us, and many who did not do a front end extension began in the late afternoon and wasn't much of a day at all. But the real shock came when we learned that day 8, for us, would begin at 1:30 in the morning.This was to allow time for a quick shower before having our bags outside our door at 2:05 AM. We departed the boat in the dead of night for the 1 1/2 hour bus ride back down the river to Lyon where we arrived at the airport (actually the airport train station and not the airport itself) around 4:40. There we got to drag our bags (under the watchful eye, but not helpful hands) of the Viking representatives through the terminal and eventually to the Aiport departure terminal.
Oddly, cars seemed quite able to pull up to the doors of the airline terminal and deposit passengers so why we could not is a mystery for which the Viking rep provided no answer. There we checked ourselves in and then had to wait for baggage check in to open (seems the airport doesn't actually open until around 5 AM). If Viking were honest they would tell you that you are paying for an 8-day, 7-night tour. But you will get, at best, 7 1/2 days and depending on where you live, six nights and a few hours of sleep (remember in Chalone you are a virtual prisoner of the port since you are so far from town and dinner isn't served until a bit after 7 PM). You will sail on a boat with a useless sun deck so you will spend free time in your room or a crowded lounge (care to buy a drink perhaps?).
Our intended "once in a lifetime" cruise (Romantic Danube) became, thanks to the superb experience Viking provided, a first in a lifetime cruise. This Cruise has definitely become our last ever Viking River Cruise. Perhaps the experience we had on the Idun is the rule and the Rhone Cruise on the Delling is the exception. But with what Viking charges for adequate food, bad wine, etc. we aren't willing to spend more than $10,000 to find out. Read Less