Viking is the undisputed leader in river cruising, and it's more than sheer size (60 ships and growing) that earns this line that distinction. In business since 1997, Viking has used the time to produce rich and effortless journeys for its primarily American customers.
From the moment you're met at the airport (and do opt for a transfer), you're in good and experienced hands. A driver transports you directly to where the ship is docked. There you'll first encounter helpful staff that will deliver your luggage to the stateroom while you stride down the gangway.
Viking offers many different itineraries in Europe, China, Russia, Egypt, and elsewhere on ships that carry fewer than 200 passengers. Sailings include daily complimentary tours, abundant fare, and a staff that goes out of its way to please.
This article focuses on the cruise line's Danube Waltz itinerary, which sails multiple and in many cases identical ships between Budapest and Passau, Germany. Our vessel was the Viking Gullveig, named for a mythic female with magical powers.
Cabins in the Viking Gullveig
We'd have been thrilled with our stateroom if we hadn't peeked into the suite accommodations across the way; it had a separate living room and bedroom. Even so, our smaller (205 square feet) quarters still had everything we needed including a safe, half fridge, and free wi-fi.
Designed for sleeping, dreaming and all the other pleasures of being in bed, our queen-sized mattress was dressed in white linens, topped with a fabric bed scarf and soft feather pillows, and bookended with built-in night tables. Easy-to-reach switches turned on overhead and reading lights, and there were ample European outlets within arm's reach, in addition to a US one in the bathroom.
Ah, the bathroom. From the ground up, it's quality all the way: A heated floor with a built-in night light, a tiled shower with adjustable hand grip, towels almost as big as bath sheets, a Villeroy & Boch sink and our favorite lemon verbena soap and amenities by L'Occitane.
A Sony flatscreen TV offers a limited number of TV channels (a week without MSNBC's wise and witty Rachel Maddow... would I survive? Yes!) Fortunately, there are also a number of recent movies, a music channel, a bow cam, and the ever-changing view from floor-to-ceiling windows that lead to the cabin's private balcony.
Dining on Viking River Cruises
On Viking River Cruises there is one dining room and seating is unassigned. So meals offer the opportunity to get to know other passengers. Not only are your fellow travelers friendly; often they're quite interesting and accomplished.
Having inspected the tiny kitchen where the chef, cooks, bakers, and dishwashers toil, it's remarkable how they turn out so many meals in a timely fashion.
The menu had both hits and misses. Grilled fish was consistently well cooked, with crisp skin and tender flesh. The best dinner entree was chateaubriand; the sliced meat was both tender and tasty. And there was always a vegetarian option.
The one epic fail on the menu was "Deconstructed Lasagna," which contained no pasta, no tomato sauce, and no cheese. Were it titled "Fried Portobello Mushroom" instead of lasagna, it might have been better received. Nonetheless, the vast majority of diners who ordered it consumed it, politely muttering that it was "interesting."
This writer also found the Austrian dinner, with an entree consisting of wiener schnitzel, roast chicken, beef, and sausage an unfortunate overreach. Producing four different proteins on a plate would be a big enough challenge to a kitchen with a gas oven; here it was beyond the culinary toolset, and many of the entrees were returned to sender.
Desserts were a consistent highlight and often included local specialties. There also was a pumpkin pie that would do any Thanksgiving table proud and nightly ice cream treats.
Breakfasts were filling and satisfying. Top choices were omelets made to order or a toasted bagel with smoked salmon and Philadelphia cream cheese. Passengers could also choose mini croissants, sweet rolls and a variety of breads and jams. And the health-conscious had oatmeal and unsweetened yogurt to start the day.
The same waitstaff worked all three meals and got to know their diners and their culinary idiosyncrasies. My waiter, Malin, responded to mine with infinite patience and indulgent good humor, regardless of how many dishes I sent back to the kitchen before I settled on one I could savor.
Activities Aboard the Viking Gullveig
While other river cruise lines provide no diversions when sailing, Viking endeavors to keep its passengers entertained with cultural and culinary programs relevant to the region.
As we sailed toward Vienna, for example, the chef provided a lesson on making apple strudel, which was followed by a tasting. After that came a presentation on the life of Mozart.
The staff also offered tours of the bridge with the captain and the kitchen with the chef.
And at night, a pianist and fine singer entertained with standards. Since this sailing was in mid-December, the ship also brought on a local choir to sing European Christmas carols. There was also a trivia contest and tree-trimming.
Perhaps the most dramatic programming was the sail away from Budapest at night, where the city's iconic buildings and bridges were dramatically illuminated. Intrepid passengers met on the top deck in freezing weather, snapped photos and heard the chatty program director point out landmarks while complimentary warm drinks were circulated.
Keeping the Ship Afloat
It doesn't take a village but it does take a dedicated group of managers and their teams to keep the ship running and the passengers happy. Not only were the Viking Gullveig staff patient and attentive, but they also made themselves available throughout the days and evenings.
Shore Excursions on the Viking Danube Waltz Itinerary
Viking's Danube Waltz itinerary, which can originate in Budapest or Passau, Germany, calls at Vienna, Bratislava, and Linz as well as lesser ports including Melk and Durnstein.
Although the itinerary sails year-round (with summer being the most popular time) and leads passengers to romantic cities and castles, fortresses and abbeys, we opted for a December cruise in order to visit Christmas markets, which make this time of year so colorful and (mmm gingerbread) fragrant.
Viking offers a daily walking or bus-and-walking tour and the use of a QuietVox device to allow the tour guide to be heard, even when she's 10 or 15 feet away. Although the tour is complimentary, the ship suggests a tip of one Euro to bus drivers and two to guides.
On walking tours, the less fleet of foot can opt for a slow walkers unit. Other accommodations, such as taxi service and abbreviated tours, are arranged.
On the Danube Waltz itinerary, the shore excursions were:
- Budapest Welcome Walk
- Budapest City Tour
- Bratislava Walking Tour
- Vienna City Tour
- Vienna Up-Close Tour
- Viennese Art Nouveau with a visit to Belvedere Castle
- Melk Abbey Visit
- Full Day Excursion
- Linz Walking Tour
- Passau Walking Tour
Passengers willing to pay for experience could opt for a tour of Jewish Budapest, a home-hosted visit in Bratislava, a tour of Schonbrunn Palace, and a Mozart and Strauss concert.
Christmas Market Cruising
There's nothing quite like a European Christmas market: The colors, the flavors, the smells, the people... the sheer difference from mallAmerica is intoxicating.
In Budapest, we found our way to Vorosmarty Square. At ten a.m., most vendors were still setting up. Soon the merchandise on display was mouthwatering. From fresh gingerbread cookies filled with jam to hand-cooked potato chips to marzipan in an array of imaginative flavors and combinations, it's foodie heaven.
One item that seemed tempting was the chimney cake, which resembled rolls of increasingly sized donuts on a stick. It was cooked over coals on what looked like a foosball field. Afterward, the cook dips it in sugar or cinnamon. One passenger's verdict: "Tastes like cardboard." Also, be wary of palinka: this fruit-tinged, high-alcohol-percentage beverage may taste like rocket fuel to the uninitiated.
Port of Call: Bratislava
Let's face it: When Czechoslovakia was split in 1993, the Czech Republic won Prague. the jewel of the divided countries, in the Velvet Divorce. Slovakia ended up with Bratislava at the end of the Carpathian Mountains.
Since Bratislava is on the Danube and Prague is not, it's a port of call for many river cruises. However, its physical charms are limited: There's a fortified presidential palace whose architecture has been compared to an upside-down table and a small old town/historic district of negligible significance.
Still, it's worth getting off the ship, stretching your legs, taking the complimentary bus up to the palace (on a clear day, the Danube views are photo-worthy) and making your way through the historic city center and back to your cruise ship. Be grateful that, unlike the Bratislavs, you can sail away.
What You Should Know Before You Book
Viking River Cruises are extremely well organized. If you choose airport transfers, you'll be met outside the baggage claim area upon arrival and be taken directly to the ship.
Although there's no obligation to make your cabin available before the official check-in time at 3, if it's already cleaned, it's yours. And if you're hungry, they start serving lunch on boarding day at 11 a.m.
Having sailed on a different cruise line that offered new arrivals pea soup and lousy cookies, we were impressed that Viking's initial selection — pasta, sandwiches, salad, chocolate mousse — was filling and palatable.
When the Water is Low
Viking (and other river cruise lines) have no control over the depth of the river, and there are times when it's inadvisable to sail to the next port. Since Viking has so many ships, it's possible in that case that passengers will be relocated to a different ship but keep the same cabin and continue on their journey. It's a relatively seamless transition that most passengers accept with good cheer.
Just about every need has been anticipated and provided, yet there were a couple of things we would have appreciated. Given that many passengers are older and presbyopic, for instance, there is a need for a magnifying makeup/shaving mirror in the bathroom.
The ship has no spa, gym or fitness area. And although it's impractical for many months in Europe, we think it's cool when a river cruise features a top-deck swimming pool.
Confession: I've never found the entertainment offerings on any cruise ship remotely entertaining (which is why I spend my nights in the casino - but there are no casinos on river cruises).
At night on the Gullveig, there was a lot of singing and clapping led by the perky program director; was this a window on what awaited in an old age home? Then toss me overboard! At times her talks devolved to schmaltz, particularly when she read aloud poems by children.
As the ship drew closer to Germany and Christmas, the spirit of oompahpah descended on our December cruise. It began with a themed meal. Tables were laden with plates of sausage and cheese, and the main course arrayed wiener schnitzel, roast chicken, meat and pork on a single plate.
And just when it couldn't get any more gemütlich, musicians in lederhosen arrived and the first notes of an accordion were heard. Afterward, in the lounge, there's Christmas trivia, sing-alongs, and tunes from The Sound of Music. In other words, the squarest form of entertainment imaginable.
Viking River Cruises Vibe
Fortunately, river cruises remain one of the last bastions of the childfree and child-averse (the one exception is AmWaterways' Disney river cruises, available on a limited number of journeys).
From the start, Viking passengers are warmly welcomed and well cared for by the crew. After a long flight, this elevates new arrivals' moods; people quickly come to appreciate being on board and having the luxury of traveling from port to port without having to pack and unpack.
Passengers on this December Danube Waltz cruise were younger than those on a Tulip Time Cruise we sailed in spring the same year. Ages appeared to span from mid-thirties to the late eighties. What they all shared was an interest in the itinerary and a spirit of friendliness.
A December sailing such as this, when the temperature is low, may attract a heartier and more adventurous crowd that typical river cruise fans. And that makes it an ideal travel choice for a honeymoon couple or a young-at-heart twosome celebrating an anniversary or another special occasion.