Having just completed my 11th river cruise from Nile in Egypt to the Danube, Rhine, and Rhone rivers in Europe! This sailing was with Viking river Cruises, the largest player in the river cruise market. While some of Viking’s competitors call them the “Carnival” of river cruises, that could not be farther from the truth! Viking River Cruises is a class act and a fine company. They are indeed the biggest company with 65+ river ships but are privately owned, well managed, Their CEO even reads every customer complaint letter personally and sets a task group to solve any issues that pop up. They are quality controlled and own all of the assets outright with little or no debt, and own a sophisticated hotel training school in Switzerland where all staff are trained.
My small group of 27 sailed this year on Viking Heimdal (a perfectly maintained 3 year old vessel) on August 3-10, 2016 from Avignon to Lyon in the South of France along the Rhone in lovely Provence. Our typical group cruise has been around 60 participants but times have changed and concerns over terrorism have increased slowing some tourist business especially in France. Nonetheless, our smaller group prevailed and we had a marvelous time with perfect weather and a most safe journey! River cruises are popular for the sophisticated traveler due to the intimacy and smallness of the vessels as river ships cater to a smaller audience of 130-190 maximum guests, offer more port stays and visit the internal heart of Europe where travelers are most welcome!
About Viking Heimdal
This fantastic vessel is only 3 years old, looks absolutely brand new inside and out, and is managed by the affable Hotel Director Bea who runs a tight and very friendly ship. The Heimdal Cruise Director is Christine and she too is a kind, warm, personal, and with a s fine an attention to detail as one could possibly want. Both ladies seem4d to be at all places at all times-a true management skill that goes above and beyond. The Viking Longships are innovative in their design with a Scandinavian décor that is simple, colorful, and elegant. Viking Heimdal is 443 feet long, carries a maximum guest compliment of 190, has a pampering crew of 50, 4 decks in total, and more floor to ceiling space and balconies than ANY other river ship! The ship has a lovely main lounge where lectures, wine and cheese tasting, evening entertainment, ans social activities take place. The large open air lobby offers a substantial library with an honor system check out for books, a small internet center, a gift shop, concierge desk-where land spa, gym, bike rentals, dining ashore, and other arrangements can be made, a large dining room where all meals take place, and a lovely Aquavit Terrace at the front of the ship which can open all the way up for a huge indoor/outdoor seating area and all meals are also served here casually. It is a spectacular part of the ship and always busy with guests. The top deck has open air and covered deck chairs, loungers, a sports and jogging track, and even an herb garden where Chef Max picked his daily herbs. All of this atop closes down when traversing the locks for guest safety and many of the features fold down to deck level during this process. I found this quite fascinating.
My sailing offered a journey along France’s southern Rhone River from Avignon to Lyon. This is a delightful trip with abundant scenery, vineyards (some of Europe’s best wines), Roman ruins and history, as well as the Papal cities of Avignon, Van Gogh’s Arles, Tournon for a visit to the amazing vineyards and town of Chateaneuf du Pape, and Lyon, the gastronomical capital of Europe! We visited Avignon, Arles, Vienne, Tournon, Viviers, Macon, and Lyon along with scenic cruising on the Rhone and traversing some 12 locks that made the Panama canal transit seem pale by comparison! It is a historic, artsy, and wine lovers paradise…
The ease of Avignon is reached by TGV or Viking transfer from nice or Marseille. I chose to come by TGV from Paris ( a three hour high speed ride). The return from Lyon offers air service through Paris of Frankfurt with ease or the TGV back to Paris (only two hours). Airfare from most US gateways is quite easy and most of my passengers flew with Air France, KLM, British Airways or Lufthansa.
As mentioned, Viking staff are well trained in Switzerland and understand the nature of its well-traveled guests. The staff were accepting, warm, and very friendly without being too knowing. It was a ship that welcomed everyone freely and easily. The staff of 50 multi task and work hard long hours. Tips are pooled at the end of the cruise and one can sign the optional tips to their shipboard account (16 euro per guest per day) including the Cruise Director. The ship’s bar staff is excellent and offer superb array of cocktails. The silver Spirits beverage package (a bargain at $170 per guest for a week) included top shelve beverages. Keep in mind that Viking provides complimentary bottled water, coffee drinks, and beer, wine, and soft drinks with lunch and dinner! My cabin was meticulously maintained with fresh flowers, stocked mini bar, Viking branded generous toiletries, and even a Nespresso coffee machine!
The cabins on the Viking Heimdal and all Longships are standard and range from a smaller 135 square feet for a standard French Balcony cabin to 445 square feet for the larger Explorer suites. All have a decent sized bathroom beautifully tiled with heated tile floors, plentiful storage for a 7-day journey, convertible twin to queen sized bed with fluffy pillows, duvet, and even a 40 inch inter active and complimentary television with substantial movies. Internet is complimentary onboard but can be quite spotty and slow on the river-be aware! I found that my mobile device was the most reliable for work email and Facebook vs. a laptop or IPad. There is no room service offered.
Viking includes a daily tour on each itinerary (sometimes 2) that are included in the price of the program. These tours are hosted by English Speaking guides and take off on Viking’s own fleet of first class coaches. They are bus and walking tours so guest need to know and group sizes could range up to 30 per tour bus. The whisper head set made touring easy though as one could window shop, and look around all while listening to the excellent guides employed by Viking. Tours are also set by pace of guest so you can advise what pace works best and the proper coaches are assigned. The departure for tours is done easily without any rush and guests are all pre assigned to a coach and that number along with a special address and phone number of the ship are handed out to each guest before departing. It is civilized and highly organized. Most of the tours depart around 9am or so and return around 1230-130pm in time for a substantial lunch onboard the ship and then Viking offers an optional afternoon excursion for a fee generally or allows for free time to visit the ports, shop, dine ashore, or just stay onboard and relax.
The dining experience on Viking Heimdal was the best yet of my 5 Viking River Cruises. They seem to keep upping the bar each time and doing a better job. This is likely due to the fact that all competition on the rivers has ramped up and the guest expectation is higher especially considering the higher price point. Prices start around $2300 per person to $3500 on average. Viking offers up to Free or reduce rate airfare from certain air gateways. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style in the dining room with a superb array of salads, hot and cold items, and even off the menu order items for those who do not like buffets. Dinner service is 700-715pm each night and open seating with a menu where 3 courses are offered and multiple choices of delicious items and on this cruise-plentiful French cuisine and items from Provence are on the menu. The food quality was absolutely top drawer, tasty, and well prepared by Austrian Chef Max who was quite skilled in the style of French dining! If a guest did not want the dining room, a more casual service was offered in the expansive indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace upstairs. There was never a lack of food and always a snack to be had whether fresh fruit cookies and even a delightful cheese and wine tasting one afternoon. The quality and taste was better than nearly all but high luxury ocean going ships. Viking also serves complimentary soft drinks, beer, and wine with lunch and dinner. There is also a dual set of coffee bars with tea and snacks offered 24 hours a day!
A river cruise is ideal for an experienced traveler looking for the intimacy of a smaller ship, travel experience that becomes more personal, allows for more guest interaction, and allows for freedom of choice… My group had a brilliant time and experience as we sailed the Rhone River and you can see my complete pictorial found on Smugmug here: https://cruisecenter.smugmug.com/Viking-River-Cruise-Provence/