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Viking Makes Immersive Travel Easy, Stress Free

Viking River Cruises City of Lights

Viking River Cruises 12-day City of Lights tour offers adventure, history, great food, impeccable service and more. (photos by David Budnik)

By Sondra L. Shapiro

We stood on our balcony sipping French Champagne we had bought in Paris. Through the darkness, moonlight illuminated a pair of swans floating by.

It was our first night aboard Alsvin, a Viking River Cruises longship. Though many adventures awaited us, we decided life aboard ship could offer some of our best experiences.

The 12-day City of Lights tour started with a two-day stay in Paris. Since my husband and I had visited the city numerous times, we chose independent exploration rather than the tours Viking offered.

We caught up with our fellow travelers on the third day when we all boarded buses for the 4.5-hour drive through the bucolic Champagne region to Trier, Germany’s oldest city, to meet up with the Alsvin.

We made a stop at the fortified medieval town in Luxembourg City where we met local guide, Jean-Pierre, who kept a running dialogue as he guided us through the enchanting streets and breathtaking vistas that comprise the steep hill town.

The grave of George C. Patton

Then, it was on to the American Cemetery in Luxembourg, where we stood in front of a simple white cross marking the grave of George C. Patton, as Jean-Pierre regaled us with stories about the loyalty the colorful general had for his men among whom he wanted to be buried.

Jean-Pierre, has lived in the area since 1962. His passion for its history and culture was infectious as he tried to squeeze in as much information as possible during his allotted time.

He spoke of the Battle of the Bulge and the Invasion of Normandy as we gazed at thousands of white crosses and a smattering of Stars of David marking the final resting place of American boys who died too young in a foreign land. The sense of loss was palpable as we thought of the mothers and sweethearts back home who never had a chance to say goodbye.

It’s one thing to learn about World War II from history books, but to view the green pastoral farmland that frames the highway leading to Luxembourg and imagine the carnage that took place brings history to life.

Our time with this knowledgeable and personable guide was a preview of future experiences our trip had in store along a route that began at the Mosel River, wended its way to the Rhine and then the Main. At each destination — Trier, Bernkastel-Kues, Cochem, Koblenz, Heidelberg, Mitenberg, Wurzburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg and finally Prague — the itinerary included comprehensive tours of the area as well as extra-cost options that were well worth the money.

RELATED: Viking River Cruises Offers Tours For All Interests

Little Venice in Bamberg, Germany. Houses dating from the Middle Ages reside along the river Regnitz.

It was stress-free travel at its best where guides would meet us at the pier to escort us through town via bus or by foot and impart fascinating tidbits of history and lore that enriched every visit. A daily newsletter delivered to our cabin offered the day’s itinerary and included a history of each destination.

Germany has much to offer: Roman ruins, pastoral landscapes, fairytale villages, castles and, of course, remnants of war. The country is made for river cruising since this mode of travel allows visitors to immerse themselves in the culture and scenery. It is an intimate and peaceful way to travel.

Life Aboard

Gliding down the Moselle River, we were surrounded by miles of pristine vineyards.

As we traveled the rivers, passengers would congregate at the rooftop sundeck for choice views when passing through locks, to witness life along the river or to take in the fresh air with a book in hand.

Passing through small towns we were as much of a curiosity to local residents as they were to us. They sat on park benches and waved, walked dogs or whisked by on bicycles along paths hugging the river. We greeted workers on cargo boats coming in the opposite direction carrying cars, fruit and other goods.

Occasionally, we would pass a castle lording over a small town, or the remains of an ancient Roman gate.

The Aquavit Lounge, a glass-walled area at the bow of the ship, was popular for lighter meals, but most especially for those breathtaking views when the weather didn’t cooperate.

Gliding through the Moselle River pristine vineyards and enchanting towns with pointy church steeples surrounded us.

Occasionally, we would pass a castle lording over a small town.

The Middle Rhine revealed majestic, hilltop castles. From guest relations, we grabbed a route map displaying landmarks. One afternoon while sitting on our balcony, we were so absorbed with identifying the numerous castles and ruins we passed, we blew by a Rüdesheimer demonstration and the accompanying samples of the coffee, brandy, sugar-cube and dark chocolate concoction — though we did manage to be on time for the informal German Teatime featuring sweet and savory treats.

Travelers who are used to  large cruise ship experiences — with black-tie nights, Broadway-like entertainment and thousands of guests — will find a Viking River Cruise more intimate and immersive. Our trip had 176 passengers.

No need to pack a sport jacket or cocktail dress since dinners are casual. I admit to showing up for meals in blue jeans only to find I wasn’t out of place.

New friends, (from l to r) Pat Steffan, Sally Steffan, David Budnik, Sondra Shapiro, Janet O’Brien and Bill O’Brien

The atmosphere of informality allows passengers to get to know each other. We connected with two other couples and by the end of the trip felt as though we had known them forever. Other passengers would tell a similar story.

Such a casual environment has a flip side, too. Since there is no reserving of tables, it’s a mad rush to secure a desired spot each night. We arrived about 10 minutes before the doors opened so our group of six could ensure being seated in Dimiter’s section. The amiable server was quick to figure out preferences, catering to every request. After the first night, he learned one of our new friends was a non-drinker — beer and wine are included with meals — who preferred ginger ale. Our friend never had to remind him.

Ingredients were fresh and dishes were artistically presented

The menu offered well-prepared standard items sprinkled with some local fare. Ingredients were fresh and dishes were artistically presented.

Portions were adequate (for me, just right). Heartier eaters could take advantage of the daily breakfast and lunch buffet along with a table-service menu.

One evening we enjoyed a German-themed menu, with the staff dressing for the occasion.

Ludmila, dining manager, dresses for German theme night

Coffee and tea lovers will appreciate the complementary self-service beverage station located between the library/computer room and the lounge. I would make myself a cup of cappuccino or espresso, grab a fresh-made cookie and head for a quiet spot to unwind after a day of exploration.

Entertainment was provided by locals who came aboard for an evening. Most memorable was the young violinist, who, accompanied by his father on piano, performed Brahms and Mozart.

Personalized Service

When we first arrived onboard, it took two minutes to check in and then we were escorted to our stateroom by Ludmila, the dining room manager, who helped familiarize us with the cabin’s amenities.

Our stateroom had a roomy balcony, which afforded privacy to read, have a cocktail or gaze at life along the river. Though the interior was small, it was not cramped. There was plenty of storage with a heated bathroom floor and a tiled shower with a powerful showerhead.

Our stateroom had a roomy balcony, which afforded privacy to read, have a cocktail or gaze at life along the river.

Ludmila also filled a request for my daily breakfast and lunch green smoothie. She asked how I made it at home, then had them ready for me each day. After an excursion that included lunch, Ludmila met me as soon as I got back onboard to ask if I wanted the smoothie they had made for me earlier. After that, whenever we went on extended tours, she packed my drink to take along.

Carla, the program director, gathered us each evening to speak of the next day’s activities. She was frequently visible around the boat and eager to engage guests. Carla clearly loves her job and has a gift for making guests feel special. Her depth of knowledge about each destination was invaluable for those of us who were visiting these towns for the first time.

After a long day of exploration, Ludmila greets us with a welcome refreshment.

Communication between staff and passengers is impressive. The ship’s intercom system was available in the cabins. If we were delayed, we got a notice.  If the bus was going to go in a direction not planned, we were told. We were always kept in the know.

As a seasoned and adventure-seeking traveler, I was impressed with the sense of security Viking staff and local guides exuded. We felt safe and were well taken care of. In fact, except for the effort it took to absorb the local history and culture, we could otherwise rest our minds. This was a vacation that offered adventure, history, culture — and relaxation.

Most of our stops included plenty of free time for individual exploration. Yet we always knew exactly where and when to meet our group. Directions were very clear and accurate.

Waiting for the Alsvin to pick us up after a tour.

There is no onboard medical staff, which we discovered when one of our new friends fell and hurt his shoulder. When I inquired, I was told that the ship is always relatively close to medical facilities onshore and Viking staff is trained to make arrangements for any guest who needs medical care. Though our friend had some discomfort throughout the trip, with the help of diligent staff, he managed to enjoy each day. Not to mention, those breathtaking views from his balcony provided a welcome distraction on days when he was unable join the excursions.

If you go: Visit www.vikingrivercruises.com or call 800-304-9616.

2 Responses to “Viking Makes Immersive Travel Easy, Stress Free”

  1. Janet O\\\'Brien says:

    My husband Bill and I were fortunate to be a part of the “group.” We couldn’t have picked any nicer kind and friendly people to be with. We had a lot of laughs, ate great food, drank great wine and simply enjoyed being together.They were very supportive when Bill was hurt. It meant a lot to both of us. We all became instant friends. Thank you for making the trip so special for us. You are the best! Love to all of you.

  2. Sondra Shapiro says:

    Janet, you are so kind! Meeting and spending time with you and Bill was the best part of the trip! You both made an amazing trip even better! Hope we can enjoy more adventures with you!

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