Over the years we’ve gone on four or five cruise-ship vacations, beginning with Linda’s attagirl sail as one of the year’s best-performing employees of the Stroh Brewery Company. It was a Caribbean jaunt on which the Stroh contingent – which, as you may have already guessed, brought along some of its own refreshments – seriously lowered the passenger median age. We would never have gone if it hadn’t been a freebie congratulatory occasion. We imagined stereotypical snoozing on chaise lounges, cocooned in blankets, as the ship poked its way through a dense black-and-white Thirties-movie fog.
While there certainly are many retirees who enjoy traveling this way, they have a perfectly good reason. The crucial advantage of being on a cruise ship is that you have to unpack only once: your hotel does the moving around. The trip is all about the destinations, as are most landlubbing vacations, but a driving-free mobile home base makes it all amazingly convenient and de-stressful, even in places where the language and customs may be unfamiliar. If you’re lucky, you share the experience with nice folks you meet on the spot or, as with the 2001 Alaskan cruise on which we hosted our parents, you live inside a Dickens novel for a week.
We have just returned from a different kind of trip. My sister-in-law and her husband are old pros at this (maybe twenty cruises in all) and we’ve been idly trying to put a vacation together since Alaska, only this time just us four. Maybe it was only after dozens of DOWNTON ABBEYs or PBS NEWS HOURs, but we finally succumbed to an outfit called Viking River Cruises and booked a week on the “romantic Danube,” upriver from Budapest to Nuremberg, with stops in Vienna, Melk, Passau, and Regensburg. A great trip, but apart from the destinations, it was the cruise line that made it great. This was the first river cruise (as opposed to oceangoing) for any of us, but trust me on this: not only are river cruises da bomb, but Viking is also now my favorite cruise line ever.
Let’s answer your first question first. Big seagoing vessels these days have honking stabilizers, so you rarely need “sea legs” under normal conditions; storms on the ocean can cause some commotion, but man up, hoss, it’s not like you’re in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. However, a river cruise on a “Viking Longboat”? Nothing at all, mate. We had returned to the ship after an arrival-day visit to Budapest and were standing in a buffet line when somebody noticed we were moving – by looking out the window. There was no other way to tell: no rocking, no engine sound, no vibration, nothing. The sole and single exception may come when the ship is navigating one of the 26 locks that lift or lower it on the week-long leg. The fit is so snug that the ship may actually brush against the side of the lock with a hardly noticeable tremor (once, for us, a mild jolt as if we’d bumped a small log in the river) and a slight horizontal motion. You can hear the engines gun when the ship is headed toward a higher elevation just downstream of the mighty Inn River, which has flooded the town of Passau several times on its way to the Danube, the second worst flood in centuries occurring only last year. Beyond the Inn, the Danube is like glass (it’s not blue, mein Freund, that’s just poetic license) and the ship floats upriver again as if on air.
Our ship, the Viking Kara, was only six weeks old when we boarded her. Though we have never ponied up for the grand luxurious staterooms that you can have if money is no object (think upstairs on the Titanic), we’ve thus found ourselves in cramped quarters with nothing but a porthole to see out of. In fairness, you don’t go on a cruise to stay in your room, which is basically just for sleeping and hygiene. This time, however, while our cabin was still rather cozy, it featured the best accommodations I’ve ever had on a ship. Lighting, plumbing, power, everything was brand new. Your key card inserted in a door-side slot turned on all the lights instantly. Shower doors swung both inward and outward to effectively make the bathroom a little larger; its permanent night-light saved us from unnecessary toe-stubbing. Whenever you slid open the large riverside picture window (we did spring for the “French balcony,” one step up from “Standard” but a long way from “Explorer Suite”), the heating/AC automatically cut off until you shut and locked the door again. You could recharge every electronic thing you had without a converter. The shipboard wi-fi worked nearly as well as my router does here at home, just a little slower because of the massive simultaneous bandwidth drain. A 40-inch hi-def monitor displayed trip news, weather, and even some entertainment (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, we gathered from several dinner companions, was quite popular, but we never watched any tv). Brand new, I tell you! The first day on the river, I went up into the Kara’s “wheelhouse,” where there is no actual wheel, only an electronic array that would make Mr. Sulu nod in admiration.
Oceangoing cruise ships have become so mammoth that their capacity is itself a point of interest: “we wash blah-blah towels every day,” etc. The biggest ones, like the ships that dock every week near our villa in Jamaica, look like skyscrapers with smokestacks. It is kind of perversely amusing that you can take so many people – maybe not entire cities, but certainly enough humans to fill many Stateside county seats – anywhere the winds can blow them. These ships have full casinos, lavish entertainment, even some abbreviated Broadway musicals – Vegas at sea. Our little Kara, long and low, could not compete with a nautical Rat Pack, but there was a sun deck up top (particularly nice for sailing through Wachau Valley, Austria’s gorgeous terraced wine country), an exercise track, miniature golf, shuffleboard, you know. Viking longships can dock alongside each other; passengers just walk straight through to go ashore.
The Viking River Cruises model is, simply stated, less is more. There were fewer than 200 passengers on our upriver Kara run (a big cruise ship can serve thousands), and the staff were also comparably fewer but thus more personable. The big ships sometimes shunt you onto a permanent dinner table where you can get to know your fellow diners and compare walking-tour notes (we have met some lovely people this way), but here you just sit down wherever you choose and make friends spontaneously. It gets to the point where you barely even need the tour guide’s “lollipop” (the circular sign s/he holds up in the town square to make sure everybody’s in the right place). You just look for familiar faces who you know are on the same tour; that’s “33-B.” Viking is about to launch some oceangoing ships itself, but they’ll be much smaller than the competition’s: the passenger capacity will only be in the 900s, which should preserve the line’s close-in experience.
On a Viking cruise all meals are included in the booking price, as are the accompanying beer or wine. (You run a bar tab when not at table.) Also included are walking tours of every port of call, led by carefully screened local guides (ours were all terrific). There are optional extra excursions available for a price: for example, we attended a concert in Vienna, toured the BMW plant in Regensburg, and saw Nuremberg through a World War II filter, including the infamous Zeppelin Field where Albert Speer staged giant Nazi rallies and the courthouse building where he was a defendant in the world’s first international war crimes trial. But we could have just as easily chosen to hang out in the town square, chomp sausages, and hoist steins of foaming Bavarian beer.
There’s a program director on board who has everything organized and is the go-to person for all kinds of questions; ours was a delightful six-foot Nordic beauty named Chantal who spent six years as a casino dealer until she got tired of making people sad. We saw her change plans on a dime when a couple of the locks had some mechanical trouble, pushing us slightly off schedule. Her problem, not ours. Because of our flights back home, we happened to be the very last previous passengers to walk off the Kara while the staff were trying to prepare it for the new sail, yet they still treated us like honored guests unto the final moment. “Are you relieved?” I asked Chantal. “Not the right word,” she replied. “Weird.”
The ocean cruises definitely have their own charms, and different people expect different things from them. While my in-laws were indeed impressed with the Viking experience, they said they did miss “sea days” when you’re just en route and you can relax on that trusty chaise. Also, cheesy seaborne entertainment can be fun to watch. But if you’re mainly there for the travel, this gang operates from the Rhine to the Nile, from the Mekong to the Yangtze, and I even heard a rumor that they’re working on their first American cruise, on the Mississippi. I’ve already seen plenty enough of that river in my life, but on a Viking longboat? Wow, I just might check it out anyway.