Link to pictures for this review (once accessed, click "slideshow").
We recently returned from Viking’s Rhine Getaway with Lucerne extension. This was our sixth Viking River cruise. As returning Viking customers, we were curious as to whether or not there would be any deterioration in the Viking product due to their rapid expansion over the past several years. Our worries were unfounded as this was one of the best cruises we’ve taken with Viking yet. In fact, in addition to the Viking program that we’ve enjoyed in the past, we noticed several subtle but nice improvements in the Viking product during our trip which tells me as a company they are listening to customers and always looking to do better.
We booked through an agent nine months prior to the cruise during a promotion including a very low air fare. We included Viking’s two day extension in Lucerne hoping to experience the culture of Switzerland (which we did and then some).
Our flights were non-stop to Amsterdam and returning from Zurich. We were met by Viking representatives (there were multiple cruises leaving that day) immediately upon exiting baggage and waited with our group about 45 minutes for several other flights to arrive before heading off to the ship. The Viking representatives helped some find ATMs, restrooms, etc. during our wait. We arrived at the ship, Viking Tialfi, which was docked directly across from Amsterdam’s central train station, a prime location for getting on/off and walking the streets of Amsterdam.
Many rooms were available upon arrival at around 11:15AM, a few had to wait up to an hour but this was a nice improvement over past cruises where we had to wait until 3PM for rooms to be available (and they used to make everyone wait until all rooms were available). We had time to unpack prior to a wonderful two hour welcome walk around Amsterdam.
We set sail at 11:30PM, so anyone wishing to experience Amsterdam had plenty of time during the rest of the day to explore the city. Several people wanted to visit the Anne Frank house and were advised that on a Saturday in the summer, advanced tickets were almost a requirement but you could walk (30 minutes) and see if possibly you could get in. Others ventured off to museums. Since we’d been to Amsterdam previously, we stayed onboard and relaxed after our long day/flight.
The crew on Viking Tialfi was outstanding! From the captain to the housekeeping staff, all were helpful, friendly and seemed to be a happy crew that got along well with each other. On a smaller ship, it becomes very apparent when this is not the case. Interestingly, several we spoke with came from large ocean cruise lines and stated were very happy working for Viking. Boyan, the Program Director, was outstanding and seemed to be all places all of the time, had a great sense of humor and was very good about setting expectations. Igor, the Maitre d’ was very personable and readily assisted us in several situations in the dining room. Joanna, our housekeeping attendant was excellent and kept our cabin spotless.
Our one previous experience on a “long ship” was in the winter during a Christmas Market cruise. We were looking forward to enjoying the Sun deck and during our journey it did not disappoint. Seating (much of it under shade) was plentiful and the weather cooperated all week to be able to spend a lot of time there when sailing. We had a balcony cabin and one change from our previous long ship experience was the translucent wall in the bathroom was history. I know many did not like it and wonder if due to responses Viking removed it from all of their new ships, not a big deal for us. The rest of the ship seemed pretty much the same, just with different finishes.
The crowd on board was mostly American with a few other nationalities represented. I would say based upon our conversations and number attending the Viking Explorer Society (repeat cruisers) cocktail reception that 90% were first time river cruisers. The ship was fully booked.
Instead of eating in the formal dining room every night, we changed it up a bit this cruise. We ate in the dining room three times, off ship twice, and the remainder dined in the Aquavit Terrace. The Aquavit Terrace menu has been updated since our last trip to offer more options, another nice improvement. You can now get always available entrée items which weren’t available several years ago. We thought the food during the entire trip was great and really do love Viking’s soups. This trip, the duck cheese soup was our favorite. When eating in the dining room, we noticed the wait staff using hand held devices to place our orders, this was new to us and it seemed to move dinner along nicely, another positive improvement. Wine and beer flowed freely (sometimes too freely :D ) at lunch and dinner.
We loved this itinerary for a number of reasons. First, scenic cruising was excellent especially if you like castles, churches and beautiful rural countryside. Second, it is varied in options available for touring. Castles, churches, medieval towns, the Black Forest, wine tasting and general history, something for everyone. Another great improvement we appreciated was the quality of maps now provided by Viking of our destinations, much improved over those we’ve received in the past as in color and very detailed. Tour groups are divided up into A, B, C, D, etc., and each day you could end up in a different group. That said, if you were travelling with a group, Viking ensured that you were all together on a given tour. Our guides varied from great to OK. We were always told at the beginning of the tour where/when to meet for return for the ship. This is great for those who want to go off on their own, which we did in Kinderdijk and Colmar. We did our own thing in Cologne (as had been there before), skipped Heidelberg as had been there before, and instead stayed onboard and enjoyed five relaxing hours of scenic cruising the Rhine. At every location we had a prime docking location which made it easy to get on/off and do your own thing if desired.
Highlights for us were Kinderdijk, Strasbourg, Cologne (one of our favorite cities and returning in December on our own for the Christmas markets) where we went to the Lindt Chocolate Museum on our own and visited "the Dom", Speyer where after our day of scenic cruising while others were in Heidelberg, we went to the Speyer Technik Museum which was awesome if you like planes, old cars, the space shuttle and anything technically oriented. We had two optional tours, the dine-out in Rudesheim which was a wonderful evening in a quaint, outdoor restaurant with music and fun times, and also took the optional visit to the village of Colmar.
Post cruise we opted for the Lucerne extension provided by Viking. On Wednesday evening of the cruise, those with optional extensions were given a thorough briefing on the logistics and expectations. Our bus left the ship around 9AM for the drive to Lucerne. Prior to arriving at Hotel Astoria, our hotel, we stopped at the Lion Monument in Lucerne. Upon arriving at hotel our bags were taken and personal items were locked in a meeting room and we met our Viking host for our stay Maria, who was wonderful during our two day stay. While waiting for rooms to be ready Maria took us on a walking tour of Lucerne, a beautiful city. Positives re: Hotel Astoria were its location and it was clean. Otherwise rooms were average size and stark (think modern). The layout of the hotel was funky in that there were numerous levels from the ground floor. Finding breakfast the first morning was like playing “Where’s Waldo” but once we found it, the breakfast buffet itself was excellent. There was also occasionally loud music in the evening (never did exactly figure out where it was coming from). We had heard before that there are only five hotels in Lucerne with air-conditioning so it’s not like there are a lot of options. During our stay we really weren’t in the hotel that much as after walking tour we went out on our own, ate dinner in town on the water, and took the 12.5 hour optional tour “Pearls of Switzerland” tour the second day so the hotel itself wasn’t a big deal for us, it sufficed.
The last day of our journey was spent on Viking’s Pearls of Switzerland optional tour, and while a long day, was a really great way to discover Switzerland and the Swiss way of life. We started out leaving the hotel and taking a short walk to the cruise terminal to board our boat for a tour of Lake Lucerne (four stops about an hour) to Alpnachstad where we disembarked and boarded the cogwheel train and climbed Mount Pilatus. We had about two hours on top of Mount Pilatus with lunch on our own (started out cloudy but eventually sun broke through – stunning views) before descending the mountain via two sets of gondolas to an awaiting bus. We then bussed through beautiful countryside to Einsiedeln where we visited the Abbey and viewed the Black Madonna. Free time allowed for touring the Abbey grounds or walking to the adjacent town for shopping or bite to eat. We then traveled to a Swiss alpine farm and learned about the Swiss milk industry (grass fed cows) which was very interesting and informative. The final stop of the day was back in Einsiedeln at the local cheese factory (a year old co-op with 128 local owners), toured the factory, actually made cheese, and had a nice fondue dinner. We arrived back at the hotel at around 9:30PM. A long but very rewarding day. The following morning about 25 of us left for by bus at 6:45 AM for the Zurich airport (the hotel opened the buffet breakfast for us early). A Viking representative met us at the Zurich airport and guided each group to the ticket counter of their departure carrier.
The trip was over and we were already talking about where to go on our next Viking cruise. Viking provides an excellent product and continues to tweak it to make it even better. We purchased a future cruise credit ($100 for $200 credit) which can be applied to a future Viking river or ocean cruise (can only use one per person per cruise) and has no expiration date.