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“Let’s go, let’s go. We need to get out of here before the snow comes.”
I was watching the flight attendant on my KLM Cityhopper flight from Nuremberg to Amsterdam nervously pace back and forth in the tiny Fokker 70 I was seated in. It had been a hell of a Sunday morning, with computer problems at Nuremberg Airport causing massive delays. Now, he was staring out the open cabin door, his breath visible in the minus 10 degrees Celsius winter air, waiting for a hand-typed manifest to arrive so we could take off. Without computers, everything became a chore.
And so it was that reality hit back following seven days aboard Viking River Cruises’ beautiful Viking Freya, one of six new “Viking Longships” currently in service and part of a larger order that will see 16 of these impressive vessels in service throughout Europe by this time next year.
My flight to Amsterdam, which could have been dubbed the Viking Express due to the number of Viking Freya and Viking Embla passengers onboard, finally took off from Nuremberg a full hour late at 11am. In Amsterdam, I had just enough time to sprint to my gate for my onward flight to Vancouver, which I barely made. And at the end of the day, my luggage was nowhere to be found – hardly surprising given all that had happened. What was surprising is that it ended up, according to KLM, in Atlanta, Gerogia – miles away from Vancouver. Worse still, no one seems to be able to tell me why it is there or when I will get it back.
It turns out I was one of the lucky ones; the 2:10pm departure was late by nearly two hours, and the 6:15pm to Amsterdam was cancelled entirely. It was worse for guests heading to Frankfurt; where everything departing after 9:30am was scrapped entirely.
I have often said nothing makes you appreciate the fine-tuned organization of cruising like the disconnected chaos of air travel, and this was certainly the case on Sunday.
After a full week onboard Viking Freya, I can say that Viking River Cruises have a hit on their hands with her and her Longship sisters Viking Aegir, Viking Embla, Viking Idun,Viking Njord, and Viking Odin. Next year, another 10 will enter service by the end of the year, bringing a total of 16 Longships to the waterways of Europe by this time next year. Even more impressive, eight will be christened simultaneously in late March in Amsterdam!
While a few vessels will be retired (say goodbye to Viking Primadonna), the new Longships are representative of an explosion in the popularity of river cruising, and Viking has included a number of thoughtful little touches intended to lure land-based travellers and cruise aficionados alike. In fact, even if you’re river cruised before, you are likely to notice the line does things a little differently across the board.
The first reason to recommend Viking Freya and her sisters is for the stunning amount of glass onboard; aside from the passenger corridor, every single space onboard these gorgeous ships is fitted with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Such a detail might go under-appreciated if you’ve never river cruised before, but this feature – particularly in the restaurant – won me over.
Staterooms are beautifully designed, with high-quality materials and thoughtful touches like dual-currency electrical outlets, light switches on both sides of the bed, and heated bathroom floors. The only thing I wasn’t a fan of was the closet, which was on the small size. But then I realized I’d overpacked: the ambiance aboard Viking’s Longships is more casual than others. You won’t need a suit-and-tie here; some nice-looking casual clothes are perfectly acceptable for dinner.
I had a full, step out balcony and I will be honest: I only used to step out and take photographs. In the summer, I suspect that I would have spent copious amounts of time out there. It really depends on the season as to whether you want to splurge on it, but one thing is for sure: with wooden decking, teak railings and spotless plexiglass, it was as well-designed as anything on a deep-ocean cruise ship.
I also loved dining in the Aquavit Lounge. With a menu that includes club sandwiches, hamburgers, pasta dishes and nachos, it’s decidedly more casual, but also more intimate. On the two nights I dined here, it felt like my own private little section of the ship. Of course, in the hot weather this area really shines, becoming a giant open-air dining venue.
So much attention to detail is paid aboard these ships that guests were asking how they could purchase the Aquavit decanters found in the Viking Lounge and the hand-carved wooden breadbowls utilised with lunch and dinner. Note to Viking: you might want to put these in the onboard gift shop! Also of note was the food, which I found was above what I was expecting in terms of quality and presentation. I never had a bad meal onboard.
A reader had asked about maps of Vienna and whether they were supplied onboard. I said, ‘no.’ Turns out I was wrong: maps aplenty, along with suggestions for activities in each port, were available from the Concierge desk located just forward of the dining room; I just discovered it too late, in Nuremberg.
Hardware is only one half of the equation; without the stellar crew onboard, these ships wouldn’t be the success that they are. The Longships also carry a larger number of guests than most others, with a maximum capacity of 190. That the crew can still provide the level of personable service found on vessels that carry just over 100 is truly remarkable. What aids in this task is that all of the crew are directly employed by Viking rather than several separate entities as found on other vessels; I think this plays a huge role in the success of the Longships because everyone is on the same page, and everyone stands to benefit equally.
But if the Viking Longships were stunning, so too are the ports on this weeklong Holiday Romantic Danube sailing.
Starting in Budapest or Nuremberg, depending on your direction, guests are treated to visits to some of the best cities and towns along the Danube. In December, that also includes the Christmas Markets that originated here.
Personally, I don’t see how you could visit these Markets and not be totally entranced by the experience. Yes, it’s cold outside, but that’s why they invented Gluhwein (spiced mulled wine) in Germany and Austria, and Glogg in Hungary. Within that, there’s a ton of other bracing drinks like Himmelbeer, Rumpunsch, and Heisse Schokolade mit Pfiff, which is spiked Hot Chocolate. For the kids, kinderpunsch is warm, spiced apple juice.
Then, there’s sailing the Danube itself. Barely a minute passes without some small town drifting by, smoke wafting from the chimneys in the cold winter air. When it snows here, it is as beautiful a sight as you can imagine, with colourful cathedrals and houses providing the only relief from the otherwise monochromatic landscape.
If you only sail the Danube once, do it during December. It will forever change the way you view the world, and yourself. You’ve heard of post-cruise depression; get ready to experience the hammer-like blow when you return home to a land without Gluhwein, bratwurst, and Frohe Weihnachten. There’s no watered down “Happy Holidays” spoken along the Danube.
Personally, I have discovered that my heart is inexorably tied with Germany and Austria. It had such a profound impact on me this time last year that I am now teaching myself German. It is a strange feeling to feel such a close connection to a country that I had previously never visited. I like the culture; I love the people. Germans and Austrian’s have a great wit that I think goes underappreciated by many, and a kindness that is undervalued. People take the time to say, “Hallo” and to learn about you. They will help you, even if you can’t speak the language. They’re forthright about the past, positive about the future.
And they always wish you Frohe Weihnachten.
Our Live Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Freya has sadly drawn to a close, but stay tuned for a full photo-tour of this beautiful Longship – and details of our next Live Voyage Report, coming up fast here on From the Deck Chair!
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