Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: Viking River Cruises Tulips and Windmills on the Viking Pride

This was our third river cruise. Our first was with Uniworld on the Douro River in Portugal and our second was with Viking to China.

Overall, our experience was what we expected from Viking and we would not hesitate to sail with Viking again. Everything was well organized, the staff was friendly and helpful, the ship was clean, and food (for the most part…more on this later) was very good and plentiful.

But be aware that this is not a relaxing trip. This itinerary is very port intensive. We had (included) tours every day and there were 4 additional (optional) tours. And which some passengers were on the much longer paid optional tours, shorter included tours were available for those remaining behind….such as walking to a herring factory in Hoorn. Other than the canal boat ride in Amsterdam, part, if not all, of the tours are 1 ½ hour walking tours. Don’t expect to come home rested from this trip. And be prepared to do a lot of walking over cobblestone streets.

The Viking Pride has a capacity of 150 passengers. It is not a new ship and is showing signs of its age. It is well maintained and nothing is torn or stained but simply ‘tired’ looking, like the bedspread and curtains in the cabins. Other than that, I have two comments about the layout of the ship.

The first is that it does have a library but it is open ‘loft-like’ by the reception area. I like a quiet place to read and that means no noise, including no elevator music. Other than our cabin, the only other option is the sun deck, not suitable with temperatures hovering around 50.

Second comment is about the size of the shady area on the sun deck. In my opinion, it would have been totally inadequate if we had hot and sunny weather. And while all of the deck chairs, which were wood and fabric, had a small ‘roof’ that could be used to shade one’s face and/or upper body, it would not have worked if one wanted to sit totally in the shade. (We docked, one day, next to the Viking Legend, their new ship. It had a much larger portion of the sun deck shaded.)

Starting from the beginning, the meet and greet went well. We were at the ship by 9:15 AM and our cabin was ready, a very pleasant surprise. Coffee and pastries were set out and there was an announcement that a light lunch would be served in the lounge later in the afternoon. Check in went quickly and efficiently. And, at the reception desk, was a sign up sheet for anyone who wanted to go to the Anne Frank Haus that afternoon. Cost was 15 Euros per person for bus and admittance.

Our cabin was quite comfortable. Windows on the 2nd and 3rd deck opened and we made use of that feature. There was no shortage of shelf/drawer storage. The closet area, for us, was also more than adequate. We had about 10 hangers. My only complaint was that there were no hooks on the walls. So I was very glad I brought my Command Wall Hooks, which worked perfectly. (We were port side and most dockings were truly port side. If you want to look out at the water, be sure to book a starboard cabin.)

The bathroom is a typical ship sized room but it had a large medicine cabinet so no problem with storage.

Service could vary in the dining room. Sometimes I had to practically beg for morning coffee. Other times multiple wait staff was walking around with coffeepots in their hands. In general, though, service was satisfactory.

There were tables for 4 and 6. I think they could have used more tables for 6 as we and others, of course, developed friends during the cruise. At one point, upon our entering the dining room, there was only one table for 6 remaining. After that, I would leave the next-day briefing a minute early to get to the dining room to ‘reserve’ our table.

Breakfast and lunch were served, mostly, as a buffet. For breakfast, there was always a hot chafing dish with bacon and scrambled eggs and a second chafing dish that changed daily. The buffet had various breads, juices, cheeses, meats, lox (excellent!), cereals, dried fruits, yogurt and fresh fruit. And there was a small menu of items that could be ordered from the kitchen, such as omelets, poached eggs, pancakes and French toast.

Lunch was a similar setup except one chafing dish with the hot-buffet-item of the day. Lots of salad items were available. And, on the table, was a menu that listed soup, two hot choices from the kitchen and desserts.

Dinner was totally sit down. Viking now serves wine with dinner and we all found the wines to be more than adequate. There was a choice of appetizers, soup, main dish and dessert. All main dish offerings were either some kind of meat, a fish, and a vegetarian option. There was also a vegetarian menu that specified which items were vegetarian and a healthy menu, pointing out the ‘healthier’ items from the main menu.

One thing that surprised us was that, when dessert was served, we were not asked if we wanted coffee. We thought it wasn’t available until later in the cruise when we learned that coffee or tea would be served upon request.

In general the food was very good except for one consistent item and that was the soup. In my personal opinion they were awful….bland and tasteless, with no body. Except for one night, everyone who ordered the fish options were very pleased. On several nights, nothing on the menu appealed to me and I ordered the ‘always available’ grilled sirloin. Every time I had it, it was excellent. (Also ‘always available’ were grilled chicken, poached salmon and Caesar salad.)

Coffee was available 24/7 from a machine by the reception. I had the cappuccino and mochacino several times. There was a tea time where pastries were served, an early morning breakfast with pastries available and a light lunch (the buffet part of the lunch menu) was served in the lounge.

Every evening there was live music….a gentleman played a type of electric keyboard and the music was suitable for dancing. One evening there was a wooden shoe making demonstration, which we really enjoyed. Another evening had Dutch clog dancing (we passed on that). There was a lecture on tulips and another on the European Union.

Most of the sailing was done at night and we sailed on several rivers that had high commercial traffic. We went through 17 locks, something I always find very interesting.

I have to admit that most people dressed more casually on this trip than I expected. It was not uncommon for both men and women to wear nice jeans and sweaters to dinner. I think I saw two skirts the whole trip and no dresses. And while some men did wear a jacket and tie for the Captain’s Final Dinner, most did not. Most of the time it was casual slacks for both men and women, with a sweater, shirt or blouse.

The only thing missing from our trip were fields of tulips. The long cold winter they had delayed the blooming. While we did see tulips at the Keukenhof Gardens, if seeing them growing in the fields is important to you, try to schedule your trip mid April. Because according to one of our guides, last year was so hot, that the tulips were over by the end of April.

Lastly, don’t expect the ship to be docked within easy walking distance of Amsterdam (see my Tips For Amsterdam post). When we started, our ship was docked at Ruijterkade West, west of the Central Station. It was a good 15-20 minute just to get to the first streets of the city. Upon our final arrival, I don’t think we could have been docked further away. We were at a pier that is opposite the main cruise terminal. However, a 5-10 minute walk away was a bus that went into Amsterdam and several passengers took advantage of it.

All in all we had a very nice trip. For us, now used to 3 weeks and longer trips, it was a very short one. But we thoroughly enjoyed it, seeing and learning a lot.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions. Over the next couple of days, I plan on putting up posts about each of the cities that we visited. Be sure to subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss them.

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