Last April, as we glided past castles perched on steep, lush hillsides, I didn’t feel nearly as smart as the day in January when I had booked the trip. An e-mail from Viking River Cruises had announced a sale. My brilliant idea had been to save even more by taking the Rhine River cruise in April. Climate change will bring June-like temps in April, I thought, saving my partner and me more than $1,000 vs. if we’d waited until high season.
Ah, yes, despite bright sunshine on a mid-April day, the thermometer was struggling to hit the mid-40s.
“Why didn’t I bring gloves and a hat?” I heard a fellow passenger say as we watched Germany’s Teutonic titans on one side of the Rhine, France’s splendors on the other.
Almost on cue, an announcement over the loudspeakers brought welcome news. Hot chocolate and coffee with or without Bailey’s Irish Cream would soon be served. Moments later staffers delivered perfectly folded plaid wool blankets. A pair of patio heaters perched above the plexiglass wind guards on the bow began to glow orange.
I wrapped a blanket around my legs, sipped the hot chocolate and thanked my partner for suggesting, foolishly I thought at the time, that I pack a bulky jacket. I glanced through my binoculars for a close-up of Gutenfels Castle to see the word “hotel.” Someday we’ll come back for an extended stay, we said.
But we both know it will be a struggle to resist the siren call that cruising holds on us. With the simplicity of a single check-in, we receive a superior room, a dock that puts us steps away from Kinderdijk, Cologne, Heidelberg and Koblenz, and guided tours that point out sites and stories so we don’t have to bury our noses in an app or a guidebook.
And the food? The old joke is true — we arrived as passengers and left as cargo. Careful not to let passengers feel they might be missing out by not dining in local restaurants, the chef treated us to regional, seasonal favorites such as Alsatian wine and spargel (white asparagus). Without a tour and a guide, a city guy like me never would have guessed that Black Forest fields covered in dark plastic in the spring were hiding the German delicacy.
When we booked the trip, I’ll admit to some trepidation. Viking River Cruises, like many cruise lines, is in the midst of a major expansion. Since 2013, it has launched more than 40 new ships, including six christened on March 1 alone. The ship on which we cruised, the Tialfi, was on its maiden voyage. Eight oceangoing ships debut this year from Viking, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Regent and Seabourn.
Honestly, is there enough staff to provide the level of service that people expect on these floating luxury hotels?
In the past, Viking Cruises’ reputation for stellar customer service could stand bow to bow with pricier cruise lines. On a trip last year on the Viking Star, which was carrying about 800 passengers from Bergen to Barcelona, many staff members greeted my partner and me by name after only a short time on board. The sommelier brought out a different complimentary wine for our table after we were ambivalent about the house wine.
On the Tialfi, we came to know crew members from Croatia, Germany, Spain and the Philippines. The service was as prompt as a German train — and nearly as impersonal at times. Staffers were less likely to joke and laugh with passengers as we’d experienced on other cruises. Nor had most mastered the art of memorizing names and faces. The Tialfi holds 190 passengers, and only rarely did staffers in the bars and dining rooms drop a name. In Viking’s defense, I suspect that the crew on the new ship hadn’t worked together long enough to develop an easy rapport.
These are nits. When we boarded the ship in Basel, Switzerland, at noon, about three hours before our boarding time, I didn’t expect our room to be ready, our luggage to be taken to our room immediately and lunch to be served. We also got an impromptu guided tour of the city on foot and in a luxury coach before departing for Breisach, Germany, in the evening.
Catering to its audience
What Viking has learned from middle-class customers like me is that passengers don’t want to be nickeled and dimed on a cruise. Passengers now get free Wi-Fi, wine and beer with lunch and dinner, and cappuccino and espresso. Dinner menus change nightly.
Viking clearly caters to its audience. Many of its customers are retired, the most demanding customers, in my opinion. So small items, such as shampoo, body wash and lotion bottles, are labeled in large letters for those with poor eyesight. Water glasses in the bath hung on the wall in a brace of soft plastic to dampen noise. In-floor bathroom heating has been added in all the newer ships.
The “freebies” also include at least one free excursion in every port. Our cruise had seven major stops — Breisach, Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Rudesheim, Koblenz, Cologne and Kinderdijk. Spending an additional $40 to $150 per person for an excursion at each stop gets pricey. We paid an extra amount for only one excursion, called “Top of Cologne.” Guests could also choose a tour of a Mercedes-Benz factory, a World War II museum and memorial, or a wine tasting in an Alsatian vineyard. The rest were free.
In Strasbourg, we took the free guided tour of the French city on foot and by coach. We walked labyrinthine cobblestone streets in rainy, 45-degree weather. I refused to buy a hooded winter jacket in shops around Notre Dame. Cold and damp, I skipped a self-guided walking tour up the 330 steps of the cathedral to see panoramic views of the city, the Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest. Although there were several more hours left to see Strasbourg, I returned to the boat.
A top-notch tour
Warm and dry, my spirits lifted at dinner. As passengers shared their day’s experiences, a couple from Texas declared that the view from the top of Strasbourg’s Notre Dame cathedral was the highlight of their trip.
Back at the room, I scanned the itinerary to recoup my lost experience. I hoped that I had discovered it in a tour to the top of Cologne’s Dombauhütte Cathedral, described as “the backstage tour of a lifetime.”
Only six of us signed up for the tour, probably because it required “very good physical condition for walking up stairs.” We entered through an unremarkable door leading to a freight elevator. As our guide ushered us onto the lift, I felt like a kid sneaking past the yellow “Do not cross” tape.
When the doors opened to the invitation-only attic, it was as if the Dom’s 800-year-old skeleton was laid bare before us. Scaffolding from previous renovations lay flat; old bell clappers and decaying sandstone statuary stood like tombstones in the massive expanse.
As we walked on narrow, fenced walkways outside, hundreds of feet above the ground, we saw what the casual visitor below would not — seismographs on the walls to detect earthquakes and white sandstone facades with the date of replacement written in small letters in black marker. About 10 million euros are spent each year to maintain the Dom, our tour guide said.
As the tour ended, our friends from Texas who had sung the Strasbourg cathedral’s praises exclaimed that hands down, this was the new highlight of the nearly completed cruise.
That reminded me that even though the new ship exceeded our expectations, the most glorious part of our cruise almost didn’t happen. We waited in line on the ship to talk to the concierge about excursions, which is normal on a busy ship, but after describing our likes and dislikes, she didn’t suggest the Dom tour. Listening to her recommendations for the guests in front of us, we discovered her picks were virtually identical for each guest. As a favor to future passengers, we told her later that the tour was an underappreciated gem with an inaccurate description of its physical demands.
We had better luck with recommendations by the tour director. Lunch at Brasserie au Dauphin in Strasbourg put us exactly where we wanted to be, a tucked-away place frequented by locals who didn’t speak English. We both ordered a river fish stew with salmon, perch and whitefish served in a small cast-iron kettle. Normally I can’t even recall what I had for lunch yesterday, but the memory of the rich, buttery broth still lingers.
Several evenings later, in a small, packed jazz bar in Cologne, we tried another recommendation by the Viking concierge — Kölsch beer. One gulp of the straw-colored pale ale and we agreed: Viking takes good care of its guests.