River cruising has been popular in Europe for decades--especially among the Germans, who have a long tradition of cruising on the Rhine, the Danube, and other Central European waterways. In recent years, several cruise lines have targeted English-speaking travelers with voyages throughout Western and Eastern Europe. I had the chance to sample one such itinerary in October, 2003 aboard the M/S Viking Burgundy
In the course of a week-long journey on the Saône and Rhône Rivers in Southern France, I learned what makes river cruising so different from ocean cruising--and why river cruises are increasingly popular with foreign visitors who want a more pleasant and less stressful alternative to escorted bus tours. With my 17-year-old son Anders Imboden, I enjoyed the convenience of unpacking and unpacking just once while exploring more than half a dozen cities and towns in a region known for vineyards, gastronomy, medieval castles, and Roman monuments.
This 192-page cruise review includes a report on the ship and its crew, descriptions of ports and excursions, and 169 captioned photos of the Viking Burgundy and its cruise itinerary from Chalon-sur-Saône to Avignon, France.
(Update: In 2005, this cruise will be called "Burgundy & Provence," and two small ports--Macon and Viviers--will no longer be included in the itinerary.)
Anders and I caught our first glimpse of the Viking Burgundy when the cruise line's transfer bus arrived in Chalon-sur-Saône after a 90-minute drive from Lyon Saint-Exupéry Airport. The ship was moored at the river's edge in the town center, and the boarding process was simple: We just crossed the short gangway, identified ourselves at the reception desk, and picked up our magnetic room keys.
A different kind of ship
The Viking Burgundy is smaller and more intimate than an oceangoing ship. The hull and superstructure are combined into a long, low, narrow box-shaped vessel with a streamlined bow. The ship has just three enclosed decks, plus a sundeck with a wheelhouse that can be lowered hydraulically to fit under low bridges.
All of the Viking Burgundy's public rooms are on the Upper Deck. As you step off the gangway, you enter a spacious reception area with a desk and self-serve beverage area where you can get ice water, coffee, and other beverages such as ice tea or fruit juice throughout the day. Turn toward the bow, and you'll see a tiny shop with Viking River Cruises logo wear and a variety of gift items. On the other side of the reception area, a left turn will lead you into a small library with comfortable seating, a modest selection of books, and a rack filled with up-to-date magazines and English-language newspapers such as the International Herald Tribune, The Times, and Wall Street Journal Europe.
Go through the shop or the library, and you'll find yourself in the lounge. This is a large room with floor-to-ceiling windows, a bar, a small musicians' area and dance floor, and plenty of tables with upholstered chairs. (The lounge is used for the cruise manager's announcements and port talks, afternoon tea, nighttime entertainment by a one-man orchestra or guest performers, watching the sights when the ship is cruising, and the occasional catnap.)
On the other side of the reception area, steps lead to the passenger accommodations. Follow the corridor past the Upper Deck cabins, and you'll arrive at the restaurant, an attractively furnished room in the ship's stern that has open seating at tables for four, six, and eight guests.
Other public areas include the Sun Deck (with lounge chairs and a handful of tables) plus a sheltered open-air promenade deck that wraps around the forward third of the ship on the Upper Deck. On the Viking Burgundy and other Viking ships that cater to American travelers, smoking is permitted only on the Sun Deck and the Upper Deck's open-air promenade deck. (On ships that are marketed to Europeans, the smoking rules are less restrictive.)
The Viking Burgundy has two types of cabins:
Deluxe cabins, which have an area of 151 square feet. These staterooms are on the Upper and Middle Decks. The Upper Deck or Category A cabins have a slightly better view when the ship is in port, but the Middle Deck or Category B cabins are closer to the water (which can be fun while cruising) and aren't subject to foosteps and other noise from the Sun Deck.
In Deluxe Cabins, the twin berths are located on opposite walls and convert into sofas during the day. Windows are large, with sliding panels that can be opened for fresh air and picture-taking.
Standard cabins, with an area of 120 square feet. Category C cabins are on the Middle Deck and have fairly large sealed windows, while Category D cabins are on the Main Deck with half-height windows just above the waterline. In standard cabins, one berth is a pullman bed, while the other converts to a sofa during the day.
All cabins are air-conditioned. Bathrooms are equipped with modern vacuum toilets, one-piece sink/counter units, and narrow triangular shower stalls. Closet and drawer space is modest but adequate. A hairdryer is provided for the 240-volt European outlets, and you can store small valuables in an electronic safe.
The Viking Burgundy's cabins are attractively furnished in a warm and inviting modern style. Their twin berths are ideal for friends and other travelers who prefer to sleep without snuggling. Honeymooners and longtime cuddlers will miss the option of a double bed, although there's much to be said for being able to use the cabin as a daytime living room with sofas.
Food is an important part of any cruise--and on a voyage that meanders through the heart of France's leading gastronomic and wine regions, dining takes on even more importance.
We had our first encounter with the Viking Burgundy's food after boarding the ship in Chalon-sur-Saône. It was mid-afternoon, and we were pleasantly surprised to find a table with freshly-made baguette sandwiches and drinks in the Lounge. The sandwiches were wonderful, and they helped to give us the energy we needed to wander around the town until dinner.
At 7:30 p.m., we had our first meal in the Viking Burgundy's restaurant. The ship has open seating, so we grabbed two window chairs at a table for six and were promptly taken under the wing of Eduardo (see photo), a native of Oporto, Portugal who become our waiter for the rest of the cruise. (We could have sat in other areas of the dining room, of course, but--like many guests--we'd found a waiter who took good care of us, so we rewarded good service with loyalty and an extra tip at the end of the cruise.)
Dinner on the Viking Burgundy is a leisurely four- or five-course meal that usually consists of a salad or appetizer, soup, an entrée, dessert, and--for those who have room--a plate of after-dinner cheeses. On most evenings, guests had two choices for each course, and those who craved for simple food could always order a steak or chicken breast instead of the night's entrées.
Lunch is similar to dinner, but with fewer courses, and guests can choose sandwiches from a buffet if they don't want a hot entrée. Shore excursions return in time for the 12:30 meal hour, and afternoon cruising usually begins as passengers are sitting down to lunch in the large-windowed dining room.
Breakfast is a generous buffet spread that passengers can enjoy at any time between 7 and 9 a.m. Waiters also take orders for freshly cooked eggs, pancakes, and French toast. (Croissants and muffins are served in the lounge at 6 a.m. for early risers.)
Other meals include afternoon tea and a "midnight snack" at 11 p.m. There's no room service, but with the ship being moored in cities or towns for much of the trip, anyone who's hungry for a snack at odd hours can easily step off the ship and find a café or pastry shop.
Executive Chef Ingo Wegner and his staff produced a succession of topnotch meals during our cruise, using fresh ingredients from local markets. (I was especially impressed by the soups and pastries, which were superb.)
Florian Brajkovik, the maitre d', ran the service operation with warmth and savoir-faire; and Daniele, our bar waitress, was always quick to supply the table with drinks, ice water, and fresh bread.
Bars and beverages
The Viking Burgundy has a bar in the lounge, where you can get all the usual drinks plus alcoholic and non-alcoholic "cocktail of the day." Drink prices are comparable to what you'd pay in a local bar or café. During our cruise in fall, 2003, a Coca-Cola was €2,40, a name-brand Bourbon or Scotch cost €4, and a glass of good-quality red, white, or rosé wine was €3,50.
In the restaurant, you can order wine by the glass or bottle, and unfinished bottles will be saved for future meals. You can also bring your own bottle and pay a corkage fee. (On our cruise, at least one thrifty couple avoided the corkage fee by filling wineglasses from bottles in their cabins.)
On most river cruises, shore excursions are included in the fare. The Viking Burgundy follows this tradition by offering walking tours or bus excursions in nearly every port of call.
Because the ship offers the same "French Vineyards & Vistas" itinerary every week from late spring through fall, the tours operate smoothly and (in our experience) the guides are first-rate.
Bus tours. On days that offer bus excursions, the ship's hired coaches will arrive alongside the mooring place after breakfast for an 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. departure. (The buses follow the ship's itinerary, so passengers have the same bus and the same driver every day.)
Walking tours. On other days, passengers meet at quayside for guided walking tours. (We normally had three to four guides for 116 guests.)
Free time. Tours generally return to the ship in time for lunch. Afternoons are usually free for independent sightseeing or shopping, except on days when the ship departs at lunchtime for an afternoon of cruising to the next city or town.
Port briefings. During our trip, cruise manager Marc Sullivan presented slide shows on upcoming ports and excursions while the Viking Burgundy cruised down the river. He told and showed us where the ship would moor, what the city or town had to offer, and what the tours would include. Later, before dinner, he offered shorter briefings for passengers who'd missed the afternoon slide shows. (He was always careful to mention important details like "Watch for the bollards along the quayside--they have a nasty way of colliding with your shins!)
Tips on tipping. It's customary to tip local guides on shore excursions. I'd recommend tipping €2-3 for each tour, or €5 if you're a couple traveling together. Just say "Thank you" and press the money into the guide's hand discreetly as you leave the bus. (Also remember to tip your driver about €10 per person on the last excursion of the cruise.)
Note: I saw many passengers tipping in American dollars, but it's much more thoughtful to tip in local currency--except in Eastern Europe, where guides normally prefer "hard currencies" such as the euro or the U.S. dollar.
In 2005, a Burgundy and Provence cruise with shore excursions will cost you US $1,399 to $3,099, depending on cabin category and when you travel. Viking can also provide transatlantic air fare at extra cost, with connections from Paris to Lyon and Marseille to Paris on Air France.)
Viking's cruises on the Rhine, Danube, and other European rivers offer similar fares and air/transfer packages. (Add-on land extensions are available, or you can combine a river cruise with a do-it-yourself land vacation.)
Doing the math: Crunch the numbers, and you'll see that the "per diem" or daily cost ranges from about a low-season, cruise-only minimum of $200 to a high-season maximum of $543 to $571 with air fare from the U.S. These fares include everything except tips and drinks. For your money, you're getting the equivalent of a deluxe group tour with meals in top-quality restaurants--plus time spent cruising along some of Europe's most beautiful waterways.
Is the expense worth it? Most of the passengers on our Viking Burgundy cruise seemed to think so. Also, river cruising attracts repeat customers, particularly among older voyagers who enjoy the "unpack once" convenience of river travel.
Bottom line: If you can afford it, if you aren't a loner, and if you prefer sightseeing to sea days, a river cruise can be a delightful way to tour the inland regions of Europe--especially if you travel outside the hot, crowded summer months of July and August.
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