Cruising is the fastest growing travel sector, but if you fancy watching the world float by without the prospect of long-haul travel or days at sea a European river cruise is a great alternative
“I wonder when we’re going?” I asked my able shipmate as I sifted through my suitcase, trying to decide where to stow the contents and being faced with a wide choice of nattily designed drawers and cupboards. “We’ve already set off,” she replied.
In my defence I was completely new to river cruising and although it wasn’t my only faux pas of the trip, Viking Cruise Lines’ newest ship The Legend has been making metaphorical waves since its recent launch. For the technically minded it has diesel-electric hybrid engines that use an estimated 20% less fuel than similar diesel-only ships. For those simply interested in having a peaceful holiday afloat, it means it’s also very quiet and smooth.
Cruising is the fastest growing sector in the UK travel market and although it conjures up a glamorous image of life on the seven seas, a European river cruise is not to be sniffed at. There’s no long-haul travel and certainly no danger of being seasick. Each day you wake up somewhere new, usually minutes away from historic towns and cities, and don’t have to bother packing and unpacking. The only traffic jams are leisurely waits at locks and, occasionally, the mercurial tendencies of Mother Nature can create changes in water levels, sometimes affecting itineraries. That said, we were able to set our watches by Legend’s daily schedule, which ran like clockwork.
The logistics of travelling along waterways and under low bridges means ships are compact, but small can be beautiful. In 443ft – the longest in Viking’s fleet – Legend’s three decks pack in a Tardis-like interior, incorporating a hotel-style reception, airy public seating areas, a panoramic viewing lounge, library and large restaurant, topped by a fourth open-air sundeck complete with a giant chess set. It carries 189 passengers in 97 staterooms, including two large suites and five singles. While cruise terminology can raise a smile, these are certainly not humble cabins. A fridge, room safe, hairdryer, flat screen TV and snug beds provided plenty of creature comforts.
If you get the chance it’s well worth paying extra for staterooms on the middle or upper decks as the huge windows, which can be opened, provide a wonderful view of the passing scenery. (Helpful hint - check what’s going on outside on the webcam before flinging open the curtains in the morning, especially if you’re wrapped in a towel or wearing your birthday suit, as lock keepers and passers-by are often at the same level and only a few feet away!)
Any unexpected surprises aside, it’s impossible not to relax and slip into the laid-back rhythm of life on the river, especially on the aptly named Grand European Tour from Holland to Hungary and taking in Germany, Austria and Slovakia in 15 leisurely days along the mighty Rhine, Main and Danube rivers. Windmills, Cologne Cathedral - the largest in Germany - the legendary Lorelei Rock and half-timbered houses of Mittenburg make way for UNESCO-listed Bamberg, with its curious smoked beer, Viennese whirls and the Hungarian capital divided into Buda and Pest by the Danube. Just some of the top attractions along the watery way.
Virtually every day there were shore excursions, where we climbed onto coaches resembling rookie spies or bodyguards as we adjusted the personal audio sets that enabled us to listen to well-informed guides without having to cluster around within earshot. For those that wanted to jump ship and go it alone, useful maps and sightseeing highlights are provided. If you opt for the latter remember to make a mental note of where your ship is moored, particularly in busy summer months when they can be nose to tail along the riverside. At Mainz I ended up on the wrong ship, only realising my mistake after wandering up and down unfamiliar staircases wondering why I’d never seen them before and failing to spot any recognisable faces on the sundeck!
Safely back on board I succumbed to the reassuring routine of cruise life, starting each morning with a quick read of the daily potted newspapers and the essential Viking News, telling me where I was, shore outings, the cultural and entertainment programme and all important mealtimes and cocktails of the day. I’m reliably informed that earlybirds started the day at 6am with pastries, but we opted for the leisurely two-hour breakfast slot, with an expansive buffet and all sorts of goodies cooked to order. We mostly avoided the full-on lunch, choosing a lighter buffet option in the lounge in a token attempt to save our waistlines for the four-course dinner (albeit quickly caving in to the temptation of afternoon tea and cakes). Chef Karl-Heinz and his team created innovative daily menus, often themed to the location, and my vegetarian friend didn’t go hungry. Neither did the passengers who went for the 10.30am post-breakfast pork and beer fest en route to Cologne, served against a rousing backdrop of oom-pah music.
Being amongst the youngest on board we were the subject of some curiosity from fellow cruisers - mainly Americans and a sprinkling of Brits - but we made plenty of floating friends, including a sprightly pair of octogenarians. This type of holiday isn’t for party animals, but that’s undoubtedly part of the appeal. We initially felt sorry for resident pianist Danny, who stoically played on in the face of dwindling audiences heading for the arms of Morpheus at 9pm. But the upside of being last to bed was having the personal attention of Tomas and the bar staff, who knocked up mean cocktails, and exclusive piano recitals that we tried to tailor with personal requests for our favourite tunes.
A river cruise is undoubtedly a great way to go with the flow, be it the stately progress through Europe’s iconic waterways or hearing the refreshing chink of glass and ice as the first drink of the day is poured.
Viking Legend’s 15-day Grand European Tour, from Amsterdam to Budapest or vice versa, starts from £2,625 per person, based on double occupancy. The price includes full board accommodation, flights, transfers, 13 guided tours, on-board entertainment and cultural programme, welcome cocktail reception and captain’s farewell dinner. The same itinerary, which will run from April to November 2010, is also available on other ships, from £2,175 per person.
Tips are not included and the suggested amount is €10 per passenger, per day, which is split between staff.
For the latest information and prices call 020 8780 7900 or visit www.vikingrivercruises.co.uk.