EUROPE ON A SHOESTRING (WELL, ALMOST)

Story by Anne Z. Cooke, photos by Steve Haggerty

Floor-to-ceiling windows in the Viking Forseti’s public spaces allow 180-degree views. Garonne River, France.

I sampled two of the new Viking River Longships recently, sailing on the Garonne River out of Bordeaux, and on the Rhone, from Avignon, both in France.  The cruise coincided with VRC’s announcement of 20 new ships in the water, bringing the fleet to 60+ vessels sailing not just in Europe, but in Asia and beyond.   

My cabin on the Viking Heimdal. Limited floor space but a big-screen television.Splitting my week-long visit gave me a chance to see and travel on two nearly identical Longships, the Heimdal and the Forseti. Both are airy, light and uncluttered, a classically Scandinavian design highlighted tan-and-ivory interiors and natural wood-toned furnishings. Sunlight streamed through floor-to-ceiling glass n the dining room, lounge and the reception areas and poured down through a central skylight.

The Aquavit Café, on the bow deck, was an ideal spot for morning coffee or afternoon tea; the roof-top Sun Deck was an ideal place to sit under an umbrella and watch the scenery on shore. Dining room meals, served buffet style at breakfast and lunch and by waiters at dinner, offered hot entrees with fish, chicken and beef, and a wide choice of  fresh vegetables, salads, fruits and baked goods, and sweet desserts or cheese. The food was so good, in fact, that everyone looked forward to the next meal. Wines and beer were included.

My middle deck stateroom on the spanking-new Heimdal was furnished with a king bed, silky linens, a tiny but efficient bathroom and ample closet and shelf space. A large, flat-screen television faced the bed, and a “French balcony” (sliding glass doors) opened wide for fresh air and a wall-size view outside. These range of cabins was probably designed for two narrow beds; it was certainly too small for a king bed, which I had requested.

Happy hour at the Aquavit Restaurant, on the bow deck. On the Rhone River, in Avignon, France.But where the company really excels is with its shore tours. These carefully planned outings to both favorite and unique villages, palaces and museums are so superior that competing river cruise companies will be hard put to match them. Designed by Karine Hagen, VP of product development, they also include what Viking calls “privileged access” tours, designed for small groups. Made possible by Hagen, whose business connections give her unusual entrée to otherwise private destinations, the one-off experiences are unique to Viking.      

Multilingual, Karine Hagen’s diverse educational background and a life spent traveling has convinced her that the value of travel lies not just in seeing other cultures, but in meeting the people who live them.

“We want a local life component on every cruise,” she told me. “For example, a visit to Lobkowicz Palace in Prague, where the Prince shows us around. Or a visit to a private ballet rehearsal. A morning spent with a city mayor, or a leading artist. A cooking lesson with a famous chef. You’d be surprised to learn that these people are as interested in meeting Americans as Americans are in meeting them.”   

With Viking River Cruises growing, its smart itineraries and attractive ships offer a good value and competitive rates, now in the mid-to upper price bracket. For current discounts, destinations, dates, general information and bookings, go to vikingrivercruises.com; or call (855)338-4546. With Viking in the lead, the race may not be to those who build bigger ships, but to those whose create better memories.  

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