Rare cheese, a glass of Cotes du Rhone, and Paris gliding by — it’s not only the evening of your Parisian dreams, it’s just another night spent as a guest on a Viking river cruise along the Seine.
Now in 25 years of operation, Viking has since branched into ocean and expedition cruising. But through its early and aggressive marketing of river cruises and its world record-breaking deployment of river ships, Viking has become synonymous with river cruising for most consumers.
Yet, the very same traits that have grown the Viking river brand — economics and what Chairman Torstein Hagen calls “understated elegance” — are what critics and competitors use to refer to the product as mass-market.
I will admit that being in the industry for a decade and having had the opportunity to sail on other river cruise lines, I experienced the differentiators of many other brands: beds facing windows, more space, more luxury, more included excursions — even a brand that boasted nightlife for a more youthful passenger base. And soon the years passed between my very first press trip on a Viking Christmas markets cruise and my very first river cruise, with my grandmother, entirely before a career in cruising in 2010.
Now, a dozen years later, I was able to experience a mini Seine River sailing on the newly inaugurated Viking Radgrid, and in a relatively short amount of time I was reminded of why Viking remains a leader in the industry. It’s not a monopoly they have, but in the course of two-and-a-half decades, Viking has made connections that serve to solidify a benchmark in service and guest experience. The following are a handful of the ways in which Viking still has its spark.
Preferred Docking Locations
We’ve heard that good things come to those who wait, and according to Hagen, most of Viking’s major accomplishments have taken seven years to achieve. This includes securing an ongoing agreement for the preferred docking location at Port de Grenelle in Paris. Sure, bus tours mean that passengers are expeditiously escorted and transported to where they need to be. But a berth near the Eiffel Tower offers indisputable views and a prime location that is truly within the heart of Paris. It’s the difference between arriving onto the ship and feeling stuck without a guided tour and being able to take a stroll after dinner to fend off jetlag by soaking in the City of Light’s romantic atmosphere on the very first night.
Apart from Paris, Viking has secured preferred docking in other prime locations including the Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt.
Experienced Tour Guides
I’ve had excellent tour guides on river cruises across various companies; even those serving Viking customers don’t always work for Viking exclusively. However, I’ve been told that due to the number of ships that Viking has in service, which means more passengers, more tours, and ultimately more business for guides, the most experienced (and therefore in-demand) guides prefer to work with Viking because it’s a better guarantee of regular employment. This was the case on our Seine River excursions, which were led by a few guides, but one guide in particular who made a huge impression on myself and other guests.
Her name was Sandrine and she relayed an encyclopedia of knowledge in a conversational way, impressing all of us with her depth of experience and of course her relaxed French demeanor. During a food tour (one of Viking’s optional excursions), as we took bites of cakes from a local patisserie, she relayed that during certain periods in history using almonds was avoided because cyanide has a slight almond flavor and nobles were afraid of being poisoned. A fellow guest and former travel executive marveled that across a dozen or more food tours in Paris, she had never learned as much as she did in our short time together with Sandrine. Needless to say, she was a popular guide requested again and again throughout our time together on the Seine.
Stellar Onboard Service
One could argue that on a naming cruise, the crew is on best behavior. But you could also argue that on the first sailing of the season, onboard service might be finding its groove again. On Viking Radgrid I found that the service was friendly and reliable. New hires worked alongside seasoned river cruise professionals, and the result was consistently positive. A server in the dining room explained to us that Viking, as an employer, lets crew “be themselves” in the sense that he was allowed to let his personality shine through his service. As such, we were treated to lighthearted puns, jokes, and quips throughout lunch and dinner. A young server in the lounge explained to us that because he had worked for the company for years, he had his own room to himself. We enjoyed getting to know the crew of the Radgrid and in our observation, the season’s first sailing went off without a hitch.
An F&B Program That Just Works
All-inclusive makes for a relaxing vacation, but let’s face it: it also ramps up the price tag. We appreciate Viking’s approach to alcohol, which offers cruisers the standard beer and wine at meals but leaves the spirits to an added-fee package. This allows for customers to create an all-inclusive drinks experience — or not. The price of the Silver Spirits drink package is a reasonable one, at an estimated $150 per person on a weeklong cruise, or $300 per cabin for a couple. Not only does it include your nightcap cognac, but premium sommelier’s choice wines, which on a river cruise in France were exceptional, as you can imagine.
Additionally, we didn’t have a single bad meal onboard, and in fact the fish each evening was a standout as corroborated by other guests. A cod with frizzled leeks was a surprise for us on menus full of scallops and Chateaubriand. Teatime is a true teatime without a teabag in sight. A tiered platter is set out each afternoon with a tantalizing variety of finger sandwiches and pastries with homemade scones served tableside. Teas, like an “organic jade sword” are presented in a single-serving steeper.
There is still a buffet element to breakfast, for those who enjoy helping themselves, but guests also have the option of a menu. Fresh berries with mascarpone well complemented the egg of the day, which ranged from shakshuka to quiche.
An Underestimated Attention to Detail
All Viking Longships — and there are dozens — are relatively identical, designed in the spare Scandinavian aesthetic. So you might be wondering: What detail? It’s usually the most intuitive design that’s the best kind of design, and there are these types of touches throughout a Viking river ship — ones that seem straightforward but took a lot of thought to incorporate. For example, Hagen talked us through the decision to make Viking’s toiletries clearly labeled; easy to identify in different colors; and with an easy-to-open snap cap, eliminating the need to peel off a foil tab or plastic wrapper before use. Staterooms in any category include heated floors in the bathrooms (an indication of the line’s Norwegian heritage). Lights include a dimmer. TV remotes are designed to be foolproof. Each day, a different book was displayed on the shelf in the library, pertaining to the destination; for example, in Paris, coffee table books on pastry and fashion icons were highlighted.
We can analyze square footage the livelong day, but many clients —especially first-time cruisers — are going to base their purchasing decision almost solely on the price tag. Hearing from a longtime hotel director with the brand, along with the company’s chief architect, the story we’re told about Viking squeezing as many people per ship as possible is quickly dispelled by an explanation of how space onboard is used in innovative ways to accommodate ample balconies, suites, and also the standout Aquavit Terrace that provides light, air, and plenty of seating at the bow of the ship. The fact of the matter is that the higher passenger capacity provides lower fares. One look at the sprawling sun deck with loungers and a full herb garden helps to understand that these are far from sardine ships. In fact, they’re Longships, and their footprint only continues to expand.
All photos courtesy Brittany Chrusciel.