Itinerary: Basel, Breisach, Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Koblenz, Cologne, Kinderdijk, Amsterdam
This assignment took us on a seven-night cruise from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam on Viking Longship Alruna, one of the newest longships in the Viking fleet. This was our second sailing aboard a Viking Longship, the first being aboard Viking Hlin in 2014 on the Danube River.
We arrived in Basel the day before embarkation. For overseas cruises, we like to spend one or two days in a hotel before embarkation to overcome the jet lag and explore the city of embarkation, which often gets overlooked by the embarking guests. Also, in the event of an airline delay or flight cancellation, by going in a day or two early, we are less likely to miss a sailing. This is our third visit to Basel and we chose to spend one night at the Swissôtel Le Plaza. Basel may not be the most picturesque city in Switzerland, but it is definitely worth a two-night stay if you can arrange it.
Swissôtel Le Plaza, Basel
A few days before we were scheduled to depart the USA, we received an email from Viking River Cruises informing us that, due to technical difficulties, Viking Alruna would not be able to embark guests in Basel. Instead, the boat would be in Breisach, Germany, (about 40 miles north of Basel) and Viking Cruises would provide a shuttle from Basel to Breisach on the morning of embarkation. The email also indicated that we had the option of joining a Basel walking tour on the morning before the transfer to Breisach. We decided to join the walking tour, which was quite informative and enjoyable. Viking Cruises did a very good job of dealing with a schedule change.
Basel Walking Tour
After the Basel walking tour, guests boarded the motorcoach for the 45-minute drive to Breisach, Germany, where Viking Alruna was ready and waiting for us. Upon arrival, we step aboard Viking Alruna on Deck 2 and are greeted by Hotel Manager, Evelyn Kolditz, who, after looking at our passports, checked us in and handed us our stateroom keys. But wait a minute, we were supposed to be in an odd-numbered cabin and now we are in an even-numbered cabin. What's up? As it turns out, we got upgraded to a Veranda Suite! I suspect that this is because the boat only had 93 guests on this sailing which is less than half full.
Reception Desk on Viking Alruna
The entire check-in process took less than three minutes. Viking has the process down to a science and guests never have to wait in a long line to check-in. When we enter our stateroom, we find that our luggage has already been delivered since it had been transported by truck from the hotel.
Viking Alruna is the newest boat in the Viking Longship fleet, having made only four sailings prior to ours. Of course, everything is shiny and new. But, with the housekeeping and maintenance that Viking has in place, the boat will look brand new for years to come. All Viking Longships share the same basic design and layout. We were told by a crew member that you can tell the Longships apart by looking at the picture hanging at the top of the lobby staircase.
The Viking Lounge
The Viking Lounge is the most visited place on any Viking Longship. Located forward on Deck 3, the lounge is bright and light with soothing colors, leather seating surfaces and a decidedly contemporary Scandinavian decor. There is a large well-stocked bar at the back wall and a small dance floor in front of the bar. Off to one side of the dance floor is a piano where Stefan entertains guests each evening and during lunchtime.
The lounge is where guests congregate for daily briefings, evening entertainment, or just to relax, enjoy a cocktail and watch the riverscape go by. The floor-to-ceiling windows that line both sides of the lounge offer unprecedented views of the river. Furnishings, carpeting and all surfaces are of the highest quality and give the lounge a very rich feel. The Viking Lounge would be our pick as the best lounge of any river cruise boat on which we have sailed.
Viking Longships are immediately recognizable by the Aquavit Terrace located at the bow of the boat, just forward of the Viking Lounge. Aquavit Terrace is an indoor/outdoor alternate dining venue where guests can enjoy a casual lunch, dinner or continental breakfast.
Aquavit Terrace is very intelligently designed with collapsible glass wall panels that can be opened on sunny, bright days, and closed in the event of inclement weather. No other river cruise boat offers al fresco dining at the bow of the boat, at least none we are aware of.
On Deck 3, just above the Reception Desk, there is a small, but very nicely stocked, library with a comfortable seating area. Opposite the library is the boat's "Internet Cafe" with two computers available for guest use. All guests have complimentary WiFi Internet access and complimentary use of the computers.
Located on Deck 2, the Reception area is where you embark and disembark the vessel. There is someone at the Reception Desk 24 hours a day to assist guests. Directly across from Reception is a "gift shop" which is actually a wall of shelves and racks filled with Viking logo items.
Also located in the Reception/Lobby area is a Concierge Desk. Yes, all Viking Longships have a Concierge! The Concierge can assist guests with restaurant recommendations/reservations in the towns visited along the river, make transportation arrangements, and provide a host of other concierge-like tasks.
Located forward on Deck 2, The Restaurant is Viking Alruna's main dining room. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served here.
The Restaurant is designed with large tables to seat 6, 8 or 10 guests. There is a buffet/serving station located in the center of The Restaurant which is used for breakfast and lunch buffet service. Like the rest of the boat, The Restaurant is decorated in light wood and beige tones and reflects the same Scandinavian style.
Another great feature of a Viking Longship is the coffee bar, or coffee bars, as there are actually two of them. The coffee bars are located at the top of the staircase on Deck 3, just above Reception and at the entrance to the Viking Lounge. Each coffee station has an automated coffee/espresso machine where guests can get hot tea, a cup of coffee or hot chocolate 24 hours a day. In the morning, a selection of pastries is available. In the afternoons, delicious cookies are there for the taking. Go ahead, grab a few, nobody is counting!
Every European river cruise boat has a "Sun Deck." But, only Viking Longships have a living herb garden on their Sun Decks! And yes, the chef uses the herbs grown here in some of the dishes he prepares.
Of course, the Sun Deck is much more than herbs. This is the place to be on a beautiful day as Viking Alruna sails up or down the Rhine River. The expansive deck is covered with plush Astroturf and there are dozens of lounge chairs for relaxing in the sun or under one of the many canopies.
At the aft end of the Sun Deck you will find the aforementioned herb garden flanked by a shuffleboard court and golf putting greens.
Our Veranda Suite (304) was the forwardmost cabin on Deck 3. Our unexpected upgrade gave us an opportunity to compare the Veranda Suite to Viking's Category A/B Veranda Stateroom, which we occupied on Viking Hlin in 2014. Even the smallest Viking staterooms are comfortable and well designed. As you might expect, the Veranda Suite is quite a bit larger. At 275 sq. ft., the Veranda Suite (Cat AA) is quite an upgrade from the 205 sq. ft. of the Veranda Stateroom (Cat A or B).
Veranda Suite Living Room (notice the 'cubbies')
The Veranda Suite is one of the most intelligently designed "suites" we have occupied on any cruise vessel. Alruna's (and all Longships for that matter) designers have squeezed the most use out of 275 sq. ft. The separate living room can be closed off from the bedroom allowing an early riser like me to watch TV or work on my computer without disturbing a late riser like Rickee. There is a small desk in the living room, but it is plenty large enough for a laptop workstation. My favorite feature? Cubbies are everywhere surrounding the desk. These little cubbies can be used to store cameras, sunglasses, caps, binoculars, cell phones, etc. They are extremely handy and were quickly filled with all of our travel gadgets.
Every stateroom is equipped with two QuietVox personal communication devices (in a recharging station) for guest use on excursions. Fresh fruit is replenished daily as is bottled water. Instead of using plastic bottles of water, Viking has employed the use of glass bottles which they refill with fresh water each day. We found the decanted water to taste very good.
Bottled water is replenished daily
The attention to detail in the Veranda Suite (and really, throughout the entire boat) is as good as we have seen in 15 years of cruising. A small shelf under the flat screen televisions (one in the bedroom and one in the living room) has two USB outlets above it and is just wide enough to place a cell phone or pocket camera to recharge them. Someone really put some thought into that.
Small shelf under television and USB charging ports
The Veranda Suite utilizes a very unique lighting system. There are light switches/buttons located throughout the suite which have a series of pre-set lighting configurations. Selecting a bright daytime, dim daytime, bright evening, dim evening allows you to set the mood in the bedroom and/or living room with a single touch. Of course, you can fine tune the lighting using up and down arrow buttons.
Unique lighting controls
There is a sofa, chair and coffee table in the living room. One end of the sofa is an ottoman which performs double duty as a desk chair. The other end of the sofa is where you will find a small table with a pull out cube tucked beneath it that can be used for additional seating. A small mini-fridge is located behind a door in the bottom part of a cabinet where you can store soft drinks, beer or wine. And, there are two more drawers below the cabinet surface to use for storage. There is NO wasted space in this suite. A full-length mirror next to the entry door is a nice touch as are the hooks placed on the door to hang coats and hats.
Bar in Veranda Suite
Moving to the bedroom, the king-sized bed (which can also be configured as two twin beds) is dressed with quality linens. There is a lot of room under the bed to stow your luggage once you have unpacked. However, we did not find the mattress to be as comfortable as we remembered from our Hlin sailing. The closet has more than enough storage space for two weeks of river cruising. It would be nice if they added some hangers with clips for hanging pants. One of the four drawers in the closet has an electronic safe to store valuables. All closet doors and drawers throughout the suite have soft-closing dampers to prevent the annoyance of slamming doors and drawers.
There are two bedside tables, one with a small drawer and cubby underneath and the other with two nice-sized drawers and a pull out shelf. There was also a plug located above each nightstand which came in handy for charging a cell phone or iPad. The flat-screen HD television is mounted on the wall across from the bed and has decent programming choices including BBC World News, CNN International, Sky Sports, CNBC Europe, TNT, Nat Geo and Sport 1, etc. On our sailing, the bridge cam and lounge cam were not functioning, even though we could get the audio from the lounge cam channel.
TV Programming menu
The bathroom is very nicely laid out with a larger than expected shower stall with beautiful ceramic tile walls. The large vanity has lots of storage including a small medicine cabinet on one wall that was large enough to hold all of Rickee's creams, lotions and potions. There were additional shelves on the left side of the mirror and also below the vanity. The plush towels are very high quality. The L'Occitane bathroom amenities that we loved on Viking Hlin in 2014 have been replaced with Viking's own brand, Freyja, named for the Torsten Hagen's grandmother. We found the Freyja products to be high quality. Bathrobes and slippers are available upon request. A nice addition that would make this a perfect bathroom would be a magnifying makeup/shaving mirror.
Freyja bathroom amenities
As you would expect, the Veranda Suite also has a full balcony with two chairs and small table accessible via a sliding glass door in the living room. In the bedroom, there is another sliding glass door opening to a "French-style" balcony.
Full balcony and French balcony (left) in Veranda Suite
Now that we have had the unexpected pleasure of occupying the Veranda Suite, we are spoiled for anything else! If you are trying to decide which category of stateroom to book, treat yourself and go for the Veranda Suite.
Food and Dining
We have noticed a continual improvement in the quality of food on Viking River Cruises over the years we have been covering them. With each and every sailing, we notice something new and improved. Guests can enjoy a casual continental breakfast in Aquavit Terrace each morning starting at 6:00am. The term "casual" may be misleading, as all dining on a Viking River cruise is casual. A full breakfast buffet is offered each morning in The Restaurant from 7:00am until 9:30am (times may vary depending on the day's activities). There is an omelette station where a chef will create your favorite omelette with a variety of fresh ingredients. You can also order pancakes, waffles or egg dishes (including Eggs Benedict) a la carte from a menu. On the buffet, you will find a variety of fruits, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, breads, cereals. You can also enjoy a Mimosa made with orange juice and Viking's sparkling wine.
Continental Breakfast Buffet in Aquavit Terrace
At lunchtime (typically served at noon), The Restaurant once again offers a salad, soup and sandwich buffet. A choice of a la minute entrees is available from your waiter. You may also choose to dine in Aquavit Terrace where a smaller buffet is available with soup, salads, sandwiches and hot entrees. This quickly became our favorite place to enjoy lunch as there are a few two-top tables here and if the glass doors are open, you can enjoy the fresh air.
Table for two in Aquavit Terrace
For dinner, The Restaurant typically begins seating guests at 7pm and it is recommended that you show up at that designated time. There are no assigned tables or seating so you dine with whomever you choose. In the evenings, a full menu service is offered with a variety of dishes that change daily. There are a few 'always available' items like the rib eye steak, chicken breast and pasta dish. The rib eye has replaced the NY Strip that was on the menu during our Viking Hlin cruise in 2014. Personally, I preferred the NY Strip served with the three dipping sauces. But, the rib eye is still a good choice, topped with a chimichurri sauce.
Delicious dessert creations served in The Restaurant
At the Captain's Welcome Dinner, guests were invited to select a table and dine with a member of the Senior Staff seated there. I don't recall this from previous Viking sailings, but it is a very nice touch. We enjoyed a fun and delicious meal with our Program Director, Dewi (pronounced Day-Wee), who is from the Netherlands.
Captain's Welcome Dinner with our hostess, Program Director, Dewi
A casual dinner is offered in Aquavit Terrace from 7:00pm each evening which features a starter plate of Norwegian specialties, said to be some of Viking CEO Torsten Hagen's favorites. A carmelized, brown cheese named Gudbrandsdalen (say that three times real fast!) that is slightly sweet and delicious was our favorite. A salmon dip, crab dip and marinated shrimps were also very good. There is a soup and entree served each evening in Aquavit that changes daily. One evening we had BBQ brisket sliders and pork spareribs...delicious! Judy and Michael were always on hand in the evening to prepare a memorable meal.
Norwegian specialty starters served in Aquavit Terrace
The service in Aquavit and The Restaurant was very good. Guests can enjoy complimentary wines and soft drinks at lunch or dinner. A house red and white wine are offered throughout the cruise, but other 'premium' wines are available at an additional cost. A Silver Spirits drink package can be purchased that features unlimited wine, cocktails and soft drinks throughout the cruise.
Bar service is available throughout the day and evening in the Viking Lounge and Aquavit Terrace. Drink prices are competitive with other cruise lines. A 3.5 oz. glass of the Viking-label sparkling wine is 3.50€ (about $4.00 US) and is a good value. In fact, Viking's house sparkling wine has always been one of Rickee's favorites. The fully-stocked bar was able to make any cocktail you desire. Unfortunately, my personal favorite, Crown Royal, was not available on the bar menu.
River cruising is all about the destination and the daily excursions to explore the cities, towns and attractions along the river. Every Viking River cruise includes at least one complimentary excursion in each town you visit. Early each evening, there is a daily briefing held in the Viking Lounge to inform guests of the following day's schedule. Dewi, our Program Director, would explain the excursion options and meeting times. Typically, we were off the boat by 8:30am each morning, but there were a couple of days when we got to sleep longer due to a later excursion departure time.
Dewi conducts a daily briefing each evening
Viking River Cruises has a very efficient system for dividing guests into smaller tour groups. Before departing the boat, guests are asked to retrieve their excursion group cards and "port pass" from the Reception Desk. The excursion group card has a number identifying which tour group you are a part of that day. The port pass lets Reception keep track of who is on or off the boat. After exiting the boat, all you have to do is look for the Viking motorcoach with your group number in the window. What could be easier?
Tour group number matches motorcoach
On walking tours that depart directly from where the boat is docked, you simply look for the local guide holding a lollipop sign with your group number and join that group. Upon your return to the boat, you turn in your group card and port pass to let them know you are back on board.
Lollipop signs keep you with the correct local guide
It is not uncommon for several tour groups from different river cruise boats, or even land tours, to be at the same location. Fortunately, Viking River Cruises pioneered the use of the QuietVox communication devices, which are provided to each guest. With the QuietVox, you will only hear your local guide's commentary. You can also wander away a bit to take a photo or examine something a bit closer and still be able to hear what the guide is saying.
Rickee shows her QuietVox
We were very impressed with the quality of the local guides Viking River Cruises utilized during this cruise. Every guide was very knowledgeable, fluent in English and kept the groups organized and separated from other tour groups. We have previously experienced excursions in several of the cities we visited on this cruise and we felt that Viking Alruna provided as good or better an experience on every excursion as compared to any we had taken before.
Guests have complimentary use of umbrellas, which are conveniently stashed in a bin as you exit the boat. Complimentary bottled water is also available for the taking as you depart for your tour.
Complimentary bottled water
While some walking tours begin and end at the boat dock, many will require a motorcoach transfer. Viking River Cruises has a fleet of modern, new and spotlessly clean motorcoaches to shuttle guests to and from their tours. In certain towns where Viking Alruna was scheduled to stay for a longer period, shuttle buses were provided so guests could remain in town longer and return to the ship later.
Viking motor coach
OPTIONAL EXCURSIONS - On this sailing, we booked several of Viking River Cruises' optional excursions which incurred an additional cost. These excursions can be pre-booked and paid for through the MyVikingJourney.com website. Our optional excursions included:
Medieval City of Colmar ($49) - This optional tour departed from Breisach, Germany. After a 45-minute drive to Colmar, our local guide conducted a walking tour of the Old City. The guide had a great sense of humor and knew his Colmar history. We had enough free time at the end of the tour to do some souvenir shopping and exploring on our own. Colmar is a charming place well worth visiting, especially if it is not a Sunday and more shops are open. We would rate the value of this tour as a 5 out of 5.
Alsatian Wine Tasting ($79) - This tour departed from Kehl, Germany, and occurred in the afternoon (after lunch), after our included morning tour of Strasbourg. The tour started with a motorcoach drive through the Alsatian wine country to the small town of Obernai. A brief guided walking tour of Obernai concluded with some free time to do souvenir shopping. Afterwards, the motorcoach took us to the Zeyssolff winery where we were given a brief tour of the winery and had the opportunity to taste six different Alsatian wines. We even got to keep the small shot glass used for the tasting. As wine tastings go, this one was fairly typical. At the conclusion of the tour, guests were given the opportunity to purchase wine while some guests went across the street to visit a gingerbread shop. We would rate the value of this tour as a 4 out of 5.
German dinner in Rüdesheim ($99) - On this optional excursion, we departed Viking Alruna early in the evening for a short mini-train ride into the charming little town of Rüdesheim, one of the most visited cities on the Rhine River. We arrived at a local German restaurant, Rüdesheimer Schloss, and were seated at a large table set for 10 people. The restaurant had a lively, albeit a bit touristy, atmosphere. There was a band playing German music, and the place got rather raucous and noisy. The multi-course German meal was a set menu, so we did not have a choice of courses, but the food was good. Beer and wine flowed freely, but soft drinks were also available for the asking. Guests were encouraged to participate in some fun group activities, including a conga line marching through the restaurant to German music. I think everyone had a good time and we would rate the value of this excursion as a 5 out of 5.
Tour of Augustusberg Palace in Brühl ($59) - This afternoon tour begins with a 40-minute motorcoach drive from Cologne, Germany, to the town of Brühl where Falkenlust was our first stop, the favorite hunting lodge of elector and Archbishop of Cologne, Clemens Augustus. Afterwards, we toured Augustusberg Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both tours were excellent and we found the palace to be well worth a visit. The value of this optional excursion is rated a 5 out of 5.
You won't find flashy production shows on a river cruise. The entertainment, for the most part, is provided by entertainers from the area you are visiting and provides an insight into the local culture and traditions. On our Rhine River cruise, we experienced a variety of local groups including four performers from the Alsace region who took us on a musical journey from the Rhine to the Seine with German and French songs. In Mannheim, a traditional German glassblower came on board to create an exquisite work of art during a demonstration of his craft. During our Taste of Germany dinner, we were entertained by two local musicians who played rousing German melodies while we dined. In Cologne, two extremely talented local musicians treated us to a classical concert. When we were not being entertained by local groups, the onboard pianist, Stefan, played for our listening (and dancing) pleasure. Or, you could always watch an on-demand movie on your stateroom television.
The cultural immersion included lectures on pertinent topics such as Dutch Water Management and an introduction to the Dutch Masters and their art by Program Director, Dewi Klop, who also introduced us to Dutch cheeses and gin with samples of each for us to taste. A guest lecturer, Birte Meinschien, talked to us about France and Germany and their place in Europe today. Executive Chef Mark Anthony Saldua demonstrated how to prepare various local specialties such as Flammkuchen, a German version of pizza, and the famous Rudesheim Coffee, with samples for all, of course.
The next day's activities were listed in the Viking Daily, which is delivered to your stateroom each evening. In addition to meal times and starting times for each event, the Viking Daily is packed with interesting and helpful information about the place we would next visit including the area's history, geography, things to see and do, special products the area is known for, and local customs and traditions. The Viking Daily gave you a peek into what you could look forward to the next day. The expected temperature and weather conditions were also included along with the ship's phone numbers, the Program Director's phone number and the ship's docking location should you somehow get lost.
Staff and Crew
Viking River Cruises has a knack for hiring good people. This is not an easy task when you launch as many new boats per year as they do. How they get good people and get them all effectively trained remains a mystery. Nevertheless, every single member of the crew and Senior Staff we encountered was friendly and knowledgeable. From Ozzy, our room steward, to Dana at the bar who always called us by name, to Evelyn and Dewi (Hotel Manager and Program Director), everyone was wonderful.
Dewi, Program Director and Evelyn, Hotel Manager, at Explorer's Society Cocktail Reception
Viking has a very efficient mechanism in place for a smooth, painless disembarkation. Guests are organized into groups based on their flight departure times. Those with early flights disembark first, those who are staying for a post-cruise hotel disembark last. We did not observe any crowding or hassle at all. In our case, we required a taxi to transfer to another river cruise a couple of miles away. The Concierge, Zoltan, made a phone call to the other boat to see where they were docked and arranged for a taxi to pick us up. Great service!
Included in your cruise fare:
Cruise accommodations (stateroom or suite)
All meals on board vessel (breakfast, lunch and dinner)
Bottled water and fresh fruit in stateroom (replenished daily)
Excursions in each town visited (motorcoach or walking tour)
Use of QuietVox communication devices
Wine with lunch and dinner (choice of house red or house white)
Soft drinks or beer with lunch and dinner
Use of umbrellas
Bottled (plastic) water available on excursions
Entertainment in lounge each evening
Airport transfers (if air is booked through Viking River Cruises)
Wine, beer, cocktails or soft drinks served in lounge
Meals off the boat
Airfare (unless booked as part of your Viking River Cruises package)
Airport transfers (unless you book your air through Viking River Cruises)
On a Viking River Cruise, you can expect a casual, relaxed atmosphere. There's no need to pack a suit, or even a sport coat, unless you just want to. Slacks and a shirt with a collar are recommended after 6pm, but shorts and t-shirts are acceptable during the daytime. The clientele leans toward a more mature crowd, but that is changing. Every year we are seeing more and more 30 to 40-year-olds in the mix. You won't see many families with small children. In reality, there is nothing for kids to do on a river cruise. We have also noticed that most people who love river cruising have little or no interest in big, oceangoing cruise ships with a thousand or more people.
You would think that with the rapid expansion of Viking River Cruises over the past few years, the quality of the product would suffer. This company defies logic because somehow, the bigger it gets, the better it gets. How is that possible? We still consider the Viking Longships to be the best hardware sailing in Europe. Even though the boats can carry up to 190 guests, they feel incredibly spacious and comfortable. The quality of workmanship both inside and outside the vessel is impressive.
Viking Hlin and Viking Alruna docked together in Breisach
Equally impressive is the polished service Viking guests enjoy delivered by a well-trained, friendly staff. Viking River Cruises continues to exceed our expectations each time we sail with them. We will continue to recommend Viking River Cruises to our friends and followers who are looking for a high-value European river cruise.
Pros and Cons
Best boats sailing in Europe. Spacious, modern, comfortable
Veranda Suite is awesome, roomy and super comfortable
Excellent local tours and guides
Concierge available to make local reservations or arrangements
Optional tours are a good value
Food and dining continue to improve
Bar service and reasonable drink pricing
Aquavit Terrace alternate dining
Most comfortable lounge of any river boat (on which we have sailed)
Motorcoaches - new, clean and very comfortable
Excellent, polished service throughout the boat
Internet/WiFi needs improvement (true of all river cruises)
Mattress was not as comfortable as we remember
Bathroom could benefit from addition of magnifying makeup mirror