Looking back at my first river cruise experience
Prior to boarding a Viking ship in the French town of Chalon-sur-Saône, I had done one cruise in my life. It was a grand, week-long excursion around the Gulf of Mexico, and… completely not my style.
There were too many people, too much food available around the clock, not enough activities on board (unless you like gambling and overpaying for spa treatments), and not enough time on shore – at least not the locations I was interested in.
I could have skipped Cozumel (what kind of a Mexican experience is it when everyone speaks English and wants your dollars?) and spent more time in New Orleans. But the way the itinerary was designed, we had to be back on the ship by 10PM on a Friday, when the action in the French Quarter was just starting. To this day, I regret not having been able to hear live jazz in its birthplace.
No wonder I stayed away from ships for 15 years.
Luckily, not all cruises are created equal. I told myself that if I ever sailed again, it would be on a smaller ship either in Alaska or Europe. Nothing that screams “pool time.”
When an invitation came from Viking River Cruises to experience one of their European journeys, I was ready to give cruising another try. I liked the idea of sailing quiet waterways, the same ones that nomadic people followed centuries earlier, and exploring sites at a relaxed pace. It would be a welcome change after a few hectic months.
After some back-and-forth, I chose the 8-day Portraits of Southern France itinerary. It included a number of stops in medieval cities, small market towns, and wine producing regions – right up my alley. We would sail along two rivers: the Saône (from Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy to Lyon) and the Rhône (from Lyon farther south to Avignon and other towns in Provence). I could hardly wait.
I particularly looked forward to visiting Arles, the former Roman town that I knew from Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. Growing up, I had a poster reproduction in my room of Le Café de Nuit (The Night Café), and always wanted to “jump” into the scene.
The Rhône Valley was of interest to me as well, given that Côtes du Rhône wines are among my favorites. Touring vineyards, talking to owners, and tasting wine that I might not easily find back home would certainly be a treat.
After a few days in Paris, I boarded an early-morning train from Gare de Lyon and headed south-east.
The moment I walked into the sunny, spacious atrium of Viking’s longship, I smiled and thought, “This looks like a boutique hotel.” I had arrived too early to check in, but the staff pointed me to the terrace, where a buffet-style lunch was being served.
Located at the bow of the ship, the seating area had an outdoor and indoor part. Most of it was filled with round tables, but I spotted a few couches and armchairs near the floor-to-ceiling windows. I had a feeling I would spend a lot of time here: having a drink, reading, taking in the views, watching sunsets.
If I hadn’t brought a book, I could have easily found something in the onboard library. There was a lot to choose from, all related to France: guide books, photo albums, novels, books about food and wine.
As I walked around the ship (named Buri after the first god in Norse mythology), I located the main restaurant downstairs – it had communal tables, elegant place settings, and large windows on two sides. One floor up was a spacious lounge/bar area, which served as the ship’s living room and live music venue. The rooftop deck featured a walking track, shaded seating, and 360-degree views.
I would have loved to spend more time there, but the mid-summer heat and humidity forced me inside. Just in time to settle into my room.
The “veranda stateroom,” as it was officially called, had a light and airy feel to it. It was smaller than a typical hotel room, but included the same amenities. There was a large, comfortable bed with fluffy pillows, lots of storage space, plus a small desk, mini-fridge, and flat screen TV. The main feature was a private deck, great for watching the changing landscape as we cruise.
What I liked most about the room, though, were the small touches.
I noticed complimentary water and fresh fruit on the counter – replaced every night, as it turned out. The outlets had not only European, but US-style and USB ports. There were premium French products in the bathroom. And when the room attendant noticed my book, she left a bookmark on the night stand.
The cruise was off to a good start. But I couldn’t wait to see what else was in store, including food.
Meals were served three times per day. You could have a casual, sell-serve breakfast and lunch on the terrace (my usual choice), or dine in the formal restaurant. Dinner was always served downstairs, and it was a chance to meet fellow passengers. Being one of the few solo travelers on board, I rotated tables every night, meeting different people in the process.
The food was inspired by southern French cuisine, but a lot of it was tailored to the general taste. Given that most passengers were from the USA, the menu always included contemporary American fare, such as steak, prime rib, and Caesar salad.
I would have preferred more regional dishes, but was happy to see a selection of French wines, delicious freshly-baked bread, and lots of vegetarian options (for example ratatouille or vichyssoise soup), Waiters quickly remembered my dietary preference, which helped avoid awkward I-can’t-eat-this moments.
Attentive service was one of the things I noticed. The crew learned your name almost instantly, and they made you feel welcome throughout the journey. No request was too big. A custom-made drink in the lounge? You got it. Coffee at 10PM for the blogger…? No problem.
As much as I enjoyed the onboard experience, I looked forward to exploring sites along the rivers.
The cruise package included daily tours, and you could also register for extra ones, based on your specific interests.
On the one hand, I was excited to learn from knowledgeable guides – it meant not having to do my own research. On the other, I’m not very comfortable sightseeing with a group and carrying a listening device. I prefer to wander around at leisure. And instead of major sites such as museums or cathedrals, I tend to search off-the-track sites.
Fortunately, free time was built into the itinerary. I took advantage of it quite often – particularly in Lyon and Provence – going on photo outings, having coffee in neighborhood cafes, shopping for locally-made jewelry and clothes. On one occasion, I went to a movie theater to watch a French film that hadn’t been released in the US. One of my favorite nights.
I did enjoy some of the organized outings, in particular wine tasting at a family-run estate in Tournon (at 9AM, when residents typically take a break from field work), followed by a visit to a chocolate factory and shop. I almost turned into a morning person that day.
This flexibility offered by Viking was a far cry from my earlier cruise experience. It made me realize that sailing, just like any type of travel, is what you make of it.
When the program director met me on the first day, she joked that I “skewed their demographics.” She was right. Most of the 185 passengers onboard were couples my parents’ age. I noticed one group of friends in their late 20s or early 30s, and only a few solo travelers. Not that I minded.
Part of the appeal of travel is connecting with people, no matter how different you may seem at first. I enjoyed the company of my fellow passengers, and the fact that I didn’t “fit in” was a sure ice breaker at dinner. We laughed a lot, we shared family stories and travel plans. That’s good in my book.
I did wonder, however, why there weren’t more honeymooners onboard. I remember lots of newlyweds from my first cruise (I was one of them) and thought that the river journey had a better balance of relaxation and exploration. I could also see it as an option for family and friends’ reunions.
If you’re used to traveling alone and being in charge of your own itinerary, a river cruise would no doubt be a change. It’s easy travel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing… Sailing gives you a taste of many destinations, including some lesser-known ones that might be hard to discover on your own.
I would do it again, especially to celebrate a milestone birthday or “get away from it all.”
I was a guest of Viking River Cruises. All thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are mine.