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Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruise in Ukraine

By Gene Sloan

I am sitting at the very front of the Viking Sineus, in the glass-lined Panorama Bar, looking out over what may be the most tranquil stretch of water in all of Europe. For the past few hours, we have been steaming northward on the Dnieper River from Dnipro, a Ukrainian city of nearly one million people, toward the bustling Ukrainian capital of Kiev (pop. 2.9 million), and I have yet to see another ship of any size.

No barges, no tankers, no day boats carrying tourists. We have passed a few small fishing boats, but nothing like the numbers you see on other European rivers. It seems even the locals have forgotten about this 1,400-mile-long waterway.

Viking River Cruises on serene Dnieper

Ukraine’s serene Dnieper River. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Rising in the Valdai Hills of Russia and flowing southward through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea, the Dnieper is one of the longest rivers in Europe — longer than the Rhine and Seine combined. But it’s little visited by Western tourists, or anybody else for that matter, and barely used for commerce.

That always has been the case to some extent. But it’s even more so now that Ukraine is embroiled in a Civil War-like conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the country’s far-eastern corner. That has scared some tourists away, not that it should.

As of this year, the Dnieper is home to just one overnight cruise vessel of any note — the one that I am aboard. As recently as two years ago, when there were more worries about the intentions of the Russia-backed separatists, even this ship wasn’t sailing.

A TRULY QUIRKY CRUISE

Even in the best of times, the Dnieper isn’t considered an A-list river destination. Meandering through the relatively non-descript central part of Ukraine, past low-lying farmland, forests and Soviet-built industrial towns, the waterway lacks the romantic scenery of the Danube, with its vineyard lined Wachau Valley, or the medieval charm of the Rhine. Nor is it a gateway to Europe’s greatest cultural attractions. If that’s what you’re after, this probably isn’t the trip for you.

But a Viking River Cruise in Ukraine on the Dnieper has its allures. Most notably, it offers a window onto Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, who have managed to maintain an identity despite centuries of invasion and domination by outside powers.

If you’re curious at all about this long-suffering, only-recently-independent country of 45 million, if only because you’ve been hearing so much about it lately in the news, a trip on Viking Sineus can be eye-opening.

In addition to historical sites dating as far back as the 11th century, when Kiev was at the center of the mighty, Viking-founded Kievan Rus federation, the “attractions” you will see include faded Soviet monuments, Stalinist Empire-style apartment complexes and other remnants of the Soviet era (until 1991, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union), plus artifacts from the recent conflict in the east.

One moment in you’ll be looking at an 18th-century cathedral, the next moment walking through a display of bombed-out vehicles from the eastern Donbass region.

The trip also will give you a chance (unofficially, without the assistance of Viking River Cruises) to visit one of the world’s most unusual (and poignant) sites: The still-radiation-contaminated nuclear disaster zone that is Chernobyl. It’s just a two-hour drive from where the ship docks in Kiev. (More details at the end of the article.)

In short, this is a bit of an outlier when it comes to European river cruises. As quirky cruises go, it may be one of the quirkiest of them all.

Viking River cruise Ukraine sign

Hey mom … we’re not far from Baltimore! * Photo: Gene Sloan

AN ANOMALY IN THE VIKING FLEET

Viking Sineus is operated by Viking Cruises, but it isn’t a typical Viking ship. Nearly all the line’s 60-plus river vessels in Europe are of the same modern “longship” design that began rolling out in 2012. But Viking Sineus is one of a handful of Viking ships that dates back far earlier — all the way back to 1979! It also has an unusual history that, for a history lover at least, is part of its allure.

Viking River Cruises

The 196-passenger Viking Sineus was built in 1979. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Built in East Germany during the height of the Cold War and originally named Mikhael Lomonosov, the vessel initially served as a getaway for high-level Soviet apparatchiks (or so the story goes). It wasn’t until the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that it entered the Viking fleet.

The good news is Viking Sineus doesn’t feel like it dates to the 1970s. In fact, while its exterior is a bit Old School, its interior looks almost new. That’s because Viking recently revamped Viking Sineus in a major way, gutting and rebuilding cabins and public spaces with the same modern Scandinavian design found on the longships.

The massive overhaul of Viking Sineus took place in 2014. But due to the recent conflict in Ukraine, the vessel only resumed sailing in 2018. Given its schedule is seasonal, that means there only have been about 20 voyages since the ship emerged from its makeover.

Viking Sineus docked. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Cabins & Public Rooms

If you’ve cruised on a Viking ship before, you’ll feel right at home on Viking Sineus. Its 98 cabins are similar in style to those found on the longships, with light walls, streamlined furniture, big televisions and modern bathrooms. Two-thirds have balconies.

The author’s balcony cabin. * Photo: Gene Sloan

For the most part, the public areas are stylish and comfortable. If they have a flaw, it’s that the main lounge, the Sky Bar, is too small to accommodate the number of passengers who arrive at cocktail hour for drinks and nightly port talks. While the crew brings in extra chairs for the occasion (jammed edge-to-edge in rows facing the stage), it’s not a particularly pleasant place to kick back before dinner.

Viking Sineus also has a far smaller top-deck lounge space than the longships. Not that this is a problem. We saw few people heading up top during our voyage.

As is typical for Viking ships, there is no fitness center, spa or hair salon on board. Nor is there a laundry room, though laundry service is available through your room attendant for a somewhat hefty extra charge (185 Ukrainian hryvnia, or about $7, for a blouse; 225 hryvnia, or about $9, for trousers).

Viking Sineus does have a small library with books and games tucked between the rows of cabins on Deck 2. There’s also a small shop selling nesting dolls and other Ukrainian crafts.

a library Viking River Cruises

The library/game room on board. * Photo: Gene Sloan

JUST ONE EATERY

When it comes to mealtimes, there essentially is just one option on Viking Sineus, the 196-seat Kiev Restaurant. Located at the back of the ship on Deck 3, the room offers open seating for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a well-distributed mix of tables for two, four, six and eight. If you’re a couple looking for privacy, you’ll have no problem finding a table for two. But there are plenty of bigger tables, too, if you’re a larger group or eager to share a meal with new friends.

Breakfast and lunch in the Kiev Restaurant are buffet style with additional a la carte items available from servers (made-to-order breakfast options include Eggs Benedict, buttermilk pancakes and French toast; lunch brings cheeseburgers, hot dogs and a changing lineup of specials such as a pulled-pork sandwich and beef ragout). In the one exception to the one-eatery situation, early and late risers will also find coffee, tea and pastries in a corner of the Panorama Bar.

Ukrainian Favorites

Dinner in the Kiev Restaurant is a table-served affair with changing three-course menus. The highlight of the menu every night is the “regional specialties tasting” — a starter, entrée and dessert that offers a taste of local Ukrainian cuisine. A typical night might bring classic Ukrainian red borscht as a starter, followed by local butter fish with a celeriac purée and a Ukrainian plum cake.

Viking River Cruises

A classic Ukrainian red borscht was served, of course. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The dinner menu also offers a rotation of two non-Ukrainian entrees each night, plus two starters and a dessert. These dishes are mostly Continental, ranging from braised beef with an onion sauce and mashed potatoes to seared pike perch with creamy vegetables and glazed beets.

In addition, as is typical on Viking ships, an “always available” section of the menu at dinner offers a classic Caesar salad as a starter and three traditional entrees: beef tenderloin, poached Norwegian salmon and roast chicken. Always-available desserts include Crème Brulée, a cheese plate, a fruit plate and ice cream.

In general, the food on Viking Sineus is quite good, and the Ukrainian dishes stand out. My favorite dish of the trip was the Glavnaya Goose Leg with apricots and prunes that appeared on the regional-specialties menu early in the voyage. Slow-cooked and beautifully glazed, the meat just fell off the bone and boasted a wonderful, stew-like favor.

Viking River Cruises dinner

The Glavnaya Goose Leg with apricots and prunes. * Photo: Gene Sloan

As is always the case on Viking ships, beer, wine and sodas are available during lunch and dinner at no extra charge. Just be warned that the included wines, locally made in Ukraine, are relatively basic. For those who crave something swankier, a selection of extra-charge wines is available, too.

Of note, the entire dining room and bar staff, as well as nearly all other crew on board, is made up of local Ukrainians, most of whom live in the cities the ship visits. Only the captain, program director, hotel director and maître d’hotel are from outside the country (including Italy and Germany).

This lends a wonderful authenticity to the on-board experience, as if we are staying in a local hotel. The (all-female) dining and bar staff — nearly all young, energetic and outgoing — have a good command of English and are happy to talk about life in their native country. Ditto for the excellent front desk staff.

ONE-WAY FROM ODESSA TO KIEV

For 2019, Viking Sineus is operating one-way voyages between the Ukrainian cities of Odessa and Kiev. The northbound version of the Viking River Cruise in Ukraine, starting in Odessa, includes a short passage across the Black Sea before the vessel reaches the mouth of the Dnieper and heads upstream to Kherson, Zaporozhye, Dnipro, Kremenchug and Kiev. The southbound version of the trip does the same in reverse.

Viking River Cruise Ukraine itinerary

The itinerary.

For 2020, Viking is tweaking the itinerary by adding a visit to nearby Romania to the beginning or end of every trip. Instead of Odessa, the northbound version of the newly named “Kiev, Black Sea & Bucharest” tour will begin in Bucharest, Romania, with a two-night hotel stay. Tourgoers then will transfer via a long bus ride to Tulcea, Romania, where Viking Sineus will be waiting to take them across the Black Sea to Odessa and the Dnieper cities of Kherson, Zaporozhye and Kiev. The southbound version of this Viking River Cruise in Ukraine will offer the same in reverse.

Note that, for 2020, stops in Dnipro and Kremenchug are being dropped.

Here, a day-by-day look at the northbound version of the itinerary as it is offered in 2019:

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 1-4: ODESSA

If you’ve heard anything about Odessa, you’ve probably heard that it’s home to the Potemkin Steps. The soaring granite stairway made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin is the city’s iconic attraction. It’s also the best way to reach Viking Sineus if, like me, you arrive for your cruise a day early and spend the night in Odessa’s historic center. The ship docks right at its base.

Walking to Viking Sineus from a nearby hotel, I find myself offering an homage to Battleship Potemkin’s legendary massacre scene as I bump my 40-pound suitcase down the stairway’s 192 steps (you can avoid the steps by riding the adjacent incline railway for less than $1). I am pushed on not by Cossacks with fixed bayonets but by a crowd of tourists.

Viking River cruise in the Urraine

The granite stairway made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Over the coming days, I discover Odessa is more than the Potemkin Steps. Founded by Russia’s Catherine the Great in 1794, the once-wealthy Black Sea port city entices with a faded grandness. Rows of tree-lined boulevards are lined with elegant but often crumbling Art Nouveau, Baroque Revival and neoclassical buildings, including the spectacular Odessa National Theater of Opera and Ballet.

VIking River Cruises stop in Odessa

Odessa National Theater of Opera and Ballet.* Photo: Gene Sloan

As we are told during an initial tour, Odessa was one of the most important cities of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, smaller in size only to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. As a major and wealthy trading port for centuries, Odessa, not unlike Alexandria in Egypt, was very international.

Pearl of the Black Sea

Called the “Pearl of the Black Sea,” it was a key warm-water port for Russia well into the 20th century, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

Viking Sineus remains docked in Odessa for the first three nights of my Viking River Cruise in Ukraine, allowing plenty of time for exploring. As is typical with Viking river sailings, every day brings at least one included excursion, starting with a walking tour that hits the highlights of Odessa’s historic district.

Viking River Cruises

Odessa’s historic district. * Photo: Gene Sloan

In addition to visiting the Potemkin Steps, we ramble down lovely, pedestrian only Primorsky Boulevard, located at the top of the stairway. We stroll pedestrian only Deribasivska Street, the main shopping corridor, and stop at City Garden, where I mimic the locals by snapping a selfie with the smiling sculpture of Leonid Utyosov. I have no idea who he is, but it seems like the thing to do. (Well ok, let’s find out!  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonid_Utyosov)

Viking River cruise stop in Odessa

Selfie time with the smiling sculpture of Leonid Utyosov. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Still, perhaps my favorite Odessa site is the opulent statue of Catherine the Great (known as the Monument to the Founders of Odessa) – if only for the story that goes with it. Erected in 1900, the statue was ripped down in 1920 by the anti-Tsarist Bolsheviks, only to be put back just 12 years ago by the Ukrainians. Take that, Soviets!

World War II Sites

In another included tour, we descend into the Odessa Catacombs, a renowned network of subterranean tunnels under the city and its outskirts where Soviet partisans hid during the war. Our guide, Nadya, shows us where the partisans slept, ate and fought to the death with German-allied Romanian soldiers who were sent into the labyrinth-like lair to flush them out.

Odessa Catacombs on a Viking River Cruise

Odessa Catacombs. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Originally excavated in the 19th century as part of limestone mining operations, the tunnels supposedly stretch for more than 1,500 miles, only a small portion of which is open to the public.

A half dozen other excursions offered by Viking during our stay include a visit to Odessa’s sprawling Privoz Market with the ship’s chef, a brandy tasting at the local Shustov Cognac Museum and a night out to the opera. All come with an extra charge.

Being a bit of a cheapskate, I round out my visit with an included tour to the Odessa Fine Arts Museum. Apart from Wassily Kandinsky, you probably haven’t heard of any of the Ukrainian and Russian artists whose work is on display. But the building itself, a former neoclassical palace, is impressive, and the art is a window onto the Ukraine of old.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 5: KHERSON

Today is the day we finally begin working our way up the Dnieper. During the night, Viking Sineus has traveled eastward along the coast of the Black Sea from Odessa to the mouth of the waterway — nearly 100 miles. The ship already is well inland by the time most passengers awake.

At first blush, our only stop for the day, the small port city of Kherson (pop. 300,000), doesn’t look like much — a mishmash of decaying, graffiti-splashed buildings that might best be described as forlorn. But for a history nerd like me, it’s beguiling.

As our guide for the day, Lena, points out, Kherson was founded in 1778 by Russian prince Grigory Potemkin, the famed lover and lieutenant of Catherine the Great, and it hides intriguing pieces of his story.

Potemkin Again

We start a two-and-a-half-hour tour with a stop at the central park Potemkin ordered built, fittingly home to a soaring statue of him. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks tried but failed to topple the statue with two tractors — a metaphor, perhaps, for the movement’s struggle against capitalist ideals. Another stop brings a visit to St. Catherine’s Cathedral, also built under Potemkin’s watch and now his final resting place.

Viking river cruises in Kherson, Ukraine

The Potemkin statue. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Catherine the Great, who dispatched Potemkin this way to develop the region, famously traveled down the Dnieper to see how he was faring (supposedly past hastily constructed “Potemkin villages” designed to show progress). You can see the chair in St. Catherine’s Cathedral where she sat during her visit.

Viking River cruises to Ukraine

Catherine the Great’s chair. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Our touring also brings us to the aging building that once housed the school for the legendary “night witches” of World War II — the all-female band of Soviet aviators who terrorized Hitler’s invading army with daring tactics. They were known for cutting their engines during bombing runs and gliding to their targets so they wouldn’t be heard coming.

Viking River cruise in the Ukraine

The aging building that once housed the school for the legendary “night witches” of World War II. * Photo: Gene Sloan

A final stop delivers us to the Monument of Glory, a World War II memorial that is classically Soviet in style — that is, taller and more triumphant than all reason. But I have spotted something even more alluring at the end of the adjacent park: A World War II-era, Soviet T-34 tank. It takes a little hustle, but I make it there and back in our allotted 12 minutes of free time.

Viking River cruise to see Soviet-era tanks

A World War II-era, Soviet T-34 tank. * Photo: Gene Sloan

By lunchtime, Viking Sineus is churning northeast on the Dnieper on its way to its next stop, Zaporozhye.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 6: ZAPOROZHYE

If you’re a lover of engineering marvels, you’re in for a treat this day. Just be sure to be up early. As it approaches Zaporozhyre, Viking Sineus must traverse one of the deepest river locks in all of Europe. Located at one of the biggest hydroelectric dams on the Continent, the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, the lock raises the ship 108 feet — nearly 11 stories.

Viking River cruises Ukraine cruise

The lock at Zaporozhyre rises up almost 11 stories. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The dock for Zoporohyze is just north of the lock, and within minutes of passing through it, we are touring the city.

An industrial center of 700,000 people known for steel, aluminum and aircraft engine production, Zoporohyze isn’t a place you go to see grand monuments, historic sites or charming neighborhoods. What it offers is a glimpse of everyday life in a typical Soviet-era Ukraine city.

Heading into town by coach, we parade down eight-mile-long, six-lane-wide Sobornyi Avenue, which our guide bills as the longest central boulevard in all of Europe. As dreary as it is meant to be grand, with a succession of blocky, Stalin-era buildings, it is lined in places with loudspeakers that once spouted out Soviet propaganda.

Notably, a road sign declares we’re just 234 kilometers (about 145 miles) from Donetsk, a key city at the edge of the Donbass region where pro-Russia separatist forces have been battling against the Ukrainian military since 2014. Barely mentioned on Western newscasts in recent years, it is a simmering struggle that has left around 13,000 people dead. Our stop in Zaporozhye is about the closest we will get to the conflict zone. In theory, we could drive to it in a few hours, and that’s a bit surreal to contemplate. But the reality is that, in terms of this cruise, it’s a world away.

During a stop at Zaporozhye’s central park, I ask a young barista at a coffee stand about the situation. She tells me she and her friends initially were worried the Russia-backed soldiers might continue westward right into Zaporohyze. But things have settled down, and the worry has dissipated, she says. The bigger issue now, she says, is that it’s become hard to get an apartment, since so many Ukrainians from the East have fled this way and filled them up.

Viking River cruises

Coffee carts in Zaporozhye’s central park. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Talking to locals such as the barista offers a snapshot of the struggle that is life in Ukraine. She tells me she makes the equivalent of about $17 a day, and that’s quite good, she says. The typical person she knows makes about $250 a month. Ukraine, you will learn on a visit here, is incredibly poor by Western standards, in addition to having suffered terribly from war and famine over the past century.

After our short tour of the city center, we head to Zaporozhye’s main tourist attraction, a reconstructed Cossack fort on Khortytsia, an island in the middle of the Dnieper. Intertwined with Ukrainian and Russian history, the Cossacks were centered here from the 16th to 18th centuries. Later in the day, we return to the island for a display of Cossack horsemanship.

Viking River Cruises

The reconstructed Cossack fort. * Photo: Gene Sloan

From the Cossack fort, there is a great view of the entirety of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, which itself is a site with a significant history. Hailed as one of the great achievements of Soviet industrialization, it was the third largest power plant in the world when it opened in 1932, just behind the Hoover Dam and Wilson Dam in the United States. During World War II, retreating Red Army soldiers dynamited the dam to keep it out of German hands, resulting in a tidal surge that killed as many 100,000 people.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 7-8: DNIPRO & KREMENCHUG

As noted above, Viking will be dropping stops in Dnipro and Kremenchug in 2020. As a result, I won’t go into great detail about our visits to the two destinations, other than to say that Dnipro, in particular, was intriguing. Once home to the Soviet Union’s rocket program, it was for many years a secretive “closed city” that was off limits to foreigners. It only opened to outsiders in the 1990s.

In Dnipro, I sign up for a wonderful (and quirky!) extra-charge tour to the Aerospace Museum, where we ogle once-classified artifacts of the Dnipro rocket program while a retired engineer talks us through the city’s role in building an intercontinental missile that could hit the United States.

Viking River cruise visit to Dnipro

Dnipro was once home to the Soviet Union’s rocket program. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The stop is paired with a visit to what is roughly translated as the “Technical Museum Time Machines,” an oddball temple to retro-cool, Cold War-era cars, toys, video games and other memorabilia.

Our visit to Dnipro also brings an included tour to the city center, where we survey the small but display-packed National Historical Museum. It harbors everything from 2,500-year-old stone idols found in the region to Cossack clothing and weapons.

Just outside, a more timely, open-air exhibit labeled the “Museum of Russian Aggression in the East of Ukraine” is filled with bombed-out vehicles, bullet-ridden road signs and other poignant reminders of the conflict just down the road.

Viking River cruises museum visit

The open-air “Museum of Russian Aggression in the East of Ukraine.” * Photo: Gene Sloan

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 9-10: KIEV

Viking is saving the best for last by devoting the final two days of this Viking River Cruise in Ukraine to Kiev. The Ukrainian capital is by far the most vibrant, stylish and historically interesting city in the country. Built on hills overlooking a bend in the Dnieper, it offers iconic attractions such as St. Sophia’s Cathedral — a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with 1,000-year-old frescoes and mosaics — and lovely squares and parks for strolling. There’s also plenty of restaurants, bars and other nightspots.

Visiting Kiev on a Viking River cruise

And another angle on stunning St. Sophia’s Cathedral. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Kiev also is the place where the story of Ukraine’s recent struggle finally comes into focus. One of the sites we visit during an initial tour of the city is Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the square that was at the center of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution of 2014. Peaceful now, it was for several days in 2014 the site of dramatic clashes between protestors and government forces that ended with the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (now in exile in Russia). Makeshift memorials with pictures of the 100-plus people killed during the conflict line the area.

Approaching Kiev aboard the Viking Sireus

Approaching Kiev. * Photo: Gene Sloan

We approach Kiev on a perfectly sunny afternoon, and our program director, Oliver, ushers us to the top deck of Viking Sineus for a celebration. Leaning on the railings, we marvel at the golden spires of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a walled monastery complex once home to 2,000 monks.

Viking River cruise in Ukraine in Kiev

Kiev’s walled Pechersk Lavra monastery complex. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Later, we will descend by candlelight into its subterranean caves, dug by the priests that lived there as hermits. The labyrinth-like complex still holds their mummified remains, laid out in glass coffins.

Kiev has quite a bit to offer, enough for Viking to operate an overlapping mix of seven different tours during our two-day stay. Many are built around themes such as Jewish Kiev or Ukraine During World War II. But I make a last-minute decision to skip nearly all these outings to spend a full day visiting what may be the region’s most intriguing (and disturbing) destination: The site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

I Chose Chernobyl

Just 62 miles north of Kiev, the radiation-contaminated area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, has been open to visitors with permission on a limited basis since 2011 — as long as they don’t stay long.

While mainstream tour operators such as Viking don’t offer excursions there, several local companies in Kiev will take small groups into the area for several hours at a time, handling the required paperwork and smoothing things over at checkpoints.

Along with two other Viking Sineus passengers, for $99 USD a piece, I sign up for a visit with a company called Solo East, which picks us up in a van right at the ship for the two-hour drive to the exclusion zone.

Chernobyl visit on a Viking River cruise

All aboard for the Chernobyl Express. * Photo: Gene Sloan

At the first checkpoint, we are issued radiation detectors that will monitor our exposure, although the official word is that it will not be significant (if we follow the rules). At the same time, we are told not to touch anything or sit down, lest we contaminate ourselves. There still is plenty of radiation around.

Viking River cruise in Ukraine

Radiation detectors are a must. * Photo: Gene Sloan

A bit to my surprise, we can motor right up to the melted-down reactor, which recently was covered in a new (and supposedly safe) containment structure. But the most gripping part of the experience is wandering through nearby Pripyat, the small city built to house the power plant’s workers.

Ukriaine Viking River cruise stops in Kiev

If I was standing here 33 years ago, I’d be dead. The dome behind me is the new containment structure over the melted-down Reactor #4. The amount of radiation released during the accident was 400 times the level of the bomb over Hiroshima. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Once home to nearly 50,000 people, it was evacuated in two days after the disaster and is now a ghost town on an epic scale. We shuffle down its eerily quiet main streets, empty of people — past government buildings, a hotel, a movie theater, a stadium and the small amusement park with a yellow carousel that is shown in so many Chernobyl documentaries. It’s all slowly crumbling and being retaken by the forest.

Chernobyl visit on a Viking river cruise

Pripyat was abandoned. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Viking Ukraine cruise

Pripyat was evacuated in just a few days, including this amusement park. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Given the terrible impact that the disaster had on the people of the area and beyond (recently recounted in the five-part HBO series Chernobyl), it’s a heavy experience. But it’s also enlightening. And that may be the best way to describe this river cruise in its entirety.

From stories of man-made famine in the Soviet era that left millions dead to World War II devastation to more recent struggles, we hear a lot that is sobering on this trip. But we also leave with a better understanding of a place that, despite it all, seems to be moving forward.

IF YOU GO …

For 2020, Viking plans 10 departures of its new “Kiev, Black Sea & Bucharest” tour starting on May 28. The final sailing ends in early October. Including the added Bucharest stay, the trips will be 11 nights in length — one night longer than this year’s itinerary.

Fares for the trips start at $3,799 per person, based on double occupancy, with the rates including lodging, most meals, tours during every stop, and beer and wine with dinner.

The northbound version of the itinerary can be extended with a three-night pre-cruise stay in Vienna and/or a three-night post-cruise stay in Istanbul that are priced at $649 and $1,199 per person, respectively. Passengers on the southbound version of the trip have the same two options in reverse. There also are pre- and post-cruise Romania tours available for $799 per person.

Visit Viking  for more info on a Viking River Cruise in Ukraine.

Gene SloanGene Sloan has written about cruising for more than 25 years and for many years oversaw USA TODAY’s award-winning cruise site, USA TODAY Cruises. He’s sailed on nearly 150 ships.

Check out Gene’s other insightful articles for QuirkyCruise.com: Danube River cruise on AMAWaterway’s new AMA Magna.

 

 

 

 

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QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review About Viking (was Viking River Cruises)

Viking River Cruises (now Viking), established by former officials of the old Royal Viking Line, has grown by leaps and bounds, including introducing more ships in one year than has ever occurred before. More than a score of itineraries covers the European waterway network from Portugal’s Douro River that empties into the Atlantic eastward to Russia’s and Ukraine’s canals and rivers, and from the Dutch and Belgian waterways bordering on the North Sea across Europe to the mouth of the Danube as it flows into the Black Sea.

Viking goes most everywhere the other lines go and offers more choices of itineraries, length of cruises and land and air packages. Simply, Viking dominates the European river cruise market because it operates more boats (presently 72) than any other line, by far, and still growing.  In Asia, riverboats explore the Yangtze in China, and the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam. Egypt is again offered with cruises on the Upper Nile and Lake Nassar. Viking also operates well-received deep-sea cruise ships to establish Viking Ocean Cruises (now just Viking) but their passenger capacities exceeding 900 are well beyond our small-ship passenger limit. More are under construction and under option along with expedition ships.

Note: In 2020, four 168-passenger Viking Longships (similar features but smaller in size for operations on the Seine) will be delivered and then actively participate on 8-day Paris and the Heart of Normandy cruises. Passengers will embark alongside the Eiffel Tower.

Note: Viking has also long made hints about entering the river cruise market along the Mississippi and its tributaries with a fleet of European-style riverboats. Now, an official announcement was made in April 2020 in New Orleans that the first of a fleet of large riverboats will be built for the Upper and Lower Mississippi. The first five-deck vessel will take up to 386 passengers and appear in August 2022. While the capacity exceeds our 300-passenger limit, all other American Cruise Lines riverboats have been covered by Quirky Cruise, hence this one, the first of several, will be covered too. By law, the vessels must be built in the U.S. to sail along American inland waterways. Stay tuned for the location and progress while construction gets underway.

Note: Without missing a beat, Viking will also enter the expedition market when the VIKING OCTANTIS enters service in January 2022 with a program in Antarctica and the Great Lakes. While the passenger complement of 378 exceeds the QuirkyCruise limit of 300, we will include the most important features on this page.

Viking River Cruises

RELATED:  New Viking Einar Impresses a First Timer … by Judi Cohen.

Passengers

Most passengers are 50+ and American or at least English-speaking who are looking for a relaxed and convenient way to see the regions of Europe. Children under are not permitted.

Price

$ to $$$  Moderate/Expensive/Very Pricey. Huge variations in rates occur, especially when 2 for 1 promotions are offered.

Included Features

Shore excursion in every port; wine, beer, soft drinks at lunch & dinner; bottled water, cappuccino, coffee & tea at a 24-hour beverage bar; Cabin TVs with movies on demand, CNBC, CNN, National Geographic, and other channels, Internet/Wi-Fi (connection speed varies widely); cruise tours include hotel stays and transfers between hotel and ship; airport transfers included when air travel is purchased from Viking.

Itineraries

Europe, Russia, Egypt, Southeast Asia and China, most 8 to 15 days; some cruise tours in Asia extend to 18 days; the granddaddy of all European river journeys stretches from Amsterdam to Bucharest, lasting 23 days. All cruises operate in both directions. See details below when discussing the ships.

Why Go?

Years ago before river cruising took hold in a big way, many travelers desirous of seeing several countries in one trip booked a bus tour and that meant multiple one and two-night hotel stays in a half-dozen, maybe more, cities. With the rivers and canals already in place to move cargo on barges between ocean ports and inland cities, long-distance river travel was a natural outgrowth. Then in 1992 a construction project linked the Rhine and Main to the Danube, and it became possible to embark in a Viking Longship in Amsterdam located just in from the North Sea and sail more less southeast all the way to the Danube Delta on Black Sea coast of Romania.

Riverboats once seen as merely comfy conveyances with mostly picture window cabins, an observation lounge and a windowed dining room, now boast suites, French balconies, true verandas, and alternate dining venues and more activities off the boats than bus and walking tours with such diversions as cycling (independently or in a small group) and hiking.

The bottom line for river cruising is convenience, as in many cases, the riverboat ties up next to the heart of the city and you simply walk ashore. In between, instead of driving along a busy highway, the getting there is via scenic river cruising with some of the intercity travel taking place as you sleep. Sun decks provide 360-degree views while underway.

Opera House, Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Opera House, Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. * Photo: Ted Scull

When to Go?

Most European itineraries are seasonal with April to October the norm though some cruises begin as early as March and run as late as December for the Christmas markets. Summer months will find many riverboats following roughly the same popular itineraries with busy, and sometime crowded, sites ashore. The fringe seasons have the advantage of fewer boats sharing the same docking facilities and disadvantage, for some, of cooler and less predictable weather. Beyond Europe, the itineraries may be almost year-round, and note that the Yangtze River Valley can feel like a furnace from June through August.

Activities & Entertainment

Applies to all ships. Onboard, the offerings are daytime lectures, demonstrations, cooking classes, wine tasting and light entertainment such as a pianist and/or local musicians in port. Included shore excursions using audio headsets allow participants to hear the guide out-of-doors and inside museums and churches while  speaking in a normal voice. On board, a concierge can arrange ballet and theater tickets, restaurant reservations and help you plan an independent day ashore.

Walking the Charles Bridge, Prague. * Photo: Ted Scull

Walking the Charles Bridge, Prague. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships & Years delivered

The number of passengers; number of passenger decks; layouts; special features; and cabin details will be outlined for each class of riverboat under the cruising regions that begin below.

European Rivers

The Viking Longships class number almost four score at present dating from a building spree that began in 2012 and continues into the present with six new ships added in 2016 and six more in 2018. In spring 2019, another seven were launched on a single day at different shipyards, with seven more under construction. The list of names runs from Viking Aegir to Viking Vili. These spiffy new riverboats carry 190 passengers on four decks in a bright and airy, understated Scandinavian atmosphere using big picture windows, light fabrics and colors, skylights, atriums and indoor/outdoor lounges, restaurants, and bars.

Cabins number 95 of which nine are 2-room suites with veranda & French balconies*; 39 verandas; 22 French balconies*; and 25 standard (located on the lowest deck and with smaller windows). Note here and for some other Viking vessels that *French balconies are not balconies at all but with the cabins having sliding doors that open to a railing.

The Observation Lounge, located behind the indoor/outdoor terrace, has a sit-up bar, for drinks, daytime activities, lectures, and light entertainment. A library corner and Internet access are located just aft of that and share the second level of the atrium, with the reception and shop below. The Sun Deck has covered and open lounge space spanning nearly the vessel’s full length, plus an oval walking track and putting green. An herb garden is located aft. The elevator connects only the Upper and Middle decks, and not cabins on Main Deck nor the Sun Deck.

Viking has upgraded its menus following the introduction of the new ships, and as the line caters to mostly middle American tastes, don’t expect gourmet meals or rich sauces as one would experience on an ocean-going luxury line or a truly upscale river fleet. The Longships have two dining venues, the main restaurant (buffet & served meals) and the indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace (light meals and an alfresco grill). It’s open seating and you dine with whom you wish. Chances are you will be sailing on a Longship in Europe on most all itineraries but the Douro in Portugal and the Elbe in Germany and the Czech Republic where smaller purpose-built ships operate.

RELATED: Viking River Cruise in the Ukraine … by Gene Sloan.

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Viking Longships Deck Plan * Photo: Viking

The following preceded the Viking Longships on European itineraries, plus one trio specifically designed for the confines of the Douro in Portugal and a pair to sail under low bridges for the Elbe.

*Viking Fontaine, *Viking Schumann (older ships/refurbished 2010/2011) carry 112 passengers on three decks with observation lounge forward and restaurant on the deck below. Cabins are all outside with eight having French balconies, while the Upper Deck cabins have picture windows that open while Main Deck windows are fixed.

*Viking Astrild, *Viking Beyla (2015) carry 98 passengers, have three decks and operate the Elbe cruises with low bridge clearances in Germany and the Czech Republic. The observation lounge is forward with the Aquavit Terrace facing over the bow for light meals and refreshments, while the restaurant is on the deck below. Cabins include 2 suites, 19 veranda cabins and 14 with French balconies, all located on the Upper deck. Main Deck cabins have windows.

*Viking Hemming,*Viking Torgil, *Viking Osfrid (2014 & 2016) carry 106 passengers, have four decks and sail exclusively on the Douro Rover in Portugal. The observation lounge is forward with the Aquavit Terrace facing over the bow for light meals and refreshments, while the restaurant is on the Middle Deck below along with an adjacent Al Fresco Restaurant. The Sun Deck has tables for outdoor meals, a small pool, golf putting range, and loungers with covered and open sections. Cabins include 11 veranda suites, 23 verandas, 3 French balcony cabins and 16 window cabins on Main Deck. An elevator connects cabin and public room decks.

Europe note: With such a large fleet, riverboats assigned to specific itineraries are subject to change.

Aquavit Terrace for an outdoor meal. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

Aquavit Terrace for an outdoor meal. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

Below is a healthy sampling of nearly two dozen European itineraries combining hotel stays bracketing a river cruise. If you are a first time river cruiser, good luck deciding which one to take. If a veteran cruise maven, most of Europe is your oyster.

  • Grand European Tour (15-day cruise, April to October) from Amsterdam, Netherlands via the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers and sailing through Germany, Austria, Slovakia to Budapest in Hungary.
  • Romantic Danube (8-day cruise, late March to October) from Nuremburg, Germany via Main-Danube Canal and Danube River through Austria to Budapest, Hungary.
  • Danube Waltz (8-day cruise, late March to October) from Passau, Germany via the Danube through Austria to Budapest.
  • Rhine Getaway (8-day cruise, mid-March to October) from Amsterdam in the Netherlands via the Rhine, calling at Cologne, Koblenz, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, south through to Basel, Switzerland.
  • Tulips & Windmills (10-day cruise, March and April) from Amsterdam including 2.5 days sightseeing via Dutch and Belgian rivers and canals to the Islemeer at Hoorn, Arnhem, Ghent, Rotterdam and more then back to Amsterdam. Additional itineraries include calls at Antwerp and Nijmegen (SE Netherlands)
  • Cities of Light (12-day cruise-tour, April to October) from Paris (2 hotel nights) then coach transfer via Luxembourg (sightseeing) to the riverboat at Trier, then along the Mosel, Rhine and Main rivers to Bamburg, Germany and coach transfer via Nuremburg to Prague, Czech Republic (2 hotel nights).
  • Paris to the Swiss Alps (12-day cruise-tour, March to October) from Paris (2 hotel nights) then coach transfer to Luxembourg (sightseeing) to the riverboat at Trier, then along the Mossel past vineyards to the Rhine and Mainz, Speyer, and Strasbourg to Basel, Switzerland with a transfer to Zurich (2 hotel nights).
  • Passage to Eastern Europe (11-day cruise-tour, late March to late October) from Budapest, Hungary (2 hotel nights) then riverboat down the Danube through Serbia, Bulgaria to Giurgiu and coach transfer to Bucharest, Romania (1 hotel night).
  • European Sojourn (23-day cruise, mid-March to late October) from Amsterdam via the Waal, Rhine, Main-Danube Canal and Danube through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria to Giurgiu and transfer to Bucharest, Romania (1 hotel night).
  • Elegant Elbe (10-day cruise-tour, mid-March to October) from Berlin (2 hotel nights) then coach transfer to the riverboat at Wittenberg and via the Elbe and Vltava rivers through Germany (Saxon Switzerland) and Czech Republic to Decin and coach transfer to Prague, Czech Republic (2 hotel nights).
  • Portugal’s River of Gold (10-day cruise-tour, late March to October) from Lisbon (2 hotel nights) via coach transfer to Coimbra and the riverboat at Porto, then along the Douro River with a full-day coach excursion to Salamanca, Spain and back along the Douro with port calls for lunch and wine tasting, a castle and religious site to Porto, Portugal.
  • Paris & the Heart of Normandy (8-day cruise, mid-March to October) from Paris via the Seine to Claude Monet’s Giverny, Rouen (for the cathedral and Normandy Beaches) then upstream with port calls to visit chateaux back to Paris. New itineraries along the Seine also include WWII sites and D-Day beaches.
  • Lyon & Provence (8-day cruise, mid-March to October) from Marseille to the Rhone at Arles, then Avignon, Viviers, Tournon, Vienne, Lyon and along the Soane to Macon, Cluny Abbey and Beaujolais wine country, ending at Lyon Airport.
  • Chateaux, Rivers & Wine (8-day cruise, late March to October) from Bordeaux along both the Dordogne and Garonne rivers to Sauternes, St. Emilion, Médoc, and Margaux wine regions, two UNESCO sites and Cadillac, returning to Bordeaux.
Russia & Ukraine
Visiting Moscow's Red Square at the end of Viking River cruise along the Russian waterways.

Visiting Moscow’s Red Square at the end of Viking river cruise along the Russian waterways. * Photo: Ted Scull

Viking Akun, Viking Helgi, Viking Ingvar, Viking Truvor (older ships refurbished 2013/2014) carry 204 passengers on five decks and operate the 13-day St. Petersburg-Moscow Waterways of the Tsars itineraries. The Panorama Bar looks forward on the Upper Deck with a large restaurant aft on the Middle Deck below. A windowless library with Internet is on Main Deck. Cabins include 2 suites, 2 junior suites, 67 verandas, and the remaining with windows that open facing the side wraparound promenade. Elevators link the cabin and public room decks. A similar vessel, Viking Sineus, plies Ukraine’s Dnieper River between the capital at Kiev and Odessa facing the Black Sea, and 11-day cruise tour.

Waterways of the Czars (13-day cruise, early May to mid-October) from St. Petersburg (3-day stay on riverboat) via the Neva and Svir rivers, Lake Onega, Volga-Baltic Waterway, Rybinsk Resevoir, Volga River, and Moscow Canal to Moscow (3-stay stay on the riverboat). Ashore, attend dance and music performances, and aboard the guides share Russian and Soviet history and current affairs, cooking and Russian language classes.

Egypt

Mayfair (150p) and Omar El Kayam (160p) form the 4-night and 3-night cruise portions of a 12-day itinerary that includes Cairo for the Pyramids, Sphinx and Cairo Museum, a cruise along the Upper Nile for Luxor, Karnak, Edfu, and Kom Ombo and another cruise just above the Aswan Dam on Lake Nassar for Abu Simbel and other temples. Viking Ra, Viking-owned and operated (52p), made its debut in 2018 as a completely rebuilt riverboat offering all two-room suites (291 sq. ft.), making it one of the most luxurious vessels on the Nile. To follow in September 2020, Viking will begin operating the 82-passenger Viking Osiris , the first European built, owned and operated Nile cruiser, if that is all important to some seeking an Egyptian cruise.

Southeast & East Asia

Viking Mandalay (2012 & 56p) had operated Irrawaddy Cruises in Myanmar (Burma). However, four-deck Viking Mekong (b. 2012 & 56p) plies the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam. The replica-style riverboats evoke an appealing colonial atmosphere with lots of wood paneling and airy public spaces. The indoor lounge is forward and the Sun Deck lounge and bar is sheltered from the sun by a canvas awning. With floor to ceiling French doors that open during cool weather, the restaurant serves Vietnamese and Western dishes at breakfast and luncheon buffets plus served dishes and a served dinner. All cabins are outside, with two of the three cabin decks offering sliding French doors that open to side promenade equipped with rattan style chairs and decorative potted palms.

Mekong River: Cambodia & Vietnam
A Cambodian food market along the Mekong.

A Cambodian food market along the Mekong. * Photo: Ted Scull

Magnificent Mekong (15-day cruise-tour, early January to March then July to October) from Hanoi, Vietnam (2 hotel nights), fly to Siam Reap, Cambodia (3 hotel nights), coach transfer to riverboat at Kampong Cham then 8 days along the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam to My Tho and coach transfer to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam for 2 hotel nights. Viking Mekong.

Irrawaddy River: Myanmar (Burma) 

*This itinerary is not now operating. However, details are included for reference in case these trips resume.

Myanmar Explorer (15-day cruise-tour, September to December) from Bangkok, Thailand (3 hotel nights) then fly to Yangon, Myanmar (4 nights) and fly to Mandalay embark in the riverboat for 8 nights along the Irrawaddy back to Mandalay and fly to Bangkok (1 night). Viking Mandalay.

Yangtze River: China
Mother and child pass during a village stop along the Yangtze.

Mother and child pass during a village stop along the Yangtze. * Photo: Ted Scull

Viking Emerald (2011) carries 256 passengers on five decks while operating the Yangtze River cruises. The Sun Deck houses the Emerald Bar with high-up views, a reading room, massage room, sauna, gym and outdoor deck space aft. The observation Lounge with a bar is on the deck below and the restaurant resides on Main Deck aft. The menus include Chinese and Western dishes. Cabin accommodations include 2 suites, 14 partitioned suites, 4 junior (one-room) suites and the rest, 108 with verandas. An elevator serves all decks.

Imperial Jewels of China (14-day cruise-tour, February to October) from Shanghai (2 nights) then fly to Wuhan to join the riverboat for a 7-day cruise along the Yangtze River via the Three Gorges and Three Gorges Dam to Chongqing then fly to Xian (2 hotel nights) and fly to Beijing (3 hotel nights).

Roof of the World (17-day cruise-tour, March to October) from Beijing (3 hotel nights), fly to Xian (2 hotel nights), fly to Lhasa (3 hotel nights), fly to Chongqing , join riverboat for a 7-day cruise down the Yangtze via Three Gorges and Three Gorges Dam to Wuhan and fly to Shanghai (2 hotel nights).

Undiscovered China  (19-day cruise-tour, March to October) from Beijing (3 hotel nights), fly to Xian (2 hotel nights), Chengdu (2 hotel nights}, Lijiang (2 nights) and Chongqing to join the riverboat for 7 days along the Yangtze via the Three Gorges, Three Gorges Dam to Wuhan and fly to Shanghai (2 hotel nights).

Special Notes

Water levels along European rivers rise and fall with the seasons and/or heavy rain falls and long dry periods. Occasionally, if the waters rise to flood stage, the riverboats may not be able to pass under low bridges, or the reverse, insufficient water to proceed without possible grounding. In that case, you may be bused to another vessel on the far side of the blockage and/or put up in hotels.

Along the Same Lines

The stable of river cruise lines is ever expanding, and Viking happens offer the largest fleet.

Contact Info

Viking, 5700 Canoga Avenue, Suite 200, Woodland Hills, CA 91367;  www.viking.com; 877-668-4546

— TWS

New Viking Einar Impresses

New Viking Einar Impresses A First Timer

By Judi Cohen.

This was my first ever Europe river cruise, and I was awed the moment I stepped into the spacious and bright two-story atrium of Viking Cruises’ 190-passenger Viking Einar.

The natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows and the reflection of the water danced with the light woods, the beige and blue carpeting, the woven fabric on the walls, and the large artworks to create a warm, yet dramatic, environment.

I was aboard Viking Einar last month for the boat’s naming festivities and afterwards, a four-night mini Rhine cruise. Click here for the Naming story.

Judi on Sun deck of the Einar. * Photo: Judi Cohen

 Pretty Public Spaces

The Viking Einar is typical of Viking’s fleet of 72 longships, though Richard Riviere, the architect and veteran designer of the fleet, explained to me that each vessel has minor design differences, from the color of bathroom tiles and fabrics, to the type of wood flooring.

Judi and Viking Cruises Designer Richard Riveire in the Einar’s Lounge.

The Atrium

As on many boats and ships, large and small, the Einar’s atrium was the hub of activity. The reception, gift shop, concierge and blond Scandinavian wood and fabric chairs were all found here. Looking up to the second level above was a small library with sofas, two computer workstations, and a 24-hour refreshment nook with coffee, tea and cookies.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Upper level of atrium looking down. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Aquavit Terrace

The Einar was designed with a rounded bow to create an indoor/outdoor lounge and viewing area called the Aquavit Terrace at the stern, where I spent much of my time. Some days I enjoyed dining alfresco on the Aquavit Terrace at breakfast and lunch, and then returning in the evening for a glass of wine to watch our transit through the Rhine’s many locks.

Aquavit Terrace on the Einar. * Photo: Judi Cohen

From the Aquavit Terrace, I could easily go up to the sundeck for a 360-degree view and check out the boat’s well-manicured organic herb garden (used for cooking on the ship), walking track, putting green, and shuffleboard.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Sundeck with Organic Herb Garden. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Lounge and Bar

Before dinner, passengers gathered for cocktails and a catch-up on the day’s activities in the spacious lounge and bar on the upper deck. Many made the most of their time while aboard the ship at the bar with its signature “clinker” overlapping wood-plank-on-wood-plank design harkening back to early Viking boat-building techniques.

With the aid of a large video screen, the cruise director briefed us on the following day’s schedule and shore excursion options.

The lounge, with floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides, was also a lovely space to work and gaze at the scenery as the ship made its way along the river.

On our final night, a four-piece orchestra played Bach and the Hungarian Czarda, and everyone seemed to enjoy it very much.

New Viking Einar Impresses

The Lounge. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Delightful Dining

Located on the middle deck, the restaurant offered one dinner sitting for all guests. Open for breakfast and dinner daily, the restaurant was bright with large floor-to-ceiling windows and comfortable blond wood tables and chairs. There was plenty of space between tables for circulation and service.

The buffet area in the centre of the restaurant featured white granites and steel, and was approachable from all sides, with space in the middle for the chefs. This is where I ordered my omelettes every morning. The service was wonderful, and by the second day I didn’t even have to say how I wanted my omelette made! There were loads of fresh fruit, plus yogurts, nuts, smoked salmon, bacon, open-face Danish sandwiches, and all sorts of breads and pastries.

The dinner menu offered “classics” that were always available including a rib eye steak, poached Norwegian salmon, and roast chicken with a Caesar salad. Dessert choices included creme brûlée, cheese, seasonal fruit, and ice cream. Beer, wine and soft drinks at lunch and dinner are included in cruise fares.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Norwegian salmon dinner. * Photo: Judi Cohen

There were also options that changed daily, and I typically ordered from the three-course tasting menu with recommended wine pairing. The honey and rosemary rack of lamb with a potato gratin was outstanding as was the three-onion soup prepared Lyonnais style with punchy provolone and gruyere cheeses.

The Surf and Turf, with lobster-au-gratin and slow cooked beef, was paired with the sommelier’s recommendation of Valleta Barbera d’Alba Schloss, a full-bodied red wine — they were perfectly matched.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Surf and Turf dinner in the Restaurant of the Viking Einar. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Being a dessert fan, I could not resist trying the specialty every night. From the mango lassi cake with chia passion fruit sauce, to the Heisse Liebe, a vanilla parfait with crunchy nougat and raspberry sauce, I enjoyed each burst of unique flavour.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Mango cake with ice cream. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The Cabins

The Viking Einar’s 95 outside cabins were located on the first three of the boat’s four decks, comprising 25 standard cabins, 22 French balcony cabins, 39 veranda cabins, seven veranda suites and two explorer suites. There are no inside cabins aboard the Viking longships.

Most cabins have floor-to-ceiling windows or doors, while the water-level cabins on the main deck have smaller windows at the top of the outside wall.

My cabin (309) was a Category B, 205-square-foot Veranda cabin located mid-ship on the upper deck, making it very easy to get to the atrium and central staircase. I found the closet and drawer space generous and loved the heated bathroom floor, mirror, and flat-screen TV.

The light wood counters above the dresser drawers and desk provided ample space to work along with a comfortable chair. When I wanted a break, I could sit on my private balcony and watch the world slowly float by.

The white fluffy towels and crisp linens made me feel like I was in a fancy hotel. In fact, my daughter Face-timed me, and I showed her my cabin. She could not believe I was on a river boat and not in a Four Seasons Hotel!

Judi’s Balcony Cabin 309. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The Ports

While the ship was a beauty, the food excellent, and my cabin very comfortable, the highlights of the mini-cruise were the ports and shore excursions. There were tours offered in each port, but it was also easy to walk along the short gangway from the ship directly onto a sidewalk. With temperatures between 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit during the day with sunny skies, all I needed was a light down jacket.

Rhine cruises typically start in early April and for me, it was a perfect time to go.  Ahh…springtime in Europe!!

Flower Garden in Old City of Mainz, Germany

Flower Garden in the old quarter of Mainz, Germany. * Photo: Judi Cohen

On this four-day mini-cruise, we sampled some of the ports visited on a full cruise including Basel in Switzerland and Strasbourg, France, along with Heidelberg and Mainz in Germany.

The full 7-night “Rhine Getaway” cruise would also visit Breisach, Cologne and Koblenz in Germany, and Kinderdijk and Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

In each port, the fare includes one two- to six-hour shore excursion, usually a walking tours and sometimes via bus. Optional excursions are available including “Privileged Access” tours at an additional charge, such as “The Hermitage Behind Closed Doors” ($129 USD pp) in St. Petersburg. It starts with a private tour of the museum’s public collection followed by a transfer to an off-site location with an art historian to learn something about the millions of pieces of art, furniture, gifts to Russian royalty and imperial carriages that are held in secured vaults.

In Prague, a half-day “Privileged Access” excursion visits the “Lobkowicz Palace” ($119 USD pp), the residence of one of the region’s most avid patrons of the arts. Learn about the 400-year Lobkowicz family history and enjoy lunch in the family’s original living quarters and then a private concert in the Baroque concert hall.

Basel, Switzerland

This was our embarkation point with the vessel docked only a 15-minute walk from the city centre. Shuttles ran regularly as well. During the walking tour in Basel I loved seeing the blend of old and new buildings with colourful trams running in all directions from the centre.

Basel, Switzerland’s Old Quarter. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The large red sandstone 15th-century Basel Minster cathedral dominates the old town, and the streets are full of small shops selling unique Swiss trinkets like cow bells, cuckoo clocks, swiss flags, and other handicrafts.

Many fine jewelry stores, including the iconic Patek Philippe watch store, were located throughout the old city.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Basel, Switzerland. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Strasbourg, France

Leaving the ship around 9am allowed a full day to enjoy this historic and colourful city. The morning excursion began with a short scenic bus ride from the port to Strasbourg’s historic old town. The bus took us along streets of well-pruned trees where storks sat in giant nests.

We passed university areas, parks and churches, as we made our way to Petite France, a historic quarter on Strasbourg’s tiny “Grande Ile” island, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We meandered along Petite France’s canals, admiring the half-timbered houses and cobblestone roads lined with tiny shops and buildings.

Being a foodie, I was thrilled that the afternoon optional “Taste the Best of the Alsace” excursion ($189 USD pp) started with lunch in a charming French restaurant, and included eating opportunities as we strolled through Petite France. We visited gingerbread bakeries, macaron and chocolate shops, high-end fromageries (one with the largest cheese bell in the world!), and wine stores.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Judi’s all day “Taste of Alsace in Strasbourg” * Collage: Judi Cohen

Our taste tour culminated with our group seated at a long wooden table in one of the quaint Alsace wine shops, feasting on everything we had bought along the way.

The afternoon tour concluded with a wonderful “behind the scenes” private organ concert in the 13th-century Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral; a visit to the cathedral is included on many tours but rarely an actual concert. WOW! Imagine being one of only 30 people in this majestic space to hear the organist play for almost an hour. It was truly magical. Listen to Judi’s video below!

 

Heidelberg, Germany

We had a full day in one of Germany’s oldest, and in my opinion, most romantic cities: Heidelberg. Following a short 20-minute bus ride from the port in Mannheim up a winding road to the 12th-century Heidelberg Castle, we enjoyed a walking tour around the red-sandstone ruins of the Renaissance-style complex high above the old town.

New Viking Einar Impresses

The ruins of Heidelberg’s impressive hilltop castle. Some sections date back to the 12th century. * Photo: Judi Cohen

We then drove down to the old town to see the 14th-century Heidelberg University (Germany’s oldest university, with some 56 Nobel Prize winners as alumni) to walk around the Baroque-style old quarter with its narrow cobbled streets.

In the town there are several memorials to the Holocaust, one that caught my attention were the stumbling stones (Stolpersteine in German) placed in front of buildings where the Nazis removed residents for transport to the death camps. Each concrete block bears a brass plate inscribed with the name of a victim persecuted and killed by the Nazis, and the date and place of death.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Heidelberg’s moving “Stumbling Stones” (Stolperstein) * Photo: Judi Cohen

During our bus ride along the Neckar River back to the Einar we saw well-manicured private homes and many old vaulted bridges.

The Einar was now docked in Worms, Germany, for our onward short sail to Mainz, Germany.

Mainz, Germany

Mainz was our last port of call. Docked right in front of City Hall and the major shopping area of Mainz, we were met by our guides and taken for a brief walking tour in the city centre to see the flower gardens and the thousand-year-old St. Martin’s Cathedral and under renovation. The town square was packed with restaurants and crowds enjoying the sunset with drinks and food.

New Viking Einar Impresses

The city center of Mainz, Germany. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Our tour continued to the Gutenberg Museum with a private visit to see two of the famous 15th-century Gutenberg Bibles kept in a security vault. We were also given a demonstration of how early printing was done during the time of Johannes Gutenberg and saw some of the historic printing presses. Fascinating!

As our mini-cruise was, sadly, over, the following morning I headed to the Frankfurt Airport, (a short 45-minute drive) for my flight home to Toronto.

New Viking Einar Impresses

New Viking Einar. * Photo: Judi Cohen

It was a whirlwind of a week immersing myself in the Viking brand of river cruising aboard the newly christened Viking Einar.

I must admit I am hooked on “The Viking Way” and I look forward to another Viking river cruise one day soon.

New Viking Einar Impresses

Until next time! 🥂

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Afforable European River Cruises

Affordable European River Cruises

By Ted Scull.

Our regular visitors to QuirkyCruise know full well that small-ship cruising does not come cheaply. In many cases, it can be downright expensive and beyond one’s means.

Today’s massive cruise ships have economies of scale, though remember that the fares listed may only include passage and meals.

Meanwhile, many river cruises — the subject of this column — include quite a lot in the base price, hence comparisons are more like watermelons and tangerines.

So what is in the price you might pay to sail the Rhine, Rhone, Main, Moselle, Danube or Douro?

First-time searchers will be amazed at the almost complete absence of nickel and diming, especially if you are a deep-sea cruiser who has recently decided to try the calm waters of rivers and canals.

Rhine River Family Cruises

It’s a castle fest on the middle Rhine. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Europe River Cruising: What’s Included & What’s Not?

Most river lines include a daily shore excursion and that’s a big-ticket item on most mainstream mega cruise ships. They may range from $50 to $100 dollars and maybe more. Multiply that by the number of days you plan to take one; it adds up big time.

So, on mainstream big-ship cruises, you might not take an excursion in every port to save money; but then you’ll see less.

On a week’s river cruise, on the other hand, you will have at least six port calls. And especially if you have not been to any of them before, you can go on all the excursions you desire, as the outings are included in the fares.

Many river lines also include house wine and beer with lunch and dinner, plus soft drinks, bottled water in the cabins, and coffee and tea.

Of course, those who like a beer or glass of wine with lunch and perhaps share a bottle of wine at dinner will benefit most. Do the math. A glass of wine may be $8-15 and a bottle from about $25 and up for low-end table wines.

Affordable European River Cruises

Wine is included on most European river cruises. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Gratuities may also be included on a river cruise and coverage often takes in all the staff on board, guides ashore and drivers, if a bus is involved. On oceangoing ships, tips are often automatically billed to one’s account. They may amount to roughly $12-15 per person per day for the onboard staff plus tips you dish out to guides and bus drivers ashore.

Many river lines will also include the transfers between the airport and ship, and with any pre- or post-cruise hotel stays. Of course, some mainstream big-ship cruise lines may also, if you have booked their air package.

Europe River Cruise Rates

Now what are the reasonable per diem (daily) rates that will hopefully include most of the aforesaid?

A line’s brochure and website rates are often published a year or more in advance and may be just a starting point. A seven-night European Danube cruise will show that rates vary by dates, often with the early spring and late fall fares being lower than the June to September high season. The ports visited during an off-season departure will also be less crowded.

When bookings are slow for some sailings, even in August, there may be a discounted rate for that sailing. Or, if several are offered, you may be enticed by an air allotment or fully-paid economy airfare to and from certain cities and the embarkation port.

The river lines supply the international airlines with huge passenger numbers, so they can negotiate lower rates than most travelers can, notwithstanding using your own air miles. If you don’t live near an airport with direct flights to and from the riverboat, and even if you do, you may have to change planes once or even twice. Never fun, but them’s the real world of bucket fares.

Viking Debuting 7 New River Vessels

A Viking Longship on the Main River. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

Europe River Cruise Early-Booking Fares

Early-booking cruise rates usually have a cutoff date, and the period from mid-January through February may see enticing offers as the lines will already know how the year is faring.

On the other hand, last-minute booking fares may interest some who are veteran travelers. And I don’t mean the retired folks who show up at the pier in Miami on sailing day to hopefully get a huge windfall for an empty cabin. I’m talking about discounts on a cabin that will otherwise go un-sold and generate zero onboard revenue for that cruise.

For instance, say, it’s Valentine’s Day and the boat is leaving from Amsterdam, Paris or Vienna in late April or early May and has lots of open cabins. The river cruise line gives you a deal and books your air. And you pack your bag, deal with the dog or cat, make sure the bills are paid, and off you go.  You may not be able to turn down such a great deal, and so you’ll surely make your potential travel mate very happy.

Afforable European River Cruises

Europe river cruising in the fall by bicycle. * Photo: Peter Knego

Here They Are … A List of Affordable Europe River Cruises

So here’s what you have been waiting for…🥁🥁…drum roll …

The most affordable Europe cruises start as low as $200 a day per person sharing a double cabin and range on up to still-not-half-bad $300 to $350 per person a day.

Remember to check what’s included.

The lines in alphabetical order that generally offer rates within this range:

➢➢ Avalon Waterways

➢➢ CroisiEurope Cruises

➢➢ Grand Circle

➢➢ Vantage World Travel

➢➢ Viking River Cruises

Other lines may also bring rates way down on occasion, so have a look at their offers too. The best way to keep up to date is to sign up for lines’ email newsletter. Then pounce.

Affordable European River Cruises

Vantage River Cruises is one of the more affordable European River Cruises. * Photo: Vantage River Cruises

So What Do You Get?

Okay, where is your cabin located? The answer may not surprise you, and you may be pleased, unless you are used to traveling with your silver spoon. Several of my cruises have been with a cabin in the least expensive category, sleeping on the lowest deck.

Afforable European River Cruises

Avalon Visionary shows a line of small windowed cabins on the lowest deck. * Photo: Avalon Waterways

This will not be an inside cabin such as on a big cruise ship (because river boats don’t have them), but one with a porthole or small window that gives you light and a view just above waterline. If the boat had lots of space when you booked, it may be higher up with a step out or full balcony.

Remember, riverboats are small vessels, and a climb of one or maximum two decks will get you to a great viewing location. And most of your day will be either on a trip ashore, sitting up on deck or dining in a panoramic restaurant.

Go fetch that deal and see the castles along the Rhine, the landscapes and villages that captivated Impressionist painters, and the elegant cities along the Danube.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

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Viking Debuting 7 New River Vessels

Viking Debuting 7 New River Vessels.

By Anne Kalosh.

Powerhouse Viking River Cruises is introducing seven new Longships on Europe’s waterways this year, plus two new itineraries and a bevy of land extensions.

Seven new vessels is a whopping number—but not for Viking. In 2014, the line introduced a jaw-dropping 18 river vessels and set a Guinness World Record by inaugurating 16 of them in a 24-hour period. That bested its own record of 10 the year before.

Viking Debuting 7 New River Vessels

A Viking Longship on the Main River in front of Johannisburg Palace, Aschaffenburg, Germany. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

But who’s counting?

For QuirkyCruisers, each new river vessel means more choices and, in 2019, a couple fresh itineraries. Moreover, a variety of land tours give the opportunity to delve into interesting topics like Churchill’s Britain and Burgundy’s vineyards.

Six of the new Viking Longships will sail the company’s most popular itineraries on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, and one additional vessel, inspired by the Longships, is designed for Portugal’s Douro, where the locks are smaller.

Viking Debuting 7 New River Vessels

One of the new 2019 vessels has a modified design to operate on Portugal’s Douro River. Pictured here is home port Porto. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

New “Holland & Belgium” Itinerary

Debuting in March, the 10-day “Holland & Belgium” itinerary sails between Amsterdam and Antwerp. It explores the inland waterways of the Low Countries and visits new ports for Viking: Rotterdam, Maastricht and Nijmegen.

“Paris & D-Day 75th Anniversary”

Also, in commemoration of World War II and D-Day, the line will offer a new 11-day cruise-tour, “Paris & D-Day 75th Anniversary,” with two special departures that coincide with the June 6 anniversary. Passengers will travel from London to the maritime city of Portsmouth before embarking their vessel in Paris and sailing through Normandy, where they will visit and honor D-Day landing sites.

New Pre-/Post-cruise Extensions

“Churchill’s Britain” can be combined with various itineraries and builds on the success of the “Oxford & Highclere Castle” program, Viking’s highest-rated extension that visits “the real Downton Abbey.” Travelers will explore the life and times of Sir Winston Churchill, from his birthplace (Blenheim Palace) and his family home (at Chartwell) to his final resting place (St. Martin’s Church in Bladon).

During the five-night program, participants will benefit from Viking’s signature “Privileged Access” to the Churchill War Rooms, the prime minister’s secret underground headquarters and Bletchley Park. The latter is the Victorian estate in Buckinghamshire where Alan Turing and a team of mathematicians and scientists worked to break German codes during World War II.

Two nights in Brussels can be added to the “Holland & Belgium” itinerary. “Historic Bruges,” another option for that itinerary, adds a three-night stay in Bruges with visits to the surrounding area including Ghent and the World War I battlefields of Flanders.

Viking Debuting 7 New River Vessels

The view is great from the Aquavit Terrace of a Viking Longship. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

During “From the Bulge to Remagen,” a four-night extension available with the “Paris & D-Day 75th Anniversary” itinerary, travelers will continue to follow in the footsteps of Allied troops who marched across France toward Germany during World Wars I and II. Stops include the Meuse-Argonne and Luxembourg American Cemeteries, the Bastogne War Museum in Belgium and the ancient city of Mainz.

Another extension for the same anniversary sailing, “World War Battlefields” is a four-night program exploring the battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries. Included are Dunkirk, the trenches of Flanders Fields and an opportunity to pay respects to British and Canadian servicemen at the Menin Gate.

Available after the “Lyon & Provence” cruise, “Burgundy’s Vineyards” is a three-night tour to experience the grandeur of Dijon and the world-renowned wine region of Burgundy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And “Timeless Istanbul” extends Viking’s Black Sea cruise program with three nights in the city on the Bosphorus.

Viking Longships

Each of the sleek, 135-meter/443-foot Viking Longships carries 190 passengers in a selection of staterooms and suites, most with verandas. A Sun Deck with 360-degree views has a shaded area, putting green, walking track and an organic herb garden used by the chefs. An Aquavit Terrace at the bow of the vessel provides indoor/outdoor seating and is popular for alfresco breakfast and lunch. A separate restaurant, lounge and bar, library and small shop round out the amenities. The décor throughout is contemporary Scandinavian.

A Viking Longship veranda cabin. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

Viking is known for its cultural programming on board and for good value. Fares include a shore excursion at each port of call, all port charges and government taxes, beer and wine with lunch and dinner and shipboard Wi-Fi.

 

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Viking River Cruises Now Adults Only

Viking River Cruises Now Adults Only

Viking Ocean Cruises, the deep-sea fleet, has had a policy for about two years that no one under the age of 18 will be accepted as a passenger, and now, the adults-only policy has been extended to its huge fleet of riverboats — Viking River Cruises. The passenger has to have reached 18 on the day prior to embarkation.

The ban applies to all new bookings from August 1, 2018. Those booked before that date will be allowed to travel as long as they are at least 12 years old. This latter policy will be in play until the year 2020 when those who do not now qualify will have sailed.

Meanwhile, other river lines, including Uniworld, are offering incentives and special activities to attract families with children during summer school breaks and holiday periods.

Viking River Cruises Now Adults Only

The Viking Freya. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

 

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quirky-cruise-cruise-planners-deals-may-26-2018-photo-of-river-countess-ship

Take a look at these small-ship cruise promotions offered by Cruise Planners® and see what floats your boat. This month’s Cruise Planners deals are for river cruises in Europe on lines including Uniworld, Viking, Avalon and Crystal.

Cruise Planners was founded in 1994 by Michelle Fee along with two travel industry veterans in Coral Springs, FL. When Michelle started Cruise Planners, she was a travel agent and a young mother with a passion for travel and the drive to succeed. More than two decades later, Cruise Planners has grown into the nation’s largest home-based travel agent franchise network with more than 1,800+ franchise owners. Cruise Planners relationship with American Express Travel translates into special pricing and perks associated with the American Express card. For more details or to book, click on the links to go to the agency’s website.

 

Cruise Planners Deals (March 8, 2018)

Happy small-ship cruising!

 

 

2018 Crystal River Cruises in Europe

Cruise Planners Deals (March 24, 2018)

Crystal Ravel

Cruise: 14- & 16-Night Europe River Cruises.

Deal: Up to $2,000 savings per couple on select 2018 sailings. Offer valid through June 10, 2018.

Ships: Crystal River Cruises fleet.

Visit Cruise Planners for more details or to book this cruise.

 

 

2019 Viking River Cruises in Europe

Cruise Planners Deals (March 24, 2018)

Viking Longship Heimdal

Cruise: 7-Night Europe River Cruises.

Deal: 2-for-1 cruises, plus airfare from $399 per person on 2019 sailings. Offer valid through June 30, 2018.

Ship: Viking River Cruises fleet.

Visit Cruise Planners for more details or to book this cruise.

 

 

2018 Uniworld Boutique River Cruises in Europe

Cruise Planners Deals (May 26, 2018)

River Countess.

Cruise: 7- & 9-Night Europe River Cruises.

Deal: Save up to $1,000 per person on select 2018 sailings. Offer valid through May 31, 2018.

Ship: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise fleet.

Visit Cruise Planners for more details or to book this cruise.

 

 

2019 Avalon Waterways River Cruises in Europe

Cruise Planners Deals (May 26, 2018)

Avalon Vista.

Cruise: 7-Night Europe River Cruises.

Deal: Save $2,000 per couple on select 2019 Europe River sailings. Offer valid through June 5, 2018.

Ship: Avalon Waterways fleet.

Visit Cruise Planners for more details or to book this cruise.

 

 

Note: Deals are generated by, and the responsibility of, Cruise Planners, and are based on availability and are subject to change. Cruises are capacity-controlled and offers may be withdrawn at any time. All rates are per person and some fares may include shore excursions and some or all beverages.

 

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QuirkyCruise reader review
Reviewer

Anne Hanifen from the USA.

Cruise Line

Viking River Cruises.

Ship

Viking Lofn.

Destination

Rhine River.

# of Nights

7.

Departure Date & Ports

June 2017, Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland; stopping at German and French ports along Rhine River.

Overall Rating

5 out of 5 stars  (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 5

Have you been on a small ship cruise before?

I’ve been on 1 small ship cruise.

Review

For our first family cruise we took a seven-day Viking Rhine river excursion from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland.  Although there was an option to stay in Amsterdam for three days prior to embarkation, we opted to add three days in Lucerne, Switzerland at the end of the cruise.  Thankfully, we had the afternoon to see some of Amsterdam before the ship departed around midnight as Viking provided shuttles into the city and tours all day.  After a long flight it was a treat to have easy access to the city and an opportunity to explore a bit.

With 50 crew members aboard the Viking Lofn, the approximately 190 passengers were taken care of well.  Our state rooms on the upper deck were modern with small balconies, air conditioning, internet (spotty at times) and television (not a lot of movie options for our teenagers).  We all enjoyed the complimentary fresh baked goods, coffee, tea and cocoa available in the common area all day.  The dining on board was exceptional with many wines, cooking demonstrations and delicacies from the local areas we visited.  Though the menu choices changed daily, there were certain items that pickier eaters could always order.

Traveling between ports primarily overnight was quiet and relaxing, while each day offered new places to explore.  Transportation, local guides and access to historic sites were all included.  Passengers could tour on their own, remain on board, or participate in the well-organized included tours.  For a fee, Viking offered additional tours at many of our stops along the Rhine.  We added a tour of the medieval village of Colmar, which was charming with canals, half-timber houses and Alsatian architecture.  Our daughters aged 15 and 18 were old enough to appreciate the history and culture of all the sites we visited.  One of our favorite days was spent touring the Marksburg castle in the morning and lounging on the upper sundeck in the afternoon as we cruised past numerous castles perched above the scenic Rhine.

At the end of the cruise, Viking provided transportation for those traveling on to Lucerne and booked us in a gorgeous hotel overlooking the lake.  Viking maintained staff in the hotel lobby to arrange activities as well as transportation to the airport in Zurich for our return flight.  Viking took care of every detail and the service was fantastic.  The cruise was excellent from start to finish and we would happily travel with Viking again.

 

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Europe Canal Transits

By Theodore W. Scull.

Many European river cruises include Europe canal transits in their itineraries, which adds an exciting element to any route.

Digging canals dates back to the Ancient World from simple shallow channels for irrigating fields to more substantial waterways to move building stones, crops and people. Wheeled transport, where it existed, was hindered by poor road surfaces and the loads carried could not approach what a canal barge transported.

England invested heavily in canal building in the 18th century greatly facilitating the movements of heavy bulk items such as coal for making iron and clay to manufacture bricks. The fine china industry took off when smooth canal transport greatly lessened breakage over the rough roads. Continental Europe got into canal building about the same time, creating thousands of miles of connecting inland waterways, many heavily used today by commercial traffic and cruising riverboats, hotel and charter barges. The Gota Canal across Sweden is the single most popular almost pure canal trip in Europe, and the Main-Danube Canal, not completely finished until 1992, in southern Germany did much to boost the popularity of riverboat cruises. More details on these latter two canals will follow.

Can at Paddington Basin, London

England produced a dense network of canals and added graceful industrial features that we can enjoy today – Here at Paddington Basin, London. * Photo: Ted Scull

Salt water canals for oceangoing ships came about in the 19th and early 20th centuries that resulted in cutting a week or two in transit times with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and even more savings for many passages when the Panama Canal was finished in 1914.

Passenger shipping, now today’s cruise industry, use canals for economy, convenience, and broadening the reach and interest of pleasure trips. A daytime transit through the Kiel, Corinth or Suez Canals will certainly prove to be a bonus in any itinerary. Mostly freshwater canals draw some of the smallest vessels in the QuirkyCruise.com portfolio such as The Gota Canal across Sweden and the Caledonian Canal across Scotland.

SALT WATER CANALS

Although a canal across the Isthmus of Panama had been contemplated long before its actual completion, it was the opening of the Suez Canal, an Anglo-French project that revolutionized trade routes and passenger travel between Europe and Asia and Australasia. (Read more about the Panama Canal in an upcoming post about North American Canals.)

Suez Canal

Sea journeys from England to Australia via the Cape were shortened by a few days because of the Suez Canal, but a ship sailing from Marseilles, Genoa, Naples or Piraeus would save a week or two. For routes to East Asia, the savings were even greater for both Northern and Southern Europe. Today the canal is as vital to waterborne commerce as any on earth, and during peaceful times many world circumnavigations and positioning cruises between Europe and Asia use the canal. Suez is also the primary source of revenue for Egypt.

The 100-mile Suez Canal was dug through the desert, and while there is a slight flow between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, no locks were necessary, greatly cutting down on the cost of building and operation, and in transit times. While the mostly desert scenery is nothing to write home about, the landscape does take on a lovely glow at both sunrise and sunset. But more important, just think about the history that has transpired and the battles that have been fought over the canal and between armies fronting on the waterway. During one period during the war between Egypt and Israel, Suez was blocked by sunken ships and shut to traffic for seven years from 1967 to 1973. And it is well fortified with military presence on both banks and particularly on the Sinai side.

The southbound transit usually begins with a call at Port Said, the headquarters for the Suez Canal Authority and the disembarkation point for the long day trip to Cairo and the Pyramids at Giza. The Egyptian canal pilots join here and the ship takes its place in the southbound convoy that usually sails in the early morning. Most of the ships will be container vessels, bulk carriers and generally empty tankers heading to the Persian Gulf to take on oil. Draft is the only consideration and that applies mostly to loaded supertankers, so all the world’s cruise fleet is able to make the transit. At the southern end, the pilots disembark, and the ship resumes normal cruising speeds for the trip south into the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea.

Lines that transit the Suez include: Ponant

Europe Canal Transits

A British P&O liner passes through Suez many moons ago. * Photo: Chas Pears, Empire Marketing Board

Corinth Canal

Ancient writers relate that in 602 B.C., Periander, Tyrant of Corinth (Greece), was the first person to seriously consider the possibility of opening a canal through the Isthmus. Periander is said to have given up on his plans fearing the wrath of the gods. Pythia, the priestess of the Delphic Oracle, had warned him not to proceed. Roman Emperor Nero and the Venetians tried and failed.

Successful construction finally began in 1882 and finished in 1893 necessitating considerable blasting to make the cut through the rock. The four-mile canal closed for two years in 1923 when the sides caved in and when retreating Germans used explosives in 1944 resulting in five years of closure.

Europe Canal Transits

Approaching the Corinth Canal from the eastern end. * Photo: Ted Scull

Only relatively small cruise ships can make the transit, and the largest that are permitted often have to have tugs at the bow and stern to avoid scrapping along the rock walls that rise to a maximum of 58 feet. Tides are minimal and currents run about 2.5 knots. While the view ahead is quite dramatic, the only other points of visual interest are the bridges that cross carrying vehicular and railway traffic to the Peloponnese. Two low bridges, rather than lifting, actually sink to allow the ships to pass over. In the height of summer, the rock walls reflect the heat onto the ship’s deck, and I found it a huge relief to finally come out in the Gulf of Corinth when heading to the Adriatic.

Lines that transit the Corinth Canal include: SeaDream, Silversea & Windstar

Europe Canal Transits

The four-mile-long Corinth Canal cuts across Greece connecting the port of Piraeus (Athens) with the Adriatic Sea. * Photo: Ted Scull

Kiel Canal

With a length of 61 miles (98 km) the Kiel Canal cuts across Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany just south of the Danish border, connecting the North Sea with the Baltic Sea and providing a major passage for shipping and an attractive diversion for pleasure vessels. The canal extends from Kiel on the Baltic to Brunsbüttelkoog at the mouth of the Elbe River. Locks at each end of the canal minimize tidal variation. Built between 1887-1895, to facilitate movement of the German fleet, the Kiel Canal was widened and deepened from 1905 to 1914. Because of its great military and commercial importance, the canal was internationalized by the Treaty of Versailles (1919), though its direct administration was left with the Germans. In 1936 Adolf Hitler cancelled its international status in 1936 until free navigation resumed after World War II.

Europe Canal Transits

The Kiel Canal has a set of locks at either end to maintain a desired water level and eliminate tidal currents. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Kiel Canal is perhaps unique in its largely rural nature with little disturbance of the flanking countryside. On a passage I made, I could smell the manure from the bordering farms. Railway and highway bridges span the waterway, and several ferry crossings fill in the gaps between. An unusual transporter bridge (1913) uses a ferry-like gondola connected by cables to an overhead railway span to carry cars across the waterway so not to interrupt canal traffic. When operating, it is a most unusual sight to behold.

Lines that transit the Kiel Canal include: Windstar & Viking River Cruises

FRESHWATER CANALS
North Sea Canal

The port of Amsterdam is accessed via the 15-mile North Sea Canal (or Amsterdam Ship Canal) providing a mildly interesting transit from the North Sea port of Ijmuiden through the Dutch countryside. When completed in 1876, the North Sea Canal made Amsterdam one of Europe’s great ports. While still important, the rival city of Rotterdam has long surpassed it in maritime traffic, though many cruise lines still prefer Amsterdam. The transit from Amsterdam to the North Sea is more likely to be during convenient daylight hours than in the reverse direction where the ships pass through in the very early morning hours to be docked in Amsterdam by 8am. Many canalized waterways spread throughout The Netherlands and Belgium, and many riverboat itineraries take advantage of them especially during the spring flowing months.

The North Sea Canal links Amssterdam to the North Sea

The North Sea Canal links the port of Amsterdam to the North Sea.

North Sea Canal locking operations include the Northern Lock, one of the largest chambers in the world with dimensions of 1312 by 492 feet. That explains why the locking operation takes so darn long, while small pleasure craft and barges use smaller parallel locks. The arrival in Amsterdam is a treat as the ship passes the city center, river cruise and ferry docks, and the massive Central Station railway.

Lines that transit the North Sea Canal include: Windstar, with a full transit, while many river cruise lines that offer itineraries in Holland and Belgium during the spring bulb season will often use some portion of the North Sea Canal to reach inland ports.

Main-Danube Canal

Located in Bavaria, southern Germany, the Main-Danube was late in coming to the European waterways as the missing 106 miles was not completed until September 1992 between Bamberg via Nuremberg and Kelheim.

However, Charlemagne, as early as the late 8th century, hoped to connect the two rivers that would then create a waterway from the North Sea via the Rhine, his canal, and the Danube as it empties into the Black Sea. As an aside, several river cruise firms offer the entire route every year for those who have the money and time (three weeks).

A narrow version was completed in the first half of the 19th century with many locks to connect the two watersheds and insufficient water available during the summer when the demand was at its peak. It was allowed to languish until the late 1930s when the next more ambitious project was stymied by WWII.

The present canal with 16 locks rises to 1,332 feet, the world’s highest canal elevation where the waterway is connected to the sea and sea level. The locks are remotely operated at four centers, and besides a growing business in creative river cruise itineraries, a considerable amount of freight is also handled, fed by very busy Rhine River traffic and somewhat lower but still considerable volume on the Danube. A sampling of the heavy freight transported is fuel, food, fertilizers, ores, metals, scrap, stone, building rubble, and soil.

The geographically minded may be thrilled by the prospect of sailing across Europe from the Netherlands on the North Sea to Bulgaria and Romania on the Black Sea. However, not easily springing to mind, other than perhaps mine, one can sail from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea northward through the heart of Russia along the Don and Volga and various connecting waterways, lakes and reservoirs.

Lines that transit the Main-Danube Canal include: AMA Waterways, CroisiEurope, Crystal River Cruises, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises

Caledonian Canal

Scotland’s Caledonian Canal slices some 60 miles from northeast to southwest across the country between the North Sea at Inverness to Corpach on the West Coast. The famous Scottish engineer Thomas Telford supervised the building during two decades as the beginning of the 19th century. He was also involved in Sweden’s Gota Canal (see below). One-third of the Caledonian’s length is man-made while the rest is formed by connecting lochs, including the famous Loch Ness. Good luck getting a glimpse of its resident monster.

Lord of the Glens in the Caledonian Canal. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Some 29 locks carry the waterway over the high ground, including the eight locks forming Neptune’s Staircase while ten bridges and four aqueducts cross it. Very small cruise vessels, several with overnight accommodations, cruise portions of the scenic canal and occasionally its full length.

Lines that transit the Caledonian Canal include: Hebrides Cruises, Magna Carta SS Co., Majestic Line, and Puffer Steamboat Holidays VIC 32.

Gota Canal

Sweden’s most ambitious construction project, lasting from 1810 to 1832, was largely undertaken by Scottish engineers and equipment, thanks to the many parallel canal projects in Britain happening at the same time. Thomas Telford, who oversaw the building of the Caledonian Canal, oversaw the Swedish project.

Europe Canal Transits

The lovely Juno passing through one of the Gota Canal system’s many locks. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The 382 miles extended from Gothenburg on Sweden’s west coast to Soderkoping on the Baltic Sea, south of Stockholm. Canal construction extended 120 miles, including 58 locks, while otherwise the waterway made considerable use of various rivers and two large inland lakes — Vattern and Vanern. While it was designed to carry freight as well as passengers, by 1855 the building of railroads doomed its profitability as passengers and higher value cargo took to faster trains. Heavy bulk cargo that did not require speedy delivery such as lumber, coal and ore continued to be carried for many decades.

The passenger trade became largely recreational and an estimated two million people take to watercraft from canoes and kayaks up to the Gota Canal Steamship Company vessels that offer overnight accommodations for from two to six days while enjoying a highly scenic cruise through the lovely Swedish countryside.

Lines that transit the Gota Canal: Gota Canal Steamship Company

Read Heidi’s account of her Gota Canal trip aboard the charming 1874-built Juno.

Sweden's Gota Canal Steamship Company

The charming 1874-built Juno. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

While not an exhaustive list of European canals by an means, the above include some of the most popular where QuirkyCruise ships may appear.

Next time, we will venture to North America and ferret out the canal transits.

 

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Viking River Cruises New Vessels

By Anne Kalosh.

Viking River Cruises New Vessels.

Viking River Cruises plans to debut seven new vessels in 2019, resuming its impressive growth track after a slight pause.

The company has ordered six Viking Longships, each carrying 190 passengers, to sail on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, and one slightly smaller vessel for Portugal’s Douro.

With Viking River Cruises new vessels, Viking’s river fleet will number 69.

Viking River Cruises New Vessels

The six full-sized Viking Longships are being built at Neptun Werft in Germany. * Photo: Neptun Werft

Viking Longships integrate a patented corridor design and cutting-edge technology with comfortable amenities. Public areas include the all-weather indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace with its retractable floor-to-ceiling glass doors that allow travelers to enjoy the views and dine alfresco when the weather is fine.

Each Viking Longship sports two large Explorer Suites and seven two-room Veranda Suites with a full-size veranda in the living room and a French balcony in the bedroom. The 39 Veranda Staterooms each have full-size verandas, while 22 French Balcony Staterooms open to the air. Heated bathroom floors, a mini fridge and both U.S. and E.U. electrical outlets are found in all accommodations.

Additionally, all Viking Longships have features like solar panels and organic herb gardens, and energy-efficient hybrid engines that reduce vibration to give a smoother ride.

Viking River Cruises New Vessels

VIKING HILD and VIKING HERJA were inaugurated this year in Koblenz * Photo: Viking River Cruises

“Just” two Viking River new builds, VIKING HILD and VIKING HERJA, were introduced this year. A pair of new vessels would typically be a lot for any river operator, but Viking does things on a grand scale. In 2016, it introduced six Longships. That followed a dozen new river vessels in 2015, a whopping 18 in 2014 and 10 in 2013.

 

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Mother Russia River Cruising

By Theodore W. Scull.

Before a much more recent Russia river cruising stint, I had traveled to Russia for the first time during the Soviet Union era that ended in 1991. It had been a closely orchestrated experience overseen by Intourist, the official state travel agency. My four-week visit back then was part guided tour and part independent stays drawn from a list of accessible cities. In my case they were Yalta and extra days in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and Moscow. Travel within Russia was by train, airplane, local bus, and a side-wheel riverboat on the Volga and Don rivers.

Russia River Cruising

The absence of low bridges permits much larger riverboats than in Western Europe * Photo: Ted Scull

While my wife and I had taken two Baltic cruises that called at St. Petersburg, I longed to press on inland to see what the country was like today. For my wife, it would be an all-new experience.

I looked at tours but did not want one that hopped by air from city to city as I was equally interested in what was in between. I wanted to see Mother Russia, the national personification of that country and not unlike the term Fatherland that applies to many other countries.

Recently, relations between the U.S. and Russia have slipped back to a variation of the Cold War days, but that was not a deterrent for us. Russia is hardly the only country where we are not on best terms.

Russia River Cruising with Viking River Cruise

A half dozen years ago, we chose Viking River Cruises’ 13-day Waterways of the Tsars that plied between St. Petersburg and Moscow using a complex of connecting rivers, canals, lakes and a reservoir. Viking has a long track record operating in Russia that dates back 20 years.

The riverboat would serve as our hotel for three nights in both cities and then convey us through the countryside making a half-dozen stops along the way.

We arrived in St. Petersburg by Russian train from Helsinki, Finland, a most comfortable daytime journey passing through deep forests and farmland. It was the way that V. I. Lenin had arrived in 1917 just prior to the Russian Revolution.

Several Days in St. Petersburg

As we exited St. Petersburg’s Finland Station, the locomotive that had brought Lenin from Helsinki to Russia to stage the 1917 revolution was on display at the end of the platform. After a 30-minute taxi ride to the Neva River, we  boarded a riverboat considerably larger than those on the Danube, Rhine, Rhone and other Western European rivers, because of the absence of low bridges.

Transfer by car service took 30 min.

For a description of the riverboat, see our  QuirkyCruise Viking River Cruises review.

With the first three days docked on the Neva, we used the riverboat as our hotel. On the first morning, the bus you entered and the guide assigned to that bus were yours for the entire tour program. Tatiana, our guide, was a highly informative woman with an engaging personality. During the academic year, she taught English and French at university level.

Tours leaving from the dock visited the stupendous Hermitage and Winter Palace, Peter and Paul Fortress where the czars and czarinas are buried, and Catherine’s Palace and gardens at Pushkin.

Russia River Cruising

Tatania, our guide, throughout the rver cruise.

Also, we arrived at most sites at the start of the day, and while that meant an early rise, we faced much less crowding and enjoyed our visits. As a bonus, we had free time to wander amongst one of the world’s finest art collections. One evening we attended a delightful performance of Swan Lake.

Our guide also carefully explained how to use the subway and bus in St. Petersburg and later at Moscow. On those days when the included tours did not operate, passengers had the choice of paying for optional tours or going on their own. We chose the latter as I can read Cyrillic letters learned from a one-year Russian language course in college. However, few others did.

As Russia uses a broad rail gauge, trains were especially roomy as were the stations.  It was a half hour to the city center at Nevsky Prospekt (the main boulevard) and there we toured on foot using our Lonely Planet guidebook.

St. Petersberg's Nevsky Prospekt,

St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, main shopping street. * Photo: Ted Scull

St. Petersburg, a planned city with its center dating from the early 18th to the early 20th century, was a delight to explore. It is laced with fine avenues and tree-lined canals and dotted with charming neighborhoods and well-tended parks.  We especially enjoyed the richly decorated interior of Kazan (Russian Orthodox) Cathedral and the main bookstore beautifully housed in the ornate former Singer (Sewing Machine) Building.

The former Singer Sewing Machine building, now a bookstore in St. Petersburg. * Photo: Ted Scull

The current Waterway of the Tsars Viking River Cruise itinerary, operating from June to October, covers some 870 miles, while as the crow flies, the straight-line distance is just 400 miles. In the 18th century, Peter the Great tried to link St. Petersburg, his new “Window on the West,” with Moscow by water, but the technology was simply not there. By the mid-19th century, a continuous waterway opened eventually joining the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg and Moscow and via the Volga and Don Rivers to the Caspian Sea, Sea of Azov and Black Sea.

In the 20th century larger vessels demanded deeper and wider canals, and Joseph Stalin, employing huge gangs of slave labor, completely transformed the water route to what we see today, though some sections were not finished until the 1960s. The monumental architecture at the canal locks unmistakably reflects the Stalin era.

Russia River Cruising

Stailin-era canal and lock construction. * Photo: Ted Scull

Through Lakes Ladoga & Onega

Slipping the lines, we sailed up the Neva River into Lake Ladoga, the largest in Europe, for a happily smooth crossing of the southern end and into the Svir River leading to Lake Onega, Europe’s second largest freshwater body, again almost a millpond.

Mandrogy

The stop at Mandrogy, a replica village built on the site of one destroyed during WWII offered craft demonstrations and souvenir shops and little else. The following stop at the Kizhi Island village, a UNESCO World Heritage site, presented a wonderful open-air museum of indigenous wooden architecture exhibiting small and large churches, with an octagonal plan, an elaborate bell tower or one with 22 onion domes and varying styles of private homes from the prosperous to peasant. While it seemed a stage set, the collection was authentic.

One of the historic wooden churches (22 domes) on Kizhi Island. * Photo: Ted Scull

Volga-Baltic Canal & Its Locks

The boat then cruised south through wind-whipped waters to join connecting rivers forming the Volga-Baltic Canal that led across circular White Lake and eventually into Rybinsk Reservoir. We passed through a series of impressive Soviet-era locks that could handle two large riverboats at once, each raising the vessel 45 to 50 feet. En route we also encountered quite a lot of freight traffic — small tankers, bulk carriers (transporting coal, grain, gravel, lumber) and container ships.

Goritsky

From the river landing at Goritsky, it was a short ride to the Monastery of St. Cyril, founded in 1397 and eventually becoming Russia’s second most important ecclesiastical, cultural and political center.  Assumption Cathedral, the oldest building on the site, dates from 1497, and the impressive mile-long walls and 23 defense towers were completed in 1666.

At its height, the 30-acre monastery and its 11 churches owned 400 villages and 22,000 serfs.  With their emancipation in 1861, the place fell into poverty, the complex closed down, and five decades ago it became a museum including an outstanding collection of religious icons.

Russia River Cruising

Monastery of St. Cyril. * Photo: Ted Scull

Back on the river, the evening could not have been prettier, with colorfully painted wooden houses clustered in small villages lining the wooded riverbanks — this pastoral scenery, a perk of Russia river cruising. People did watch us pass from shore, but it is not customary for them to wave.

Volga River

In the morning, we entered the legendary 2,300-mile-long Volga River, the mighty Mississippi of Russia that flows south into the Caspian Sea forming one route followed by early trading merchants between northern Russia and Asian kingdoms.

Yaroslav

The day’s stop was Yaroslav, a mid-sized city older than Moscow that is celebrated its millennium in 2010. We mingled with the locals at the street produce market, visited a 17th church with icons and frescos covering every inch from floor to ceiling, and promenaded through a pretty wooded park high above the river. It was a weekend and lots of families were out for a stroll.  If I made eye contact and said a greeting, I usually received a reply, but none were initiated by the locals unless they had something to sell. Occasionally, in a market, I would ask another shopper what something was — both in English and Russian — and sometimes that prompted a response and a halting conversation might ensue. It’s worth trying to make a personal link with the residents.

Uglich

The last call before Moscow was Uglich, which once boasted 100 churches, and is now was a sleepy town with a delicate panorama of pretty red, blue and gold domes of the remaining churches lining the riverfront.  We walked past rows of wooden houses to the edge of town, some attractively maintained with decorative wood trim and others in poor states of repair, reflective of the uneven wealth in the new Russia.

Mother Russia River Cruising

Uglich once boasted 100 churches, and is now was a sleepy town with a delicate panorama of pretty red, blue and gold domes of the remaining churches lining the riverfront. * Photo: Ted Scull

Moscow

The approach to Moscow was along the Moscow Canal, a prestige project that Stalin oversaw. Construction cost more than 100,000 lives, and following its rapid completion in 1937, the supervisors were also killed so not to reveal the appalling working and living conditions.

We docked among numerous other riverboats in the shadow of a huge Stalin-era maritime station on the outskirts of Moscow, the sprouting skyline seen about 15 miles away.

With my last visit during the Soviet era now decades ago, I was not prepared for how vibrant Moscow has turned out to be.  Yes, vast Red Square, St Basil’s colorful onion domes and the Kremlin walls, churches and museums were much the same spectacles, but now everything in the heart of the city had experienced a face lift. The streets were always clean, but today the parks and flower beds were very well attended, and the shops had lots to sell, with GUM, the former department store, the most poignant proof. Once little had been on display and now it was packed with trendy designer shops, though during the present economy, with many more lookers than buyers in evidence.

The traffic, almost non-existent a quarter century ago, was truly maniacal all day long, and one was never sure how long it would take to get from one place to the next.

On our free day, my wife and I used the metro, accessed just inland from the Northern River Station, and marveled at its convenience. Trains arrived every one to two minutes and the stations ranged from chandeliered palaces to Art Moderne to heavy Soviet style with heroic bas-reliefs. Sometimes it was fun just to get off, have a look around and get on the next train.

A mural in the moscow subway

A mural in the Moscow subway. * Photo: Ted Scull

We toured some of the better inner-city neighborhoods with lovely small parks, narrow lanes, and attractive architecture and had lunch in a small café that could have been in Paris.

Three days was not enough for Moscow, and we envied those who were staying on. I revisited the National Hotel where I roomed all those years ago, and apart from the layout, its dowdy Intourist atmosphere had been completely transformed in a boutique beauty, with prices to match.

Moscow's Red Square

Moscow’s red Square is a major meeting place for locals and visitors. * Photo: Ted Scull

As Russia is a difficult country to travel through independently, a river cruise solves many of the hassles and hurdles. Staying aboard a riverboat in St. Petersburg and Moscow smooths out the packing and unpacking rotations, but the remote landings require long drives to and from the city centers.

Viking River Cruises’ Viking Surkov

The Viking Surkov riverboat (renamed Viking Helgi and upgraded) proved to be a fine, well-run conveyance, and the guides that traveled with the riverboat were uniformly excellent in their knowledge and presentation. Russia is a very complex country and difficult to fathom, so one cannot expect to be an expert on much after a dozen days. However, the country has a very long history and a proud culture to share with those who take the time to be open to it.

Russia River Cruising & the Lines that Go There

AmaWaterways

Uniworld

Scenic

Viking

Volga Dream

 

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Nile River Overview

By Ted Scull.

Egypt has been largely off the travel map for some time, and now tourism is slowly returning so QuirkyCruise.com decided to bring the legendary Nile cruise to your attention. Most important historic sites can now be enjoyed with far less crowding than in the past when the major sites were often overwhelmed with visitors.

The Nile is the world’s longest river at some 4,160 miles from source to mouth — in Egypt, the Upper Nile is in the south and the Lower Nile is up north. Most Nile River cruises sail between Luxor and Aswan, a 120-mile stretch. The four-night option visits the ancient temples and monuments at Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, Kom Ombo, Edfu, and Esna; longer seven- and eight-night options add on the bit north of Luxor, stopping at Dendera and Abydos.

Nile River Overview

The Sphinx and the Pyramid of Cheops in Giza. * Photo: Abercrombie & Kent

When contemplating a trip to Egypt and the Nile Valley, be sure to go prepared. Those who don’t know Isis from Osiris (wife and sister; husband and brother) and who think that they are looking at Cleopatra’s Needles (chiseled 12 centuries before she was born) in Central Park, London, Paris, Rome and Istanbul will be crying uncle after a few days exploring the temples and tombs of Ancient Egypt.

Nile River Overview

Uniworld’s River Tosca on the Nile River. * Photo: Uniworld Cruises

The high-end operators provide not only good reading lists, but also suggest which ones to read if you have limited time. Take the suggestions to heart or be prepared to get stuffed with more myths, tales and hieroglyphs than you can keep straight.

While some travelers shy away from taking an organized tour, it is really the only way to navigate the Nile Valley and come away with a successful trip, rather than one beset by having to deal with overly eager “official” guides, touts galore, canceled reservations, long queues to get into nearly everything, and far too many other tourists intruding into your space.

Nile River Overview

This posh 12-passenger boat, “Sanctuary Zein Nile Chateau,” cruises the Nile River in luxury. * Photo: Abercrombie & Kent

Before the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, when many travel companies and cruise lines stopped offering Egypt trips due to security issues and waning demand, there were many river cruise lines offering Nile Rivers cruises. Seven years later, the region still hasn’t bounced back to the old days, but there are a handful of river cruise lines committed to this stunning part of the world. (The number of tourists visiting Egypt dropped from 14.7 million in 2010 to 5.4 million in 2016, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.)

Read more about Egypt’s tourism decline in this recent Al Jazeera article. In addition, here is a link to the July 2017 State Department warning about travel to Egypt.

This picture may not sound very appealing, but Egypt, ancient and modern, Coptic and Muslim, is a fascinating place, and a cruise on the Nile transports one back to pre-biblical times.

Nile River Valley Cruise-Tour Combo

Our cruise-tour with Lindblad Expeditions lasted 16 days (note: in January 2018, Lindblad announced it was resuming Nile River cruises after it had pulled out of the region in January 2011 due to the uprising.) Two Egyptologists ­— in our case two highly professional Coptic Christian women — divided the group in half. Not only did they present their considerable knowledge in a most appealing way, but they were experts in helping us avoid the worst of the crowds and in getting tickets to hard-to-obtain Nefertari’s tomb. Lindblad also guaranteed Nile-view rooms in Cairo and pyramid views at the Oberoi Mena House in Giza, on the west bank of the Nile a few miles southwest of central Cairo.

Pre-cruise Stay in Cairo

Cairo has many layers to explore amidst quite a lot of chaotic street traffic. The Cairo Museum’s treasures are well known, as is its dustiness, but there is also modern-day Muslim Cairo and a Coptic Christian culture that represents 15 per cent of Egypt’s population. Even coming from New York, I found crossing the street intimidating and downright frightening at times. Cross with the locals. But it was worth the effort to get into the perfectly safe back streets or to walk the banks of the Nile for a glimpse of action on the river.

Cruising Luxor to Aswan

Our Lindblad trip spent eight nights on the river, and the passing scene kept lots of us out on deck. The Nile in Upper Egypt is the highway for barges laden with sugarcane and feluccas taking sacks of fertilizer to farm landings. Cattle and goats came down to drink from the Nile, and small boys yodeled and waved as we passed. It took on a magical quality one evening when the moon rose in the East and the set in the Western Desert.

Nile River Overview

A caro-carrying felucca. * Photo: Ted Scull

With so few other cruise boats presently operating on the Nile, the rafting side by side at night that used to be the norm is much less common, and you are less likely to be looking into someone else’s cabin.

Lindblad’s 16-day cruise tour spent a full week on the riverboat allowing more time at Luxor and area and including Dendara, an outstanding and less visited Greco-Roman site down river.

Between Luxor and Aswan, most sites are from the Greco-Roman period, but executed in the Egyptian style. The settings, on the riverbank, inland and below ground, vary more than the content, so those who have done their homework and have a sense of anticipation fare better than those who come unprepared.

Because of the current heightened security with reassuring police presence, you are not likely to feel uncomfortable after a day or two.

Valley of the Kings

The narrow West Bank of the Nile represents Ancient Egypt at its peak. Part of the ancient city of Thebes, the Valley of the Kings was the burial place of almost all the pharaohs (kings) between 1539 and 1075 BC, from Thutmose to Ramses X. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, the area also comprises Luxor, Karnak and the Valley of the Queens.

There is lots of sightseeing variety, including massive temples, statuary, an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes and tombs of pharaohs. The best of underground chambers are few and small, and unable to handle many visitors, and with some sites not open on a given day, it is not always certain which interior spaces you will see.

Nile River Overview

Valley of the Queens, located on the West Bank of the Nile. * Photo: Ted Scull

At the Valley of the Kings, we got into several tombs, including Tutankhamen’s and Nefertari’s, though the latter visit has a limit of 10 minutes to minimize the chances of damage due to our breathing. The hieroglyphs are spectacular.

The only disappointment was Karnak’s sound and light show that consisted of mostly booming voices of British dramatic actors, yet offering little historical content. The show at the Great Pyramids was much better.

Luxor

Luxor, today a modern city of nearly one-half million, was at the peak of Ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom, Upper Egypt’s capital city of Thebes. Luxor Temple, is a massive complex to explore, with its centerpiece the Colossus of Ramesses II. Movie buffs who know the film “Death on the Nile” will be delighted to see the spot where the huge stone slab came crashing down. If the guide adds a bit of drama, he will have you look up straight up, an exercise that can be a bit unnerving.

Nile River Overview

Luxor. * Photo: Ted Scull

A multi-kilometer avenue lined with hundreds of Sphinxes led from here to Karnak. In the early 21st century, a large section was unearthed to give a sense of majesty. Luxor also has interesting markets, both for the locals and visitors, and a fine corniche above the Nile to stroll along in the evening.

Aswan

Aswan is the most visitable city, and the parallel streets in from the river have a lively market atmosphere, and as most goods are not tourist-oriented, one can explore without being harassed. The felucca cruise around Elephantine Island and to the botanical gardens allows for a peaceful enjoyment of the sites and the urban and desert landscapes. The Island of Philae between the British-built dam and the High Dam is a lovely setting and provides an interesting story of saving a highly valued ancient monument from the rising waters.

Nile River Valley

A market in Aswan. * Photo: Ted Scull

Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel may have been the highlight of our itinerary and included an overnight stay at a nearby hotel, affording us the opportunity to stand on the banks of Lake Nasser as the sun set behind the colossal statues of Ramses II and then watch it rise the next morning to bathe the monument in a soft light.

Nile River Overview

Abu Simbel with a full moon above now faces Lake Nasser above the Aswan Dam. * Photo: Ted Scull

Giza & Pre- and Post-Cruise Hotel Stays

Giza, a major city in its own right, has been absorbed into the sprawling Cairo metropolis just a few miles away to the east. Here you’ll see ancient Egypt’s iconic archetypal pyramids and the Sphinx at the base of Giza’s desert plateau. The Pyramids of Giza along with the ancient ruins of Memphis, Ṣaqqārah, Dahshūr, Abū Ruwaysh, and Abū Ṣīr, were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Nile River Overview

The classic Giza experience. * Photo: Uniworld Cruises

Read more about the pyramids of Giza in this National Geographic article.

The final three nights of our cruise-tour were spent at the Oberoi Mena House, a former 1869-built hunting lodge that has greatly expanded into a major hotel. It’s a most desirable and popular hotel on high-end packages. Our room looked directly across the interior date palm courtyard to two of Giza’s three Great Pyramids, either floodlit or as darkened silhouettes piercing the night sky.

The days were spent visiting Giza and the amazing 4,700-year-old solar boat, the ruins at Memphis and the step pyramid at Saqqara. Descending into a nobleman’s mastaba (burial chamber), beautifully colorful bas-reliefs depict intriguing scenes of daily life — farmers force-feeding cattle, fishermen casting their nets, artists sculpting and making jewelry, dwarfs building a boat, and a hippo biting a crocodile.

Nile River Overview

A step pyramid. * Photo: Ted Scull

I think that our guides made the difference and kept the interest up amongst most of the group. A few people said that if they heard another set of hieroglyphs being translated, they would cover their ears.

For me, this was my third time in Egypt with decades in between, and as archeologists uncover more and it is then interpreted, Egypt’s long history gets richer and more deeply understood.

Nile River Cruise ABC’s
When to go?

Nile River cruises are offered year-round. The best time is December though February, the high season, when yes it’ll still be pleasantly hot, but less humid and quite chilly at night, often down to the low 50s/high 40s F. Summers are broiling hot — more than 100 degrees F — while the shoulder seasons of March/April and October/November can be ok too, though still hot in the middle of the day. Keep in mind the water level of the Nile is usually low between October and May to conserve water in Lake Nasser, the source of much of Egypt’s irrigation supply.

Nile River Cruise Itineraries

Most Nile River cruises are 4 or 8 nights; with the shorter cruises sometimes combined with a 3-night cruise on Lake Nasser; all companies offer optional pre- and post-cruise hotel packages for additional exploring in Cairo, Giza, and Alexandria.

Getting There

Fly into Cairo via major cities like London and New York. Depending on your package, there are likely internal flights on domestic carriers.

Nile River Cruising Do’s & Don’ts:
  • Definitely take a pre-organized tour; it’s really the only sane and safe way to navigate the Nile River Valley.
  • Don’t get into a lazy cruise mode before you go, and do at least some of the reading the cruise tour operator suggests. Your forays into ancient tombs and temples will be much richer for it.
  • Egyptian tourism was a huge part of the economy and is slowly coming back post Arab-spring, so thousands have been unemployed or underemployed. You are part of the paycheck so naturally there may be pressure to buy.
  • Check carefully for the quality of souvenirs; enlist your cruise-sanctioned guide to direct you to shops with legitimate goods.
  • Be on guard at crowded markets and busy tourist sites for pickpockets.
  • The sun god is a powerful force, so cover up when out in the open for any length of time.
Lines Offering Nile River Cruises

Abercrombie & Kent

Lindblad Expeditions

Scenic

Uniworld Cruises

Viking River Cruises

 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.