Up until this past March, I had never taken a river cruise, and in fact, I had never really considered the cruising format ever for myself. I was familiar with it. I knew it existed, but I didn’t know a whole lot about it. Now I’ve had the pleasure of taking two voyages with Viking River Cruises, and I’m forever sold.
My first river experience was in March when I was in attendance for the christening of Viking’s first four longships – the line’s newest designs of which there will be an impressive 24 total launched by 2014. At that time, I enjoyed a mini-cruise aboard the Viking Odin that left me wanting to return to river waters once more, and with the conclusion of my Danube Christmas Markets cruise on the Viking Freya, I have had that wonderful opportunity.
I got the chance to share this journey with my mom, marking the first time I had ever sailed with her alone. The bulk of my cruises have been experienced as a family with both my dad and mom graciously taking me along. River cruise staterooms are designed for two, so this time, it was just my mom and I. At least my dad was able to share in the experience remotely via my live voyage review (parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) while my mom and I enjoyed the time together onboard.
The river cruising demographic skews more mature with my mom being on the younger side of that age group (she is a kid at heart, after all) and myself falling in a rarer category. Our cruise did, however, have a handful of passengers besides me in their 20s and 30s – my good friend and colleague, Aaron Saunders, included. This made for a great multi-generational experience with a reversal of roles such that I was the one showing my mom the river cruising ropes. But the Viking river cruising experience is perfect for anyone of any age with a desire to extensively explore the core of historical places on excellent included tours all from the comfort of luxurious riverboats.
The new Viking longships are quite modern in their design and give off a boutique hotel vibe. For ocean cruisers, I would most closely compare the look and feel to Celebrity Cruises. Of course, the overall personality of the line is distinctly Viking – hearkening back to the quality pedigree of Royal Viking Line, once overseen by Viking River Cruises’ CEO and cofounder, Torstein Hagen.
To be sure, the longships – despite their moniker – are no mega cruise ship, and that, in fact, is part of the appeal. These riverboats are 443 feet long with 95 cabins accommodating 190 total guests. It takes no marathon to get from the bow to the stern, and with only fours decks, it’s quite easy to access any of the public spaces onboard.
Like Panamax cruise ships – those sized specifically to fit through the Panama Canal – the Viking longships are maxed out to the limit of the canals they navigate. The wheelhouse is even designed to squat down to clear bridges as needed. With only one restaurant and one lounge, the focus is decidedly more off-board than on, but those areas that do exist on the ship are exquisite.
Once you first board, the two-story atrium welcomes you with bright illumination from the skylight above and spacious surroundings outlined with rich woods and back-lit marble accents. Dotting the atrium’s perimeter are the ship’s reception desk and retail boutique across from each other plus a dedicated concierge desk on deck 2, and the library and two computer terminals directly above on deck 3. Unlimited internet access from these terminals and your own WiFi devices is included with a pretty stable connection all in all save for when the ship is in a canal lock.
Aft of and below the atrium are the ship’s staterooms and forward are the restaurant and lounge. The Viking restaurant offers delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners with a central buffet service in the morning and full service in the afternoon and evening. The food is a standout onboard with no dish that falls short of culinary excellence, and the pastry chef on the Viking Freya is a veritable rockstar. All the cakes, pastries, donuts and cookies were incredibly tasty.
No tables seat fewer than 6 people, so open-seating meals are social events, and you can expect dinners to last about 2 hours. Dinner service is slower than usual, but with no rush to make it to a multitude of evening activities, the pacing is likely deliberate.
Dinner selections include a starter course and a choice of three main entrees such as one evening’s savory chateaubriand. Alternative dishes are also offered nightly, and you can freely order more than one of each course. Complimentary house wines, beers and soft drinks are served during meals as well.
Lounge and Terrace
Above the restaurant is the spacious observation lounge with floor to ceiling windows and the clever indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace towards the front of the ship. This patio setting features a buffet that serves continental breakfasts and al fresco lunches. Tables are segmented into two sections with glass partitions that can enclose one part during inclement weather with the remainder outside over the bow. When the partitions are pulled back the entire terrace becomes a pleasant outdoor venue in warmer weather.
Breakfast and lunch from the Aquavit Terrace can also be taken inside the main lounge where bar service offers complimentary drinks during meal times and cocktails for sale in between, creating a nearly all-inclusive cruising experience. The piano lounge is also where your program director will apprise you of all the details about the following day’s activities. Not seen on larger vessels, this welcome service provides the opportunity for any passenger to ask their questions about what is to come. Truly, the approachability of all the friendly staff onboard is extraordinarily helpful, and you’ll find your program director to be akin to the Energizer Bunny, appearing everywhere during your voyage.
For an alternative dinner option, the Aquavit Terrace offers “bar snacks” in the evening, which are really substantial choices. The available flavorful plates are a club sandwich, pasta, jacket potato, chili con carne or a really juicy burger. For my mom and I, this provided a preferred alternative to eating downstairs as it was quicker, quieter, and gave us a chance to catch up on our day just among ourselves. It’s nice to see Viking offer this choice to cater to various cruising styles.
Sun (Snow) Deck
There is a sun deck onboard that stretches the entire length of the ship, but we didn’t see a whole lot of it during this cruise as it was the snow deck more than anything. That didn’t stop my mom and I from having a fun snowball fight one morning, however, and neither did it stop the crew from crafting a snowman with candy eyes and nose plus walnut ears.
During the summer, this area is prime for lounging under shade or in the sun, but during the winter, not so much. Still, it did provide a great vantage point for seeing us traverse the locks provided you were sufficiently bundled up.
And what of the staterooms? Well, Viking got clever here too because they set the access corridor off-center to allow for longer cabins with verandas on one side of the ship and suites or cabins with juliet-balconies on the other. These veranda staterooms are only slightly smaller than comparable cabins on an ocean cruise ship with a typical couch being replaced with a single chair. Even then, the room’s configuration makes it appear larger than it is with several mirrors. Cabinets are set at angles that let the room funnel open from the entry door, and bathrooms are similarly angular to maximize space.
Lighting in the rooms is excellent with a bank of switches that is somewhat daunting to understand, and the bathrooms and closets feature fogged-glass sliding panels. The entire bathroom is even enclosed in opaque glass that can be made completely clear at the switch of a button. If desired, the glass bathroom provides additional room illumination during the day with the caveat that switching the bathroom light on during the night, when even in opaque mode, will likely wake up your roommate or partner.
Beds are very supple and can be split into to two as needed. Even with additional padding, the room’s chair with its awkward back support is just not very comfortable for extended periods of use. Bath products are excellent, and the lemon-scented soap is extremely refreshing. The daily replenished complimentary water in the rooms is also a nice touch. Other features include a mini-fridge and flat panel interactive television. For a more in depth look at the cabins, stay tuned for our upcoming Viking Freya video tour.
The Viking staff are fantastic and perfectly attentive. You see the same familiar faces during the entire cruise, and they are always knowledgable and able to answer any of your questions. The program director and hotel director are especially impressive for their inexplicable ability to be seemingly omnipresent. Our room stewardess was just delightful and the bar and wait staff were very friendly as well.
Our particular cruise was an exceptional Danube river journey during the magical European Christmas Markets season. With snow outside, it was plenty cold, but the two self-serve coffee stations outside the lounge became our daily hot chocolate and cookie haven – one of our favorite features onboard. To learn more about our excellent journeys off-board, be sure to read my extensive live voyage review (parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) detailing the experience. Suffice it to say, a river cruise is hands-down the perfect way to experience many Christmas Markets during a single European vacation, and Viking River Cruises offers a premium way to get there.
That concludes our written and photo review for the Viking Freya. Now, check out our extensive Video Review here.