How can three generations of relatives make the most of a European vacation? A Viking River Cruise.
As its ads on PBS’ “Masterpiece” explain, a Viking river cruise is a smart, fun way for families to explore the world — particularly local culture and the arts — in comfort. We recently sailed from Prague to Paris on a 13-day “Cities of Light” adventure. Come aboard and prepare to be delighted.
First stop — Warsaw, Poland on our land tour that we conducted for ourselves. We highly recommend Warsaw, especially the tour we did of Wilanov — the former castle of King Jan III Sobieski. The palace hosts cultural events and concerts and is one of Poland’s official national historic monuments. For hotels, we like the Warsaw Hilton, as it is near the Old Town (and Chopin concerts) and within one block from the Uprising Museum (where you could spend an entire day). For a city tour and escorted tour of Wilanov, speak to the Hilton concierge and book Czarek. He is not only a well-informed guide, he is a charming person who will make the trip terrific. Insider Tip: The American dollar is very strong in Poland, and everything — from hotel rooms to leather coats to Botox injections — is incredibly reasonable, making Poland a great value for the money right now. (Yes, Botox injections for crow’s feet were just $80 at the medical office I visited.)
We sped through Warsaw, took a flight to Krakow to see family and then boarded Rail Europe in Krakow in order to reach our pre-cruise hotel in Prague. Try it. Rail Europe offers rail passes, train tickets and reservations for more than 50 European train companies. You can also use Rail Europe to book sightseeing tours, city passes and museum passes. We stayed in a sleeper car for the overnight trip, and though the room was quite small for the three of us, we much preferred this to all of the hassles of an airplane trip. The cost was about $100 per ticket, and it made the trip quick and easy. (raileurope.com, 1-888-438-RAIL.)
We stayed at Hilton Prague (although there is another Hilton in the Old Town), and it was excellent. What made it great? First, Viking River Cruises operates a desk there. Book an Executive Room as we did. You’ll have all of the delights of the Executive Lounge, including breakfast, snacks and light dinner served every day. (Make sure to enjoy the found-in-Europe-only black currant juice.) We stayed in two adjoining rooms, which added to our comfort and enjoyment. Another plus: Hilton’s private car service offers convenient transportation — and even lets you charge the fare to your room. My sister Chris and Mom used it with great success to visit a nearby theater where they saw an incredible performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” that included a reconstruction of the original staging from the opera’s premiere there in 1787, conducted by Mozart himself. Another Prague highlight — the tour of Lobkowicz Palace and its weekly classical music concert.
Though I’m a seasoned ocean cruiser, my 98-year-old mother (who is in excellent health) and my sister had never cruised before. We sailed on the Viking Odin, named for the wandering chief god in Norse mythology.
Service by the Viking staff was unparalleled — friendly, courteous and professional. It was the best I’ve encountered on any cruise, and that’s saying a lot, since I’ve sailed on the world’s best luxury ocean liners. Mom and Chris were also thunderstruck by how friendly and caring the staff was.
Viking prides itself on cultural immersion, and this it does with aplomb. Every day involved numerous tours (and subsequent motor coach rides) to lovely ports of call. In Würzburg, Germany, our guide, Florian (who was as entertaining as he was knowledgeable and funny) provided excellent commentary on the entire area, including the Würzburg Residence, a palace that is even more ornate than Versailles. In Cochem, Germany, our guide Maryann was just as funny, as she took us on an exceptional tour of the medieval Reichsburg Castle that was fascinating. (She even changed into a dirndl skirt for the occasion).
We loved lots of things about this cruise. The heated bathroom floors. The three types of cookies offered daily at the coffee station. The second restaurant, Aquavit Terrace, were you could enjoy a casual meal as an alternative to the main dining room. Though we found some of the food to be too heavy in summer (beef stew and cheese soup for lunch), I have to say that the chef and staff were more than accommodating to my special dietary requests, which they would fulfill for anyone. It’s all I can do to stay a size 4, and the chef was incredibly flexible in offering me delicious low-fat muesli with skim milk, grilled shrimp and ratatouille and butter-free salmon, in lieu of more fattening dishes such as pumpkin ravioli with lamb loin or polenta sandwiches. There is also a vegetarian menu every day. One Indian family aboard also made lots of special requests, selecting vegetarian, Mexican and Indian food, which they all rated as delicious.
If you are a seasoned ocean traveler like me, you will miss having access to a gym on a river cruise, (although you can visit some in various ports, for a fee, of course), a salon, a spa and nighttime entertainment/production shows. There is just dancing and music at 9 p.m. in the lounge, or you can watch TV and movies in your room. However, our cruise also featured a breathtaking musical ensemble that really belonged at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. The Darmstadter Staatstheater trio was exceptional, consisting of a French horn player, pianist and soprano Elisabeth Fischbach. It was the highlight of the entire cruise.
If you do love ocean cruises, you may wish to consider Viking’s new ocean cruises — on the Star and the Sea — which unseated Crystal Cruises as the Number One Ocean Cruise Line in Travel + Leisure’s 2016 World’s Best Awards.
But for riparian pleasures, Viking River Cruises is a first-class way to unpack once, see gorgeous sights and take in the world — one beautiful port at a time. And if you need the perfect souvenir, take home Viking’s adorable plush dog Fuddlewuddle, who is the favorite toy of the ship’s Labrador mascot, Finse. (There are also four children’s travel books called “The World of Finse” — must-buys for your children and grandchildren.)
For family and intergenerational travel, Viking is a luxurious way to explore the world of art and culture in an impeccable manner. Bon Voyage.