In 2012, Viking River Cruises kicked off a dramatic three-year-long fleet expansion by inaugurating six ships. A year later, 10 more identical ships were christened, and another dozen are due in 2014. Viking Aegir was one of the original sextuplets -- branded "Longships" named for Norse gods -- to hit the water, and the six sisters have made quite a splash on the river scene since their debuts. German-built Viking Aegir and its sister ships represent a new take on river hospitality, one in which a sleek, Scandinavian ambience is the antithesis of river's traditionally fusty vessels.
What first strikes you as you step onboard? Sunlight. Streaming in through the glass-enclosed, two-story atrium is enough light to allow real flowers to grow. With backlit marble panels rising above a terrazzo floor and wood-and-glass staircase, and pale, earth-toned decor, the space has energy and natural appeal. If the ambience reminds some of Seabourn's Odyssey class, that's not a coincidence -- the vessels share the same lead designer, Norwegian firm Yran & Storbraaten.
But beyond the airy vibe of its public spaces, Viking Aegir floats a whole raft of features new to river cruising in Europe.
Fittingly for a line named after Scandinavian conquerors, there is a sense of minimalism on Aegir. You can perhaps best see the efficiency and maximization of available area onboard in the surprising new signature spaces that have been conjured: the Aquavit Terrace, the two largest true suites on a riverboat in Europe (each with separate living room and bedroom), not to mention seven slightly smaller true suites with separate living and sleeping rooms, and an increased number of cabins with full and French balconies.
Don't be fooled, though; creating those spaces was more hard work than magic. The designers' creation of such new spaces required a lot of rethinking about the basic structure of river ships. To fit under the bridges and through the locks of Europe's inland waterways, riverboats have to meet specific size requirements. If length or depth is extended past those limits, the ship won't sail.
As a workaround, designers blunted the traditional pointy-nosed bow of Viking's ships to provide more space. The result was Aquavit Terrace. A lovely open-air cafe on the ship's bow, the venue provides something of a river rarity: an alternative casual eatery with indoor/outdoor seating.
It also positioned interior corridors off-center to accommodate cabins -- full balconies on one side and narrower cabins, some elevated to suites with separate sleeping and living areas, placed sideways on the other side.
Less visible, but no less cutting-edge, are the ship's "green" advances, including hybrid diesel-electric engines which burn less fuel and produce 20 percent fewer emissions, making longships cleaner and quieter than their competitors. There are even solar panels on the sun deck that help to fuel the engines. And the ship's chef maintains an organic garden on Aegir's upper deck during growing season.
The ride onboard is slow and smooth as you pass by scenery that includes the Rhine Gorge -- or Upper Middle Rhine Valley -- a UNESCO World Heritage site littered with history-rich vistas of castles and medieval towns.
The decor of the main dining room is simple and comfortably contemporary, but what really wows are the floor-to-ceiling windows that envelop the space in its outside environment. Fresh flowers are set on white linens (fresh fruit as a centerpiece at breakfast), and the pace of dining is relaxed and efficiently managed, though the staff is not overly attentive.
Meals in the main dining room are served open-seating at set times (which can vary slightly, depending on the itinerary). Breakfast (typically 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.) is from a large, circular buffet area in the center of the room that includes oatmeal with toppings, yogurt, cheeses and meats. There's also an omelet station, or you can order pancakes, French toast or eggs cooked to your taste from your waiter. Lunch (noon to 2 p.m.) includes a soup and salad bar enhanced by such treats as pate, which are often based on culinary traditions from the day's destination. Again, you also have a choice of ordering from a menu with a featured entree, pastas or sandwiches.
Dinner (typically at 7 p.m.) features a full menu with four hot or cold starters (you can order one or more) and three entrees (usually a fish, meat and vegetarian option). In addition to sweet desserts, there's a daily cheese plate reflecting local selections (Gouda, Bavarian blue, etc.). Always-available choices include grilled salmon, charbroiled New York-cut steak and Caesar salad.
The dining room is configured with tables for four, six, eight and one for 10. Five tables can be separated by a few inches for those wanting dinner for two (though not with that much privacy).
The Aquavit Terrace offers a more casual alternative and is the preferred place to be at lunchtime (noon to 2 p.m.) on a sunny day.
Expanding on a concept introduced on Viking Prestige in 2011, a precursor to Viking's Longship design, the space connects the ship's main lounge to a conservatory-style room with a glass ceiling and sides that open, leading to a small, truly alfresco dining area comprised of nine tables on the ship's bow. Glass windbreaks block some breezes, and heaters warm things up on chillier days. There are also three tables and a couple of comfy patio-style wicker couches in the glassed-in space for those who want views without breezes.
The Aquavit menu is a streamlined buffet of salads, hot soup and a couple of entree choices, such as carved meats or curried chicken sandwiches at lunch. For dinner (7 p.m. to 9 p.m.), you can choose from items like Caesar salad, burgers (cooked on a gas grill) and pastas.
If you want privacy, there are take-out containers you can use to bring your meal up to the top sun deck to eat at the bar in the lounge or even on your cabin balcony. There is no room service, but the maitre d can assist with bringing food to the room in special circumstances. Restricted diets can also be accommodated to some degree.
Red and white house wine, beer and soft drinks are complimentary at lunch and dinner. You can also purchase a recommended wine each day, including local varietals like Riesling by the bottle or glass.
As a quick breakfast alternative, coffee and pastries are available in the ship's lounge. Two coffee and tea stations in the upper atrium are also open 24/7 and have self-service machines that can produce lattes and cappuccinos, with mini-pastries offered in the morning and cookies in the afternoon.
As is the case on all riverboats, Viking Longships have only a few public rooms, making it easy to get to know this ship -- not to mention many of your fellow passengers.
The lower level of the light-filled, glass-ceilinged atrium houses the reception and concierge desks, cushioned couches with views, and a small corner shop selling Viking logowear, batteries and a few itinerary-specific souvenirs. Glass doors lead to the main dining room. A staircase leads to cabins on the main deck below. A glass elevator, the first for Viking, also connects the three main passenger decks but does not go up to the top-level sun deck.
Walking up the striking grand staircase from Middle to Upper Deck, topped by a modern-art depiction of a historic Viking ship, takes you to the upper atrium. Public space in this part of the ship consists of an Internet corner with complimentary laptops on two desks and a library corner with wooden bookcases. There are couches where you can enjoy coffee, tea and sweets from two self-service stations while watching the passing views through large sliding-glass doors. Through the doors, on either side of the upper atrium, you'll find a small balcony to do the same.
The main draw on the upper atrium level is the spacious, windowed lounge, done up with pale gray and orange couches and plush chairs. This room is the social hub of the ship. There's a nice wooden bar with 10 barstools at one end of the lounge, adjacent to a dance floor. Nearly everyone gathers in the lounge for the nightly cocktail hour, which includes details of the next day's program, delivered by the ship's Program Director. At the other end of the lounge, glass doors lead to the Aquavit Terrace cafe.
Up above, the top sun deck -- an expanse that runs the entire length of the vessel -- has the lovely and unusual addition of an organic herb garden. There's a shuffleboard court, a pair of putting greens and a giant chess set, too, but views are the main reasons to be up there. Retained from earlier Viking ships are the two wonderful canopy areas, providing lots of shaded space for those who don't want too much sun. Tables, chairs and cushioned loungers are available aplenty.
The ship's bridge lowers and rises to fit under low bridges and is an attraction unto itself. There's an open-bridge policy, allowing passengers to schmooze with the officers, except when they are navigating the tight locks.
Every cabin comes with a view on Viking's Longships; there isn't a single interior cabin to be found onboard.
Inside, the rooms are impeccably designed and customized for convenience (with a couple exceptions, noted later). Like most cabins on riverboats, they're smaller than their big-ship brethren, ranging from 135 square feet in the smallest staterooms, to 205 square feet for those in the verandah (balcony) category. Light wooden cabinetry, fluffy white duvets, faux suede headboards, gray and tan accents and modern Norse art create a light, airy and comfortable sleeping environment. To cap off the boutique feel, a live orchid sits on one of two bedside tables next to the hotel-like queen-sized bed (which can be reconfigured into two twins).
An impressive 39 cabins on Middle and Upper Decks have real balconies, a wonderful and highly touted addition that allows you to take in the views gliding past in virtual privacy. Though the balconies, which Viking calls verandahs, are not as wide as you'll find on oceangoing ships, there is still room on each for two straight-backed mesh outdoor chairs and a tiny wooden table. Longship balconies add square footage to typically compact river cabins (205 square feet each), a notable bonus when most river ship staterooms offer, at best, the sliding glass door openings termed "French balconies."
Another 22 cabins (135 square feet each) on Middle and Upper Decks have the aforementioned French balconies -- floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors you can open for breezes. The pseudo-balconies do the trick of making the cabins feel larger than they actually are.
Twenty-five value-priced cabins (150 square feet each) on the waterline of the Main deck have views via high, rectangular portholes, and they're slightly bigger than the French balcony cabins. For those seeking more space, seven Veranda Suites (275 square feet apiece) on the Upper Deck have small living rooms with sofas, desks and balconies, as well as separate bedrooms with vanities and French balconies.
The top two Explorer Suites on Upper Deck, all the way aft, are, at 445 square feet each, the largest found on any of Europe's riverboats. Each living room has a wraparound balcony, where you can host another couple for cocktails. The bedroom has a French balcony and can be closed off by a curtain or doors.
Throughout all cabins, bathrooms feature rounded sinks, snug glass shower cubes (larger in the suites) and heated floors. There are a few common points of complaint among passengers revolving around the shower cubical in non-suite cabins. It is narrow and tapered at the end, and there's not much in the way of elbow room. And, despite a waterproof seal at the bottom of the glass door, the size of the facility makes it difficult to avoid puddles on the bathroom floor.
Running a close second among bathroom complaints on our cruise were the low-flush toilets instituted by Viking, which, passengers said, had a tendency to require several flushes. The toilets are part of Viking's environmentally conscious design, and both complaints, although valid, are minor given the overall comfort and quality of the cabins.
Storage space in most cabins includes a full-length, sliding-door closet with room for hanging clothes on one side and shelves and a cabinet (with a safe) on the other. Drawers beneath the large vanity are small and narrow, but there is enough room for two people packing casual attire, and there's extra room under the bed for suitcases. (One notable casualty of the new ship design is that the Veranda Suites have, apart from larger closets, extremely limited storage space.)
Great care seems to have gone into cabin lighting, which includes dimmers, bedside controls and mirrored vanities -- all much appreciated by passengers. There are two American (110 volt) and two European (220 volt) outlets in addition to one European outlet devoted to charging the QuietVox headsets.
Every cabin is equipped with a safe and a mini-fridge (with notches in the fridge shelving that make it possible to chill a bottle of wine upright), as well as a handheld hair dryer. Bath products are L'Occitane. Bathrobes are available on request.
Large 40-inch Sony HD flat-screen TV's serve up several channels on an interactive menu, including CNN, BBC, CNBC, Fox, ESPN, National Geographic Channel, MGM and Sky. There is also a good variety of complimentary movies on demand, including new releases, classics and travel and historical documentaries by Rick Steves, A&E and the History Channel. In another area of the menu, TV's list ship information -- including names of every member of the crew -- and show feeds from bow and lounge cameras. There are also pre-programmed music channels, but, for a more personalized selection, plug your iPod into the available port that's connected to the integrated Bose surround-sound system.
Complimentary Wi-Fi is available throughout the ship, including in cabins. On our fairly standard Rhine river cruise, it was reliable, if not blazingly fast. Fresh fruit and bottled water are also complimentary and provided in all cabins daily. There are ice buckets in each cabin, but you must fill them yourself from an ice machine located in the hallway on each deck.
Tips are not included in the cruise fare. They are paid at the end of the cruise in cash or by credit card. (Euros are the onboard currency, but dollars are also accepted for gratuities.) The recommended amount on Viking's Europe cruises is 12 euros per passenger, per day, which is divided up among the crew.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The ship has no spa, fitness center, pool nor hot tub, but Viking has agreements with luxury hotels in several of the cities the ship visits, allowing passengers to use the hotels' health facilities. Viking does not offer bicycles for use. As on most river cruises, though, most passengers opt for exercising via daily shore tours that involve walking or cycling.
All Viking ships are very much geared toward adults, and there are no facilities or programs at all for kids. That said, well-behaved older teenagers occasionally come onboard with their parents or grandparents.
The general age for river cruise passengers is 60 and older, but Aegir and other Longships, with their contemporary design, were built with an eye toward attracting a slightly younger traveler. Regardless of age, passengers tend to be well-traveled (though many are visiting Europe for the first time).
Casual, comfortable attire is encouraged for both ship and shore on Viking Longships. The must-pack item is, without question, a comfortable pair of walking shoes for shore tours. As the ship sails in Europe, with its lovely and historic landscapes, tours frequently involve cobblestones and other uneven surfaces. Both the staff and the daily program provide ample notice when this is the case.
Generally, passengers "dress up" to varying degrees in the evenings, but never to the level of a big-ship formal night. Most don the kind of attire worn at a country club dinner, but others don't bother to change from their sensible shore excursion gear. Save your best outfits (maybe casual dresses for women and collared shirts and blazers for men) for events like the Captain's Welcome and Farewell Dinners.
The lounge has a baby grand piano, where a pianist plays classical and modern melodies during cocktail hour and sometimes at lunch. The music drifts to and through the Aquavit Terrace -- a nice accompaniment on warm, sunny days.
The cruise director hosts a variety of informal evening entertainment in the lounge; from pub trivia nights to the cruise slideshow cum sales pitch, it's all done in a spirit of fun and inclusivity. The lounge is also equipped with large pull-down movie screens and surround-sound for movie nights, and regional performers occasionally come onboard to provide additional entertainment.
Professors from European universities give onboard lectures, which range across a variety of subjects. And, given that many of the line's passengers are highly educated and well-informed, the talks can provoke probing questions and stimulating discussion.
Hands-on crafting demonstrations and cooking courses are often available, and they'll be tailored to the culture and traditions of the ship's itinerary.
Most passengers participate in the daily shore excursions included in the cruise fares, and a fair number also opt for the fee-added alternative trips provided by the line. Shore excursions are typically of the basic bus or walking tour variety, but paid-for excursions also include events like wine-tastings and off-ship dinner outings. Prices for these range between 30 and 60 Euros per person. QuietVox headsets with earphones (found in each cabin) are provided for every tour so that everyone can hear what local guides are saying.
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