Special Report: Two Days on Viking Odin
Viking River Cruises has been bragging that its new 190-passenger "Longships," all named for Norse gods and heroes, would revolutionize river cruising. In fact, the cruise line is so bullish on these vessels that it's ordered a dozen of them, all to be launched by the end of 2013 (six in 2012 and six in 2013).
Stepping onto Viking Odin which, along with Viking Idun is the first to debut, it's immediately clear the company has some reason to toot its own horn.
The reference to old Viking ships notwithstanding, the German-built Viking Odin and its sister ships represent a totally new take on river hospitality. Forget the old and stodgy; bring on the new.
Light fills the beautiful two-story atrium -- so much sunlight there are real daffodils growing. With backlit marble panels rising above a terrazzo floor and grand wooden staircase, and comfortable furnishings in pale shades, the space has magnetic 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.
The atrium previews the smart use of glass, light and subtle colors throughout Viking Odin, but beyond that are a whole bunch of features new to river cruising in Europe, including the two largest real suites (each with separate living room and bedroom) on a riverboat in Europe and a larger number of cabins with full and French balconies.
Deserving the biggest buzz is Aquavit Terrace, a lovely open-air cafe on the ship's bow, providing somewhat of a river rarity: an alternative casual dining venue.
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. You can't expand length or depth.
Instead, Yran & Storbraaten changed the traditional pointy-nosed bows to snub-nosed ones to provide more space for Aquavit. 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 engines, making Odin cleaner and quieter than its competitors. There are even solar panels on the sun deck that help fuel the engines.
The ride is slow and smooth -- a wonderful thing about river ships in general since there is no reason to worry about seasickness -- while you pass by scenery that includes castles and vineyards.
Viking Odin godmother Joanna Lumley, who played Patsy on the BBC series "Absolutely Fabulous," eloquently described the river cruise experience at Viking Odin's christening this way: "It's like the world is on a cloth and being dragged past you by captains sent from paradise."
Glass wine racks and a real kumquat tree grace the entrance of the main dining room, where pale decor says contemporary without being distracting. Fresh flowers are on the tables (fresh fruit as a centerpiece at breakfast), and glass windows line two sides of the expansive space. A large buffet area is located in the center.
Meals in the main dining room are served open-seating, at set times (which can vary slightly depending on the itinerary). Breakfast (typically 7 to 9 a.m.) is served buffet-style with an omelet station and variety of other choices that include oatmeal with toppings, cheeses and meats. Or you can order pancakes, French toast and eggs from your waiter. Lunch (noon to 2 p.m.) includes a salad bar enhanced by such treats as pate. 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).
For those who can't get enough of the passing views and fresh air, 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, the space connects the ship's main lounge to basically a conservatory-style room with a glass ceiling and sides that open, leading to a true alfresco dining area with nine tables on the ship's bow. Glass windbreaks block some breezes, and infrared heaters warm things up on chillier days. There are also three tables and comfy garden-like 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 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.)
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 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.
The lounge has a grand piano, where a talented pianist plays classical and modern melodies during cocktail hour and sometimes at lunch. The music also drifts to the Aquavit Terrace, providing a lovely background.
The dance floor draws couples when a combo plays at night. The lounge is also equipped with large pull-down movie screens and surround-sound for movie nights. Folk troupes occasionally come onboard to provide additional entertainment.
Professors from European universities give onboard lectures. Most passengers participate in shore excursions, included in the cruise fares (with additional choices available). These are typically of the basic bus or walking tour variety. QuietVox headsets with earphones are provided so that everyone can hear what local guides are saying.
It's easy to get to know this ship -- not to mention many of your fellow passengers -- since public rooms are limited, as they are on all riverboats.
The lower level of the light-filled, glass-ceiling atrium houses the reception and concierge desks, cushy seating areas with views through large windows and a small corner shop, where you can buy logowear, batteries and souvenirs that reflect the ports. Glass doors lead to the main dining room. A staircase leads to cabins on the main deck.
Walk up the striking grand staircase to Upper Deck, and you'll discover a beautiful modern-art depiction of a historic Viking ship.
In the upper atrium, you'll also find an Internet corner with complimentary laptops on two desks and a library corner with wooden bookcases. There are couches where you can enjoy a coffee from two self-service stations while watching the passing views through large windows -- or walk outside to a small balcony to do the same.
On this level, you'll also find the hub of the ship -- the spacious, windowed lounge, done up with pale gray and orange couches and plush chairs. 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 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.
A glass elevator, the first for Viking, connects the three main passenger decks but does not go up to the sun 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 does not have a spa or fitness center, nor 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 also does not offer bicycles for use. (Many other lines do.)
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.
Viking River passengers tend to be 60 and older (sometimes much older). But the "Longships," with their contemporary design, are expected to bring the demographic down, the goal being to appeal to 40- and 50-somethings in addition to Viking River's traditional passengers.
Casual, comfortable attire is encouraged for both ship and shore. The must-have item is a comfortable pair of walking shoes or sneakers for tours (which may involve cobblestones and other uneven surfaces). Some passengers dress up slightly at night -- think the kind of attire you'd wear to dinner at a country club. Others don't bother to change at all. Save your best outfits (maybe casual dresses for women and collared shirts and blazers for men) for the Captain's Welcome Party and Farewell Dinner.
Light wooden cabinetry, fluffy white duvets, hotel-like queen-sized beds (which can also be configured as twins), gray and tan accents and modern Norsk art create a light, airy and comfortable sleeping environment. Every cabin comes with a view.
An impressive 39 cabins (205 square feet each) on Middle and Upper Decks have real balconies, a wonderful addition that lets you privately take in the views. If the balconies are not quite 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 for drinks; most river ships these days possess only French balconies.
Another 22 cabins (135 square feet each) on Middle and Upper Decks have French balconies with floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors you can open for breezes. (These pseudo-balconies make the cabins feel larger than they actually are.) Twenty-five value-priced cabins (150 square feet each) on the waterline of Main Deck have views via high portholes.
For those seeking more space, seven Veranda Suites (270 square feet apiece) on Upper Deck have a small living rooms with a sofas, desks and verandahs, as well as separate bedrooms with a vanities, French balconies and small walk-in closets.
The top two Explorer Suites on Upper Deck are, at 445 square feet each, the largest found on any riverboat in Europe (though not exactly palatial). Each living room has a wraparound verandah, where you could 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, glass showers (larger in the suites) and heated floors. Storage space in most cabins includes shelves, drawers and small closets, plenty for two people packing casual attire. (An oddity is that the Veranda Suites have walk-in closets, but otherwise they have extremely limited storage space.) Care seems to have gone into cabin lighting, which includes dimmers, table-side lamps and mirrored vanities -- all much appreciated.
Every cabin is equipped with a mini-fridge (we loved that there was a cut-out in the fridge grills that make it possible to chill a bottle of wine standing) and safe, as well as a handheld hair dryer. Bath products are L'Occitane. Bathrobes are available on request.
Large Sony HD flat-screen TV's serve up several channels, including CNN and Fox, and a good variety of complimentary movies on demand (including new releases, classics and movies reflecting the ship's itinerary). A cool feature is that the TV's also list ship information, including names of every member of the crew. You can plug your iPod into the TV to listen to music, and there are also pre-programmed music channels.
Complimentary Wi-Fi is available throughout the ship, including in cabins. It was, if not speedy, at least more reliable than access we've experienced on Viking Prestige, the line's next-newest ship. Fresh fruit and bottled water are provided in all cabins daily. While there are ice buckets in each cabin, stewardesses do not fill them. There is, however, an ice machine in the hallway on each deck.
Note: The frosted-glass bathroom doors belong in the what-were-they-thinking category. While they're pretty, there's a good chance you'll wake your companion if you turn on the bathroom light at night.
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