We are back from our incredible Christmas markets journey down the Danube on Viking River Cruises! River cruising is so different than ocean cruising, I think we’re both still trying to wrap our heads around it (& catch up from jet lag!). But there’s one thing we both definitely agreed on: the Viking Jarl made a fantastic home for seven days.
One of Viking’s 35 river ships, the Jarl was designed to traverse the rivers of the world, which means it’s long, low & sleek. The ship is decorated in Scandinavian style, with light wood, frosted glass & calming neutrals throughout. The main public areas of the ship include the light-filled two-story atrium (with the reception desk, library & internet cafe, public seating areas & coffee stations), the passenger lounge (the largest space on the ship), the glass-enclosed terrace (& amazing deck) all the way in the front of the ship, the dining room & the top deck, which spans the length of the ship. All the public rooms have floor to ceiling windows, offering scenic views as the ship moves along the river.
The crew, small but mighty, was incredible! From the Program Director Cornelia (basically the cruise director, on a traditional ocean vessel), to the friendly reception desk staff, to the excellent dining room staff (shout outs to Efran, Ruth & Carmen), the crew of 50 worked hard throughout the journey, but always with a smile, often greeting us by name.
The ship was festively, but tastefully, decorated for the holidays. There were three Christmas trees scattered around the ship (one of the trees had ornaments decorated by the passengers), lots of lighted green garland & even a little gingerbread house village.
Our initial impression of our Veranda Stateroom (#317) stuck with us throughout the trip: small but well organized, with a calming color scheme. The bed was large, with two twin beds pushed together, as was the flat screen TV that hung on the wall, full of news stations (CNN, CNBC, BBC) & movies which were selected to match the itinerary (Sound of Music & Amadeus, anyone?). There are three decks of passenger rooms (95 rooms total); ours was on the top. We did get some noise from the wheelhouse moving up & down on the roof above us, but it wasn’t too bad. Our room also had a small balcony, which would have been perfect in warmer weather (we did pop out there once or twice to watch us going through a lock).
The bathroom was the best we’ve had in quite a while on a cruise, with ample shower space with glass doors, higher end toiletries & plenty of spots for storage. Our toilet seemed to be a bit “off” during parts of the trip & there was often an unpleasant odor when we were cruising, but from what I understand that was normal & just part of life on the river. Most importantly, the towels were huge & fluffy & the hot water ample.
After being burned so many times by traditional dining on ocean cruises, we were eager to try something different. On the Jarl, meals were served in the dining room by breakfast buffet, one lunch seating & one dinner seating. Lighter meals were also offered daily on the terrace (we had lunch up there one day & it was lovely). All seating in the dining room is open, which means we got the opportunity to meet many of our fellow passengers. Beer & wine is included with your meal at lunch & dinner, & we enjoyed trying local wines & beers from along our itinerary. Carmen, our wine steward, was rather heavy handed with the pours!
The food was somewhat hit or miss – about 90% of it was pretty good, 5% not so good & 5% exemplary. Some of my favorite bites included the regionally-appropriate cookies baked daily, the pecan pastries at breakfast, soups (which changed daily & were all fantastic), beef wellington, lamb shank & lamb with pumpkin ravioli. Portions might be a bit small, depending on what you’re used to – especially compared to most restaurants in the U.S.
Guests were often greeted with a snack or a beverage when returning from an excursion as well. The Mozart Drinks (Kahlua & peppermint) & mulled wine were especially welcoming! While there is no room service, like on a traditional ocean cruise, there was a 24 hour coffee station with complimentary espresso drinks, coffee & tea.
The Romantic Danube itinerary took us to three new countries: Hungary, Austria & Germany – such a beautiful part of Europe! We started in Budapest, Hungary & cruised to two places in Austria (Vienna & Krems) & three places in Germany (Passau, Regensburg & Nuremberg). The day we were docked in Passau, we took a Viking sponsored trip back into Austria to visit Salzburg. In addition, the day we were docked in Regensburg, some passengers took a trip to Munich. Being December, the primary focus of our trip was Europe’s famous Christmas Markets & they definitely didn’t disappoint! From the festive Christkindl Market in Vienna, to the quiet Advent Market tucked into a courtyard in Salzburg, to one of Europe’s largest markets in Nuremberg, each market had its own flavor, food, mulled wine & flare.
While we visited every city we were scheduled to, we quickly learned after boarding that the schedule on the river is a bit different than the schedule on the ocean. Because of the number of locks along the Danube (& many rivers in Europe), the schedule is a bit fluid to allow for delays. In addition, river cruise ships don’t move very fast, which meant we had a lot of ground to cover each day. Often, we would get off the ship in one city, the ship would leave & we’d take a shuttle bus at the end of our tour to meet the ship upriver a bit. This led to a lot more time on charter coaches than we had anticipated & a bit less time in each port than we anticipated – we assumed that the ship would be docked in port for a full day, like on an ocean cruise. It all worked out in the end for the most part (we ended up skipping a tour we had originally signed up for to have more time to visit a Christmas market; however, the refund process with Viking has been fairly painless), but I wish we had known about it ahead of time.
Post-cruise, I traveled with Viking from Nuremberg to Prague. The four hour coach bus ride was comfortable & very convenient. Viking offers a complete post-cruise Prague excursion, including airport transfers, a city tour & the hotel, but I decided to venture out on my own & to stay closer to the center of the Old Town.
We were most nervous about this aspect of our cruise, as we had heard rumors that we would be significantly younger than all the other passengers on board (& had sometimes experienced this on ocean cruises). The good news for us is that, while we were the youngest couple on board, it was not by a significant amount. I’d estimate that most of the other passengers were between their mid-to-late 50s to their early 70s (a young 70s though!). I was impressed at how well traveled the majority of our fellow passengers were – many had done all of Europe, Asia, Africa, South America & one was even planning a trip to Antarctica. Several of them asked us point blank why young people would go on a river cruise, but all of them were kind & seemed to welcome us aboard. The majority of the passengers were from the U.S. & U.K.
On a daily basis, there were several activities that took place: a complimentary tour in each port with a local guide, a daily briefing on the next day’s itinerary & port, & some sort of evening entertainment. The local tours were, for the most part, fantastic. Guides were well versed to an encyclopedic level on their town & I always learned something interesting in each tour. Most of the tours were walking tours, which was a great way to stretch our legs & see the town; when we were in Vienna, we were even able to join a tour that took the subway system into town!
Each afternoon was a daily briefing on an interesting aspect of the next day’s port – coffeehouses in Vienna, Christmas market shopping in Nuremberg – & sometimes even included a bonus talk on our journey (on the Danube-Rhine-Main Canal or on the ship itself). In the evening, we had several appearances by local performers, all of who were excellent. Our first night in Budapest, we were joined by members of the Hungarian opera, who sang both tradition opera arias & Christmas songs. The evening of the ship’s big “Taste of Bavaria” dinner, a local musicians playing a clarinet & accordion provided entertainment during dinner, followed by a Christmas sing-along with the crew. The last evening, we were joined by opera sings from Nuremberg. Having local entertainment really added to the flavor of the trip.
The arrival & departure process, as with everything on our trip, was well-handled by Viking & extremely organized. At embarkation, a porter met us at the curb & took our bags. We walked right onto the ship & up to the reception desk, where we were checked in with a simple swipe of the passport. Then a staff member took us to our room – super easy & painless. Debarkation was similarly easy: our luggage didn’t have to be outside our room until an hour before departure & all departures were scheduled based on where passengers were headed next. B caught a transfer bus to the Nuremberg airport & an hour later I left for Prague. Once at the Nuremberg airport, a Viking representative took passengers all the way to the check-in counter & made sure that everyone was on their way.
We really enjoyed our time on the Viking Jarl. I’m still not 100% convinced that river cruising is for me, but if we do another river cruise, it will definitely be on Viking. I know we’re not Viking’s target demographic – that’s our parents & grandparents – but I think, on the right itinerary, a river cruise is the perfect vacation, regardless of your age. It was truly luxury cruising, where no detail was too small or overlooked.
Know if you go….
– unlike many other cruises we’ve been on, we did not feel like we were nickle & dimed at all on this trip, largely because so much is included in your fare. Beer & wine at meals, high speed wifi (which actually worked pretty well the majority of the time), tours in every port – all included.
– while house beer & wine were included, if you have strong preferences or drink a lot of cocktails, the Silver Star beverage package is likely worth your money. We didn’t order anything from the bar, but the wine, beer & cocktail menus all looked nice.
– dress code was a bit more casual than most of the cruises we’ve been on. Even in the dining room, dark jeans & slacks were the norm, especially in the colder months. We spent most of the trip in our winter coats, hats & gloves! Good shoes are a must (we wore our hiking shoes most of the time).
– here’s a tip on the cookies at the coffee station, which I learned from a friend who had previously cruised: cookies are fresh baked & generally available until around 4pm. If you’re going to be in the mood for a midnight snack, take a few to keep in your room for later.
Note: we were guests of Viking River Cruises on our journey;
as always, all opinions are my own.