I Went on a River Cruise & This Is How It Went

I Went on a River Cruise & This Is How It Went

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Alia Akkam
Sep 21, 2017
(Image credit: Viking Cruises)

I've always had old-soul predilections. As a kid, instead of frolicking in the park, I preferred watching The Lawrence Welk Show and Murder, She Wrote with my grandparents. As a teenager, I hummed Perry Como songs as frequently as those from Pearl Jam's Ten. I sought out Shredded Wheat, not Cocoa Puffs, for breakfast.

So it makes sense that after years of bingeing on The Love Boat re-runs I would be drawn to cruising, a mode of travel long cherished by retirees gripped with wanderlust.

That said, it took me years — 38, to be exact — to actually take a cruise. Other than a quick, on-assignment romp around Miami's waterways to scope out a then-new Celebrity Cruises vessel five years ago, I was a novice to the world of Ports and Starboards when, at the end of July, my boyfriend, Aaron, and I embarked on the eight-day Danube Waltz with Viking Cruises.

A Sidebar on Cruises (or Why I Previously Avoided Cruise Ships Like the Plague)

I travel frequently but have largely avoided cruises because I'm impatient and don't like conforming to plans that aren't mine. I don't enjoy listening to the riveting history of landmarks by a lame joke-cracking guide with a microphone, huddled with oohing and aahing strangers, nor do I appreciate limited hours in a locale that prevent me from hanging out in offbeat bars before it's off to the next city. Cooped up on a ship forced to make small talk always sounded like an insufferable, restrictive way to see the world.

Yet Budapest, where I live, is a scenic stop on myriad Danube sails, so I admit that every time I walk by those gleaming vessels parked on the river for the day, my interest piques. Likewise, I often chance upon Viking customers passing through Budapest who gush about their experiences, telling me things like, "It's for people who want to be pampered," and "They let you order two main courses if you are still hungry."

Curious, I decided to surrender and let someone else tell me, for example, that at 4 p.m. a bus will take us to Melk's Baroque abbey for a wander.

(Image credit: Viking Cruises)

I Went on a Viking River Cruise & It Was Awesome

We depart Budapest, aboard Vilhjalm, a Longship named for the second ruler of Normandy who followed in his father's leading footsteps. For seven nights our home is a calming, two-room Veranda Suite stocked with Freyja toiletries, as Vilhjalm glides across the more murky-green-brown-than-blue Danube depicted by composer Johann Strauss II in his eponymously named waltz.

Viking Longships aren't outfitted with numerous amenities to keep guests distracted like their ocean liners. There is no pool, there is no spa, and there are no dance classes. This is part of the allure. Our fellow passengers, many whom have spent ample time on ocean cruises crammed with thousands of others, tell us how much they prefer tame river sails to ocean-going ones because of the intimacy they conjure.

On Vilhjalm, you see a friendly face at the buffet as you reach for yogurt and you say hello. You share a table with the woman you saw reading the David Baldacci novel yesterday for the strudel-making demo. The bartender remembers you want a Cognac after dinner, which you sip on the sun deck — if only there were a petite bar up there — as the ship sets sail for the next port, snugly slithering underneath a canopy of bridges.

(Image credit: Viking Cruises)

I find the rhythm to our nightly 7 p.m. dinners welcoming, not oppressive. The subdued dining room, with its soothing palette and abundance of wood, embraces a similar Scandinavian aesthetic found in the staterooms. Each evening is an animated affair as friendly, poised waiters pour Grüner Veltliner as the empty seats around us fill with other passengers asking if they can join. It is not unlike the suspenseful high-school cafeteria of yore, but somehow this go around it's pleasant rather than painful.

Insider tip: House wines are complimentary with meals, but the Silver Spirits package is a worthwhile upgrade for guests who fancy, say, sampling after-dinner Scotches from the bar's collection.

The 188 guests are a motley lot. Interspersed in the mix of retired engineers, surgeons, and teachers is the bubbly Mexican restaurateur, the Nevada gent fond of carting around his dominoes, and the dashing, always dressed-to-the-nines Palm Springs couple.

Together, the man who runs supermarkets outside of Boston, the Denver lawyer, and the massive tour group from Georgia slather butter on olive bread, eat paprika-scented beef, and then hightail it to the lounge for nightcaps and to hear the jubilant Laszlo bang out "In the Mood" on the keyboard.

In the late afternoons, when I work in the sunny lounge in between devouring oatmeal-raisin and Linzer cookies, I watch them all, these newly minted friends playing cards and showing off iPad snaps of grandchildren, these husbands who after 45 years of marriage still hold their wives' hands during an on-board presentation discussing the importance of the Danube.

(Image credit: Viking Cruises)

Bland and muddled are the terms I expect to encounter in the restaurant, given the reputation of uninspired, general palate-pleasing food synonymous with cruises. Although I am not too keen on the Austrian buffet, an informal dinner revolving around platters of overcooked sauerbraten and Wiener Schnitzel, staff donning lederhosen, and men with accordions performing Edelweiss, I am otherwise impressed by the menus.

Aaron, a strict pescetarian, never feels deprived, springing for delicate salmon and fruits de mer pasta. I opt for an inventive tofu-beet stroganoff the first night, delight in the pork loin over mascarpone polenta, and lap up a lunchtime bowl of cavatelli. Tomato soup, Chateaubriand, and passion fruit sponge cake all satisfy.

My favorite part of the day is undoubtedly breakfast, when every morning the chatty Serbian cook whips up my spinach-onion-pepper omelet, paired with that morning's potato concoction. When hash browns are served I go up for thirds.

As much as I love Hungary's thin, crêpe-like palacsinta, I am again a beaming six-year-old when I see the American-style pancakes accompanied by maple syrup make their way to the table. Viking confirms just how homesick I am for the simple foods I took for granted stateside.

During my post-dinner kitchen tour, a galley more commodious than I anticipate, I see a giant pot of stock simmering on the stove. The kitchen doesn't sleep.

(Image credit: Viking Cruises)

After strolling through Vienna's Naschmarkt, drinking a local Eggenberg beer in Cesky Krumlov, and visiting the Glasmuseum in Passau, the safe, blissful, week-long bubble of ship life is punctured. "More Than Words Can Say" and "Hopelessly Devoted to You" will no longer nostalgically serenade me in the corridors. Goodbyes are said.

We will leave the ship and in a few hours a slew of new customers will take our places for the return sail. Eager and wide-eyed, they will roll their suitcases over the ramp, plop into a chair, and be greeted by curry chicken hors d'oeuvres. Later, they will sing along to Lazslo's rendition of "You Say Tomato, I Say Tomato."

More on Viking Cruises

Viking caters to the 55-and-over demographic, culturally savvy folks who seek out one of its 59 ships for excursions like German organ concerts and baking bread on a farm in the Austrian countryside.

Two years ago the Los Angeles- and Switzerland-based company, founded in 1997 by Norwegian businessman Torsten Hagen, expanded the fleet by venturing into ocean territory. Sun, the fourth luxe vessel in this realm, launches in October.

Approximately 350,000 travelers, mostly from North America, signed up for Viking cruises in 2016. Now I understand why.

Have you been on a river cruise before? Did it make you a believer?

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