Preparing for our Viking River Cruise through Portugal
On Tuesday, I’ll be touching down at Lisbon Portela Airport in Lisbon, Portugal to kick off a fantastic cruisetour with Viking River Cruises that will take us from Lisbon through Portugal’s famed Douro River Valley.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Douro River Valley is one of the prettiest regions in the country and, crucially, the epicentre of port wine production, with the city of Porto acting as something of a base for both port wine shipping and river cruises along the Douro. Not only is it historic, but it sounds pretty tasty, too.
This will be my…oh, heck, I’ve lost count…cruise with Viking. Numerous. Lots. One of several. A Viking river cruise is an easy sell for me; it takes no amount of arm-twisting to get me aboard. I didn’t discover river cruising until December of 2011, and when I did, I wondered where it had been all my life. I first sailed with Viking in March of 2012 and immediately fell in love with their gorgeously revolutionary Viking Longship river cruise vessels. Viking’s Scandinavian sensibilities, quality product, and attention to detail won me over immediately.
There are other river cruise lines out there that are more luxurious and extravagant, and ones that offer nearly every comfort you could imagine, but I find myself returning to Viking time after time simply because their product strikes what I feel is a perfect balance between comfort and affordability. It’s luxe, but not overly so. It’s expensive (compared to typical ocean cruising) but not horrifyingly so. You can be a first-time traveller and love Viking, or an experienced cruiser looking to experience another side of aquatic travel.
Rather than focusing solely on our 10-day Portugal’s River of Gold itinerary, I’d rather set the stage and tell you about Viking River Cruises and why I love them – despite the fact that, technically, Viking doesn’t target me at all in their marketing.
Viking’s Chairman, President, and all-around visionary is a man named Torstein Hagen. Well into his 70’s, Hagen has a “speak-what-you-mean” style of leadership that I admire and appreciate. He’s a straight-shooter who doesn’t pull any punches, and his Norwegian sense of humour shows through when he speaks. But he’s also a larger-than-life figure in the cruise industry, having previously helmed up the much-admired Royal Viking Line in the 1980’s. I’ve met the man seven times now, yet I can’t manage to muster anything beyond, “Hello, Mr. Hagen.”
But there’s one thing that Tor, as he is affectionately known, and I disagree on: he says he does his market research in the bathroom while he shaves every morning. That is, his target market is people like him: well-travelled individuals, 55+, who are curious about the world and who want to have the convenience of a cruise without sacrificing any opportunities ashore.
I’m 32. In five weeks, I’ll be 33. That puts me 23 years under Hagen’s ideal target age for the average Viking passenger. Now, that doesn’t mean that Viking would ever refuse booking to someone in their 20’s or 30’s – not a chance! But when you see Viking’s brochures…well, there’s a lot of grey hair there.
The curious thing is, the few people I meet on river cruises who are my age – and there are some – absolutely love the experience. And they love Viking.
So why do I, a 32-year old, love river cruising with Viking when most of my friends still pop down to Cancun for a liver-punishing week at an all-inclusive resort? That’s easy:
It’s Educational – In A Fun Way
Viking has put as much thought into their land programmes and excursions as they have into their beautiful river cruise ships. I like that. I also like that they’ve provided a number of different excursions on each day of the voyage that are designed to appeal to people of all interests and mobility levels. If you have trouble walking, there’s always a “gentle walkers” group that you can sign up for that moves at a more relaxed pace than the rest. There are longer tours for those who really like a good walk that eschew motorcoach transportation altogether. And the one thing I have noticed (and love) about Viking over the past three years: they’re always, always, refining their shore excursion programs, timings, and even guides based on feedback from their guest. Like a fine wine, these educational and fun shore excursions only get better with age.
I don’t know about you, but the thought of riding around Europe in a motorcoach for 14 days, checking in and out of hotels of questionable quality every other day, and paying for half of my meals along the way sounds just awful. I love Europe, but let’s face it: Europe by bus sucks. So why not unpack once, kick back and relax and take a river cruise? Fair warning: you won’t want to go to sleep on your first few nights; the scenery that is constantly moving past the ship is intoxicating!
I don’t know who supplies Viking’s beds, but they’re darn comfortable. Ditto for the chairs, couches, and motorcoaches – all of which are new, built by Mercedes-Benz, and are logo-branded. From the L’Occitane toiletries to the flat-panel interactive televisions manufactured by Sony and the hand-carved bread bowls in The Restaurant, Viking is all about the little details – and no expense has been spared to ensure your comfort.
It’s Surprisingly Value-Oriented
Now, if you’ve seen the price of the average river cruise, you’ll know no line is giving these things away. This is not a Carnival cruise to the Bahamas; this is a much more upscale, intimate experience through the heart of Europe. But it’s also a great value. Consider: all of your meals are included, the quality of which is much higher, on average, than an entry-level cruise. I’ve had meals on Viking that rival restaurants on-land where I’d be paying in Euros.
There’s also an emphasis on bringing on local ingredients and produce, not to mention the beers, wines and soft drinks that are served complimentary during lunch and dinner. You’ll never see the bottom of your wine glass on a Viking river cruise; pours are generous, and even standard wines are of a higher quality than you might expect. Viking even has their own vineyard that produces wine exclusively for them.
Then there are your excursions, the vast majority of which are included in the price of admission. Sure, there are some extra tours you can book for an additional cost, but I’ve never once felt pressured into purchasing ones; the existing free tours are of an exceptional quality.
Crew are mostly European, and are enthusiastic about their homeland. If you have questions, they have the answers. Viking also has an onboard Concierge at your disposal for no extra charge.
The line also doesn’t nickel-and-dime you to death; something Tor Hagen is passionate about ensuring never happens to his baby. To that end, you’re welcome – encouraged, even – to bring your own wine onboard if you wish. But you don’t have to hide out in your stateroom like college kids sneaking booze into a party; no. Instead, you’re invited to bring your wine to dinner with you, or into the lounge where it will be opened and poured willingly – with no corkage fee.
Viking makes things ridiculously easy for you. For example, all I really have to do is pack my suitcase; Viking has taken care of the rest. I was sent a little silver box containing a leather luggage tag, a red Viking sticker (that I affixed to my luggage instead of myself, as the backing recommends), and most importantly, a printed booklet detailing your entire itinerary, flights, hotels and transfers. It’s amazing. All you need is that little booklet, and you can head off to the airport.
Viking also puts something else in that I LOVE: a mini pocket guidebook to the Douro River Valley. Viking provides one of these for every river cruise you take with the line, and they’re fabulously detailed. That means no popping off to the bookstore to buy some overpriced guidebook; all you need to know about the rivers and towns you’ll be visiting is right at your fingertips.
That, and so much more, is why I love sailing with Viking. And in three days, I look forward to taking you all with me there – virtually.
Our Live Voyage Report from onboard Viking Torgil on the Douro River starts now!