You know a river cruise is good when the temperature dips below zero and central Europe is plunged into an unusual springtime cold snap, and you’re still having fun.
That was the case for me last month, when I travelled with Viking River Cruises on one of its newest itineraries: a 12-day journey from Paris to the Swiss Alps. Beginning with unseasonably warm temperatures in Paris that rocketed to 26°C (86°F) before ending in Zurich with snow and temperatures that barely crept above the freezing mark, the itinerary was as diverse as the weather – and a river cruise that warrants a repeat journey.
This is one of Viking’s new “cruisetour” itineraries. As part of the overall itinerary, guests are treated to two nights in a Paris hotel (in my case, the beautifully-located Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel), followed by a weeklong river cruise that traverses the Moselle and Rhine Rivers.
Following the cruise, guests once again enjoy a two-night stay, this time in Zurich, Switzerland. The hotel property here, the Renaissance Zurich, isn’t quite as centrally located and resides in a rather industrial location known as Technopark. However, the tram line is a two-minute walk from the hotel, and an inexpensive 10-minute direct ride into town using Tram Line 4.
I’ve been on a number of different river cruises with Viking before, and the one thing I have come to expect from the line is consistency. Viking isn’t the most all-inclusive river operator, or the most luxurious – nor does it claim to be. Instead, guests are treated to a consistent, polished product that has evolved subtly over many seasons in Europe (Viking celebrates its 20th year in business this summer).
In this respect, Viking succeeded on every level. Our ship – Viking Hild – was right out of the shipyard, having just entered service this spring. One of Viking’s trendsetting Viking Longships, Viking Hild isn’t so different from her predecessors, save for some minor variations in décor. She’s bright, beautiful, and boasts the distinctive Scandinavian styling that has made Viking so popular.
Service was likewise consistently good, from the ship’s Vancouverite Hotel Director David, to our Kiwi Program Director Emma, who now calls Paris home. Emma travelled with us both on and off the ship, and was there to answer any questions guests had from Paris to Zurich.
Food was also a strong point, and seemed to have even improved in quality since I’d last sailed with the line. The only disappointment was that on many nights, the complimentary onboard wines served in the ship’s restaurant were from Argentina. Now, I like a nice Malbec, but when you’re on the Moselle … well, a local wine would have been nice.
Having said that, however, Viking does encourage guests to purchase their own wine ashore, and doesn’t even charge corkage. With the average bottle of wine on our route going for less than €10 ashore, bringing wine onboard is a great option for those who would prefer something to the complimentary options onboard. Viking does still offer its premium Silver Spirits package, which does allow for complimentary access to a full wine list.
I’ve done the Rhine River twice now and was a little concerned about doing it again. I shouldn’t have been. This itinerary spends equal amounts of time on the Moselle, which was absolutely stunning. Cyclists ride on the paths along the river’s narrow embankments during the day, and people walking along the river’s edge stop to wave and say hello as Viking Hild glided past. The Germans love camping, and we passed numerous campsites each day, again eliciting plenty of smiles and hearty waves from the locals.
With the exception of Strasbourg (and, obviously, Paris and Zurich), most of our ports of call were smaller towns, nestled attractively into the rolling hills and mountains of France and Germany. It’s hard to tell which place was my favorite, because it changed on a daily basis. Was it Trier, with its Roman monuments; or Speyer, with its imposing cathedral that was untouched by World War II? Most probably, it was Bernkastel, a small, fairytale town that looks like it is straight out of the Middle Ages. It is twinned with another city across the river, Kues, which is why you’ll often see it referred to as Bernkastel-Kues.
Viking offered a wide variety of complimentary walking tours, many of which focused on the region’s castles or wine tastings – always a great thing when you’re in the heart of the Moselle Valley. My particular cruise occurred during Easter – a time when many towns and cities in this part of Europe shut completely. Viking did a good job of preparing guests for the realities that they wouldn’t be able to “shop-till-they-drop” on this run, and while some guests were still nonplussed, the vast majority recognized and appreciated that Viking offered alternatives.
This wonderful journey concluded with two nights in Zurich. Despite the chilly temperatures, Viking still offered a full-blown complimentary walking tour that came with a 90-minute boat cruise on Lake Zurich. Ample free time was given, and guests were provided with detailed instructions on how to use the city’s easy and affordable tram system.
A note on Zurich for any future travellers: Switzerland is expensive, and Zurich is the height of that expense. Thanks to inflation and the exchange rate of the Swiss Franc (CHF), you can expect to pay $20 for a Big Mac at McDonalds, or $18 for a basic cocktail in almost any bar or restaurant.
Given that, you’ll want to take what you’d normally budget for food in a day – and triple it. While breakfast is included at the hotel during your stay, lunch and dinner are on your own for this part of the itinerary. Expect to spend $60 per couple for lunch with two soft drinks or bottles of water, and budget at least $120 for dinner, limiting yourself to a main course, no dessert, and a single glass of wine each. I’m not kidding: Zurich the most expensive place I’ve ever visited.
(As a side-note – we spent two days on our own in Lucerne and found it to be less expensive than Zurich. But let’s not mince words – it was still pricey.)
But don’t let that put you off: This is a magical itinerary that presents itself well for first-time river cruisers looking for a cruise that includes some of Europe’s most famous cities. It is also ideal for past river cruisers looking for a new itinerary: with its collection of smaller ports and overland stays, I think I’ll find it difficult to pick an itinerary that doesn’t include a few nights’ hotel stay from now on. Having those two days in Paris to recoup from the transatlantic jet lag was worth its weight in gold.
I expect good things from Viking when I sail with them, and my Paris to the Swiss Alps journey was no exception. Highly recommended.
Also see Ralph Grizzle’s