We travel to Bordeaux to preview Viking’s new Chateaux, Rivers and Wine itinerary
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
One thing I’ve always said about Viking River Cruises is that they always put on a good show – and they always know how to impress.
Today, we bade farewell to a blustery Avignon and Viking Heimdal and made our way to Bordeaux on France’s Atlantic coast. But we didn’t drive there, or take a high-speed rail link. No. We flew in style on a private jet.
Arriving at Avignon Regional Airport at 9am, we were whisked through security and issued with a perfunctory boarding pass before walking across the tarmac to a gleaming-white BAE 146-200, a small, quad turbofan-engine jet equipped in an all-business class configuration.
Veuve Cliquot champagne was served prior to takeoff. The proof that I don’t do this every day – or ever, for that matter – can be found in the fact that my (empty) champagne glass slid right off the armrest on takeoff as our jet powered into the sky high above Avignon.
Even though the flight was only 60 minutes long, we were served a full breakfast complete with fresh fruit, beef, and – of course – fresh French cheese. A little coffee and some more Veuve to wash it down, and we were descending into Bordeaux airport.
If only I could fly back to North America like this!
France’s Bordeaux wine region is the newest destination for Viking River Cruises, and it’s easy to see the appeal. Bordeaux itself is gorgeously well-preserved, and the Gironde and Garonne Rivers offer up a seemingly endless array of possibilities.
The Medoc region is famed for its Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and has three sub-regions including the exclusive Haut-Medoc. Dessert wines are produced in Sauternes, and Saint-Emilion and Pomerol are planted mainly with softer Merlot grapes.
Viking’s new itinerary offers port stops in Bordeaux, Libourne, Pauillac, Cadillac, and Blaye.
Here in Bordeaux, we went for a three-hour walking tour this afternoon of this historic city. Since 2000, the city has been known as La Belle Endormie, or Sleeping Beauty, for its remarkable transformation. Prior to 2000, the city had become faded and neglected. Today, it is vibrant, elegant, and spotlessly clean, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of mayor and former French Prime Minster, Alain Juppe.
With its tram zipping past and its collection of thoughtfully-restored heritage buildings, it reminds me a bit of a cooler, windier version of Nice.
A few photos of our excellent afternoon in Bordeaux:
This evening, we sat down with Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen for an engaging look at where Viking has come, and where they’re headed – both in terms of their River Cruise product and Viking Oceans and the forthcoming Viking Star.
In 2007, Viking accounted for 17 percent of the total river cruise market. This year that number has risen to 48 percent, and the line is projected to take a full half of the river cruise market by this time next year.
It’s an astonishing accomplishment not just for Viking, but the industry as a whole. A total of 214,000 North Americans took a river cruise in 2007, compared with the 512,000 that are projected to cruise next year. It’s growth that Viking attributes – wisely – to the millions of dollars the line has spent on print and television advertising, and key sponsorship partners like PBS’s MASTERPIECE and the wildly-popular Downton Abbey.
“I think we will take out fair share of credit for developing this market,” Hagen said. “When you look at what our competitors have spent [on advertising], it’s a fraction of what we have. But, we are Vikings!”
He also revealed his obvious passion for the overall design of the Viking Longships, their features and their amenities.
Chief among these: the asymmetrical stateroom corridor that has been shifted to favor the starboard side of the vessel. This allowed Viking to construct true, two-room suites on the port side of Deck 3 while continuing to offer full step-out balconies on the starboard side without a compromise on square footage.
Hagen took aim at some of the other river cruise lines that label larger staterooms as suites. “A suite in anybody’s language is two rooms or more,” he said. “But some competitors say they offer all-suite ships, but they are just big rooms. A suite is a suite is a suite.”
Some may argue that is just a matter of semantics, but like most things that Torstein Hagen says, there’s a valid point to be made. Can a room that’s just a larger iteration of a standard stateroom be called a suite? Regardless of the answer, Viking’s dual-room suites continue to innovate on the waterways of Europe, and the massive Explorer Suites at the aft end of each Viking Longship remain unmatched in terms of space and amenities.
Outside of Europe, one journalist asked about Viking’s long-rumoured plans to begin operations on the Mississippi and the Amazon. “We are far ahead on the project on the Mississippi. We have looked at the Amazon. But we will be on the Mississippi first. Soon. It’s complicated, though, because shipyards in Europe are accustomed to building river cruise ships. American ones aren’t,” he said.
Asked if he has any concerns about operations in the Ukraine or Russia this coming season, Hagen gave a typically witty response. “Twenty years ago I got prostate cancer,” he said wryly. “You know what the remedy is in Norway? Wait and see. The prudent thing is to wait and see. In Russia, I am not the least bit worried.”
Next year, Hagen revealed Viking will launch 12 new vessels. Ten of these will be Viking Longships that will enter service along the Danube, Rhine, and Main; while two will be modified for sailings along the Moselle. Smaller at 110 metres in length, they will be “Longship-esque”, retaining successful features like the open-air Aquavit Lounge and the overall look and feel of their larger counterparts. Requirements on the Moselle limit vessels to a much smaller size than a typical Viking Longship.
Of course, next year is also hugely important for another reason: the launch of Viking’s first oceangoing cruise ship, the sexy Viking Star.
Viking Star will carry just 928 guests, all of which will travel in all-balcony staterooms measuring no smaller than 270 square feet. Each room will feature a true king-sized bed that can be separated into two large twins. There will be no inside staterooms, no Oceanview staterooms. All staterooms will be double-occupancy; no third or fourth berths will be included on this ship.
There’s also an entire list of perks to sailing with the line. Guests will be able to choose one complimentary excursion in each port of call. They will be treated to complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks during lunch and dinner; complimentary 24-hour room service; and complimentary Wi-Fi internet access.
The line’s credo, which Hagen repeated numerous times, was that there would be “no nickel-and-diming.” To that end, Viking Star will lack a casino. She’ll also lack some of the other mainstay revenue generators found aboard competitor’s ships, like specialty restaurant surcharges.
At first, that may sound like unconventional thinking – and it is. But this is the magic formula that has allowed Viking to be so successful along the waterways of Europe: do one thing, and do it well.
Under construction at Italy’s Fincantieri shipyards, Viking Star will be christened in Bergen, Norway next May, to be followed by a sister-ship almost immediately afterward. Viking has options for two additional sister-ships with Fincantieri and Hagen described the financing package for both options as “almost complete.” The potential for those to be turned into firm orders this year remains high.
“There are three things I believe every great company has to be,” Hagen continued as the dinner hour drew near. “You have to be loved by your customers. You have to be loved by your employees. And you have to be hated by your competitors.”
“If you have fear, you shouldn’t be in business. It’s not about the money. We know who we are. You cannot be everything to everyone.”
Viking Longships Christening 2014
|March 17, 2014||Avignon, France||Arrive Marseille and transfer to Avignon. Embark Viking Heimdal.|
|March 18||Avignon, France||Viking Longship 2014 Christening Ceremonies in Avignon.|
|March 19||Bordeaux, France||Disembark Viking Heimdal & transfer to Bordeaux, France. Embark Viking Forseti.|
|March 20||Bordeaux, France||Scenic cruising & sightseeing in Bordeaux|
|March 21||Porto, Portugal||Fly from Bordeaux to Porto, Portugal. Tour & overnight stay onboard Viking Hemming.|
|March 22||Porto, Portugal||Sightseeing in Porto.|
|March 23, 2014||Porto, Portugal||Onward journey home|