It's not every day that a cruise line launches four ships at the same time on the same river, but that's just what Viking Cruises did earlier this spring. The Viking Fjorgyn, Viking Kari, Viking Radgrid and Viking Skaga all joined the fleet to sail Seine and Rhone itineraries visiting delightful ports in Normandy and central and southern France.
I joined the naming ceremony in Paris and was invited to sail on a four-day minicruise aboard the Radgrid to sample some of what passengers can expect when they sail on these newest river ships in France. Typical sailings will be longer, often traveling all the way to Normandy or farther south in France, but this trip was about celebrating the quartet of newbuilds (four more will sail from Amsterdam and were christened on the same day).
Repeat Viking travelers may wonder what sets these new ships apart from the rest of Viking's main European river fleet. The answer: not much. While the ships are 33 feet shorter and have 11 fewer cabins than other vessels, it's hardly noticeable. There's a good reason for this, though. It enables Viking to use Port de Grenelle, a port close to the Eiffel Tower. Most other river cruise lines dock farther out, which gives Viking an in-town, picturesque advantage without the need for a long shuttle bus ride.
With more than 80 river ships, Viking knows a thing or two about negotiating a good docking location, and it has taken years for the company to access this much-coveted port.
While I didn't make use of the line's new three-night, post-sailing extension in Paris (it doesn't start until next year), I did love being able to walk to and from the ship to explore the French capital at any hour with ease. Having lived there years ago, it was special to wander through my favorite neighborhoods, given the city-center docking.
Ample and comfortable seating on the Radgrid's sundeck. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Viking
Later this year, Viking will offer a seven-night Christmas on the Seine itinerary visiting various Christmas markets that is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
Notable places to visit on most Seine River sailings include the beaches of Normandy, Rouen (known for its Gothic architecture), Vernon (near Monet's famous Giverny gardens) and the old town of Le Pecq.
What really makes the experience special, though, are the onboard French touches. One evening, a well-known cheese shop owner came aboard with the most magnificent spread of rare cheeses for passengers to taste. As someone who loves cheese, it was exceptional. The same cheese tasting in a restaurant or his shop would have surely cost around $100.
The onboard menu was distinctly French, too, with dishes like beef bourguignon and French onion soup, two of my favorites. The fluffiest croissants and pains au chocolat were as authentic as what you'd find on land, and the mini-baguettes served in the dining room were equally delicious (so much so that I snuck a few up to the cheese tasting).
A cabin on the Viking Radgrid. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Viking
On my sailing, the tour to Giverny from the port of Vernon led us through the charming old town -- where cats purred at us from the top of flower-lined stone walls and locals biked by with baguettes in their baskets (as if out of central casting) -- to Monet's home and gardens.
On Rhone River cruises, one of the excursions includes a vineyard hike in the birthplace of syrah. One thing that Viking does very well is create tours for different physical capabilities, making it clear which tours involve a lot of walking or strenuous activity. The cruise line also deserves kudos for always offering a free tour in every port, which adds tremendous value.
Besides those free tours, most everything onboard is included: house wines, beer and spirits; soft drinks; and room service. The only extras are premium drinks and certain specialty tours.
The customers onboard were mostly American and British travelers with a few other nationalities.
Attracting younger cruisers
As Viking's customer base starts to skew a bit younger, it is making some changes onboard that appeal to a wider demographic, including several active excursions and the option to go biking along the river. This is also a great way to encourage more multigenerational travel.
The elegant and contemporary Scandinavian design also appeals to all ages. Designers thought of everything, from the coffee cups and plates (all from Nordic producers) to the small library, which is stocked with hand-picked books by a notable bookseller.
As I sipped a glass of rose from the outdoor deck at the back of the ship, watching the French countryside go by, I remembered why I am so fond of river cruising. You're up close to an ever-changing panorama, whether between destinations or right in the heart of Paris. Let's just say that it knocked my socks (and beret) off.