Working in the travel industry, around Travel Advisors, I feel fortunate enough to feel as though I have already traveled the world. I get to hear their stories, their client’s stories and even hear stories from our travel partners. You almost begin to feel like their experiences are yours. After experiencing a European Viking Cruise with my husband last month, I’ve learned that some things must be lived first-hand. We tasted, learned and took part in so many experiences of our own. We sailed the Rhine river and explored four wildly beautiful countries with 12th-century Gothic cathedrals to tasting authentic German beer and saurkraut through a pub-crawl with the World Cup playing at every pub. In short, I feel I have my own story to tell and memories to share forever.
The Ship – Viking Eir
Let’s get this part out of the way. I say this because while the ship was beautiful, it certainly wasn’t the highlight of our trip. The countries we visited and the people we met were what is really worth writing about. We arrived at our ship, Viking Eir, at 10 am. We weren’t sure if we could embark so early as we were told in advance that our room wouldn’t be ready until 3 pm. However, to our surprise they not only allowed us to get on, but also took our luggage, encouraged us to explore the ship and have breakfast and lunch, all well before 3 pm check-in. At 10:30 am we were told our room was ready and our luggage was waiting inside. We were fortunate enough to get a french balcony. This means that the outside wall of our room comprised of floor-to-ceiling sliding doors.
TIP # 1: French balconies or balcony rooms are a must. There is so much to see while sailing from port to port. In fact, one of the days is dedicated to this scenic sailing. You hear commentary from the program director giving you history of each of the castles you pass. It’s also nice to have the doors open for the fresh air and the sound of gently passing water while you sleep.
The room itself was a decent size with a full size bed, closet and vanity. The bathroom surprised us with its special amenities like the anti-fog mirror and heated floors. If you’ve never experienced heated floors, you would be surprised at how nice this is on a chilly morning (yes, even in June we experienced quite a few chilly mornings). The ship offered dining three times a day and cookies, pastries and coffee offered througout the day. There is a beautiful lounge, a mini library and office available for all to use. The ship, while beautiful, lacks a few amenities such as a gym, pool or spa. However, what they lack in amenities, they make up for with service. We were never told “no.” One day we had a very short stop to let a group get off for an excursion. My husband and I admired how sweet this little town looked (actually, I used the word sweet). We asked if we could get off the ship to explore. They said, “Of course! Go have fun just be back in 30 minutes. We won’t leave without you!” We were always given flexibility to make the vacation our own. Upon returning to the ship (we returned respectfully with 5 minutes to spare) Natalia, the bartender on board, had a drink ready for us to enjoy. We got to know Natalia very well. In part, because we opted for the Silver Package.
TIP # 2: Spend the $150 per person for the Silver Package. The drinks onboard (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) cost around $6 – $8. Since wine, beer and soda are only included at lunch and dinner, the drinks can add up fast. It was nice to have a drink at anytime without keeping track of our bill.
The last I will add about the ship is that from the excursions being so well-thought out (all recounted below) to the onboard entertainment, Viking Cruises did a lights out job. They made sure we got a taste of every city we visited right there on the ship. One evening they provided German musicians to play while you ate a hearty German buffet. It never went unnoticed the effort the crew put into making everyone’s stay special.
Day 1 – June 14 & 15 – Basel, Switzerland
We began our four-country voyage in Switzerland. We arrived a day early so that we wouldn’t be frantic to get from the airport to the ship, especially after experiencing the delays that we did.
TIP # 3: Always get to your destination at least a day early. More often than not, you can find an affordable hotel to stay the night before embarkation. You don’t want to “miss the boat” and scramble in a foreign country to get to the next port.
We stayed at the Basel Airport Hotel, which was convenient after a long day of traveling. By the time you arrive, you are tired and you do not want to have to navigate a foreign land until you’ve rested a bit. The hotel didn’t have the greatest of views, but it was clean and the staff was very friendly. The next morning my husband and I were eager to get to the ship. The hotel arranged our cab to take us to the port. The cost was about 30 Francs.
TIP # 4: Do not get too many Francs. For this itinerary (Rhine Getaway) you will only need Francs on day 1 of the cruise. You will need this to pay the driver (if you did not utilize Viking Air) and your tour guide for the excursion through Basel. The rest of your trip you will need Euros.
Once onboard Viking Eir we were told that there was an optional excursion to walk us through Basel. The tour guide walked us around the city center where we learned a little history and had a chance to do some shopping (this is a good thing because my kids would have never allowed me to come home without some authentic Swiss chocolate).
Day 2 – June 16 – Breisach, Germany
After enjoying our breakfast, we got ourselves ready for our excursion to the Black Forest. Each day includes an excursion for free plus additional excursions are offered at an added fee.
TIP # 5: It’s not mandatory to reserve your spot for these excursions in advance, but I would recommend it. This way, you can read over the details of each to decide which ones you want to do. Otherwise, you’re given a day to sign up while onboard and you might find you’re too busy to have a moment to map it out. You simply go to myvikingjourney.com and reserve your spot(s).
The Black Forrest consisted of a mini-hike, watched a demonstration on coo-coo clock making and a chef making a genuine Black Forrest cake (lest not forget the best part – the sampling!).
Later this day, we opted for a paid excursion. This experience was well worth the $60/per person. We went to the Colmar World War II Museum and Memorial. Our French tour guide took us in and around the area where the American soldiers had set-up camp. Because our guide was French, it made it that much more fascinating to hear how WW II is viewed from their perspective. He had such admiration and gratitude towards these American soldiers who liberated France, his home. At the very top of a large hill stood an American flag. This was France’s display of appreciation and recognition for these soldiers. This entire excursion was so humbling and it made me feel connected to France.
Fun Fact that you won’t learn from Google – During the drive to the museum, he told us that the beautiful vineyards we were seeing that produces the delicious French wines we have come to admire were actually roots extracted from Napa, Valley.
Day 3 – June 17 – Strasbourg, France
While our ship was in port in Germany, we simply took a motor coach across a bridge for a walking tour through France. This is thanks to the European Union creating this ease of passage from one country to another. Here we learned all about how this little city had gone back and forth from being German to French several times before finally being liberated. Much to our surprise, once you cross the bridge you are most definitely in France. The French cafes lined the streets and the quintessential “Bonjour” greetings were spoken. There was no cross-over of German and French. So, what do you do when in France? Have a cappuccino of course! After our tour of the city we had about an hour to sit back and people-watch while we enjoyed a cup of coffee.
Day 4 – June 18 – Mannheim & Gernsheim, Germany
We moved on to Germany’s oldest university town, Heidelberg, where we explored a castle and the world’s largest wine barrel, which holds 58,000 gallons of wine. You then move on to Gernsheim where you can enjoy authentic German food and beer. Along with many souvenir shops, you will find the sweetest Christmas store equipped with nutcrackers and smokers for every Yuletide-lover. The ship stays the night here, so you can enjoy as much free time as you would like.
Day 5 – June 19 – Koblenz, Germany
This was a relaxed, sleep-in kind of day. Our first excursion was not until 1:30 in the afternoon. The morning was dedicated to 15/mph scenic sailing with commentary provided by the Program Director as we sailed the middle of the Rhine River. Because this happened to be a chilly morning, the staff properly took care of us with delicious hot-cocoa laced with warming Amaretto and Kahlua. After lunch we ascended to the Marksburg Castle, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had the opportunity to tour this 700-year-old hilltop fortress and take in the spectacular views. Much of this castle has been preserved and unchanged since the medieval times.
TIP # 6: This is not a day to wear your cute sandals. The hills lined with cobblestone to ascend to the top of this castle require good-gripping sneakers. If you have mobility issues, this excursion will be challenging.
Day 6 – June 20 – Cologne, Germany
In this 2,000 year old city, Cologne, we took a walking tour to Old Town, the Cathedral and St Martin’s Church. The Cathedral we visited was breath-taking. Not just in the aesthetics (though this was impressive) but in the history behind it. It took 600 years to build, starting with the Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden who laid the foundation and ending with the Prussians.
Fun Fact that you won’t learn from Google – the pieces of art that are located inside, including the stained glass, are original pieces. During the French Revolution they had the wherewithal to hide them in nearby caves. When the war ended they returned these pieces back inside the church.
Outside the Cathedral is the Roman-Germanic Museum. The story goes that back in 1941 the city of Cologne decided to build an undergound parking garage. They dug 6 floors below and unearthed the most perfectly preserved mosaic floor dating back to the 12-century. They left it right where they found it and the museum was then built around it. Often times, archaeologists may take a piece of their findings and send it to a museum to be viewed from a case. So, to see this floor exactly where the Romans laid it and to imagine the stories behind it was truly magical.
Later that night we opted to go on another excursion, Cologne’s Beer Culture Dinner Tour, where a group of 15 went to a sampling of German food at a local restaurant. After this delicious meal of sauerkraut, veil, sausage and beer, the 15 of us broke into smaller groups. Our tour guide, Peter, and 1 other couple went on a German pub crawl. Peter has lived in Germany for the better part of his life and knew all the places to go to get a real taste of Germany. We sampled (well, drank) the many types of beer offered in the area – from Munich beer to Kolsch beer, unique to Cologne.
Fun Fact that you won’t learn from Google – If you are finished drinking, you must put your coaster on top of your glass or your server will continuously replenish your beer.
Day 7 – June 21 – Kinderdijk, Netherlands
Our final day before disembarkation we visited another UNESCO World Heritage site, Kinderdijk Windmills. These historic windmills (some still inhabited today) were put in place to pump out the water in this low-lying land. The windmills are just as powerful as they are picturesque. It happened to be a very windy day and to hear the blades rotate was almost frightening. They are so much larger than you may imagine (at least what I had imagined). The Dutch water management group has engineered a way to still utilize these 18th-century windmills and keep Kinderdijk’s feet dry.
Fun Fact that you won’t learn from Google – After Hurricane Katrina, they enlisted the help of these Dutch engineers to help put a system in place to pump out the water.
Day 8 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
Sadly, our voyage had to come to an end. Our last stop was in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, we were not able to explore as we had our flight scheduled for that morning.
TIP # 7: Arrive at least 3 hours early to the Amsterdam airport. In my experience, every airport we went through (Heathrow, Basel, Dallas) were organized and smooth. Amsterdam, however, was chaotic. I would suggest you allow plenty of time to get through security and customs.
All in all, our 8-day sailing was a trip my husband and I will always be grateful we experienced. In short, we took selfies unapologetically, gained weight proudly and asked the locals questions shamelessly. If you’re looking for activities to do while on the ship, this may not be the cruise for you. However, if you’re looking to learn a bit of history, taste the foods and meet the people in the area all while taking in beautiful landscapes and being pampered along the way, then the Rhine Getaway with Viking Cruises is perfect.