Throw your cruising stigmas out the window. You are not too old or too young to take a Viking River Cruise. My husband and I are in our early 50s, the last of the boomer generation, on the edge of the GenXers. That puts us about mid-way between the age groups on our river cruise, where passengers ranged in age from early 30s honeymooners to early 80s retirees. But age did not matter; traveling with this small and independent group was a great way to see a lot of Southern France in a short time. We stopped at historical towns, sampled local foods, and spent some much-needed alone time without the kids. We enjoyed conversations with interesting passengers at dinner, explored cathedrals and restaurants on our own and relaxed in good company at the end of a long day.
Viking River Cruising
Receiving an invitation to travel is always a happy moment in my day; I fall in love with just about every place I go. However, when I got the invitation for a Viking River Cruise, I had mixed emotions. I was thrilled with the destination options but also wondered if this meant I had crossed an age threshold – graduating to shuffleboard and a Medicare card. It’s kind of like getting my AARP card in the mail: I want it, but I’m not sure I am ready for it!
Once I started researching Viking River Cruises and its cruising style and options, I confirmed that the current buying market is age 60 and over but the new target is younger boomers and older GenXers. The GenXers and younger Boomers are familiar with Viking and interested in river cruising but not sure if they will fit in and enjoy it. I had to try it. The result? Let’s just say I’m already looking forward to another Viking Cruise.
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Cruising Southern France with Viking
Cruising the Saône and Rhône Rivers in Southern France for eight days was a chance to view the French countryside. We flew from New York City to Paris and took another short flight to Marseilles where a Viking Cruise representative was waiting with our taxi to drive us another hour to Avignon.
It was a long cab ride after an overnight flight, but our taxi driver made it fun, giving us the option of taking the scenic route. He pointed out landmarks and town centers, chateaus and important government buildings. He was happy to stop at a small boulangerie so we could buy a freshly baked almond twist and our first of many heavenly chocolate croissants.
We boarded our Viking Cruise ship in Avignon, docked in several quaint French cities along the way (Beaune, Lyon, Vienne, Tournon, Viviers, Arles) and ended in Chalon Sur Saone. Each evening, we were prepared for the next day with an itinerary that listed included tours and optional excursions. We toured wineries and had guided walks through the cities and toured to Perouges.
Unlike ocean cruises that have a set course, river cruises require some flexibility. If the river is too high, the ship might not be able to make it under a bridge or if the locks are malfunctioning, the ship might have to stay where it is one more day.
Don’t be surprised to step out on your balcony and find that you are looking into another person’s stateroom or that person is looking into yours! It was common for another ship to pull alongside ours and use our gangway for entering and exiting the ship. It was a shock the first time I realized this was the norm, but I didn’t mind checking out the interior of other ships on my way in and out.
We spent less time cruising the river than I would have expected and more time docked. I didn’t mind having more time to explore the cities we visited but I also loved eating while cruising.
Details and Service
All of the Viking Cruise staff speak English and all of the guests on our cruise were from English speaking countries like Canada, USA and Great Britain. I looked forward to seeing Daniel, the customer service genius at the front desk, every day. Before I could say Bonjour, he knew what I forgot: my itinerary, my card confirming I left the ship and he even surprised me with a lovely book about walks in Paris for our 3 night stay at the end of our river cruise. Our server, Vlad, was quite the dancer and he could give and take a joke – and there were plenty of those. I cannot say enough good things about the overall positive energy aboard the ship; it was refreshing and infectious.
Note: There is no doctor on board but because you are on a river and not in the middle of the ocean, you are not far from a hospital. However, I would always recommend getting medical evacuation coverage regardless of health, especially if you are traveling to another country. It’s not expensive and it’s so worth it in the event of an emergency.
Viking River Cruise Staterooms
Without being overly-pretentious, Viking River Cruises’ staterooms are modern, comfortable, have plenty of storage for clothes and all have a view (there are no interior facing cabins). Rooms sizes range from 150 sq’ to 445 sq’ for the largest suite.
We were happy in our Veranda Stateroom (205 sq ft); we had a king bed with firm and comfortable mattress, wardrobe, flat screen TV, balcony and bathroom amenities. Had it not been France’s rainy season, we definitely would have enjoyed sitting on the balcony in our bathrobe and slippers (which you can request from housekeeping).
The standard staterooms on the lower level are the smallest and do not have sliding doors or a balcony but they do have half-height picture windows and large, flat screen televisions. Whatever the room type, everyone could enjoy the open spaces: a top deck with putting green and plenty of seating (no shuffleboard), indoor/outdoor lounge area, 2 onboard computers and a small library. Also included was a cookie/coffee/tea station open 24/7.
The food was good, but there was no real WOW factor. Cruising Southern France, I expected French food to try everyday. But other than the freshly-made croissants (which were good but again not WOW good) and homemade jam each morning (jam was WOW), breakfast was the same style of food I’m used to here in the states: omelet station, oatmeal, cream of wheat, toast, fruit.
If we were not going to get French flair, with an Austrian chef I was looking forward to Viennese toast or pancakes, strudel or shortbread. I pulled spinach, fruit, yogurt and honey from the breakfast bar and the bartender blended a decent smoothie for me. I would have liked to have seen that offered on the menu.
Dinner time was fun. Each evening we looked forward to having dinner with our new friends – an American and British couple we met the first night of our cruise. We always had so much to talk about: our French excursions, our families, interests and businesses, The dinner time dining was again, good, but fell short of fabulous- except for the wine. The wine pairings that were included each night were delicious. And if you are a wine connoisseur or cocktail lover, you could purchase a drinks upgrade for $150 for your trip.
The nightly staple menu probably had the best options: salmon, steak, chicken. The salmon never failed – it was cooked to perfection and always tasted fresh. The daily specials menu were more adventurous but not outstanding. Don’t get me wrong, nothing was burnt or undercooked; the menu itself was just not that inventive. I was looking for interesting combinations and flavors (lavender for example is in abundance in France but it did not make it to the menu).
We did enjoy an excursion in Peruge with Chef to taste French wines, salumes and cheeses. But for me, the real fun was walking back on our own from the market and stumbling upon a local market by the river where we bought a homemade Moroccan pastilla with chicken and almonds. It was outstanding.
Prior to our river cruise, my husband and I received a very thorough 36 page document that provided details like which travel documents you need, air travel, health suggestions, what to pack, weather averages, and a detailed itinerary. It includes information about excursions and what the intensity level is for each, for example:
Level 1: Gentle stroll for even the most occasional walker. The terrain is flat and easy. The walk (including occasional stops) is normally not longer
than 1 hour.
Level 3: Robust walk. You need to be a fairly regular walker; the route includes steps and/ or inclines. Tour length (including occasional stops) varies from 1.5 to 2 hours.
One woman was determined to see every cobblestone walkway and small town and she did – using her wheelchair and arm crutches. The wonderful thing was everyone was inspired by her; I never felt like any other passengers got impatient with her or anyone else. Meals were available on board for anyone who wanted to skip an excursion or who chose to create their own itinerary.
All of the excursions were wonderful but if I had to pick favorites, they would be Les Baux de Provence and Lyon, a modern bustling city. We stopped in Les Baux on our way to the Saint Paul de Mausole hospital near St. Rémy where Vincent Van Gogh stayed for one year and painted 150 masterpieces. The castle and ruins of Les Baux just felt like what I expected Provence to be with lavendar everything – soap, ice cream and oils. In Lyon, we shopped and walked and people watched as they commuted to work and to the University of Lyon.
Our new friends talked me into the optional tour to Châteauneuf du Pape for an education and tasting of some of the wines produced in this region. After the class everyone bought or shipped wine home, me included; it was that good.
Why Viking River Cruises?
If I had a nickel for every person who told me they always wanted to take a river cruise but were afraid they were too young…
River cruising is a huge business with more competitors every day, according to the crew. Most of the ships we saw were owned by German and Italian companies. Those ships were comparable in size but the decor was more ornate and big cruiseship-like.
Viking River Cruises has been around since 1997 and they could use a few tweaks, but the intimacy of the Viking Cruise and the friendliness of the passengers and crew only added to our memorable experience. I talked to several passengers who had cruised Viking as well as ocean cruises and the common theme was that the big ships were too busy, noisy and crowded. Every passenger said they would take another river cruise and that their top choice was Viking.
Our Southern France cruise was lovely but my fellow passengers said the Danube River cruise through Hungary, Austria and Germany offers more to see along the river: castles, churches and interesting architecture. We saw more greenery on our Portraits of Southern France cruise.