The christening of 10 Viking Longships™ on a chilly March day in Amsterdam was an official record-breaker: an adjudicator from Guinness World Records™ certified the event as ‘The Most Ships Inaugurated in One Day by One Company’.
Although 10 ships were christened, the record was set for just eight of them, as Viking Aegir and Viking Embla entered service in 2012. Ten godmothers snipped 10 red ribbons to set 10 champagne bottles flying against the ships’ hulls – four in front of a 700-strong crowd at Amsterdam’s main passenger terminal and six via live satellite at the Neptun shipyard in Rostock, Germany.
Viking River Cruises now has 16 Longships and 12 more are being built, to be launched next year. Torstein Hagen, the Norwegian founder and chairman of the company, spoke at the ceremony about how he lost everything in the 1990s, established Viking River Cruises in 1997 and now, in 2013, commands a fleet of 35 vessels. He even predicts that the company will be operating 100 river ships by 2020.
“We don’t see any reason for a slowdown yet,” says Hagen, a charming 70-year-old. “It’s really quite unbelievable. Out of 50,000 cabins that we had for sale [in 2013], we only have 600 left.”
In the evening following the mass christening, guests on board the ships docked at Passenger Terminal Amsterdam to enjoy a lavish dinner in the Viking restaurants and a mini-cruise around the harbour. This was my first experience of a European river ship and I was impressed – by the space, the design, the dining, the service and the quality of the sample shore excursions we took, in and around Amsterdam.
All the Longships are pretty much identical, although the 10 newest ones have had a few cosmetic tweaks. The chic, minimalist interior design is by Yran & Storbraaten, the team of marine architects behind the Seabourn ships. The accommodation, which caters for a maximum of 190 guests, ranges over three decks. On the lowest deck are 25 standard cabins, which have windows rather than balconies; on Deck 2, there are 17 staterooms with French balconies on the port side and 17 suites with verandahs on starboard. On Deck 3, there’s a mix of French-balcony staterooms; suites – each of which has a French balcony and a verandah; verandah staterooms; and two large Explorer suites at the aft of the ship.
My verandah stateroom – Suite 215 on Deck 2 of Viking Aegir (Aegir being the Norse god of the sea) – had blonde wood wall-panelling; easy-on-the-eye coffee-and-cream-coloured soft furnishings; space-saving sliding doors; eight drawers; hanging space plus shelf space; a good-sized bed; a huge flat-screen TV; and a fridge. The bathroom was stocked with lovely L’Occitane products and had a surprisingly spacious shower – no bath required. The verandah had space for two chairs and a small table.
When booking a river cruise, it’s worth asking how much time you’d spend on a balcony – if the ship sails mostly at night and you’re out for most of the day on shore excursions, you might not really need a balcony cabin at all.
Suite 215 was handily located near to the reception area, boutique and dining room. From my first jet-lagged lunch (delicious Dutch cheese soup and salad) to the final evening’s dinner (a five-course extravaganza), the food was excellent quality. A highlight was the breakfast buffet, which offered cooked and Continental dishes, the best Bircher muesli I’ve eaten, fresh raspberries and other fruits, and jam that was made on board the ship. Pots of herbs in the dining room emphasised the Viking commitment to using fresh ingredients whenever possible; in warmer months, an organic herb garden is grown on the sun deck – on this trip, it was too cold to spend much time there.
The Observation Lounge on Deck 3 is spacious and airy, and has floor-to-ceiling windows and a convivial bar area. The lounge leads on to the indoor-outdoor Aquavit Terrace at the bow of the ship; from there, it’s a few steps up to the sun deck on the top deck, where there’s a jogging track and shaded seating. You can have breakfast, drinks and light meals inside or out on the Aquavit Terrace – definitely one of the ship’s best spots for views. Also on Deck 3 you’ll find a small library and internet area with a few laptops for guests’ use (wi-fi is free throughout the ship).
Viking River Cruises operates a range of cruises in Europe on its Longships. In 2014, all of the new ships will sail the line’s most popular European itineraries: ‘Tulips & Windmills’ (10 days, Amsterdam-Antwerp-Amsterdam); ‘Passage to Eastern Europe’ (11 days, Budapest-Bucharest); ‘Romantic Danube’ (8 days, Budapest-Nuremberg); ‘Grand European Tour’ (15 days, Amsterdam-Budapest); ‘Danube Waltz’ (8 days, Passau-Budapest) and ‘Rhine Getaway’ (8 days, Amsterdam-Basel).
If you’re worried that there will be traffic jams on Europe’s rivers in years to come, Torstein Hagen assured us that will not be the case. “If everybody left on a Saturday, it might be a problem,” he noted, “but we are able to space out our days of departure – not just weekend departures but some Wednesday departures, and so forth.”
Now the biggest river cruise company in the world – befitting its Scandinavian heritage of maritime exploration – Viking River Cruises operates its own ships in Russia, the Ukraine, China, South-East Asia and Egypt. So once you’ve ‘done’ Europe, there are lots of other exciting itineraries to choose from.
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