Experiencing a River Cruise for the First Time
My younger brother, Rick, of Midlife Road Trip fame, has been after me for several years to go with him on a cruise. Though I have traveled around the world extensively in business, I have never been on a cruise of any kind – ocean or river.
Beyond finding it difficult to find time that I’m willing and able to take off, I’d heard the good, the bad and the ugly about cruises from Rick, friends, and colleagues who have been on them. Accordingly, when I finally acquiesced to go with him on a Viking River Cruise from Bucharest to Budapest, it was at best, with tepid enthusiasm except for spending time with Rick. The last time we traveled together, neither of us had any gray hair.
But, I must admit that the overall experience significantly exceeded my expectations! I’ll summarize what I learned for the benefit of other cruise novices or for those who have yet to do a river cruise.
First, Viking does a phenomenal job…..I’m now a fervent fan. They handled EVERYTHING…..including perfect weather (68 degrees and sunny.) If all cruise lines provide comparable experiences, sign me up! Here’s what really impressed me:
Go your own pace
We could pace the trip the way we wanted to. We were able to select the tours we were interested in and do lunches/dinners, etc., however you want. Rick and I both believe in experiencing life to the fullest so we kept busy all day. Our typical day began each morning around 7:00 where we would have a made -to-order breakfast (usually a suicide omelet….all ingredients, with Tabasco, YES, they have that!). After our morning excursion we’d enjoy great buffet lunches followed by an afternoon excursion. Back on the ship we’d enjoy adult beverages while listening to the Program Director’s daily briefing where she would explain the next day’s agenda, logistics and background information. And then, we’d have a fine sit-down dinner in the dining room usually followed by live entertainment in the lounge where we enjoyed the company of new friends we met on the cruise. We’d usually call it quits for the night sometimes between 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. depending how much we exerted ourselves (or drank) earlier in the day.
Having just three levels to get around, it was easy to learn what was where on the first day. Rick told me that on many of the ocean ships he’s been on, he doesn’t learn his way around the ship until the last day of the cruise.
The lounges, restaurant, upside deck, had very comfortable and inviting sitting areas that were prefect for conversations and relaxation. There were also many isolated areas so it was easy to call the office, etc. when I needed to.
The bathroom was small, compact, but, VERY efficient. I wish Viking sold the shower hardware in the gift shop. I’d love to install it at my house in Memphis….GREAT water pressure and instant hot water!
The food, all meals, were exceptional. Much better than I had imagined – not just a big buffet, but sit-down meals with a menu of a variety of choices.
Every staff member of Viking was very friendly, professional, had a great sense of humor and was truly a pleasure to interact with (they obviously have great HR practices!) They truly seemed to enjoy their work.
Cabin staff kept the rooms extraordinarily clean/fresh and they always had a smile (wish I could get them at my house in the states…..hint, hint!)
Entertainment and cultural enrichment
After dinner each night, there was some form of brief entertainment. Frequently, local artists, like Hungarian folk dancers, would be brought in for about 45 minutes to an hour. Then the lounge pianist, singer, entertainer, would play until they (sometimes we) would close down the bar. Our guy was amazing, playing things that the whole group could dance to or just sit and enjoy listening to.
Since one new friend we made on the trip is an experienced dance instructor/psycho-therapist, we learned to dance better and as a bonus, we solved the world’s problems (Thanks Sharon!). One night, we had music trivia, in which you got extra credit if you danced to the song, but answered questions if you knew who wrote it, what movie and what year/decade it came from, etc. That was so much fun! Our team came in third. And, the last evening there, our collective beverage of choice induced a Soul Train line that even had the handful of millennials on the trip up and dancing. I’m sincerely praying that our new friend, Pam, will LOSE the video!
Speaking of beverages; coffee, soft drinks, beer, and wine are all included in the price of the cruise. Rick says that though a lot of cruise lines charge extra for these Viking does not. They do however, offer a “Silver Spirits” package that I would HIGHLY recommend! For very little incremental investment, they make sure that your red blood cell level never gets too high in your alcohol stream! This package provides unlimited premium wines, beers, and bar beverages available any time the bar is open.
The excursions were very informative, well-handled and organized. Most are included with the cost of the trip but great add-on’s are available for those physically able and interested to have a really full schedule. I plan on writing another article about some of the specific excursions we took on this trip, so stay tuned…
When I reflect on the experience in total, I’m not sure there was much I’d change….even a little. Having said that, the one thing I’d personally like to see improved (mainly because I do have to conduct business even while traveling) is more consistent internet bandwidth at all times. While my mobile phone service sufficed more of the time than I anticipated, at times, cell signals were weak to absent and internet bandwidth was insufficient for practical use. Not having cruised before, I’m not sure if this is a common technological challenge, or if it’s just that so many people are sucking up the bandwidth sharing photos and videos from their awesome excursions.
A HUGE, unanticipated upside for me was the quality of the people on the tour. There were 184 guests on this cruise. By the end of the 11-day tour, I think Rick and I could tell you the first names and home cities of about 100 of them. Here’s the kicker….we (especially me, OK, Rick too!) REALLY LIKED EVERY one of them! The guests attracted here are really special if this is typical. I can’t think of anyone we met that I wouldn’t LOVE to go on another cruise with! That explains why so many of them have gone on multiple Viking cruises with friends they met on other cruises. And, vis-à-vis their experiences, I’ve added to my own bucket list, and to my list of lifetime friends! Amazing hearts, amazing people! As I think about this benefit alone, I’m SO glad I went!!!
I have a Grady White cruiser in Charleston harbor. My wife won’t even get on it because just the thought of getting on a boat makes her seasick. As a pleasant surprise, I never felt the river/motion even once on our entire cruise. Dramamine is not AT ALL needed here. Hopefully, now I can convince her to join me on a river cruise.
The net of this trip for me is that it was great to get to spend time with my brother (who I found really works as hard or harder than I do, taking pictures and learning about the places we’re going so he can blog about them. Oh….and then writing the blog!). But, the unexpected delight is that I met great people, have treasured memories, a keener appreciation for history and places I hadn’t been and, now know where and how I’m going to spend the next decade or so of my vacations….cruising. I can’t wait for the next one!
Ron Griffin is an Internet Technology nerd living in Memphis, Tennessee. Like his much younger and better looking brother, Rick (who is composing this bio because Ron forgot to submit his), Ron is a father of two daughters and loves food, travel, wine, family, and Alabama football.