THE RAIN STOPPED, clouds parted and a glowing sunset bathed the ancient city of Koblenz, Germany, in light. There, at the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine rivers, Viking River Cruises celebrated 20 years and christened its two new Longships for 2017, the Herja and the Hild. The newcomers will sail the Rhine on a new route, Paris to the Swiss Alps. These latest additions mark another year of strong growth for Viking, which now operates 48 Longships. The company launched its third ocean ship, Viking Sky, in February and will add a fourth, Viking Sun, in November, making it the largest small-ship ocean cruise line with the youngest fleet. We sat down with Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen, who announced more news for Viking River Cruises and added that it will be the first foreign company allowed to have a license to operate ships along the Nile River. The new ship named Viking Ra (Hagen decided on the name that day) will begin sailing in March 2018. Hagen eschews the label of “luxury,” saying instead that Viking strives for “understated elegance with great attention to detail” on all the ships. Touting “large bathroom amenity bottles that are easy to open,” he tells the story of the difficulty he once had opening a shampoo bottle in a hotel shower, then goes on to cite the ship’s “heated tile floors and towel racks, and no-fog bathroom mirrors.” The Hild has large, two-door showers and a daylight-lighted bathroom mirror. As for international upheaval around the globe, Hagen’s response is practical. “The Viking motto is ‘Exploring in comfort,’ and we take safety very, very seriously,” he says. “We carry a Norwegian flag when we travel worldwide. At the end of the day, I think it is more interesting to see things than to sit home and be afraid,” he adds. Viking now owns 60 of the docking spaces along the Rhine and its operating destinations include a new river cruise to Ukraine, also scheduled for 2018. “We take great pride in owning and operating our ships. We don’t have partners as we like to be in charge of our own destinations,” Hagen says. Hagen is proud of the design and construction of the Longships as they come with more cabins (95) than other river cruise lines. Additionally, Viking has designed a larger, costlier, asymmetrical ship with stateroom balconies on one side, suites on the other, and a square bow that allows for additional accommodations. “They always put me in the best suite,” says Hagen about the Explorer Suite, which according to him is the largest of any river cruise suites (and the only one to offer room service breakfast). He indicates that the ship’s amenities wouldn’t matter, however, “if our Longships weren’t diesel electric drive, which means the aft of the ship is well-insulated and doesn’t vibrate.” The new Hild doesn’t disappoint. Even though we experienced only a fraction of the 12-day Paris to the Swiss Alps tour, it was enough to get a sense Viking’s dedication to service, cuisine and special extras. The Hild’s 39 Veranda staterooms have full-sized, private balconies and ample storage space that help to keep belongings organized and out of sight. The top Sun Deck has a putting green; an organic herb garden, which the chef uses to garnish and flavor dishes; and ample seating space from which guests can watch mountain
goats navigate steeply set vineyards, and view castle ruins standing high on the hills or set within the river itself. As the Hild sailed leisurely past Lorelei Rock on the narrowest part of the Rhine, a lecturer regaled us with the history of the sea and the stories of the legendary maiden, while a classical duo played “Die Lorelei,” one of Germany’s most famous folk songs. Torstein Hagen calls Viking “the thinking person’s cruise,” with destination exploration being the high point. The rain didn’t stop our walking tour of Mainz, of which there are so many highlights that it’s difficult to single out one. The Chagall windows at St. Stephen’s Church — the only such windows in the country — were glowing despite the cloudy weather. A stop at the Gutenberg Museum is an ode to Mainz’s most famous resident, Johanes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press and moveable type and, in the process, changed the world forever. His Gutenberg Bibles, which now number 49 in the world from the original 180, are distinguished by their rich and unique illustrations. Guests can see the bible that Mainz’s mayor promised citizens he would (and did) bring back from a New York City auction, now valued at $20 million. During a stop at Worms and a tour of its famous cathedral and the statue of Martin Luther, we chanced upon an authentically dressed docent who introduced herself as Eva, the wife of a 16th-century bookseller. Eva delivered a monologue about Luther’s visit and asked us, “Did you see Martin Luther arrive this morning?” She was also “selling” his writings. This surprise, authentic moment that transported passengers back in time was created by Viking and was a highlight of the trip. With its popular Christmas market, the opulent opera house Napoleon built for his wife Josephine, and 342 miles of bicycle lanes, one not-to-miss excursion in Strasbourg is the optional “Taste the Best of Alsace” walking tour. Stops include a boulangerie, boutique wine and cheese shops, and the unforgettable Christian, a chocolatier opened in 1960 and now a second-generation patisserie salon known for the world’s rarest chocolates (more than 60 from around the globe) — especially pastries and chocolate drinks favored by Marie Antoinette. These are all crafted by a team of 24 chocolate chefs. It is even heavenlier and more decadent than it sounds. Back on the Hild, sailing down the Rhine, we watched the ever-changing terrain through floor-to-ceiling windows, chatted with new friends over a glass of Alsace Pinot Noir, nibbled on foie gras the chefs sourced that day at the Strasbourg open-air market, and listened to the ship’s resident composer, pianist, and singer, Cezar. At dinner, soft drinks, wine and beer are complimentary, part of the line’s Viking Inclusive Value that also covers the meals themselves, shore excursions and Wi-Fi. “People don’t want to be nickeled and dimed,” says Hagen. Guests can also opt for the beverage package, which, at $20 a day, opens the door to such indulgences as Brunello wine or Glengoyne 21-year-old Highland single malt scotch.