Last month Viking River Cruises celebrated 20 years and christened its only two new Longships of 2017, the Herja and Hild, in Koblenz, Germany. Travel Agent was at the event with a look at what’s next for the river cruise line.
The new ships will sail the Rhine on a new route, Paris to the Swiss Alps. At the event, as curious Koblenz residents looked on, guests strolled between velvet ropes and down a red carpet to an orchestra playing below the grand equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I at the famous confluence of the Mosel and Rhine rivers. Decorated with white and red balloons, the Herja and Hild were stationed behind a tented podium, as the staff cheered on the celebrations. Regional 2013 Riesling flowed from the estate of Viking Hild godmother, Dr. Princess Stephanie Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg, who serves as CEO of Weingut Fürst Löwentein, a family-owned winery in Lower Franconia. Incidentally, her family’s ancestral home, built in 1725, is a Privileged Access stop on a Viking cruise.
The christening festivities continued with music and a four-course dinner within a glass-walled, chandelier-filled, Viking-crafted, pop-up event space on the closest point to the Rhine/Mosel rivers, followed by a surprise nighttime cable car adventure (a first in Koblenz history) toward the hilltop Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, where white-gloved waiters poured magnums of champagne as guests were suspended over the Rhine to watch a fireworks show below.
The christening of two new Longships marks another year of growth for Viking, with a total of 48 Longships to date. The company launched its third ocean ship, Viking Sky, in February and will add a fourth ocean ship, Viking Sun, in November.
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, (he decided on the name that day) will begin sailing March 2018.
While Hagen eschews the label of “luxury,” he does admit, “We are 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 time had to open a shampoo bottle while he was wearing glasses and reading 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, which, any woman will tell you, is the greatest invention of late.
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 notes.
Hagen is proud of the design and construction of the Longships as they come with more number of cabins —190 versus 160 on other cruise lines. Additionally, Viking has designed a larger, costlier ship with stateroom balconies on one side, suites on the other, a square bow that allows additional cabins, and three decks of usable space, as well as a smart, asymmetrical Viking-patented design. “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). “But that [ship amenities] wouldn’t work 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 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, which Hagen describes as “the largest deluxe staterooms afloat on Europe’s rivers,” have full-sized, private balconies and ample storage space that help in keeping 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 past the famous 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, arguably one of Germany’s most famous folk songs.
As Torstein Hagen likes to point out, Viking is “the thinking person’s cruise,” with destination exploration being the undisputed highpoint. 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 highpoint. The Chagall windows at St. Stephen’s Church were glowing amidst the dreary weather, as though sparkling with the knowledge of being the only such windows in the country. 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, at one time cost as much as a small house. The Gutenberg Bibles are distinguished from the other Bibles by their rich and unique illustrations. Guests can see the bible Mainz’s mayor promised citizens he would bring back from a New York auction, now valued at $20 million. With works of art such as this, the museum’s contents will be appreciated by every bibliophile.
A stop at Worms and a tour of its famous cathedral and the statue of Martin Luther, a seminal figure in Protestant Reformation, led to a delightful moment, as we chanced upon an authentically dressed “Eva,” who introduced herself as the wife of a 1500s bookseller. She, in complete character, delivered a monologue about Luther’s visit and asked us, “Did you see Martin Luther arrive this morning?” and was “selling” his writings.
With its renowned Christmas market, the opulent opera house Napoleon built for his wife Josephine, and 342 miles of bicycle lanes, one excursion in Strasbourg is the optional “Taste the Best of Alsace” walking tour. Stops include a boulangerie, boutique wine and cheese shops, and 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 — crafted by a total of 24 chocolate chefs. It is even heavenlier and more decadent than it sounds.
And once again, you’re on the Hild, sailing down the Rhine, watching the ever-changing terrain from floor-to-ceiling windows, chatting with new friends over a glass of Alsace Pinot Noir, nibbling on foie gras the chefs sourced that day at the Strasbourg open-air market, and listening to Hild’s resident composer, pianist, and singer, Cezar, who keeps the music mellow (think Michael Bublé, Elton John, Frank Sinatra) or upbeat (including dance favorites until 5 a.m., after the christening) for passengers who will truly look forward to seeing him every evening.