First timers on a Viking River cruise
On our Viking River cruise on Portugal’s River of Gold we were lucky enough to have two friends joining us. (Yes, we actually have friends.) Neither friend had ever taken a river cruise before so we wanted to get their impressions of the Viking River experience.
After you’ve done several cruises it’s all too easy to get spoiled and only notice things that aren’t done right. Major things such as why aren’t the chocolates they put on the beds at night larger? Why did the waiter tell me I looked beautiful last night but only said I looked pretty tonight?
So we asked our two friends, both of whom have traveled considerably but have never before done a river cruise, what impressed them. We thought they’d never shut up.
What impressed them well beyond their (already high) expectations.
How much fun we are to be with on a river cruise! (They never said anything remotely resembling that remark but we gratuitously threw it in here anyway.)
Real things they actually said
The constant level of personalized, genuinely caring service by the Viking staff.
They didn’t mean only the amazing Barbara, our Program Director or Carlos the vigilant ever-helpful Hotel Manager. They were also major fans of Chef Pedro, Maitre d’ Cornel and Blonde’s beloved wait staff of Lazaro and Pedro.
And then there was Bruno, the guide on our bus, who remembered to tell us everything and in a way that never implied that we were numbskulls for needing to (repeatedly) be told basic things.
Our friends were also very impressed by the housekeeping staff who manage to dart into the rooms every time we left and render them tidy and spotless again.
And we all appreciated the friendly faces handing us bottles of water and making sure we didn’t trip up and down the walkways. When we returned from outings we were given cool wet cloths and a little drink of juice or lemonade to “wet our whistles” and refresh us.
Bruno, our Viking River guide on the bus, is one of the few people still living who can tell a joke as well as a professional stand-up comedian. We particularly liked the one about priests and nuns and “not getting into the habit” but are too discreet to reveal what led up to the punchline. (Unless you ask us.)
Admittedly specifically job duties can be and probably are in people’s job descriptions. And they may bring you your food or your water or whatever. But it’s the friendly, caring way the staff truly delights in ensuring guests have a wonderful experience that is – to use the right word even though it’s often overly and inappropriately used – unique.
The ship’s staterooms
We are talking about two women who are not light packers and they were both thrilled with the space they had in their cabin. Plenty of closet room, drawers, shelves and a spacious bathroom with more shelf space than we had in a 5 star hotel in Lisbon. It takes a lot of support to look good (or even decent) at our ages. (And, quite tragically, we all had the smallest lowest cost rooms, not some high-end expensive level of accommodation.)
They liked the flat screens TVs with a wide selection of free movies, TV shows, travel information and weather forecasts.
The outside balconies were a treat for sitting and watching the vineyards along the stunning Douro River Vally of Portugal.
We all liked the free wi-fi too but to be honest we all complained about it as it can be slow and spotty. But it’s still a great perk to have. And we needed to have something to complain about!
The food and beverages
Pedro, our young Portuguese chef was very gifted. Our friends were expecting good food but not imaginative, fresh food perfectly paired with wines and enough dessert to make us all wish we’d brought elastic waisted clothing. Pedro prepared his mother’s lamb shank recipe one night.
Perhaps Viking should look into hiring his mother for another ship. Her recipe, in Pedro’s hands was tender, perfectly seasoned. We would pay shocking amounts in a restaurant in the U.S. to get a meal that approaches that level of quality.
Did we mention that Pedro’s adorable? Probably not, that would be unprofessional. He’s adorable. And we don’t just mean the dimples. (But they don’t hurt.)
Quality of local guides
Both friends like history but that isn’t the same thing as knowing a lot about it. On the excursions we all learned fascinating stories of intrigue, betrayal and heroism making places more interesting than mere recitations of facts ever could.
One of our friends in particular was constantly remarking (to the point we considered asking her to put a lid on it) about how good the local guides were. You expect them to know their stuff, that’s their job after all. But they all had very good English, were unfailingly pleasant and most were also humorous for which we all gave them extra credit.
The bus drivers and the buses
Anyone who has traveled much and taken bus tours (particularly in small European towns) tends to be impressed by bus drivers. But these men drove steep, twisty hills with nothing to break the fall if the bus took a tumble. They backed huge busses perfectly straight down cobblestones alleys with less than 2 inches of extra room on either side.
And the buses – never anyone’s favorite part of a journey, let’s face it – are very comfortable. They have lots of legroom, overhead storage space and seat belts which are really important and lacking on many buses. We expected the air conditioning but not the hydraulic lifts that makes the steps come down close to the curb so it’s easy to get on and off the bus.
And the always available supply of free bottled water (and a toilet on the bus) made it all better than expected.
Ability to experiment
Our BFFs were thrilled to realize that they could just try something if they were interested and they wouldn’t be charged extra fees, judged (except by us) or looked down upon. One asked if it would be OK if she tried a beer the next day. She had a beer in two minutes. (Blonde obtained obscene amounts of chocolate sauce from the wait staff.)
Amiable well-traveled guests
Perhaps because we are so highly sophisticated, fashionable and hoity toity our friends worried that they wouldn’t be as well dressed as the others or find it easy to socialize. Instead they were both quite impressed by how friendly and well traveled the others were. The only pretentious bore was Blonde and they knew to expect that.
With Viking River we had access to places you just can’t get to traveling independently or with a cut-rate provider. Our friends were thrilled by the dinner we had one evening in an ancient monastery.
The lunch at a country estate owned by the family that produces Moscatel (and their hilarious eldest son who informed/entertained us in a manner that made everyone think of Mr. Bean only funnier.)
We didn’t just learn about port – we went to where they make Sandeman port.
Our luncheon in Salamanca had energetic, talented, engaging flamenco performers that we hated to see end their performance. All of this was only for the Viking guests and that really impressed our friends (they don’t like to share).
In our lounge we had Emanuel who was a gifted keyboardist and singer. To us he seemed to be about 14 but when we asked for songs from embarrassingly long before he was born he would look up the music and lyrics online and do excellent renditions immediately.
And then there was the evening the crew served our dinner on the roof deck and sang a beautiful and cheerful Portuguese song during a brilliant sunset on the river. One of our friends said she felt like she was in a movie and she wasn’t talking about Deliverance.
This is another thing we’re big spoiled babies about and assume someone else will handle for us. Our friends, who are actual real people, were thrilled by the ease of their airport transfers, help with flight itineraries and quick completion of any small (or not so small request).
We are going to shut up now
We could go on and on even more than this and we didn’t even cover all of the things our friends listed when we asked them what really impressed them.
From the rate of repeat guests Viking has, this sailing and crew, as wonderful as they were, were not an exception.
It sounds as if we are shamelessly pandering but we already got our free cruise (please note that FTC auditors who have nothing better to do than hassle bloggers) so we are just relaying information for the betterment of humanity.
We’re like that.