What it’s like on a river cruise . . . or, a few nuggets of interest surrounded by my usual blather

Okay. So the truth is I’m not sure I’ll ever get any good at making videos on my camera. The one embedded here is beyond lame. Be sure to click on it so you can hear me stumble over my words (hey, I am a WRITER – not a TALKER) and generally describe (and show) my stateroom on the Viking Primadonna in a fashion that is not likely to encourage anyone to sign up for a river cruise.

Despite a stupid video and a sampling of far-less-than-professional photos, I’d still like to tell you I think practically anyone would LOVE a river cruise. Note that I am saying practically anyone. If your idea of a good time is doing Jell-O shots at 4 a.m. and cheerfully raising your tank top whenever a joker hollers, “Show us your tits!,” then maybe you wouldn’t like a river cruise.

On the other hand, it’s only a rumor that you have to show proof of having either a pacemaker and/or walker before they’ll sign you up for a European cruise. Though these are popular accessories among the river cruise set, there also were several people on my cruise who weren’t dying their hair yet, I’m pretty sure. There was one lady, however, whose hair was such a Bozo-the-Clown shade of orange, it was very tempting to suggest she consider going au naturel.

Boy. I can write a lot before getting to the point. Have you noticed? Sorry.

A typical river cruise ship (at least the ones I’ve traveled in Europe) holds about 140 passengers. Yeah. They’re small! Nothing like those monsters of the Caribbean that host more people than live in my home town. The cabins, or staterooms, are small – but I guess they’re small on those gigantic ocean-going ships, too. Here’s my lame video showing you the room I shared with my cousin Carole:

I didn’t film the bathroom because, as you can see, I could barely figure out how to shoot the living and sleeping area, let alone a bathroom roughly half the size of my bedroom closet. What I do love about the river boats I’ve been in is that they do such an amazing job of making every square foot count in these little rooms. For instance, the beds are just high enough to slide a large suitcase or two underneath after you’ve unpacked. The beds aren’t as wide as a standard twin bed at home, but they’re certainly big enough and though quite hard, are comfortable enough.

I like that there’s a place for everything and, if you’re willing to be neat and put things away as you use them, it can be perfectly comfortable for your week or so on the river. And of course, with so much to do, who’s going to hang around in the room for long, anyway?

Viking Primadonna docked somewhere on the Danube

Here’s a photo of the Viking Primadonna, Viking’s only catamaran (two-hulled) ship on the Danube River. I’m pretty sure they said they were going to be retiring the Primadonna at the end of this season, which I think is a shame. Because of the catamaran configuration, there was additional space down the center of the ship that made the entire boat roomier than other river boats I’ve been on in the past.

On the “first floor,” there is a main entrance in the center of the ship that leads to a little lobby with a reception desk. Like a hotel, the desk is always manned by ship personnel and one of their many jobs is to collect room keys before people leave for excursions on shore, then give them back when we return. This ensures that the ship doesn’t leave without anyone. Although, they do say they will. If it’s time to sail (and due to scheduled docking times, or appointments to go through locks, there’s not a lot of wiggle room with departure times), if you’re not back on board, you may have to take a taxi to the next docking location – and at your own expense. This would be a stupid and potentially very expensive error. On the last cruise, one day it appeared that a couple hadn’t returned when it was time to leave. After much fussing and fretting by the crew, I think they were discovered getting sloshed in the bar, having forgotten to turn in their day pass and pick up their key after the shore excursion. I’m not sure, but I think it was the woman with the orange hair.

Anyway, on that first floor there is a long lobby with couches and chairs in front of the registration desk. Cabins lined either side of the lobby. Behind the desk were an office and gift shop and more cabins on both sides. At the back end (no, I don’t know the nautical terms) there is a kind of multi-purpose room where people could go to exercise classes in the morning, and to lectures and small performances later in the day or evening. I’ll tell you more about activities on board and excursions on land another time since I fear I’m rapidly reaching the point where you yawn and go back to see what’s happening on your Facebook page.

I did not go down to the lower level where there are more cabins, so I don’t know if there’s anything else down there. These are the least expensive rooms; they have windows (that don’t open), but not balconies like the upper levels. The crew’s rooms are down there, and there’s a laundry and other worker-bee type places. It’s kind of like traveling steerage. The women all wear babushkas and they gather around in their own little communal dining hall to listen to fiddle music and dance at night.

The third and final upper level holds the last of the staterooms including some that are suites. I got a quick look at one of them once when I passed by as a maid was cleaning the room. There was a lady in an ermine bathrobe smoking a cigarette with a long black holder. The little poodle on her lap was snarling at the maid. Yeah. Honest.

The two most important public spaces on the ship are on that level with the rich people:  the dining room and the lounge. In the dining room there are mostly tables of six and you sit with whomever you happen to sit with. It doesn’t take long before people (yes, we are guilty) become proprietory about their tables. There is no assigned seating, so people scramble to get THEIR tables when the doors open for dinner at 7:00.  Since there is always a briefing before dinner in the multi-purpose room, telling us what’s going on the next day, it’s a mad dash up the stairs and down to the other end of the ship when the program director is done talking.

Since there were four of us in my little group, we took turns being the person to stand near the door and sneak out early to go upstairs and claim our table as soon as the doors opened. Some of the older people who don’t move quite as spryly didn’t have a chance. Sometimes we’d let a couple with walkers join us, but only if they looked like fun, despite being less than spry.

The same waiter always serves the same area, so people also become attached to their waiters. Ours was a guy named Sunny from Bulgaria. His name really is Sergei, but since there were three or four other Sergei’s on the boat, he went for the nickname. He was a delightful young man who talked a little like Boris from the “Rocky & Bullwinkle” cartoons, but then, practically everyone working on the ship sounded like either Boris or Natasha, now that I think of it. The pre-cruise, add-on trip was to Transylvania. So there you go, right? Yes, I know Boris and Natasha were supposed to be Russian spies, but now that I’ve heard Bulgarians and Serbians and Croats – I’m thinking they were actually Eastern European.

So we would dash to Sunny’s station not only because that was OUR TABLE, but also because Sunny took care of us. He knew what wines we liked with dinner (hey – wine is free with dinner on Viking cruises. Yay!) and he would give us very quiet hints about what our best dinner choices would be. I am going to try to put a photo of a menu here from the Captain’s Dinner on our last night:


Menu from the Captain’s Dinner

I did not pay attention to Sunny’s suggestion for this dinner and chose something on the menu that was pretty crappy. I won’t say which choice it was. I will say, if you have a good waiter – pay attention and take heed of his warnings. However, for the most part the food on board is really very good. Here’s how it works:

Breakfast – a huge buffet with eggs and breakfast meats, pastries, breads, cereals, fruits, cheeses, yogurts, juices and more. And you also could choose from a menu, something like pancakes or Eggs Benedict. Sunny brings you coffee (on this cruise, it was beyond strong and not that good, honestly) or tea or whatever. If you want a Coke or a mimosa for breakfast, you’d have to put the charge on your tab. Everything else is included. More about the bar thing later.

Lunch – another huge buffet primarily packed with salads and salad fixings. On this cruise, there were a number of (I thought) odd foods that I wouldn’t eat. I can’t remember what they even were now. Weird salads. Then there’s a menu with a few other choices, like soups, a sandwich option, a hot entrée or two. I can’t remember if soft drinks were free with lunch or not.

Dinner – a menu at each place setting offers you a choice usually of three first courses, three entrees, and a couple of desserts or a cheese plate to finish. If you don’t like any of the entrée choices for the night, you can always choose a steak, chicken breast or salmon instead. Wine, beer or soft drinks are free with dinner.

More about the bar thing:  the ships always offer a beverage package that basically includes all the booze and soft drinks and beer and wine you can choke down, any time of the day or night, throughout the cruise. It’s expensive! I think it was 150 euros per person for this seven-day cruise. So, you could conceivably have a couple bloody mary’s with breakfast, some beer with lunch, stop by the bar for a few cocktails at happy hour, order a better wine with dinner, then get completely sloshed in the bar until you’re ready to pour yourself into bed. If that’s your thing, the package probably makes sense. If you’re more into chocolate than alcohol (like me!) – not such a smart deal. Just pay as you go. It will be cheaper.

And speaking of the bar, it’s located at the other end of the ship on the third floor, opposite the dining room. It’s open all day and evening, not closing (I’m told) until the last sod stumbles back to his cabin. You can stop by the bar any time and use a cool machine that makes cappuccinos and hot chocolate and regular coffee – all complimentary. That coffee was actually better than the coffee in the dining room, so toward the end of the cruise, I wised up and started bringing my own coffee from the machine to have with my breakfast.

There are also some breakfast pastries set up by the coffee machine in the morning, sometimes cookies in the afternoon, and usually fresh whole fruit. Oh, and yeah – if you want to walk past that great coffee machine and go into the BAR itself, there’s plenty of seating and an actual bar with the usual booze offerings. The entire place is all glass so you can watch the scenery as you imbibe. If we’re not all out dashing into the shops in a local town, you may find the same folks playing bridge or reading in the bar as we drift down the river. Very pleasant.

On the very top of the ship is a deck with lounge chairs and some tables and chairs, plus a hot tub. Weather and time permitting, it’s a great spot to get some fresh air and enjoy the beauty of life on a river. Here’s one cool photo from the Iron Gates, or Kazan Gorge, in Romania to give you an idea of how lovely the scenery can be:


Iron Gates, or Kazan Gorge, on the Danube River in Romania (and/or Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia)

So I have now written nearly 2,000 words and haven’t even told you about the best part of being on a river cruise:  the excursions. Crap. If you’re not screaming by now, “For God’s sake, woman, SHUT UP!” – then maybe you’ll come back and I’ll tell you about how excursions work on river cruises next time.  Deal? Okay then.

About katemahar

Freelance writer and event planner by trade . . . mother/daughter/sister/friend . . . passionate traveler . . . compulsive reader
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