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Cruise Ship Review

Viking Prestige - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Viking Prestige, which debuted in 2011, is Viking River Cruises' last new-build before it begins to introduce its revolutionary Longship series in 2012. The design of this vessel, a sister to Viking Legend, is considered the standard for Europe river cruise boats. There's a lounge and dining room forward, a library aft, a sun deck above and cabins on three decks. What makes this ship interesting, not to mention an extremely comfortable vessel in which to travel, is that the line has carefully updated and upgraded facilities, particularly with in-cabin features like flat-screen televisions and interactive channels, a superbly designed bathroom and a lounge that doubles as an alternative eatery.

Beyond that, Viking River Cruises remains one of the more traditional river operators, both onboard and in port. Mealtimes, particularly dinner, are at a set time, and while passengers can choose their tablemates from night to night, there are few, if any, intimate-sized tables, so the atmosphere fosters -- if not forces -- sociability. Shore excursions, many of which are included in the cruise fare, are standard offerings; there's nothing unusual, such as a recreational-oriented experience, say, a cycling tour that visits local wineries, or thematic, such as wine and food tastings.

On the other hand, on our Viking Prestige Danube cruise, we were impressed by the staff's commitment to entertainment that enriched passengers about the areas we were traveling through, from a well-presented lecture on the European Union to fun fare like a wandering accordion player, complete with Bavarian costume.

Interestingly, although it's a ship that's clearly aimed at a more senior traveler, there is no elevator aboard Viking Prestige. However, those with mobility issues are otherwise accommodated. (On walking tours, there's usually at least one group for those who need a more gentle pace, and tour brochures indicate levels of activity.)

Our rating for service reflects the fact that it varied fairly wildly on our cruise. Sometimes it was exceptional and intuitive. Other times, it was appallingly unprofessional. (In one instance, one of the bartenders, when asked for a glass of water, rudely told passengers to go and help themselves from the machines in the lobby.)

All in all, Viking may lack some of the more exciting bells and whistles being offered by other European river cruise operators, but it nevertheless offers a solid value-for-money cruise on Europe's rivers.

Dining

There's one restaurant onboard Viking Prestige, and it serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Generally, cuisine is well prepared (and sometimes exceptional), but there isn't a lot of variety. Vegetarian menus are offered, but otherwise the food is fairly heavy and meat-oriented.

Breakfast, which is typically available from 7 to 9:30 a.m., is a buffet meal (save for a chef who will cook omelets upon request). The selection is fairly basic, and there's little variety; every day it was the same options, including steam-tray-warmed scrambled eggs, pancakes and French toast, plus the usual accompaniments (American bacon, sausage, hash brown patties). There was also oatmeal with fixings like fresh and dried fruits, a small platter of cold meats, fish and cheese, and a variety of cereal options, including Meusli.

Early and late risers can partake in a light -- and by "light," we mean "poor" -- selection of sugared pastries and orange juice in the Aquavit lounge.

Lunch in the dining room is slightly more regimented, with passengers being asked to arrive at a set time, depending on the itinerary. It's usually offered from noon to 1:30 p.m. There's a buffet offering sandwiches, soups, salads and desserts, and you can also order off a limited menu, which includes hot entrees and a "slider of the day." (The ship's chef had a liberal interpretation of the concept, which, for most of us, means a small burger; in this case, choices ranged from pastrami to a chicken Caesar wrap.)

On some days, a limited buffet, usually themed to suit the local cuisine of a port of call, is available in the Aquavit lounge; this offering is more casual and low-key, and passengers can arrive at any time within stated hours. Don't miss the delicious iced-tea concoctions made with seasonal fruits.

The most special repasts of all take place on days when Viking Prestige is cruising at lunchtime; an Austrian-oriented buffet (with local sausages and cold salads) on the sun deck, complete with complimentary beer and festive decor, was fun and delicious.

Dinner, which usually begins promptly at 7 p.m., is the most convivial meal. Viking serves complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks at this time, though unlike other lines, it doesn't vary the vino much. (It was the same white and red throughout the duration of our cruise.)

A note: If you're traveling with friends and would like to share a table, you must make sure to get to the dining room early and snag one; no tables are reserved.

Meals start with an amuse bouche -- one night, a simple presentation of fresh mussels was superb -- and moves on to hors d'ouevres, such as marinated artichoke with cream cheese salad or mushroom risotto. There's always a soup, usually one with Hungarian, Austrian or German roots in a nod to the Danube itinerary, followed by a choice of main courses (fish and meat options). Dessert also offers a choice; there's always a fruit offering and a rather sparse cheese plate in addition to sweets.

At the gala farewell dinner, it came as a surprise when waitstaff paraded around the dining room with baked Alaska. (We thought that seafaring tradition was limited to big ships.) It turned out to be the best baked Alaska ever -- surprisingly light (loved the mint filling).

Another surprise: When we first looked at the dinner menus, the options seemed awfully heavy, but that was deceptive. Portions were perfectly sized. There was also an "always available" menu that offered grilled chicken, salmon and sirloin, and a delicious Caesar salad, complete with anchovies.

Beyond the complimentary wine (which, frankly, got tired after the first three nights), we found that Gabor, the Hungarian maitre d', loved to recommend the alternatives that were available for an extra charge. We put ourselves in his hands each evening and tried various varietals, from riesling and sancerre to local reds that were memorable, listening to the stories about where they were made. It made the meals special for us.

For night owls, the kitchen prepares hors d'oeuvres that are passed around the lounge.

One of the best features onboard is a wall of self-service coffee machines, and you can also get delicious cappuccino and hot chocolate. There's a water and ice machine, as well.

Speaking of beverages, Viking is one of the rare river cruise lines to offer beverage packages. Cost varies, depending on cruise length. On our seven-night cruise, the charge for wine, beer, cappuccino and cocktails (brands determined by the hotel ops) was $235. (A nonalcoholic drinks package is offered at $125.) Is it worth it? Considering that wine, beer and soda is included at dinner, that you're off the ship most days touring and that the bar seemed woefully understaffed at times, it was no value.

There is no in-cabin food service.

Public Rooms

Typically (it depends on the tide), passengers enter Viking Prestige via the central atrium on the Middle Deck. There, you'll find the shore excursion desk, purser's desk and a small (very small -- in fact, just a couple of shelves) shop. Speaking of shopping, each day, staffers would display local items for sale that you meant to pick up in port but didn't (like bags of paprika after we'd left Budapest or jars of local mustard in Passau). Very nice touch!

The Viking Lounge is the main place to congregate. Bordered on three sides by windows, there are loveseat/armchair configurations scattered throughout with small cocktail tables. There's a three-sided bar that was oddly staffed during our cruise. (On some afternoons, there'd be no bartender at all, and even during busier times, the area was short-staffed). Forward is the Aquavit lounge. It's just an extension of the main venue, but it's got wicker-like chairs, tables at dining height and open-air glass walls. There's also a buffet station there that was a popular spot for quick lunches.

The other gathering room is the library, all the way aft. It's sparsely furnished with just a few chairs and tables and not terribly cozy or welcoming. There are also a couple of chairs on the small balcony that's adjacent, though it's a noisy spot when the ship's moving. On the plus side, the library had the most interesting collection of itinerary-related books we'd ever seen on a cruise ship, big or small. Simply superb.

In good weather, the sun deck is a popular place. It's simply furnished with square black tables -- perfect for dining -- and black mesh chairs that, while comfortable, have really high backs that interrupt the view. Poor choice there. Otherwise, there are numerous sun loungers. Most are tucked under canopies, so there was plenty of shade.

Cabins

Regardless of category or location, cabins on Viking Prestige are beautifully appointed and carefully thought through. Each has a bed that can convert from a queen to a pair of twins; the linens and mattresses are first-rate. One minor complaint: For a queen-configured bed, the two twins are simply pushed together; a nice touch would be the addition of bedding that could actually keep them from moving apart.

Flat-screen televisions feature news (CNN and CNBC), movies (MGM and Fox Movies), sports (ESPN) and documentaries (National Geographic).

One feature we loved was a fantastic array of movies offered via Video on Demand at -- get this -- no extra charge. We got a laugh out of the way they were organized: "The Sound of Music" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" were both housed in comedy, but in the little bit of time we had to kick back and watch, we enjoyed the variety.

There's plenty of storage; a two-door closet has a shelf just for shoes, and there are three bureau drawers of additional shelf space. Each cabin has an empty mini-fridge, so you can tuck away your own supplies. There are an electronically operated safe and reading lights by the bed.

Bathrooms are thoughtfully arranged, with curved showers, enclosed by glass doors, which were more spacious than expected. Showers have the best water pressure we've ever had at sea. The towels were superb, as well -- fluffy, absorbent and generously sized. There's a magnified mirror (set rather high so best for men who are shaving, rather than for women to apply makeup) and generous storage both above the sink and below. Toiletries are by L'Occitane, and our cabin stewardess was quite generous in replenishing the supply.

Cabins are served by housekeeping twice a day, and we found our stewardess to be both thorough and unobtrusive.

Kudos to Viking for building six solo cabins into this ship. (Sister vessel Viking Legend has five.) They're about two-thirds the size of standard doubles, come in all categories and have all the usual accouterments, from flat-screen televisions to nice-sized bathrooms. The big difference is that, instead of two beds, there's a couch that folds out.

There are two suites on Viking Prestige. At 340 square feet apiece, they're essentially the size of two standard doubles. One room, decorated in a spare Scandinavian style, is a comfortable sitting room with a large closet and a vast walk-in closet. The adjoining bedroom is outfitted similarly to its standard brethren, though it features an extra-special bathroom with a marble tub.

Beyond the solo cabins and suites, the only significant difference between the doubles on the Upper Deck (which leads into the Observation Lounge and is just below the Sun Deck), Middle Deck (convenient to the restaurant) and Main Deck (the lowest level) is the size of the window. (Standard staterooms are all 170 square feet.) On Upper and Middle Decks, cabins have French balconies, which means you can open your floor-to-ceiling balcony doors -- but there's no platform on which to step out. On the Main Deck, much more narrow windows are located about two-thirds of the way up the wall and could be underwater from time to time.

One negative about cabins on the Upper Deck is that you can be disturbed by activity on the Sun Deck. On our trip, one early-rising jogger regularly did laps above us; it bothered some but wasn't a big deal for us.

Entertainment

As with most river cruises, the primary entertainment takes place off the ship, via the series of complimentary and extra-fee shore excursions that are offered on this port-intensive itinerary. The excursions, featured in every port of call, revolve around motorcoach tours around the big cities and walking expeditions in smaller towns.

Guides were generally good and spoke excellent English. Viking River uses Quietvox audio systems, and all passengers are provided with a unit; these make it really easy to hear your guide, even if you're in the back of the pack.

One positive thing to keep in mind: Viking makes an effort to divide its passengers into smaller groups. If you're traveling with friends, you'll want to make sure you're on the same bus or in the same group of walkers.

Viking is careful to identify tours as being active or "gentle" (and will offer variations on each outing), but for the most part, none was terribly strenuous.

We heard raves, however, from passengers on the extra-fee tours, offered in addition (in most cases) to the standard fare so that you could try both in a day's visit. The evening concert in Vienna was a highlight for many, and the World War II tour in Nuremberg was one of the most interesting tours we took. Other tours included a trip to a monastery famed for its beer; we visited the cathedral, sipped some beer and then returned to the ship via a small boat that cruised through a gorgeous Danube gorge.

Also appreciated was the occasional impromptu outing. In Passau, for instance, one of the entertainment staffers led passengers on a walk to a biergarten.

With all the activity off the ship, you may be surprised at how much there is to do onboard when sailing. Viking's entertainment team did an outstanding job with enrichment, from a chef's demo on apple strudel to a compelling talk on the European Union. A Mozart lecture, in which the ship's program director donned costumes and acted his way through the famed composer's life story, was great fun -- and illuminating, to boot.

Often, experts and musicians were brought onboard in towns along the way. Big hits included a glass-blowing demonstration (and you could purchase the artist's creations) and a frankly fabulous trio that performed classical and sentimental hits.

I was disappointed that the ship neither offered bicycles, as some other lines do, nor featured any recreational tours. However, it didn't seem as if the rest of the passengers noticed.

While ship-sponsored tours ran seamlessly, the ship's concierge and front desk staffers weren't as knowledgeable about the ports of call as they could have been -- despite the fact that the ship generally visits the same ports each week. Our suggestion: If you want to know where to find the best bratwurst, an Internet-capable coffeehouse or a bookstore with English-language material, do your homework before you leave home.

Viking Prestige offers free wireless Internet, which sounds fantastic. (If you don't pack your own laptop, you can borrow one.) But, unfortunately, it doesn't work well. If you need to stay in touch, plan to familiarize yourself with coffeehouses in ports of call that offer access.

Viking Prestige is, by no stretch of the imagination, a night owl's ship. While there's a pianist who plays in the lounge before and after dinner, there's no dance floor, and passengers did not tend to congregate after activities were over. One tip: Evenings on the sun deck were blissfully beautiful, especially with clear skies. We'd take a glass of wine up there and have great conversations with fellow passengers.

Fitness and Recreation

There is no spa. There is no gym. About the only organized activity onboard was a daily Qi Gong exercise class (no charge). Passengers used the sun deck as a de facto running and walking track.

As noted, the ship does not supply bicycles in port and had little information for those of us who wanted to find a place to rent them. There was no kayaking, cycling or any other type of soft recreational tour offered through the shore excursion department.

Family

Viking Prestige is not kitted out to accommodate families. Aside from its suites, which have pull-out couches in the living rooms, there are no cabins for more than two passengers.

There are also no dedicated kids' facilities or any other accommodations. On the other hand, there were a few older kids (mid-teens) on our voyage who were self-sufficient and seemed to enjoy themselves.

Fellow Passengers

Viking attracts an older crowd; on our trip, 55-plus was the norm. Passengers are generally well-traveled, though more are likely to have signed up with tour operators than explore independently. There's an increasing percentage of travelers who have been longtime coastal cruisers and are just discovering rivers. Viking passengers come mostly from the U.S., but the line also appeals to those from the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

It's a social group; many we met were traveling with groups of pals. It's also a marvelous ship for solo travelers because, in addition to the solo-dedicated cabins, passengers were convivial and definitely adopted singles into their groups.

Dress Code

The dress code is casual, day and night. Passengers dress for comfort (slacks and Polos for men, slacks and blouses for women) during the day and don resort-casual attire at night. The only even remotely formal evening is the captain's gala dinner, but you'll fit in just fine in your nicest casual finery –-- no ties required.

Gratuity

Tips are pooled among all onboard staff and crew, and the line recommends 12 euros per person, per day. You can pay in cash or by credit card. It's also suggested that you tip guides on shore excursions -- one or two euros is plenty, unless they went to extra effort for you.

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