Monthly Archives: October 2014

Running your way through a river cruise

It was a tough decision for Paula: Take a 14-day Viking river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest in August or continue her intensive training to complete three more half-marathons in 2014 (she’d already finished five of ’em since January).

But this ever-smiling resident of Vancouver (British Columbia) didn’t have to think about it too long—she knew what she wanted to do: Both!

And that’s how I met Paula on the Atla.

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After running up 298 stairs to the Veste Oberhaus, Paula pauses for a view over Passau.

She and hubby, William, were typically off the Atla before I even began thinking about breakfast. No matter where we were docked, they headed out on the trails, sidewalks and riverside pathways early in the morning, running and enjoying the day’s fresh beginning.

A few miles’ run later, they’d bound back on to the boat, laughing and telling us what they’d seen—then freshening up and taking on the morning’s tour with the rest of us. I’m a bit of a casual runner myself (‘never tackled an official race, but I do enjoy trail running through the woods near our home) and I’d rather thought of packing my running shoes and shorts on this trip but then decided against it.

After listening to Paula, I wish I had gone with my first instinct and packed those shoes.

“A river cruise was something we’d always wanted to do,” she says. “We’ve traveled a lot, but we thought a river cruise would enable us to see things differently as we cruised down the Rhine and Danube. But with my training for the half-marathons, I didn’t want to stop running entirely for over two weeks. So William and I just incorporated running into our river cruising. It made a nice holiday even better.”

While in training, Paula says she typically runs 40 to 45 kilometers weekly. She wasn’t able to put that much distance under her shoes while river cruising, but she did run enough to enable her to head back into her regular training at home without a big loss.

“I feel good that when I head home I’ll be able to slide right into my regular training schedule. Really, I was quite surprised at how much running we were able to squeeze in,” she says. “A lot of it was dependent on what time we docked. If we woke up early and were already docked, we’d tie on our shoes and head out to explore.

“We’d often run along the river and, since I ‘collect’ unusual graffiti, we had the chance to see a lot of it on the bridges we ran under. We’d see other runners and local people starting their day. Running is a great way to discover a new city or explore it in a different way.”

Some days, such as in Passau, the weather and the docking time didn’t make an early-morning run possible.

“We found that there’s a lot of free time on a river cruise and we frequently used that to run,” says this native of South Africa. “In Passau that meant we did the morning tour then headed out on our run in the afternoon.”

That afternoon’s run looked challenging, too: It was straight up a trail from the river to the peak of St. Georgsberg (344 feet higher than the valley floor) where the Veste Oberhaus fortress looked over Passau and the river valley. Mom and I went up there too, but we rode a bus and walked down it. No buses for Paula and William though, as we walked down we saw met them heading up the steep trail.

“We have a hill we run in Vancouver regularly but that one in Passau was definitely a climb,” laughs Paula. “You can run up to the top on the street, but we used the trail, which had 298 stairs. I really enjoyed it—and I always take my phone when I run so I can take my pictures and tie them in with the RunKeeper app. I don’t feel that we’ve missed out by running on the cruise—I think it really added to the holiday.”

Paula warns other runners that there are some cautions to consider when running while on a river cruise.

“First and foremost it’s the cobblestones,” she says. “Be alert that running on cobblestones is very different. And there are several types of cobblestones. After my first day running on cobblestones, I could really feel it in my ankles the next day.”

Running in Miltenberg.

Secondly, running in a tourist area can be a bit of a stumbling block. “There are a lot of people to dodge—and you might not share their language to be able to explain yourself as you run by,” she explains.

Paula uses an iPhone app, RunKeeper, which not only tracks her distance but has detailed maps—a real necessity when running in a “new” area.

When they couldn’t run, Paula relates that she and William did yoga in their room (they had a suite—it definitely wouldn’t have been possible in our room, but I’ve heard of others who’ve used the top deck early in the morning for quiet yoga).

They also watched what they ate (they follow a type of fasting diet) both on- and off-ship. “As a runner in training, I’m careful about what I eat, but I was always able to find something good,” she says. “Plus, the ship provided fruit all the time and we often took some out with us on a run.”

Paula said her biggest challenge was creating a balance between running on a training schedule and being on vacation.

“While I would have liked to get in a little more distance, I also really enjoyed the experience of relaxing and participating in everything the river cruise offers,” she says. “Running was part of our trip but it wasn’t all of our trip. There was so much to see and do.”

Paula’s notes on running in specific ports:

Amsterdam. It was easy to find great running here. The big park (Museumplein) by the Riksmuseum with the iconic iAmsterdam sign made for good running. Watch for the bicyclists everywhere in Amsterdam!

Cologne. Paula and William ran on the bank opposite where the Atla docked; there was a park there and it was an easy out and back over the bridge. Not very crowded and almost impossible to get lost since they could see the river on the entire run. They ran past a display of “lovers’ locks” in Cologne.

Miltenberg. They ran through this small town with cobbled streets and made their way out of the city again an out-and-back route. They happened upon a small cobbled stone bridge with a statue.

Passau. It’s 298 stairs up to the Veste Oberhaus—and a great view!

Vienna. Run early in the morning, as soon as you dock, because there’s so much to do in this city. Run across the bridge right where the ship docks using the pedestrian pathway. Cross two waterways and you’re in a great park to run along the Danube.

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Exercising while cruising: It’s not impossible to burn off some calories…

I just finished writing about food on the Atla–all that glorious onboard food featuring fresh produce, seasonings, tasty sauces, flaky pastries made with real butter—and calories too numerous to count! Is it possible to stay physically fit on a river cruise to counteract the effects of all those great menu choices? Yes. But you may need to exercise some robust willpower that involves:

  1. Pushing away from the dining table.
  2. Exploring on- and off-ship options for getting physical.
  3. Thinking—and acting—a bit differently than the average river cruise passenger.

Let’s explore the first two ideas briefly—and then, in the next post, I’ll introduce you to a very active fellow Atla passenger who took on the third suggestion and “ran” her way though this river cruise itinerary! 1) Pushing away from the dining table. Plated and served portions onboard the Atla were plenty large enough for me, no matter what the meal. At a breakfast or lunch buffet, though, you’re on your own to self-regulate.

Resist we must!

Resist we must!

Geesh, though, it’s hard when everything looks so very delectable! Another curly, crispy slice of smoked bacon this morning? A small bowl of the ship-made muesli? There can’t be that many calories in an omelette, can there? Well, maybe it’s the addition of the two cheeses, ham, avocado….

That’s how it is on the Atla. The food is great and it’s a challenge to resist. Yes, I know the old maxim well—a minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips—but holding on to that idea while staring down a lovely bowl of white chocolate honey mousse is hard. Really hard.

And there are so many new-to-me delicacies that I’ve only heard of but never tried. On this trip I enjoyed lamb for the first time as well as veal and osso bucco (I know, I’ve led a sheltered life, huh? But they always seemed to “cost” too much to try at a restaurant if I didn’t know I’d like ’em). Add to that a decadent dark chocolate wedge of Sache torte or an appetizer of blue cheese stuffed meatballs and you can quickly develop a real aversion to meeting up with the scales waiting for you back home in your bathroom.

It was a bit of a dilemma: I wanted to “experience” the foods but I didn’t want that to turn into a long-term relationship I’d remember for months to come.

Here’s what worked for me: I requested “small” portions at the served meals. No, frankly, they didn’t look that much smaller than anyone else’s at our table, but by requesting it I had made a verbal commitment—in front of others, even—not to overeat. So I felt honor-bound to eat lightly.

I taste sampled everything but finished nothing; a few small bites of one item, a nibble or two of another. This worked because I still got to enjoy the food and could join in on the inevitable, “Wasn’t that halibut incredible?” conversations post-dinner. The only time it didn’t work was when mashed potatoes (in any format or derivative) were on the menu. Did you know I adore mashed potatoes??? Oh well…

I tossed aside all guilt of being a “Good Do Bee” (don’t you remember Romper Room when you were little?) and being the requisite “Clean Plater.” I left food on my plate and, after a few meals, didn’t feel badly at all as it was whisked away from my sight (only to be followed by another course with more food!).

2) Options for getting physical on a river cruise. Follow the red lollipop. Yep, that’s what we did on our morning tours as our designated local tour guide in each port led us up stairways, across cobbled streets, into cavernous cathedrals and along miles of sidewalks, all the while holding aloft the Viking-Red “lollipop” sign so we could follow.

There are a lot of tours on a Viking river cruise. You can opt out of any or all of them. You can choose a “slower” moving group. But you need to get out there and walk. That walking, I’m convinced, is what burned off all those mashed potatoes (I told you I loved ’em). And maybe the Sache torte, too.

The QuietVox device you wear around your neck when touring means you have the flexibility to wander a bit far afield from your tour guide, yet still hear him or her. Mom and I, on the average, walked at least 15% more than others on our tours because we enjoyed exploring other building alcoves, heading up a stairway for a better view and then heading back to rejoin the group. Walk. And then walk a little more.

Opt for some later-in-the-day touring around on your own. After leaving the tour group in Miltenberg, I climbed the hill above the town fronting the city park. A narrow road led past an ancient Jewish cemetery and I had the chance to see the “other” side of the crumbling city walls before arriving at the requisite castle above the medieval town. The views were great and I certainly perspired a bit getting there—and burned some calories.

Michaelsburg Abbey, a brisk walk from where our Viking tour ended in Bamberg. I'm positive the extra walking burned off the apple strudel. earlier in the day!

Michaelsburg Abbey, a brisk walk from where our Viking tour ended in Bamberg. I’m positive the extra walking burned off the apple strudel. earlier in the day!

In Bamberg our regular walking tour ended in the rose gardens (heavenly fragrance!) at the New Residenz (palace). After admiring the blossoms, though, Mom and I gazed across the rock wall bordering the garden and saw a large twin-spired building on a hill above us and across a bit of a small valley. We looked at each other: “Let’s go!” And so we walked uphill to the Michaelsberg Abbey (now a facility for senior living) and enjoyed an experience not many on the Atla adventured to.

Note: It wasn’t my original intent to use these extra excursions as a weight control tool; we just enjoyed the walking. In fact, it didn’t even feel like “forced exercise” because there was so much to see, explore and ponder along the way.

Can you exercise on the boat? The Viking longboats are tight on “extra” space so there’s no exercise room onboard. There is, however, a walking “lap” up on the top deck.IMG_1596 Just imagine pacing along happily as your ship’s prow peels away the water along the Rhine. Now imagine doing that a lot—because the walking lap is only 415 ft (126 meters) long and it’d take you almost 13 laps to get in a mile of hoofing it.

I suppose you could run/jog the walking path, too, but, out of courtesy for folks whose staterooms are below (and that would be us!), on Level 3, they limit the hours of its use for running (stomp, stomp, stomp).

The walking path does, however, pass a shuffleboard court and two twisty putting greens. Confession: I never saw anyone playing shuffleboard nor did I see any golfers. But it looked like fun! There’s also an oversized, outdoor chessboard, but I didn’t poke around enough to find any chess pieces. I’m much better at shuffleboard and I didn’t even find time for that onboard! IMG_1589IMG_0940 IMG_1594

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Other dining options on board the Viking longships

If you just don’t feel like dining with others or you want a quicker—and perhaps lighter—meal, the Viking Atla offered options for meals other than the sit-down/more formal meals in The Restaurant.

Two coffee stations are located just outside the two side entrances to The Lounge (on the third level). Oooh, I learned to love those little coffee stations! Each was a mirror of the other so there was never (that I saw at least) a line to enjoy the drinks and snacks available around the clock. From 6 to 11 am you could enjoy a “Cafe Breakfast” by choosing coffee, juice, pastries (and usually fruit, such as apples) from either of these two locations.

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What will you choose this time?

Throughout the day you could also find cookies and nifty little biscuits at these locations. And, even better, each had a nifty coffee machine which doled out your choice of coffee, specialty coffee drinks, hot cocoa or hot water for tea (lots of tea choices on the shelf just above the coffee machine). Just grab a mug, put it under the spout and push a button—the latte machiattos were my favorite. You can also use an insulated cup for your drinks and pop on a sip top so you can take your beverage choice with you as you head out on a morning tour (but watch out: really push the tops firmly onto the paper cups or you’ll have leaks).

Not in the mood for a hot drink? There’s also a water spigot and those lovely blue drink glasses just like the ones in your stateroom; fill one up with “live” or “still” water that’s always cool and fresh.

I especially enjoyed popping by a coffee station late in the evening and taking a warm drink up to the top deck as I looked over the river and marveled at the scenery (and pinched myself to prove that I wasn’t dreaming). I also kept crossing my fingers that I wasn’t gaining too much weight…

Aquavit Terrace. Directly upstairs from The Restaurant, the Aquavit Terrace is on the third floor of the ship. You enter the Aquavit Terrace by going past the bar and through the Lounge. The Aquavit Terrace is a light-filled, sunshiny place lined with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and even a glass ceiling (it’s fun to watch the crew members carefully squeegee it clean every morning).

A glass wall of doors opens out to an open front deck. Small tables (seating two to six) are grouped together both inside and outside on the deck. When the weather is fine, the doors are opened and all dining is al fresco. Even when the weather is chilly or wet, though, you have the sense of being outside when you dine in the Aquavit Terrace. If the tables in the terrace are full, you can also select food from the Aquavit Terrace and take it to the Lounge.

I really enjoyed meals at the Aquavit Terrace—there you’re surrounded by the scenery which you traveled so far to see. But, do be prepared with a sunhat if you’re out there for lunch; it can be bright. I talked with several passengers who ate almost every meal on the cruise on the terrace; they said they liked the view, smaller tables and buffet-type options.

Note that mealtimes in both The Restaurant and the Aquavit Terrace varied a bit day by day, depending upon the morning’s tours and activities; look in your “Viking Daily” for the next day’s dining hours.

Breakfast: Think what we call a “continental” breakfast every morning: fruit, juices, cheeses, cold meats and pastries. Coffee, too, of course. That’s what’s served in the Aquavit Terrace from 7 to 10 am. Also included in this buffet breakfast are a choice of dishes cooked to order from The Restaurant down below (there’s a crew-only staircase leading from the terrace directly down to the kitchen).

Lunch and dinner at the Aquavit Terrace vary and are not necessarily the same as what’s served down below in The Restaurant—but sometimes there was a similarity (e.g. chicken down below, chicken up above). The Aquavit Terrace boasts an outdoor grill and Joszef usually manned it, serving up grilled chicken (dark or light?) and burgers.

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Sunshine: This is why you want to bring a sunhat for outdoor dining!

The only flaw about enjoying lunch at the Aquavit Terrace was that, at least on our cruise, there was only one server delivering drinks (whether the free beer, wine or soft drinks) to the terrace area. That means we sometimes had to wait quite a while to get our beverages. Of course, nothing stops you from walking inside to the Lounge and getting your own drink…but maybe we’re getting a little spoiled by all this service and many folks didn’t seem to think of that.

Snacks were sometimes available in the afternoon in places other than the coffee stations. One day of great cruising found the hotel manager and his helper scooping up ice cream for passengers  (Cone or bowl? Chocolate, vanilla or strawberry? What kind of topping?) up on the top deck. Now that is decadent, indeed: licking up sweet strawberry goodness while gazing at castles and walled towns and vineyards stacked up the hillsides in almost vertical rows. On another day, the kitchen crew gave a “how to make apple strudel” demonstration in the Lounge—with plenty of samples.

A final note: At the cruise’s start, the hotel manager (a jovial guy who definitely enjoys the ship’s food) predicted we’d all gain at least six pounds by the end of our stay on the Atla (I heard someone in the audience laughingly mutter that they thought they’d gain that much each day!). I’m happy to report, though, that all that walking in the tours (and up the medieval stone stairways) kept my weight gain to just one pound! No, I don’t know how that happened. Maybe my scale is wrong at home???

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Did you say you were hungry? Here’s what dining is like in The Restaurant on board:

Food.

It’s not typically a big deal for me, or for Mom. While we enjoy fresh food, nicely prepared and presented, we’re definitely not “foodies” in any sense. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve never really been interested in going on an ocean cruise; the idea of delighting in a vacation in which the food was continuous, unlimited and a highlight of the day doesn’t really appeal to me.

Me in The Restaurant, getting ready for another great meal.

Me in The Restaurant, finishing another great meal.

So I didn’t do a lot of research about which river cruise line was “best” in the food category. I was more interested in itineraries, ship aesthetics and included tours and activities.

With that all said, however, I have to tell you that I was pretty darn impressed with the whole food thing on the Viking Atla. Keeping in mind that I’m unable to discuss food the same way you’d hear in a high-end restaurant review, I’m still going to attempt to share with you what dining was like—from sunrise to sunset—on a Viking river cruise.

Note that mealtimes in both The Restaurant and the Aquavit Terrace varied a bit day by day, depending upon the morning’s tours and activities; look in your “Viking Daily” for the next day’s dining hours.

I like choices. Viking’s done a great job of preserving that sense of choice for its passengers in regards to dining. Here’s what you can choose from:

The Restaurant (note the all-important capitalization)

This is on the second floor of the ship (the one with the lobby/reception area). The Restaurant is located in the front of the ship; the doors are kept closed except during passenger mealtimes. Our server explained to me that crew eats in there an hour or so before passengers do—but I never saw any sign of that so I’m just guessing that it’s true—besides, I’m not sure where else they would eat so it probably is what happens, huh?

Floor to ceiling windows line both sides of The Restaurant. You enter from the back of the room and head to whatever table you choose. The kitchen and prep area are behind the wall at the far front of the room (it’s a tidily-small kitchen setup considering how much food the staff prepares, serves and cleans up). Tables along the windows are typically round and seat six. Rectangular tables in the middle seat twelve. The chairs are really comfortable—which is good, because dinner is a formally-served “event” and you’ll spend some time sitting in them!

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Dinner in The Restaurant at one of the “big” tables in the room’s center.

Drapes and gauzy liners cover the windows but most diners open those window coverings so everyone can watch the world float by. That’s a really fun part of eating on a river cruise—dipping a spoon into fresh-made muesli in the morning and looking over your shoulder to see a family of swans paddling by. Really! Now that’s a breakfast treat I don’t get at home.

Milo was always there with exactly what we wanted—sometimes even before we knew it!

Milo was always there with exactly what we wanted—sometimes even before we knew it!

There’s no assigned seating in The Restaurant—conceivably, you can head in there and sit down whereever there’s an open seat. What I found, though, was that at least 15 to 20 percent of the couples traveled with other couples and they kept to themselves at dining time, especially in the evening. That meant four of the six passengers at several tables “knew” each other right off the bat. Since Mom and I were “just two,” we found ourselves able to join any number of tables and we were always welcomed happily as the “newcomers” to that social grouping.

Make new friends at the round tables for six!

Make new friends at the round tables for six!

Sometimes, though, we’d arrive in The Restaurant earlier and we would be the two seated first at a table, looking to see who would join us that evening. Tip: If you want to have people join you, catch their eye and smile at them. You can always ask, “Would you like to join us?” If you look down or away or simply are acting like a grump, you’re not going to be a really attractive dinner table partner and people will avoid you to head to a table that looks like more fun. That’s just human nature, I think, not anything negative about specific passengers. We did sit with a couple one evening who were pretty grumpy (they joined us, not the other way around), complaining about the evening’s menu, the servers and other assorted issues. I guess I shouldn’t admit it, but we didn’t choose to sit with them on future nights; there were too many other nice people to meet and get to know over a great meal…

So you know, servers in The Restaurant (both the food and the beverages) stay in specific stations for the entire cruise; the next cruise they shift stations, I understand—so I’d know not to look for Milo (he’s from the Philippines and we learned all about his family and his home) in the front-of-the-ship tables because he would likely be assigned somewhere else in the dining room. But that does mean, if you typically sit in a certain section, you’ll have the same server every meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and they’ll quickly learn your preferences in foods, beverages and how you like best to be served. That also makes for a great social connection—your server might ask about your day and what you saw in, say, Bratislava, and you can ask about their days (which were much busier in a less-fun way than ours were) and time off the ship.

Breakfast in The Restaurant (typically 7 to 9 am or so) is a blend of buffet (very high-end buffet, really) and served meals. You can wander around the buffet area and pick and choose your morning items (which is what most people did) or you can ask your server to bring you what you like. I liked watching Joszef make omelettes, though, so I enjoyed standing at his cooking station and waiting while he made mine (two kinds of cheese, bacon, tomatoes, and avocados, thank you) although I know Milo would have ordered it and brought it to me if I preferred that.

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Breakfast. Serve yourself or your server will bring whatever you want to your table; you choose!

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“Packaged” yogurt, or fresh, with a dollop of fruit or the jam made on onboard (and that jam was delicious!).

Standards at breakfast in The Restaurant were an ever-changing assortment of fresh fruit (even including dragonfruit and mango), ship-made muesli (it’s a grain-based cold cereal made right on the ship which people raved about), oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, dried fruits, cheeses, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, soft-boiled eggs, potatoes of various sorts, omelettes, pancakes, French toast, bakery items (muffins, whole grain breads, bagels), lox, cream cheese, packaged cold cereals and lots of other things I can’t even remember. All was presented very attractively, no matter if you arrived at the start of the breakfast or later on. IMG_1212 IMG_1204 IMG_1209 IMG_1208

Lunch (beginning at noon or 12:30 pm, depending on the morning’s activities) is a similar blend of service and buffet. Fresh fruit, salads, freshly-made pasta with various sauces, cheeses, meats and breads are all offered. There are also soups and desserts.

Dinner in The Restaurant is a more formal, defined meal which starts at a specific time (7 pm) and takes about 1-1/2 hours from start to finish. It’s a nice capstone to the day; passengers share notes about what they’ve seen and done during the afternoon or morning—all in a lovely, calm setting (and those swans, don’t forget those swans).

Passengers have a choice of three or more appetizers for the first course (different every single evening), three main course choices and four or more dessert choices. These are all on the left side of the menu you’re handed by your server as you’re seated. If none of those appeal to you, look at the menu’s right side and you’ll always find a selection of cheeses as an appetizer choice as well as every-night entrees including a vegetarian choice, steak, chicken breast or grilled salmon. You can mix and match the standard items with the daily choices, for example, choose a “special” appetizer and then the salmon with a dessert from the day’s special list. They’re pretty darn flexible on Viking. Oh, and while the food is presented very artfully (think little squiggles of sauce criss-crossing an entree and “foam” food accents), if you value quantity you can always ask for a larger (or even a second) serving.

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The Atla’s chef offered me the dinner menus saved from this trip (I have about 75% of them); I’ve scanned them and included them here on my site so you can look at them at your leisure. I’m not sure how often the menus change of if they’re always the same on this itinerary… Take a look at the menus here!

Oh, and for those of you who wondered, yes, the chef does take advantage of that herb garden on the top deck; one afternoon I watched as two members of the kitchen staff carried pots of the herbs back up to their place in the sun after being used in the kitchen.

The chef really did use fresh herbs from the garden on the top deck!

The chef really did use fresh herbs from the garden on the top deck!

Beverages: Wine and beer are included at no charge at dinner and lunch, both in The Restaurant and at the Aquavit Terrace. The wines varied each night but there seemed to be a few which were repeated a few times. I only had beer once and I’m not really a wine snob so I can’t tell you much about the varieties (look on the menus). I can tell you the servers were exceedingly generous in their pouring. I had to cover my glass midway through the meal or Zuzana would continually fill it up and there is no way I would have been awake past 8:15 pm every night. Mom enjoyed finishing the evening by joining others and dancing in the Lounge; Zuzana would fill her glass at the end of dinner and Mom took her glass of wine upstairs with her. As far as the less “adult” beverages, if you’re a milk drinker you need to tell your server (I don’t think they see a lot of us who really enjoy milk that much) and they’ll bring you a “big” glass of milk—and refill it as often as you like.

But The Restaurant isn’t the only place to enjoy dining on a Viking longship; look for my next post about less formal meals on the Aquavit Terrace as well as snacking on board.

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