I’m blogging again–this time a Viking Ocean cruise!

Heads up,world; watch out! Mom and I are traveling together again–this time on Viking’s new ocean-level ship, the Viking Star.

We fly out tomorrow, arriving in Stockholm hours (and hours, and hours, and hours…) later. We’ll get on that new cruise ship on Saturday afternoon after a day of exploring Stockholm on our own.

You can count on more “real world” reporting on everything from excursions to cabin features, food and the cruise experience. Lots of pictures, too, if I can get solid wifi on the Star.

Here’s the link to my newest blog. http://oceancruisenewbie.com

If you want email updates for the new blog, you’ll have to sign up over there for them; your “subscription” to this one can’t be transferred…sorry! As always, I look forward to your comments, tips and ideas. I’ve never done this ocean cruising thing before…

Won’t you travel along with us as we cruise the Baltic and explore some of Norway’s fjords?

 

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Here are your “Viking Daily” news sheets for the entire cruise!

IMG_3327I’ve just finished scanning (I know, finally, huh?) all four sheets of each day’s “Viking Daily” news sheets for our Amsterdam to Budapest itinerary on Viking River Cruises ion August 2014. Go here to see them.

I saved them as PDFs so you can read and even download ’em easier–but WordPress won’t let me put an “image” with each so on the page it just looks like a whole bunch of text links. It’s also out of order…grrrr…

You can click on each individually, I assure you, and see the day’s events and notes. These includes arrival and departure times in each port as well as other features of the port as well as shipboard activities.

I wish I’d had a copy of these before our cruise, even though I know things can change slightly each season and each cruise; it would have given this river cruise newbie more to look at, plan for and understand.

Enjoy!

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Some insights on Viking River Cruises…first the bad…

Choosing a river cruise company isn’t for the faint of heart. While it’s absurdly simple to get your name on email and physical mailing lists for a wide variety of cruise lines (and then watch out!), it’s not so easy to discern which company might work best for you if you’ve never tried any of them.

Mom and I asked friends who’d taken European river cruises and each one offered a different name. And each also offered to give me their customer number to get us a discount on our cruise and a referral credit for themselves. [Side note: I’d be happy to talk with you via email about our experience with Viking and offer you my ideas–and a referral number–so you can save $100/person off each of your fares if you’ve never cruised with Viking before. Then I can go on another Viking cruise–and I promise I’ll blog it with oodles of details]IMG_0960

We narrowed it down to two companies based on itineraries and each company’s reviews (thank you, CruiseCritic.com!). Our final choice of Viking River Cruises seemed just right for us with its “pretty much everything is included” pricing as well as the ship’s aesthetics (we prefer Scandinavian simplicity over red-velvet elegant). When we discovered that we could purchase the tickets through Costco with a significant discount (shipboard credit as well as a pretty hefty Costco gift card upon the trip’s completion), we figured we’d made the right decision.

We still feel that way and, in fact, I’m just a few weeks’ away from leaving on a Baltic cruise with Mom on Viking’s new sister company, Viking Oceans. We definitely wouldn’t spend more money with Viking if we hadn’t felt they’d earned our business.

But that doesn’t mean everything was hunky-dory. In this post I’ll detail those areas where Viking earned a less-than-stellar grade from us–and in the next post I’ll provide some personal insight about the good things Viking did.

Let’s start with the bad…

Pre-trip communication with Viking’s customer service department stunk. Seriously. Continue reading

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Heads-Up: My “perfect” river cruise jacket is on sale until March 2, 2015

Nope, I get nothing–no remuneration, no commission, not even a “thank you”–from ScottEVest for this, but it’s a pretty amazingly low price (40 percent off) for the Sterling Jacket for Women which I found so darn perfect for my river cruise in Europe last summer.

I’m on their email list and it came through today–the sale is good for just a few days and the caveat is that there are no returns (but maybe you could exchange for a different size, I dunno…call ’em and find out).

The jacket’s on sale for $90. Wow! I wish they’d had that deal last year when I bought mine… Here’s the link to their site.

I loved this jacket for so many reasons on my river cruise (see here for details) and I’m definitely taking it on my upcoming Viking Star (Viking’s new “oceans” division) cruise of the Baltic in June!

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Eleven hours and 30 minutes is even *longer* in a plane…returning back home

Subtitle: I got to see Greenland!!!

Flying from Los Angeles International Airport to Europe (to Frankfurt, then a hop to Amsterdam) was wearying (see my earlier post). For some reason I had it in my head that the “jet stream” made it a quicker flight coming back.

My head was wrong. It was longer by 50 minutes. (And what is that mysterious “jet stream” travelers speak of so knowingly, anyway? What is streaming up there? Faster air that your pilot can only catch heading west to east? Is it like a big hitchiking thumb in the sky and your pilot hops aboard??? Can you tell I’m a bit fuzzled from the flight still?)

This time around, Mom and I didn’t have assigned seats for either our Budapest to Frankfurt or Frankfurt to LAX flights. That meant it was time to hover at a wifi site 24 hours out to snag two seats together (and hopefully not near the bathrooms where the queues of sidestepping, wiggling passengers can impede on your floor space). It was raining in Budapest the morning before our flight so we did some housekeeping tasks at the hotel room and enjoyed a leisurely morning waiting for the check-in time. I snagged two seats together on both flights (for the long one, up over the wing—darn, views aren’t so good there), one window, one middle. Mom said she’d take the middle and make friends (or at least co-exist peacefully) with the unknown passenger on her left. We downloaded our boarding passes on to our iPhones (that way we didn’t have to worry about printing paper passes) and anticipated no problems with our flights. So much for plans.

Did you know Frankfurt is a really big airport? Really big. Our arriving “local” flight required us to board a bus out on the tarmac and be shuttled into the terminal for a long trek to the international area. Tip: Leave yourself enough time if you’ve got a plane switch in Frankfurt.

When we checked in at Budapest (more on airports later) we were dismayed to discover that our seat assignment for that long flight had changed; mom was now in the middle seat in the row behind me. Arriving at Frankfurt, we stood in two lines at Lufthansa service centers (they’d been unable to make the switch in Budapest) and then were directed to try to switch at the gate instead.

The gate agent checked the seating plan and suggested that the person beside mom’s window seat was traveling alone and would likely just switch with me when we got on the plane. Okay; that’s what we’d thought of, too, but we were wanting to do this “right” and had hoped for an “official” switch.

I tell you all this to explain why I wasn’t totally on top of things and relaxed to face an 11-1/2 hour flight. In short, I wasn’t my really ready and usually (!) prepared self.

I’d barely had time to visit the bathroom and here I was, lining up to spend my day in a long metal tube with hundreds of strangers.

This flight took us from 2:05 pm local Frankfurt time to a landing in LAX at 4:40 pm. Not bad, only two hours to get clear across the globe. Oh, wait, there was that time difference thing…

We boarded the 747. Okay, I know these big planes have a whole bunch of first class seats (some upstairs) as well as business seats. As a lowly coach passenger we’re only allowed a peek at some of these elite areas as we board. I look longingly at the almost flat seating, just two across. And there are even rosebuds in vases in first class! So this is how the other half lives (or at least flies), huh?

Instead of roses, at our seats we find a plastic-wrapped blankie and another bag containing earphones. Almost as good as a red rosebud…almost. And you can’t really listen to the in-flight audio portion with a flower so we’re doing just fine.

After a seat switch (thank you, 19K), Mom and I nestle down in our seats and prepare for the hours (and hours, and…well, you get the message) ahead. I have my “comfort” items close at hand and we begin washing down the table (both sides), arms and audio/video controls with our HandiWipes. No, I’m not sure it does anything really to kill germs but it smells like “clean” to me and makes me feel better about becoming very close to stranger-touched surfaces for the next 11 hours.

We take off and, for a while, are able to watch the ground beneath us (I really like those two onboard camera views from the nose of the plane as well as the GPS map). Then clouds roll beneath us in a carpet of white and the view disappears. Lufthansa attendants serve us a “light” lunch (always choose the meal containing mashed potatoes on Lufthansa, the mashed potatoes are great!) and we slip into flight oblivion.

Heading west and leaving at mid-day, our jet chased the sun across the earth as we skittered along in the ever-bright sky. The wide wing of the 747 outside my window added to the brightness reflected inside so I slide the shade down. As on the flight to Europe, my goal is sleep. Again, though, it eludes me. I write a few posts about our cruise, read a bit and then check on the GPS on the seatback screen in front of me. Over seven hours left…I watch “Up in the Air” and that chews up one hour and eleven minutes. I stretch sideways and try to doze once again. I am absolutely positive the little white “No Jet Lag” homeopathic tablets I’m faithfully chewing every two hours are simply Tic-Tacs in disguise. But I keep popping them out of their tinfoil beds and chewing them on schedule.

The plane is quiet, even the four-year-old little guy in the middle seats across the aisle has settled into a nap. Then I become aware of a gentle tipping of the plane, dipping the right wing down. We straighten then tip again. Huh? We’re somewhere in the middle of the flight…nothing here to turn anywhere for…but this is more of a soft nudge downward to the right. I crack open the window shade.

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Look what I saw peeping over the wing!

And I gasp! It’s Greenland.

Greenland is down there below us clear and shining in the sun and the captain is giving us passengers who are still alert the chance to see it.

Oh. My. Gracious.

Greenland.

I can’t stop smiling. See, I really like maps—I’ve loved ’em all my life. And, as a kid growing up in the USA, our maps always showed that seemingly-huge continent of Greenland clutching the eastern side of the map past the Atlantic and creeping up toward the North Pole. And the mysterious name, “Greenland.” Every map I ever pored over showed the continent as a white-painted entity. Just white, like maybe it was not really a continent at all but a huge ice chunk kinda shaped like Africa (I was a kid imagining this, okay; give me a little slack).

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See why I gasped?

And now it was beneath me.

Unmistakeable. Huge. Pierced with icy-blue rivers choked with glaciers above. And white. Very white.

I wake up Mom. I want to wake up the whole plane. Based on Mom’s reaction, I’m guessing my fellow passengers probably wouldn’t be overly thrilled with a wake-up call for a Greenland sighting, either. (Confession: Mom smiled—that’s what moms do with their children, you know—and told me she was happy I was happy seeing Greenland. Fair enough.)

The pilot kept the plane tilted and, even though that broad 747 wing was a bit in the way, I plastered my head on the plexiglass window (yes, we’ll just ignore the thought of the germs there, waiting to pounce on my face) and stared. And smiled.

A flight that’s over 11 hours? Suddenly it seemed all worthwhile. After all, I’d seen Greenland, and time in a metal tube was a very small price to pay.

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See, it really was Greenland.

 

 

[Follow up: I spoke with a flight attendant as we disembarked and told her to thank the pilot for tilting to provide the view of Greenland. She smiled: “I’m glad you noticed. It’s not often as clear as that and the pilot wanted passengers to have a good view.”]

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Budapest on our own

Note: This is the “on our own” account of what we did post-cruise in Budapest. For tips and info on the Budapest experience as part of the Viking cruise see: Viking with Budapest and my account of a night-time arrival in Budapest on Viking (you won’t need the nighttime “see the lights” extra excursion).

 

I’m no big-time traveler, but, of all the places I’d been on this trip, Budapest felt the most “foreign” to me.

I think a lot of it might be attributable to the language—both written and spoken. I’ve studied a bit of French and done a teeny bit of German (that’s if the cool DuoLingo app even counts!). I lived in the heartland of Mexico one summer. But none of those languages sound or look like Hungarian. I couldn’t even imagine how to pronounce the the words on street signs in Budapest—those letters simply didn’t “go” together in my language experience. I kept staring at them and trying to sound them out; no success.

So, when Mom and I disembarked from the Atla on our final day and traveled up the Castle hill to the Buda side where we’d be sleeping for two nights, I rather wondered what, in heaven’s name, we’d do for our extra days before heading back home. Not that there wasn’t plenty to see or admire—on both sides of the Danube, Budapest offers a wealth of museums, artwork and architecture. I think I just felt that I didn’t belong there.

Thankfully, with two activity-packed days now behind me, I can tell you that there’s more than enough to keep yourself busy in Budapest. But I never did shake off that “foreign” feel…

That building to the right of the church? It's the Hilton in the Castle District where Viking made our reservations.

That building to the left of the church? It’s the Hilton in the Castle District where Viking arranged for us to stay in Budapest.

Viking River Cruises arranged our post-cruise stay in Budapest and they put us up in the Hilton. Our room, on the fifth floor overlooking the Danube with the Fisherman’s Bastion in the foreground, was quite nice and the view was stupendous. It’s right in the midst of the Castle District and you could easily spend a couple “tourist days” just in this area.

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The crowds in Budapest were pretty big. I kept the “locks” on my PacSafe bag well-clasped to make it more difficult for any quick-fingered thieves.

The previous day I’d gone out with Gary and Marla on a “Let’s See What We Can Discover in Pest” tour (devised by Gary). No, he’d never been to Hungary before—at least I don’t think he had—but from previous off-ship adventures, he knew what kind of things Marla and I enjoyed seeing and he had an afternoon planned for us (Mom stayed back on the ship to finish up editing photos and enjoy a bit of quiet time).

We headed across the (very busy!) street from where the Atla was docked and headed into the city center. Some of this I’d seen on our earlier walking tour, but Gary quickly steered us on a different path—toward a multistory Ferris wheel, perched on a pocket of green in the midst of the city. As we meandered toward the attraction, though, we took a bypass through a busy plaza, crowded with revelers—Hungarians as well as tourists.

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Lots of flags were flying on the national holiday.

[As you might recall, we were visiting Budapest in the midst of their most patriotic holiday, hence all the crowds. I can only imagine being in Washington D.C. the week of Fourth of July…]

The plaza we walked through was lined with temporary booths featuring local foods as well as crafts. Hundreds of folks milled around, enjoying the summer sunshine. We sniffed happily at the various meats spitting and sizzling on deep grills which were devouring hefty logs as fuel. This was also the first time we saw the Kürtőskalács which seem to be a great treat in this region. A yeasty sweet dough is mixed up, rolled out into a long strip and then rolled on to a metal cone and grilled atop charcoal. When golden and crusty, the treat is slipped off the metal spit, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and bundled in a cone-shaped paper package to enjoy. Pull apart the dough and pop pieces into your mouth. Yummy!

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The Ferris Wheel was downtown on the Pest side of the Danube and offered great views. It cost about $7 US dollars (but you have to pay in forints, of course!).

Many craftsmen were selling leather and fur goods—including those puffy fur caps for women that just look so very Russian/Eastern European. Of course Marla and I had to try them on. They’re certainly warm and the fur feels so soft—but I can’t really imagine wearing one of them back home. Maybe somebody’d think I was an undercover Russian spy…or a woman with a really bad hair day…

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Me and President Reagan. I think the sculptor took a bit of artistic leeway in the height department.

Marla, Gary and I explored around the Pest side that afternoon—climbing up the tower at St. Stephen’s Basilica (named after the first Christian king of Hungary; his right hand is stored in the church’s reliquary and I understand it was going to be brought out and carried around during a special mass the next day; we missed that one, though), riding a really tall Ferris Wheel, seeing lots of statues (‘like the photo of me with President Ronald Reagan?) and even talking with a Ukrainian woman and a Russian woman we met by chance at the statue of Imre Nagy in Martyr’s Square. Nagy, the equivalent of the prime minister for Hungary, stood up against the Soviet takeover in 1956 but it didn’t end well for him. This contemplative statue was quite a backdrop for our discussion with the two women.

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Aboard the hop-on, hop-off bus.

Our cruise officially ended the next day (we said our goodbyes to all our new friends) and Mom and I were on our own to explore Budapest. We bought a “HOHO” bus ticket (hop on, hop off) and used it to tour the city on both sides of the river. It was only $24 each and, while we could have covered the same IMG_1926territory in public transport for less, this made it easier to see the sights of Budapest since we could just relax and ride around (and not have to worry about getting those tickets punched on those really balky validation machines on the trains).

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A parade featuring costumes from different regions of Eastern Europe.

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Hundreds of artisans selling their wares below, around and inside the castle.

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Even without a common language, we could understand the “story” of this folk dance.

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Did I mention that the Castle District is atop a hill? Yep, and we felt every step of it by late in the afternoon.

We spent much of our time enjoying the biggest “craft” fair I’ve ever even imagined—it’s called the Festival of Folk Arts and it featured items made throughout Eastern Europe. It covered the entire Castle grounds, from river level, snaking around the castle’s walls and up into the top courtyards. What fun things to ogle: I saw the most fetching green leather slippers with toes that turned up (again, not really sure where I’d wear ’em, but they looked like something out of a fairy tale and I really wanted to justify their purchase because I’m absolutely positive that wearing them would make magical things happen in my life), hand-forged knives, traditional painted ceramics, metal crafts and embroidery. No need to watch out for a “Made in China” sticker on these items: Everything is made by the artisans you purchase from. I bought the sweetest little felted and embroidered animals for the grandchildren and we watched folk dances of all sorts.

Lunch. 'Don't know what it was, but it tasted great!

Lunch. ‘Don’t know what it was, but it tasted great!

We ate from one of the grills in the castle’s courtyard; I just pointed at what looked tasty (and a lot of it did—but I passed on the grilled fish, complete with fins and eyeballs) and we sat down at a picnic table to enjoy the spicy fare. With a Coke!

There really were very few people who seemed to speak English here—but a fistful of forints spoke volumes when we wanted to buy things!

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We enjoyed dinner at this small restaurant near the hotel the first night. It was called the Pest-Buda Bistro. It wasn’t the one with the solemn server; that one was a different one that I don’t remember the name of…’Sorry!

And that brings up that “foreign” feeling again that overwhelmed me in Hungary. We were in the midst of pavilions packed with people but I couldn’t understand a single word that was said. It was like passing through a crowd un-noticed—I couldn’t read the signs, I couldn’t understand the language. I felt invisible—as if I was this little American bubble maneuvering through the flood of fairgoers. It was really an odd feeling and a bit unsettling; but we never felt it was “dangerous” in any way.

Rain threatened throughout our Budapest visit and it made good on its threats late on our last afternoon. We dove into a restaurant in the Castle District for dinner, carefully calculating how many forints we had remaining to spend before boarding our flight home the next day. Mom had a noodle/goulash type of meal while I ordered wild boar. The servers (all the servers we saw in Budapest were male) hovered over us with a solemn—and somewhat dark—look on his face as we ate our meal. We enjoyed it anyway.

After packing up that evening, we settled at the window of our room at the Hilton, crossing our fingers that the rain would let up for the much-anticipated annual national fireworks show on the banks of the Danube. And the clouds parted!

Okay, I grew up eight miles from Disneyland and the sound of fireworks exploding was our our Southern California clock at 9:30 pm every evening. But nothing prepared me for the fireworks show unfolding right outside our window. The iconic Fisherman’s Bastion framed the right edge of our view out to the Danube. Workers had spent the previous day positioning the fireworks devices on the Chain Bridge as well as the one north of it. More fireworks were positioned along the river’s banks. Amplified music and the voice of an announcer came through our window as the colors arched over the waterway, over Budapest’s well-lit buildings and into the sky above. Mom and I just looked at each other.

What a glorious finish to our (first? only? hmmm…who knows???) river cruise!

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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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