muriel kayaks on the rhinePHOTO: The Rhine River is alive with all manner of watercraft, from the large luxury long boats of Viking Cruise lines and equally long barges toting everything from scrap metal to construction materials to youngssters in kayaks, small outboard motor boats, and even pontoons..... You're never far from land along this narrow river.

Just back from my second Viking Cruise, this may end up sounding like a paid advertisement for the company that does an incredible job both in cruising European rivers and customer service. It isn’t. It’s simply an account of the week fellow traveler Jane Frotton and I enjoyed aboard the Viking Sun, sailing from Amsterdam, Holland, to Basil Switzerland over eight spectacular days.

The Sun is different from the longboats Viking specializes in for most of its cruises, a bit smaller perhaps, with smaller cabins…though still big enough and most with great full wall sliding glass doors to let you breathe in the wonderful air, touch the side of the lock as you’re going through, or simply to say Hi to youngsters on the riverbank grinning and waving as you pass. The slightly larger longboats offer some cabins with verandas complete with table and chairs, but we quickly learned to live with the smaller cabin without a veranda. All come complete with private baths, big closets and drawer space, lots of little amenities, bottled water in the room, tvs, and beds high enough to let you shove your suitcase underneath and out of the way.

The Sun is about 400 feet or so long, with cabins on three decks, a dining room on the second, and a lounge and library on the third deck at opposite ends, with cabins inbetween. Up above, there’s the sun deck easily accessible to all, the wheelhouse and wings from which the captain operates the ship going through the locks. There were just under 190 travelers and a crew, from Captain Bartosz Balwierz to dishwasher, of 53…which works out to about just over three crew members per customer, an incredible ratio! It also means the waiter who serves you your cocktail in the lounge is the same one who serves your mushroom soup at dinner, or helps carry the luggage off the boat.   I never got to meet executive housekeeper Bilyanna Vancheva, but her standards are exceptionally high, given the excellence of her entire hard working and always pleasant housekeeping staff.          

And you get to see and talk with them all, another great benefit of small ship cruising! They come from all over the world to work for Viking….Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, Germany, Poland, the Philipines, South America, Portugal, Holland and more…and they’re all wonderful! They all speak far better English than I could muster in any of their languages, even with my three years of high school French…and they all know a lot about our country. Talking with some crew members from Portugal and Bulgaria late one night as they relaxed after their shift at the stern of the ship, they were delighted to hear I came from New Jersey….and eager to tell me of the greatest singer from here! To my surprise, it wasn’t Bruce! Or Frank! It was Bon Jovi and they asked if I could please tell him how much they love him and admire his style!

Another great part of small ship cruising is that you get to know so many more travelers, both because you’re all eating dinner at the same time, you’re all gathering in the single lounge, and you quickly get to recognize each other when gathering for on board programs or off-boat tours. Jane and I were really fortunate that we made immediate friends with a terrific couple from Scotland….Norman and Jean….as well as an equally terrific couple…Trudy and Heather…from Canada. The six of us managed to have every dinner together, and more than a few afternoon cocktails to boot, along with other charmers like Geraldine from England, Jerry and Kay from Columbia, South Carolina, and Amy and her mom, Alice, from Michigan and Florida. Strangely enough, before the cruise was over, I also ran into another New Jerseyan who went to the same small private girls’ academy from where I was graduated, (albeit she was there 20 years later) and who also grew up in the same small town, again, 20 years later, that I did! It is truly a small world. But more about them in another column.

With all the wonder, beauty, cleanliness and convenience of the boat, it’s still the staff that can make the difference in the final outcome. And from the Captain on down, this was a staff of perfection, friendliness, amazing recall and sheer joy. It took Mark, from Budapest, less than a day to recall my drink of preference, and to have it ready for me whenever I came into the lounge. Mark liked my New Jersey accent and frequently greeted me with a “forgettabout it!” that delighted our entire group. Marianna was full of laughter and friendship, while at the same time running a tight ship (so to speak) in managing the bar. Matthias hailed from Germany and was a marvelous chef, once he realized what I meant by rare beef. Igor, who managed all the food and drink operations, made sure Matthias got that message immediately, and hovered constantly with a warm smile, eager to ensure all his passengers were content. Heading up the entire hotel management of the ship was Jan Pedersen, who went above and beyond…have I already said that about others as well?.....without any fanfare, just a friendly smile, warm personality and sheer efficiency.  

With folks arriving on board the first day at all different hours, we were still all getting used to our rooms, hanging up our clothes, and enjoying welcoming drinks and live music before dinner, and a briefing by the program director to let us get a peek at the glorious things in store for us. After that, there was music and dancing in the lounge, and with little fanfare, no loud noises or whistles blaring, and certainly little discernible movement, the Viking Sun cast off and departed Amsterdam just before midnight. By mid-morning the second day, we’d be in Kinderdijk, Holland, and on a walking tour on land to learn the windmill system, the Dutch ingenious flood-management programs, at a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But that’s another story.