AROUND THE WORLD BY SHIP
Exploring Southern France with Viking River Cruises, the third day of an eight-day itinerary brought us back to Avignon where we had begun just two days earlier. Only briefly becoming oriented to Avignon by those not too jet lagged for a short walking tour before, today’s visit in Avignon brought a full blown, active walking tour of the walled city. Visiting the famous Papal Palace, I was reminded of the very unique and customizable nature of a Viking River Cruise.
The morning tour covered a lot of ground, beginning at our Viking longship‘s docking position just steps away from the city wall to the city center where a local food market was being held. Along the way, we visited the 14th century Palais des Papes, one of the largest Gothic buildings in Europe. Protected by walls up to 18 feet thick in places, the imposing structure is divided into two buildings for exploration purposes, the new and old ‘Pope‘s Palace’. Further protecting the palace, Avignon’s own city wall, defining the entire area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Rated a difficult tour by Viking, we followed along for about half the tour then broke off on our own in search of a nice sidewalk cafe for a cup of coffee, one of our favorite things to do in Europe. Due to sail away to Vivers at 1pm, we had to weigh the value of learning more about Pope’s Palace and the city market that would come after against enjoying time at a cafe. The cafe won, as it usually does. Other in our tour group, interested in the religious or architectural elements stayed for its entirety. Some went shopping or just strolled the safe streets of Avignon.
The day serves as a great example of the easy-going nature of the local guides sourced by Viking as well as the customizability of the included tours. Surely not mandatory for those who think of themselves as not ‘tour people’, passengers can also choose to stay on board their Viking Longship or explore a destination totally on their own. On the other hand, I also see people on tours taking notes with a high level of interest; some to supplement a life-long interest in what we are seeing, others to feed a cultural hunger ignited by Viking on that particular journey.
This is not a one-size-fits-all sort of experience like we see from big ship cruise lines and third-party shore excursion providers. The guides listen as well as speak and will modify a tour in progress should the small group want to spend more (or less) time at a particular attraction. They are just that good.
After doing several Viking River Cruises, I prefer to think of the Viking included tours as orientation tours that are important to at least start out on, if for no other reason than safety. In a new town I have never been to before, it is nice to have a local guide who can provide guidance on where not to go as well as make specific suggestions en route for places to accomplish individual goals.
In our case, we had done a considerable amount of research before sailing, taking advantage of Viking’s rich library of videos, pre-cruise information provided as well as a suggested reading list of additional literature. The local guides complete the package. Until Viking builds a time machine to transport us back to when history happened, I don’t believe regular travelers like us can get more out of an experience.
Right about here is where I should note the extreme value of these tours and that not all river cruise lines include them. My last river cruise, with Luftner Cruises, would have required choosing and paying separately for each tour had I not been with a group from luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent who included it with their tour package.
The afternoon brought scenic cruising to Vivers, our next stop, where we would arrive after dinner. On the way, Hotel Manager Stephen held an interesting presentation in the ship’s lounge on “How To Run A Floating Hotel” that revealed some interesting facts in answer to passenger questions:
- River cruise ships don’t sail year-round like ocean cruise ships. At the end of the winter, each ship is mothballed and the crew spends a few days after the last sailing boxing up supplies for storage.
- During the off season, carpets, linens, seat cushions and other high use items are replaced, like when an ocean cruise ship goes into drydock but every year.
- During off seasons of the past, river cruise crew members would work seasonally at snow and cold-focused land resorts. These days, the ‘off season’ is so short in most places that they just take the time off to be with families and friends.
- Viking will launch a dozen more longships next year. They are already built and lined up in the Rostock shipyard, putting Viking well on its way to a goal of doubling their fleet to over 100 ships by 2020.
As we sailed along the river, French Tea Time featured tiny French pastries and an assortment of coffee drinks and hot teas followed by a presentation by Program Director Matthew highlighting the various cruise itineraries offered by Viking River Cruises around the world.
Interestingly, Viking has a special offer for their guests while sailing, selling $100 vouchers good for $200 off the price of an upcoming cruise. While only two of them can be used on any one cruise (one per passenger), up to ten of them can be bought and used for future cruises. Another nice feature of this and other Viking promotions, they are all stackable, meaning one might take advantage of a Buy One, Get One Free airfare offer AND use a discount voucher or some other promotional fare.
Dinner in the dining room commonly signals the beginning of the end of the day on the river, but not tonight. Many passengers chose to go on a night walking tour around the historic town of Vivers where we had docked during dinner then enjoyed a late night snack upon return. We chose to return to let Bar Chef Hugo help us pick a bottle of wine that we took back to our cabin to enjoy, a benefit of Viking’s Silver Spirit’s program, which includes pretty much every liquid and combination of liquids on the ship.
That Silver Spirits Program (like a big ship all-you-can-drink program but with elegance and guidance along the way) is one other example of the customizable nature of a Viking River Cruise that we like, not so much that we consume a lot of liquids but that we pay for it once and are done with it. That we can choose a bottle of wine and retire to our stateroom with it is just a bonus.
There is more to come in our Experience France In Comfort Series. If you missed any of the previous postings, here is a complete listing:
- Experience France In Comfort: Preparing
- Experience France In Comfort: Viking Travelers Preview Destinations
- Experience France In Comfort: Viking Longships Bring Easy Embarkation
- Experience France In Comfort: Vikings Come Prepared
- Experiencing France In Comfort: A Focus On Destinations
Chris is not a paid spokesperson or brand ambassador. Not compensated by cruise lines, what you read here are his observations, thoughts and interpretations, biased only by a positive outlook and appreciation for what cruise vacations have to offer travelers.