It’s spring in Europe, and I find myself partaking in one of my favorite activities — sailing on a river cruise. Snow has melted, the flowers are blooming, and the forests are awash in shades of green.
I have arrived in Vienna to embark on a Danube River cruise, sailing onboard VIVA Cruises’ newest vessel VIVA Two. You probably haven’t heard of VIVA Cruises before, and frankly, neither had I, until recently. That’s because the Dusseldorf-based line was only launched in 2018. And with the pandemic happening shortly after, the company barely had a chance to tell the world of its existence. And now that it is sailing again, I eagerly stepped onboard to check things out.
VIVA Offers a Refreshing Change
I’ve sailed on several mainstream river cruise lines where my fellow passengers were a mix of Canadians, Americans, and Brits — in other words, all from English-speaking countries. While there’s nothing wrong with that, and some people actually prefer it, I find that experience can be a little bit, well, vanilla. After all, one of the reasons I travel is to meet people from different cultures. And since I live in Canada, I’m keener to travel with people outside of North America.
VIVA Two answered my call as my shipmates hailed from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, plus Belgium, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, Israel, Spain, and more. I was happy to meet many of these guests who were just as interested in finding out about my country and lifestyle as I was about theirs. Socializing and meeting new friends was easy with the relaxed environment onboard. It took no effort to strike up conversations during happy hour or up on deck while we sailed. And with just over 120 passengers on my cruise, I saw my new friends daily to compare stories of our ongoing adventure.
Sustainability and Design in Cruising
VIVA Two was just six weeks old when I sailed, and, as always with new ships, there were innovations. For the first time, I saw solar panels on a river ship — 76 to be exact, supplementing the ship’s power supply. The vessel uses low-emissions fuel and can plug into shore power — features that are usually found on ocean liners.
From the design aspect, two elements of VIVA Two really impressed me. On river ships, the rooms on the lowest floor typically have a small window located near the ceiling (similar to a basement window) that you have to crane your neck to look out of, but on VIVA Two, these rooms have a large and wide window at eye level. What a treat! If you are on a budget, this type of cabin would be very comfortable, as it provides excellent natural light and a good view of what’s going on outside.
My favorite feature on VIVA Two was the bar, or rather, its placement. Traditionally on river ships, the bar is located in the lounge above the dining room. But by now you have a good sense that VIVA Cruises isn’t traditional by any means. Its designers have moved the bar to the front of the ship on its own half deck, with stairs leading up to it from the dining room and down from the lounge. The result is stunning — the forward part of the dining room is open to the lounge above, resulting in a double-high ceiling with lots of light from above. After my dinner, I simply walked up a few steps to reach the bar, and a few more to reach the lounge, without having to backtrack to the dining room entrance. This two-way traffic flow between the lounge and the dining room is an ingenious way to eliminate bottle-necking.
Fresh Cuisine and Dining Choices
One more surprise: VIVA Two has three restaurants, which is phenomenal for a small ship (most river ships have two at best). In addition to the Riverside dining room, I could also take lunch and dinner at the seafood-focused Bistro. My third option was Moments restaurant, which features a wine-paired dinner. For a ship that only carries a maximum of 190 passengers, I am impressed by the number of places to dine, and it never felt crowded.
The highlight of any European river cruise is regional cuisine, and on the Danube, I enjoyed goulash in Hungary, schnitzel in Austria, and apple strudel in Germany. During our day in Bratislava, our tour guide took us to sample the iconic Pressburg Bajgel, horseshoe-shaped pastries filled with poppy-seed paste, and, once back onboard, we sipped Slovakian sparkling wine during happy hour.
Beside regional specialties, VIVA Two’s menus are complemented by seafood and meat dishes made with local ingredients, but if I craved something more universal, I could order a Caesar salad, grilled chicken, and even a hamburger with fries. Local and international wines are poured during lunch and dinner.
Classic and Unique River Options
Besides the Danube, VIVA also sails on the Rhine, the Seine, the Rhone, the Moselle, and the Main, which is common among all river brands. With VIVA, however, you can also choose to begin or end your cruise in Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Passau, and Strasbourg, and that’s uncommon.
VIVA operates year-round, which is another anomaly. While all other river cruise lines pause operations between January and March, VIVA offers short cruises on the Rhine as well as wellness-themed sailings designed to beat the winter blahs. With summer travel becoming increasingly crowded (not to mention unbearably hot), winter sailings provide some off-season quietude and more affordable pricing.
That said, the itinerary that intrigues me most is the Baltic Sea sailings, skirting the north coast of Germany and Poland. With visits to quaint seaside ports such as Szczecin, Stralsund, Lauterbach, and Greifswald, it is something that no other river cruise lines offer. And perhaps that is something I will consider for my next spring adventure in Europe.