Freedom and flexibility are two of the buzzwords on a river cruise line with a long-established pedigree that is new to the UK market.
I lift the slim glass of altbier to my lips and take my first sip of the dark and malty brew. It’s well before midday UK time but when in Düsseldorf it would be rude not to try the beer for which the city is famous, particularly when I’m standing in ‘the longest bar in the world’.
If I needed any additional encouragement local guide James, a humorous Aussie who now calls the German city his home, assures me that midweek is as good as any time to try it.
“Here we call Wednesday the small weekend,” he smiled as he went on to explain how the city’s quaffable speciality, translated as old beer, is so named because it is produced using an ancient brewing process that was in place long before the advent of modern lagers chilled in fridges. Looking around the bar, which is already getting busy, I wonder what it must be like during the big weekend in the Alstadt, the historic area that’s home to more than 260 bars.
Altbier finished, I decline a shot of killepitsch – the city’s other famous tipple which is a fiery herb liqueur that’s 42% proof – as it sounds like a step too far at this relatively early hour. Instead, I continue exploring the city, also discovering that it was home of the pioneering 70s electronic music band Kraftwerk who shot to fame with their breakthrough album Autobahn. That said, the reason I’m in town is not to head off on Germany’s equally famous motorway system but to enjoy the country’s slower mode of transport on the river Rhine.
VIVA Cruises is unique as being the only river line based in the city, providing extra time to wander through the old town, discover the local arts scene and find out why Düsseldorf is known as the fashion capital of Germany. Many itineraries start in the city, which has the added bonus of having a fast rail link to and from the airport, and I relish the chance to look around a place I’d never visited before on a Rhine cruise. Next stop is lunch at HeimWerk Altstadt, where traditional dishes such as schnitzel are served alongside a surprisingly good list of imaginative vegetarian alternatives plus enduring staples including tangy potato salad. There’s still time for a quick coffee at the colourful Carlplatz farmers’ market, the oldest market in Düsseldorf, before boarding VIVA TIARA, my floating home for the next few days.
Even seasoned river cruisers might not have heard of VIVA, but they may well be familiar with some of the ships operated by the Swiss parent company Scylla which builds and charters river boats for lines including Riviera Travel and Tauck. The company decided to launch its own river cruise arm, which was prematurely put on enforced hold during the pandemic and has now been revived with a raft of itineraries aimed at English-speakers. The 153-passenger VIVA TIARA was once Riviera’s Swiss Tiara, but it has now been given a bow to stern facelift and as I walk aboard it feels like a brand new ship. I only know it’s not when I look at old photos to see how the dark traditional décor has, among other things, been replaced by contemporary blue and cream cabins and the small bistro-style speciality restaurant at the back of the ship, where all passengers get to dine at least once a week, was previously a lounge.
Our itinerary is a round-trip Düsseldorf itinerary, taking in Koblenz, Königswinter and Cologne. It is one of the shorter sailings available and a great choice for first-time river cruisers. Unlike many lines VIVA doesn’t include excursions in the price, which provides freedom of choice coupled with affordable fares. The excursions that are on offer, which can be booked onboard, have been tweaked to provide something that goes beyond standard walking tours. They might include having lunch or dinner at places frequented by locals, rather than touristy haunts and food and wine tastings. VIVA has deliberately set out to break the mould and make river cruising more attractive to a younger age-group and independent travellers who prefer to do their own thing in ports of call rather than be ‘handheld’ every step of the way. It makes the cruises like a floating city break, without the hassle of having to pack and unpack in every destination and the added bonus of beautiful riverside scenery along the way, which on the Rhine means plenty of castles and vineyards.
The same concept applies back on the ship. On many river cruises meals are at strict times and everyone piles in at once. I really appreciate the leisurely timetable with no need to turn up on the dot when the restaurant opens. Service isn’t rushed and it feels much more like dining in a ‘regular’ restaurant where people can opt to eat earlier or later. Food was excellent throughout our cruise; well-presented and with plenty of choice including dietary options. The evening in the bistro restaurant was particularly notable as there’s an open kitchen where you can watch the chefs prepare your meal.
VIVA is an all-inclusive line, so you don’t need to worry about an eye-watering drinks bill at the end. There’s an open bar throughout the day, free-flowing wine with lunch and dinner and even a minibar in all 76 cabins (a perk usually associated with suites). Other nice touches include upmarket Rituals toiletries in bathrooms, a bottle of fizz on arrival, water bottle to keep, hot tub on the sun deck and private spa with a thermal bath and sauna that passengers can book individually. All in all, VIVA is a class act.
In addition to the refurbished VIVA TIARA and VIVA MOMENTS, in 2022 the line launches two brand-new ships VIVA ONE and VIVA TWO. This quartet of vessels, operating exclusively for VIVA passengers, will run alongside Scylla ships shared by other lines.
VIVA Cruises’ slogan is “enjoy the moment” and I certainly appreciated every second with this modern thinking line where those moments are all down to personal choice – including, in my case, making the time for another altbier before heading home.
- VIVA Cruises offers cruises on the Rhine, Danube, Elbe, Moselle, Rhone, Seine, Main-Danube Canal and Baltic Sea, including themed itineraries such as Christmas market cruises, and expedition sailings on its first ocean-going ship MS SEAVENTURE.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by VIVA Cruises