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6 Ways River Cruises Are Unlike Anything that You Will Experience on the Ocean

By Margaret Manning January 14, 2016 Travel

There is a certain reverence with which a ship’s crew looks at the ocean. It is powerful, exciting and unpredictable. Rivers are something different entirely. They are still powerful, but, it is a quiet power. They are exciting, yet refined.

The second you embark on a Viking river cruise, you know that you are in for a different experience than you would have on any large ocean-going ship. It’s not that river cruises are “better,” than ocean cruises. It’s just that they offer something that you can’t get anywhere else.

The Crew is the Cruise

LucianoIf you work on a large cruise ship, you have to keep thousands of people safe and happy. The hours are sometimes difficult and the unexpected is, well… expected. Even on the best-managed ships, issues are bound to pop up. Of course, the passengers are shielded from the small (and some large) problems that all ships experience.

As an ocean cruise passenger, you are surrounded by thousands of other people, who are, in turn, surrounded by endless waves. There is a buzz on board and cruise companies go out of their way to provide a plethora of entertainment options. Some ships have onboard casinos, rock-climbing walls, arcades, shops, spas and gyms.

Ocean cruise ships are not so much “floating hotels” as they are “floating cities”. I never really understood this distinction until I took my first Viking river cruise this year.

Here are a few things that I learned about river cruising as we wound out way from beautiful Basel in Switzerland to adventurous Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

A New Definition of Smooth Sailing

The first time you take a river cruise, it takes a few minutes to get used to the fact that the boat isn’t swaying back and forth. Even as you set sail, the ship glides along the surface of the river like a skater moves over ice.

This lack of turbulence sets the tone for the entire trip. Conversations, which might necessitate shouting on an ocean ship, are pleasant experiences. The crew moves peacefully from task to task, without looking like they are doing the cha-cha to avoid falling over.

As I write this paragraph, I just noticed that I have a glass of wine sitting next to my laptop. I would have never dared to be so bold – one might say reckless – to do such a thing on an ocean cruise!

More than Service with a Smile

ChefOn an ocean cruise, the crew often struggles to keep up with their tasks. They smile and exchange a few words when they can. At the same time, they are always conscious of their pressing tasks. They are polite and friendly, but, they are also brief in their interactions with their guests.

One night, after I finished dinner, I had a wonderful conversation with one of the crew members on our ship. For more than 15 minutes, we talked about his background and experiences. By the end of the conversation, it felt like we had known each other for ages. This kind of interaction would have been extremely difficult to have on a large, ocean-going vessel.

A More Intimate Setting

On my previous ocean cruises, I felt like I was a very small fish in a very large pond. I rarely saw someone more than once. When I did, I usually smiled and nodded my head, just like I would if I passed them on a busy street.

Life on a Viking longboat is completely different. With a capacity of just under 200 people, the boat is not huge by any stretch of the imagination. It feels intimate and the passengers and crew act accordingly.

Quick nods are replaced by genuine hellos and it is not uncommon to see complete strangers striking up conversations in the lounge. The crew knows you by name and treats you like a member of their family.

Getting Distracted from Distraction

If you are looking for circus performances, onboard surfing lessons and bumper cars, river cruising is not for you. In fact, there isn’t a lot “to do” on a river boat.

At first, I thought that this would make river cruises less attractive than ocean cruises. Several days into my Viking cruise, I saw that, in some cases, the opposite may be true.

In a world filled with buzzing devices and blinking lights, being forced to relax is a blessing. Think about it, when was the last time that you read a good book in complete comfort? When was the last time that you had a conversation without being interrupted by screaming children, honking cars or chiming Facebook alerts? River cruises offer the opportunity to shut off in style.

This doesn’t mean that river cruises are without activities. Far from it! At every port, Viking offers day trips ranging from castle tours to forest hikes, wine tastings to cake baking lessons. They can also help to coordinate spa treatments and other activities. Onboard, they have live music in the evenings and wonderful food during the day. But, for the most part, river cruising is a peaceful, regenerative experience.

Getting to the Heart of a City

Few cities can support the arrival of a 4000-person ocean cruise ship. Even the process of onboarding and offloading can be challenging. As a result, ocean cruises are limited to major ports, which can accommodate the diverse needs of their passengers.

River cruises offer a more intimate experience. For starters, they have the ability to deliver you into the very heart of the cities that they visit. In addition, since the ships themselves don’t need to be hardened against the forces of nature, they feature large, floor-to-ceiling windows. This means that you can take in every passing windmill, castle and mountain in comfort.

river cruises - View from my window in Breisach, Germany

Can Viking Ocean Cruises Offer the Best of Both Worlds?

Realizing that many people are looking for a more intimate ocean cruise experience, Viking has just launched its latest ship, the Viking Star.

Looking at the plans for the ship, it is clear that Viking is putting elegance above endless entertainment. The ship has many of the amenities that passengers want, such as an infinity pool, spa and cultural enrichment program. Where the Viking Star aims to stand apart is in its atmosphere and attention to detail.

As Viking puts it, “Viking Star was designed with a unique onboard experience in mind, from the serene Wintergarden, perfect for a calming cup of tea; to The Spa, a Nordic sanctuary of wellness; to the Explorers’ Lounge, where you will discover picture-perfect views. All set in tasteful, understated elegance. And all designed to deliver a life-enriching experience that stays with you forever.”

Viking may not be able to calm the ocean, but, they may just be able to create a more refined ocean cruise experience. Personally, I can’t wait to give it a try. Will you join me?

Have you ever taken a river cruise? How would you compare river cruising to cruising on the open ocean? Let’s get a conversation started!

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The Author

Margaret Manning is the founder of Sixty and Me. She is an entrepreneur, author and speaker. Margaret is passionate about building dynamic and engaged communities that improve lives and change perceptions. Margaret can be contacted at

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