As river cruising grows and grows in popularity, Viking River Cruises, the giant of the industry and its most award-winning cruise line, has added something new. Its world-wide itineraries now feature culinary tours, wine tastings, and multiple opportunities to sample local cuisine on board and ashore, at virtually every port. We went along for the ride on Viking’s Rhine River Getaway to sample what was on offer. Miraculously, we didn’t gain an ounce, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on Viking’s part. Fortunately, there’s a lot of activity along with a lot of delicious food.
We joined Viking Hlin, one of Viking’s fleet of 60 river ships, in Basel, Switzerland. This itinerary can be taken in either direction from Amsterdam to Basel or vice-versa. While Viking includes a complimentary guided tour at every stop, many of its culinary offerings require an extra fee, ranging from $49 to $199 for a day-long culinary adventure. We’d barely had time to unpack before the first (complimentary) wine and cheese tasting took place in the ship’s airy lounge. Here we sampled the wines we were to drink as our longship traveled through one of the world’s great wine-growing regions. Included in our fare, these were the wines selected to be served at lunch and dinner. Rieslings predominated, given that they account for 80 percent of the grapes grown on the banks of the Rhine. Also on the list were several Rheingau reds. Lighter than their Spanish or French counterparts, these German wines were wonderful complements to lighter items on the chef’s menus. As to the cheeses, every country we passed through was represented, from Swiss comté to German muenster to France’s tomme d’Alsace and tomme de Savoie.
Our next culinary treat was presented the next day in Germany’s Black Forest. There, most appropriately, a Black Forest cake was put together before our eyes. Layers of chocolate sponge cake were covered in mounds of whipped cream, while sour cherries occupied a single layer and local Kirschwasser (cherry brandy) moistened the surprisingly light and not-too-sweet cake. The cake, however, was no match for the contemporary version created by the Hlin’s on-board pastry chef and served that night.
For a passionate foodie, the next day’s all-day excursion, “Taste the Best of Alsace” was sheer nirvana. The glorious city of Strasbourg was the setting for this remarkable experience. Viking prides itself on the quality of its guides, and here in Strasbourg, ours was a fount of information. The city has a somewhat tortured history. Strasbourg alternated between being part of France and part of Germany, often within the same war, as was the case in World War II. You can see these influences in the city’s culinary heritage. The hearty breads of Germany live side by side the delicacy of French pastries. Blending both food and history in one monumental walk, we took in bakeries and cheese shops, a wine-tasting with cheese pairings, a shop that made nothing but gingerbread, and even a hands-on cooking class. There we made tartes flambées (or Flammekueche in German), a sweet or savory Alsatian version of pizza that gives the real deal a run for its money.