AVIGNON, France -- During the Viking Age, the early long ships built by Nordic countries were self-propelled (rowing) and used for troop transports in war, for commerce and for exploration.
Today, Viking Cruises long ships are modern, 190-passenger conveyances that are still exploring the rivers of Europe, featuring a sleek and contemporary Scandinavian design which, combined with such names of mythical Norse gods such as Idun, Odin and Freya, honours their rich Norse heritage.
Although Torstein Hagen's title is chairman and CEO of Viking River Cruises, entrepreneur also fits nicely. At one point, he decided Viking should own the rivers of Europe. With the addition of 14 new long ships this week, Viking now has 30 of them cruising the rivers of Europe. If you go by the number of ships, it's an indicator Hagen now has such custody.
He doesn't believe in change for change's sake, so except for a few tweaks to the decor here and there, the new long ships are much the same. His credo is: Keep it simple. And it's worked. Viking is 80 per cent sold out for 2014.
Hagen once told a writer "100 ships by 2020!" He may be on his way to achieving this.
This week dignitaries, media and travel agent leaders from Europe and North America gathered on the left bank of the Rhone River in Avignon, France, within sight of the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), as Hagen and 18 "godmothers" launched 14 new long ships as well as two that were launched late last year and two smaller ships that will sail the Douro River in Portugal, bringing the total to 18.
Red and white balloons festooned the long ships on view, and much French champagne preceded and followed the event. Geraldine Ree, a senior vice-president for Expedia CruiseShipCenter and godmother for Viking Eistla, represented Canada.
For the California-based cruise line, the last few years have been a rocket ride to success. Much of the public awareness of Viking and river cruising in general has to be through the company's sponsorship of Masterpiece Theatre, in particular Downton Abbey.
With all these ships being launched, it begs the question: Are there now too many? With the new ships already at the near sold-out point, the answer is obvious.
Here's the anatomy of a modern Viking long ship:
-- They are the largest river ships that can fit through the locks on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers.
-- All outside cabins and suites range in size from 135 square feet (small, but very few of them) to 445 square feet, many with either a balcony or French balcony. Most cabins are 250 square feet, including the balcony.
-- Cabins include room under beds for luggage, 40-inch flat-screen TVs with movie channels, free Wi-Fi, a fridge, and voltage for 220 and 110.
-- The main restaurant seats all 190 passengers, with occasional themed dinners.
-- The Aquavit Terrace at the bow is great for indoor/outdoor dining or just people-watching and river-watching.
-- Local entertainers and speakers occasionally gather in the lounge area.
-- Included with fare are all dining, beer, wine, soft drinks with meals, coffee any time and shore excursions.
-- Passengers are generally English speaking, from the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia in the 55-plus age category.
After the launch, I had the opportunity to experience a shortened version of Viking's newest itinerary -- Ch0teaux, Rivers and Wine -- along the rivers of Aquitaine in France. Ah, what wines should I select? More on that cruise and the Douro River cruises next week.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014
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