The river cruise

cruise misconceptions

Breaking Down 5 Cruise Misconceptions on a European River Cruise

We’ve always prided ourselves on the fact that we’ve never been on a cruise. Technically, we can’t even make this claim due to a not so fab two night Yangtze River cruise we took in China back in 2009. But, I don’t think it counts. I mean a real cruise. One with a cruise director, buffet meals, and pre-arranged activities, on a boat with a bunch of other people. I’ve always stuck my nose up a bit at cruise goers, that was until our recent French river cruise experience.

Yes, Viking River Cruises hosted us on this experience. And I’m glad they did. I never would have thought of doing this type of river cruise otherwise. We not only had a great experience, but it certainly dispelled some of the misconceptions I had about cruising in general.

1. Cruise Misconceptions: Cruise Ships are Crowded

cruise misconceptions Viking River CruiseClose your eyes and say the words “cruise ship” and what images pop into your head? For me, it’s always been large cruise ships, the size of a small city, where it’s nearly impossible to find a lounge chair near the pool. Where I would be one of a thousand people clamoring for a server’s attention at dinner.

I knew this wouldn’t be our experience on a European river cruise. First, the rivers can’t hold ships that big. There were less than a hundred staterooms on our Viking Buri longship. On our cruise, from Avignon to Lyon, I believe there were about 150 passengers on board. That meant there were always seats available at dinner, or in the lounge. Even when many of the passengers were in one place, for example during our evening briefings, it never felt crowded at all.

I also assumed that those cruise ships would be very impersonal. But, the crew on the Viking Buri were fabulous. They knew many of us by name, or minimally, based on what we drank. By the end of the week, Robert, one of our servers in the restaurant knew that lunch time meant rosé, and that it was hard for me to say no to dessert. The bartender, Boris, always knew I started my cocktails in the evening with an Aperol Spritz. The crew was so unbelievably personable and welcoming, more so than any hotel I’ve ever stayed at.

2. Cruise Misconceptions: Bad Buffet Food

cruise misconceptions Viking River CruiseFor me, this presents almost a nightmarish scenario aboard a cruise ship. Long lines, cold food, all of which looks manhandled and unappetizing. Imagine spending a week when all of your meals involved elbowing people away to grab the last remnant of a lemon meringue pie.

But, our French river cruise was intended to cater to food lovers. In fact, the entire cruise around Provence and the Rhone River Valley focused on food and wine. Menus always had locally inspired dishes. And, the cultural curriculum included demonstrations on how to make chocolate fondant, a presentation on French cheeses, and a galley tour.

French River Cruise Viking River Cruises
French River Cruise Viking River Cruises
French River Cruise Viking River Cruises
Viking River Cruises

Although a casual buffet option was available for three meals a day, the presentation of the buffet was impressive. Food was well prepared, and well stocked. Service was above and beyond. Breakfast and lunch in the main restaurant offered some buffet options as well as an a la carte menu. The lunch items changed daily.

cruise misconceptions Viking River CruisesDinner at the restaurant was always a la carte, and focused on international and local dishes. We ate escargot and frogs legs and chateaubriand, all paired with French wines. Although our fellow diners agreed that a few of the menu items over the week were “misses,” overall the dinners were fabulous. Honestly, they were way better than expected.

One afternoon, Chef Peter provided a galley tour, which put everything in perspective. The galley, or kitchen, is tiny. There are less than ten people in the kitchen, preparing dinners for 150 people, who are all sitting down at one time, to eat a three course meal. More impressive, for safety reasons, all of the cooking has to be electric. Not a single fire burning in the galley. When I learned this, I became even more impressed with the meals Viking prepared.

cruise misconceptions Viking River Cruise

cruise misconceptions Viking River CruiseMoreover, the folks on the Viking French river cruise did a great job of looking after guests with food allergies and other issues. We were traveling with a friend who was recently diagnosed with a disease that has altered everything he ingests. The Maitre d’, Imre, found our friend at every meal to ensure he was taken care of. Imre went so far as to go ashore and buy coconut milk, so our friend wasn’t stuck with soy. The attention was so good that at times our friend wanted to “cheat” a little, but didn’t want to disappoint Imre. It was amazing to watch.

3. Cruise Misconceptions: An Older Demographic

cruise misconceptions Viking River CruiseI’ve always wondered whether I could enjoy a cruise if we didn’t fit the demographic of the cruise ship, generally misconstrued to be limited to older people. Our European river cruise was just such a test. Now, I should note that Eric and I tend to fit in very well with retirees. We always end up hanging with retirees at resorts or hotels. Some of our closest friends when living in Bali were in their sixties. Perhaps that is because we don’t stay up late partying and we value our sleep.

That said, most of the people aboard our Viking River Cruise were older than us. It is not only the general age of cruise ship passengers, but it is because Viking caters to a more affluent audience. It is more of a luxury cruise experience than a Carnival cruise around the Caribbean. Viking’s focus on service, and attention to detail, mean a higher price tag. A higher price tag means a more affluent demographic. There were no drunk twenty somethings partying until 4 am. Something I appreciated.

Who was aboard? Some really lovely people, who enjoy traveling, and drinking wine. We actually met four gentlemen, who travel together, with their wives, every year. They were fraternity brothers at our alma matter, Rutgers University. Now, they are professors and lawyers. We had a lot of fun on tours with them, getting to know them. Eric even sang the school song with them on our last night.

So, were we younger than most passengers? Yes. Did we care? Absolutely not.

4. Cruise Misconceptions: Too Scheduled

cruise misconceptions Viking River CruiseI am generally not a fan of group tours because I don’t like being on a tight schedule. I value my free time. I like to nap. I want to ensure I have time to write, or to work, or to just sit and chat with someone. I was a little concerned that cruise travel would be too scheduled. Too many ports of call, on board activities, and excursions.

A crew member placed a copy of the Viking Daily in our room each night. If I attended each and every activity on the daily schedule, I would be run ragged. There were loads of activities. And, I could have done them all. Or, I could have passed on every one. Although lunch and dinner times were pretty set, everything else was up to us. I felt no pressure to do activities I didn’t want to do. And, one afternoon when it was raining out and I was tired, we laid in bed and watched Downtown Abbey on our cabin’s TV.

During our French river cruise, there were about ten optional excursions for an extra charge, generally between 50 and 120 Euros per person. We did only three of those excursions. We traveled to Chateuaneuf-du-Pape for a wine tasting.

We learned to cook French pastries in Lyon.

We visited a goat cheese farm and learned about truffle hunting.

Of the fifteen or so excursions that were included in the price of the cruise, we did two. We went to Beaujolais for a wine tasting, and took a walking tour in the one of the villages. A few days we had nothing scheduled at all. Certainly, we were not too scheduled, and I felt that I could relax when I wanted to.

5. Cruise Misconceptions: Too Cramped

cruise misconceptions Viking River CruiseEric is almost a giant. He doesn’t fit anywhere. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve never booked a cruise. I didn’t want to feel cramped in a tiny cabin with a giant. For that ill fated Chinese river cruise years ago, we had two tiny single beds, up against the wall, and a bathroom that was virtually unusable. Add to this the fact that I’ve recently developed a minor case of claustrophobia, and I was nervous about being stuck in a small cabin space for a week.

cruise misconceptions Viking River Cruise 5On our Viking Buri ship, we had a Veranda Stateroom. We had floor to ceiling windows, and a balcony. We had a queen sized bed and a shower that Eric could fit in. The stateroom was about the same size as a typical hotel room in Hong Kong, cozy, but functional, and not in the least bit claustrophobia inducing.

Also, because we were in one place for a full seven nights, which almost never happens when we travel, we could completely unpack, and store our suit cases under the bed. I never felt too cramped, and was happy to curl up in bed while we were cruising, open the curtains, and watch the French countryside go by.

Check out our video for more details on our French river cruise:

We were guests of Viking River Cruises for our French river cruise, but all opinions, and yummy sounds, are as always, my own. Our Veranda Stateroom aboard the Viking Longship Buri starts at $1,999 per person.

 

Chengdu Luxury Hotel – Niccolo Chengdu

What to Expect From a Chengdu Luxury Hotel

Niccolo Chengdu

During our first trip to China in 2009, I was entirely overwhelmed by the experience of traveling in China. Despite our flashpacking budget back then, we stayed at Western chain hotels, just to have some sort of comfort and familiarity. For our recent visit to China, though, I wanted more. I wanted a great experience, great food, and a little bit of luxury. And, we found it at a relative new Chengdu luxury hotel.

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo HotelThrough our recent luxury travel experiences, we’ve learned what to expect from a luxury hotel. A well appointed room, a decadent lobby, well trained staff.

But, when traveling in China, I wasn’t sure if the same rules applied. Sure, we’ve stayed in luxury hotels in nearby Macau and Hong Kong. But, mainland China, well, that’s another story. Traveling in China is hard, so I expect a luxury hotel in Chengdu to eliminate the stress of China.

And, Niccolo Hotel did just that.

The hotel prides itself on incorporating some truly unique artwork from both local and international artists. After walking in through the glass enclosed tea lounge, artwork surrounded us. Niccolo touts its “contemporary urban chic” decor, but I don’t care what they call it. It’s impressive.

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo HotelThe most notable artwork was “Beijing Girl” by Zhang Xiang Ming. Her deep, soulful eyes greeted us each time we walked through the lobby.

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo Hotel

Of course Niccolo Chengdu offered well appointed rooms, with luxury amenities and a comfortable bed.

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo Hotel

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo Hotel

But, what really set the hotel apart was the service, and the food. Niccolo Chengdu helped to arrange our visit to see the pandas, the Leshan Buddha, and a Chengdu food tour. In fact, we explored a lot of the Sichuan dining scene in Chengdu. But, we also ate some great meals right there in the Niccolo Chengdu. Because unlike hotel dining in the US, Asian luxury hotels offer some amazing dining experiences.

Yue Hin at Niccolo Chengdu

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo ChengduWe arrived in Chengdu and didn’t even need to leave the hotel to experience local Sichuan food. At Niccolo Chengdu’s Yue Hin, we indulged in a tasting menu with about a dozen different dishes. We started with cold dishes, including a smoked fish and a ridiculously spicy cucumber skin. A series of hot dishes started to arrive at the table, so many that we quickly ran out of space on our table.

One of the more unique presentations included a deceptively simple double boiled pine mushroom soup with pork and chicken. Served in a tea pot, over a tea light candle, the soup came with a small Chinese style tea cup. I say deceptively simple as the soup was nothing more than a chicken broth, but packed such rich and condensed flavors.

A second soup involved a large vat of poached fish with mushrooms. More creamy, this soup tasted good. But the individual tea pot of broth stole the show on the soup front.

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo ChengduI’ve now eaten abalone multiple times in the last several months, particularly during some of our fancy Cantonese meals in Hong Kong. At Yue Hin, steamed abalone was served in a pea broth. It tasted tender and well prepared, but abalone is still not something I understand, or really get. It looked pretty though.

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo ChengduThe highlights of the main course for me, though, were the Sichuan dishes. Dishes included one of my all time favorites, stir-fried chicken with Sichuan chili peppers. This dish should be served with the amount of chili peppers vastly outweighing the amount of chicken. It should leave the lips tingling. It did not disappoint.

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo ChengduAnd, a Sichuan style meat ball was loaded with a home-made pepper powder. It was similar to a five spice powder, but with the addition of Sichuan chilies.

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo ChengduAt the end of the hot dishes, the server brought out what was described in the menu as “Vegetables Big Platter.” And, that is just what arrived. But the presentation was stunning, with each slice of vegetable laid across the plate to form a fan design. Bird’s nest and saffron trimmed the edges.

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo ChengduThen, the main courses arrived. No, all of the platters of food that covered every inch of our table were not enough. And, they were not even our main courses. A three tiered platter of dim sum arrived, including a goose pastry shaped like a swan, with little doughy panda bears on guard at each end. A wild mushroom steamed dumpling was topped with truffles. And a steamed bun, filled with mushroom and gravy, was made to look like a mushroom itself.

Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo Chengdu

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Chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo Chengdu

And, if this was not enough, a poached rice with lobster soup finished the meal. The Cantonese inspired soup seemed similar to something we’ve eaten in Hong Kong. For this version, the toasted rice was sprinkled into the soup table side, leaving the soup bubbling and popping from the rice.

Just as I felt the zipper to my dress start to give, dessert arrived. A large fried sesame ball, similar to a typical dim sum dish, was hallowed out and filled with a sweet almond cream along with bird’s nest. It was served alongside a unique presentation of two healthy juices, to aid in digestion, of course served in two test tubes.

This was exactly what I had hoped from a Chengdu luxury hotel, and something entirely different from our first experience travelling in China. With impeccable service, I felt spoiled, right from the start. And, I was stuffed.

Entrees at Yue Hin start as low as $10, with speciality dishes obviously being more.

Check out our YouTube video on what to eat in Chengdu:

Niccolo Kitchen at Niccolo Chengdu

One of the reasons why I love traveling with friends is that it means we can try so many more dishes when we eat. Normally, Eric and I are limited to 3 or 4 dishes. But if there are six people at a table eating family style, we get to taste everything! It’s why we were able to taste so many different dishes at Yue Hin. And, our dinner at Niccolo Kitchen felt as though we ate every thing on the menu. And, the menu is about 8 pages long.

Niccolo Kitchen serves an international menu. Despite this, almost everything we ate offered some element of, minimally, Asian influences, but often Sichuan influences. It started with a Sichuan spicy lobster pizza, which included miniature mountains of diced Sichuan pepper sprinkled on each slice. It was easily the spiciest pizza I’ve eaten in a very long time.

Chengdu luxury hotel niccolo hotel

A former chef from Niccolo developed their NK Cheeseburger. Based on an In-n-Out burger, it’s served complete with sauteed onions, and special sauce. Although not Asian inspired, for an expat living in Asia, the burger tasted pretty spot on, down to the bun. French fries accompanied the burger, but I made sure to order the special basket of spicy Sichuan pepper fries. The spice of the pepper mixed perfectly with the tangy ketchup. I never let that basket of fries out of my sight.

Chengdu luxury hotel niccolo kitchen

Chengdu luxury hotel niccolo kitchenAnd, not to cater too much to the pescatarian friend in our group, we indulged in NK’s Meat Lovers’ Delight. The platter included some of the most tender and juicy lamb chops, grilled chicken, and soy marinated short ribs. Presented in a large cast iron pan, the server placed this mountain of meat directly in front of Eric, most likely intentionally.

Chengdu luxury hotel niccolo kitchen

Before we even made a dent in our mega meat platter, the server delivered over one kilo of fresh whole prawns in spicy Sichuan seasonings. We all tried our best to make it through the dishes. But, once again, I left dinner stuffed.

Chengdu luxury hotel niccolo kitchen

At Niccolo Kitchen, dishes start around $10. Not surprisingly, the Meat Lovers’s Delight is around $60, but serves two to three people. Desserts at Niccolo Kitchen start around $6. Considering the quality of the food, the prices were entirely reasonable for a Chengdu luxury hotel.

Afternoon Tea at Niccolo Chengdu

to do in ChengduI am infatuated with the notion of afternoon tea.

Niccolo Chengdu’s Tea Lounge is beautiful, with tall ceilings, glass walls, contemporary decor. Each and every table had a squishy little teddy bar to enjoy tea with. It might be a little gimmicky, but I loved sitting with a teddy by my side while eating scones and cream and cucumber sandwiches. I felt like a little girl playing dress up. This is why I am so infatuated with afternoon tea.

chengdu luxury hotel Tea Lounge

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chengdu luxury hotel Tea Lounge
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Eric chose a white tea, Bai Hao Yin Zhen, solely because it translated to “the pretty lady tea.” I tried not to point out that he wore a salmon colored shirt and green pants, while drinking pretty lady tea. I went traditional and stuck with the green tea from the local mountains. The selection of finger sandwiches complemented the tea, and it all felt very elegant. Again, entirely different from our experience in China in 2009.

The Tea Lounge at Niccolo Chengdu serves high tea each afternoon, from 1-5 pm. The tea set costs around $40 for 2 people, with tea priced separately depending the specific tea ordered. 

Check out our YouTube video of what to do in Chengdu:

Eating French Food at a Chengdu Luxury Hotel

chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo KitchenI never thought I would be eating French food in China. It was, of course, not the reason why we were traveling to Chengdu. Our trip focused on spicy Sichuan food. But, Niccolo Hotel had a visiting chef from Xiamen, China, in for a promotion the week we were in Chengdu. And, the chef just happened to be from France. This is how we ended up eating French food in Chengdu.

Chef Olivier Foucke Chengdu Luxury HotelHaving met with Chef Olivier early in the day, he promised us frogs legs. I am used to eating Asian style frogs legs, mostly in Vietnam. They are often deep fried and seasoned with garlic, chili, and lemongrass. During our French river cruise, we ate a whole frog in a creamy sauce with tomato and pepper. But, Chef Olivier’s version was Provencale style, layered with tomatoes and juicy green peppers.

chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo Kitchen

Along with the frogs legs, we enjoyed an escargot that rivaled some of the escargot we enjoyed in Lyon, France. This version included hunks of ham in a creamy sauce. The escargot itself tasted tender and juicy.

chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo Kitchen

The server then arrived with one of our main courses, a giant cast iron pan with two rather large confit duck legs, served with sautéed potatoes and fresh carrots. Some miscommunication with the server seemed to imply that we were about to receive two portions of confit. In the end, they served two portions in the one pan. Thank goodness because as Eric began to carve up the Flintstone-sized duck legs, two large platters of beef bourguignon arrived. Tender pieces of beef stewed in burgundy wine served over a fresh hand made pasta.

chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo Kitchen

chengdu luxury hotel Niccolo Kitchen

But, this was not all. These were just our “starter mains.” The real main course arrived in the form of an oversized vat of bouillabaisse from Marseille. The bouillabaisse we just tried during our French river cruise was much lighter than this Marseille version. Here, the bouillabaisse teemed with an entire slow poached fish, enormous mussels, prawns, crab, and more. Stick a chopstick in me. I was done.

Once dessert arrived, particularly because it was our last day in Chengdu, I was, once again cumulatively stuffed. The occupational hazards of being a food travel blogger. But, I managed to make room for a spice topped creme brûlée, and a icy nougat with raspberry coulis.

I am not familiar enough with French cuisine to know how authentic this meal was. All I know is that it tasted amazing, and the food well prepared. I would expect nothing less from a luxury hotel, even if we were eating French food in China.

Listen to our food travel podcast where we spoke with French Chef Olivier.

Chef Olivier’s special French dinner was served at Niccolo Kitchen, alongside the regular menu. Prices were comparable to regular entree prices.

All in I was super thrilled with our Chengdu luxury hotel experience, and everything that Niccolo Chengdu offered. It was our first time staying with the brand, and I am excited to see what they are going to do in the future.