Like any addiction, it began innocently enough. My partner and I watched every season of Downton Abbey, connecting weekly with our inner aristocrats. Before every episode, we endured a brief advertisement where a warm, erudite voice extolled the wonders of a Viking River Cruise. Sailing through the heart of historic Europe with Viking, you’ll see things differently, it said. It’s a feeling only a river can give you.
The video featured silver-haired retirees gawking at freshly baked rolls, clinking wine glasses, and living life to the absolute half-fullest. The first season, we scoffed. The second season, we scoffed but also gave it some thought. By the end of the series, we wondered aloud, “Are we doing this?”
My partner then made an observation that tickled my love of Europe with his two great loves: Christmas schmaltz and street food. Viking River Cruises, the Basel-based company that operates 75 river ships around the world, runs special versions of their popular European cruises during the run-up to Christmas. Summer bike rides and top-deck dining were out, and medieval holiday markets and building gingerbread houses were in.
Our first Viking holiday cruise was an eight-day, three-country voyage on Viking’s Romantic Danube itinerary, sailing from a port near Nuremberg to Budapest. A few days in, we realized that instead of making a tragic mistake—our Manhattanite friends did look at us askance for this idea—we had struck travel gold.
In comparison to other holiday getaways to a tropical beach or the like, absolutely nothing communicates “unavailable” like being on water. Family plans? Forget it. Awkward potluck? Sorry, we’d love to, but we’re on a boat. Plus, the Christmas season is just about the only time a non-retiree can afford to take a solid eight-plus days off, so you might as well take advantage.
While I sensed a cultural blue state–red state chasm among my fellow voyagers, we were definitely not the youngest couple on board, as some predicted. And even though I was probably the only passenger who could pick Hans Ulrich Obrist (the Serpentine Galleries’ curator) out of a lineup, nothing would’ve spoiled the mood for me faster than a vessel filled with influencers. I wore the same cashmere sweater every day and loved it.
The river cruise had all the benefits of a regular ocean cruise, with none of the drawbacks. The longship docked every day in small towns and cities you’d otherwise be unlikely to visit; there were zero waves, and fewer than 200 guests aboard; and the threat of illness and being trapped on a massive floating city was low. (We traveled pre-coronavirus; currently, Viking conducts PCR tests daily.)
Family plans? Forget it. Awkward potluck? Sorry, we’d love to, but we’re on a boat.
And while tours of local sites can be fun, we could easily stray off the path and do things a bit more cerebral. A World War II–themed tour of Nuremberg? We preferred the slick, glass-fronted Neues Museum, followed by publicly drinking mulled wine in freezing temperatures.
While our shipmates had hot chocolate in the small German city of Passau, we explored the little-known Glass Museum, which was so unfrequented, motion-sensing lights often blinked on dramatically when we entered its vast, vitrine-filled rooms.
When we returned home, we found ourselves transformed into river-cruising evangelists. I’ll admit—everyone we spoke to was curious, but seemed politely suspicious. It was sort of like telling someone they need to try a colonic.
A few years later, we found ourselves booking another Viking holiday cruise, this time the Rhine Getaway route, from Basel to Amsterdam. In my cruising fervor, I lured along my friend Jason, who is now an editor at People.
Like a grizzled battlefield veteran bemused by a recruit’s innocence, I gave this discerning fashionisto a wide berth as he winced at some of the genteel ins and outs of river-cruise life. At first, he was critical, questioning his own sanity over sacrificing his holiday weeks for a journey down a river with a Downton Abbey–adoring crowd.
I remember him emerging from his stateroom the second day of the trip, skipping breakfast and some early activities, dressed in fashionable athleisure-wear. He’d had a full night’s rest and spent the morning watching the icy Rhine pass by his balcony window. In a calm, low voice he said, “I get it now.”
As each day passed, he found ways to adapt the itinerary to his liking—cafés and shopping instead of churches and walking tours—and by the end of the trip, even a tour of ancient Dutch windmills had him grinning from ear to ear.
We agreed that the holiday river cruise has a valuable lesson for the jaded traveler—sometimes you need to lean in, let go, and bask in the Hallmark Channel vibe. It’s a feeling only a river can give you.
Dan Rubinstein, the former home-and-design director for Departures, is a design journalist and the host of the Grand Tourist podcast