Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cruising the Danube River with Viking

Christmas in July? Yes! I was running a bit behind and I decided to just save my Viking RiverChristmas Market Cruise report until July. After all it’s a perfect time to start thinking about booking one of your own while the prices are low!

I’ll be honest… I was actually looking for an Asian cruise to write about when I was presented with the opportunity to do a European Christmas Market cruise instead. I’m not one to lie on a beach for days, but I try to stay away from cold weather trips. It’s just too much packing of sweaters and boots and gloves.

I changed my mind, though, when I saw the itinerary for the Viking Embla. I had never even been to that part of Europe and I had never been on a river cruise. Sailing along the Danube through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary became something a very quickly was excited about.

My friend Tracy and I had traveled before, spending a glorious week in Sicily. This time we would be meeting up in Munich to share the week long adventure with Viking Cruises.

The trip to Germany was long, but uneventful. I sat in British Airways in the Economy Comfort section and it was quite comfortable for economy. Their lounge, food, and service were as good as usual.

 I flew to London and then on to Munich. Tracy was coming from California so we didn’t get to meet until our arrival in Munich airport. We caught up a bit as we waited for others to arrive and then boarded the Viking bus to Passau.

Viking includes tours of all the stops on its cruises. The buses were comfortable, with air conditioning, heat (which we needed much more), and even a bathroom. The trip took about an hour, though it felt like we were flying on the Audubon.

The Viking Embla was like no cruise ship I had ever seen before. It was very long and had only two stories for passengers, with 95 staterooms, nine of which were suites. We had a Veranda Stateroom. 

While I was surprised at first by how small it was, I soon found out that it was bigger than average for river cruises and we would be spending very little time in it.

Waiting for us in our cabin was a bottle of sparkling wine and a plate of chocolate, fruit, cookies and candy. Tracy and I toasted to our new adventure before heading to the dining room for dinner.

We had arrived later than most so dinner was almost over when we arrived, but no one rushed us and the wine (which, along with beer, is included with all meals on Viking) was flowing.

With the first menu I could see that we would have plenty to eat and a very interesting selection.

I chose to start with the Asparagus Soup, followed by delicious Cannelloni. The portions were good, but not too big.

Dinner ended with a hot fudge sundae and I knew I was in the right place. I was also impressed with the crowd. It was a wide range of people from 20 to 70, mostly from the U.S. and Canada.

After dinner we learned a bit about our first stop. It would become a nightly ritual on Viking to discuss the port and tours for the following day. Most of the time there was just one tour that we were all going on, but on some days we had a choice. There were always plenty of people willing to answer our questions and guide us.

We were more than ready to forego a nightcap and head to the room. It was time for my first snooze on the river. A long day of exploring Passau, Germany, with Viking River Cruises was ahead of me. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Concert Time at Horseshoe Hammond

I’ve had a lot of interesting opportunities over the years. I’m always on the lookout to write about things I don’t often get to, so when I was approached by DKC, the public relations firm that I’ve worked with on Caesars and Harrah’s properties, I was ready to listen.

The offer was to not only check out the Horseshoe Hammond Casino just outside of Chicago, but to see a concert there – as a VIP. It’s an experience that is available to the public at reasonable prices (amount varies depending on the event).

I had even more reason to look forward to the night since two bands I really enjoy were playing, Staind and Theory of a Deadman.

John Uremovic, who handles marketing for the casino, met me at the entrance and gave me a tour of the property. I didn’t realize how big it was and how many different events they hold there, like the Brews at the 'Shoe beer festival in March.

I also wasn’t aware that the casino had a large Asian Gaming Room which has Pai Gow Tiles, Big Baccarat, and other games, as well as a Foo Noodle Bar. The casino even offers direct (free) shuttles from Chicago’s Chinatown.

We finished our tour in the Seven Star Lounge, reserved for the casino’s elite guests. It was very big and had a bar stocked with just about anything you could think of, though I just settled for a glass of one of my favorite wines, Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc.

I also made myself a plate from the buffet and John and I talked about the casino, one of few that doesn’t have a hotel attached, but offers beautiful views and other amenities. I also chatted with the bartender and a guest, both of whom made it feel like a second home until it was time to go up to the concert.

A few people told me The Venue was a great place to see a concert, and they were right. The floor had general seating (actually, standing) in front of the stage so everyone could feel like they were in an intimate nightclub right next to the band. They also had tremendous, screens on each side of the stage.

The areas above, where I was, were suites. I have been in suites in various entertainment and sports arenas and found these to be much more casual – as it should be with music.

There was a bartender pouring drinks and a selection of food from a small buffet, all of which was included in the suite ticket price. I’d say there were only 20 of us and there were extra seats and standing room so no one felt cooped up.

The concert itself was amazing. I had never seen either band live. Theory of a Deadman was a perfect opener and they had the crowd screaming when they performed “All or Nothing.”

Right before Staind went on, I was talking with someone in the suite who asked if I had ever seen Aaron Lewis perform live. I hadn’t and he told me to prepare to be blown away. It was amazing, especially performing hits such as “Right Here,” “Something to Remind You,” and “Country Boy.”

When they did “It’s been a while,” the entire audience was singing and dancing and I was right there along with them. The acoustics at The Venue are just phenomenal.

After the show, I went back up to the Seven Star Lounge for a glass of wine before I headed to the hotel. I wanted to wind down a bit and there were a few others from the concert who couldn’t stop raving about the event either.

I stayed at a Fairfield Inn in Hammond, Indiana, because I thought it would be closer to the casino than Chicago. While the hotel was fine, the ride to the casino was long (and an expensive cab). I’d suggest staying in Chicago as it’s an easier trip.

Horseshoe even provides free shuttles from various areas in Chicago. Check their website to see where the shuttle stops are located.

I will definitely be staying in Chicago on my next trip there. I’m looking forward to checking out the Jack Binion Steakhouse, which offers fine dining with incredible water views.