Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Viking Cruises Heads to Austria with the Sound of Music

When I received my itinerary for my Viking River Cruise, this was the day I had highlighted. It was the day I was entering Austria, the birthplace of my maternal grandmother, for the first time. It was also where I would be able to see where the story of the Sound of Music actually took place. It’s always been one of my favorite films.

My friend Tracy and I were up early and headed to the dining room for breakfast. She had an omelet and I chose the blueberry pancakes with some yogurt. We enjoyed talking with some other passengers before we headed outside for our 8:15 tour.

It was a bit cold and very foggy when we got off the boat, but we were assured that it would pass as the day went on. The Viking River Cruise buses were waiting for us outside the boat to take us through the city of Linz and into Salzburg.

The guide told us about how Linz, Austria, the birthplace of Adolph Hitler, was very industrial and even though it had become cleaner, it was still always foggy. It was disheartening to hear that part of the city’s history included the fact that it was the first place to hold a concentration camp.

On the two hour trip to Salzburg, our guide also told us all about the Von Trapp family and how much (very little) we saw in the movie that was fiction. She also filled us in on the remaining family members, the most public of which own the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont.

We stopped at a rest stop to use the bathrooms and were told to meet on the side of the building to see the lake. We were able to see the spectacular views of Mondsee Lake. Behind the lake were the Austrian Alps.

The Alps were as beautiful as I remembered Julie Andrews strolling and singing through with the Von Trapp children. Over the front mountains were the actual ones in the film where “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” I know it probably sounds corny, but I relived that moment before getting on the bus and heading into Salzburg.

I was immediately taken with the town of Salzburg. It was picturesque with all that a European city should have, from cobblestone streets to cafes and bakeries.

The first thing we did was a walking tour of the city with our guide. He quickly reminded us that .50 Euro was required to use public bathrooms and I found out this was very true.

The Sound of Music is not the only thing that put Salzburg so clearly noted on the map. It is also the birthplace of Mozart and the place he was born and where he lived with his family are honored in the city.

In the park we saw more indications of the contemporary Salzburg, through modern artwork and young people in fashionable garb.

The shops and alleyways were all decorated for the holidays and I fought the urge to stop and examine each one.

Everything in Salzburg seemed to carry its own touches. Even McDonald’s had a crest over its doorway.

We had an Austrian lunch at Café Kugel with a fellow writer, Susan Kime. I had an excellent Beef Goulash with a potato ball while they both chose and enjoyed the Weiner Schnitzel. I also had some delicious Apple Strudel.

Tracy and I stopped at the Christmas Market in front of the cathedral. It is the oldest market of its kind in the Alps. We saw lots of handmade items, including many embroidered tablecloths. There was also plenty of Mozart Chocolate, baked goods, and, of course, Glὕhwein.

We had a short time to rest before dinner. We were so tired we decided not to even change.

For dinner we had some wonderful Austrian wine. I chose the Grilled Chicken with Three Sauces. It was tender and the sauces were a nice touch. Dessert was a chocolate soufflé.

In the evening after dinner, we were treated to a “Sound of Music” show with singing and dancing. It was really well done and over by 10:00 pm.

Once again, though, we were ready to go to sleep as soon as possible after a long day. Another day in Austria awaited us, this time in Durnstein and Mell

*Christmas in July? Yes! I was running a bit behind and I decided to just save my Viking River Christmas 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!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Gingerbread in Germany with Viking Cruises

I’m not sure which my friend Tracy and I were more excited about, being on a Viking River Cruise along the Danube, or going to our first Christmas Market*, but it was clear from the start of our day in Passau, Germany, that it was going to be a magical one.

We were up by 7:00 and had breakfast in the main dining room, enjoying the selection of fruit, cheese, pastries, omelets and yogurt. It was then time for our walking tour of Passau.

The Viking Embla had been decorated for the holidays, but it didn’t begin to compare with what we would see in Passau.

Tours are included on Viking River Cruises and while we had buses available to us at all ports, Passau was a place we could walk.

We were divided into groups so that we could experience the sites and hear our guide along the river and through the cobblestone hills.

She told us about the town’s flood the previous year and how this town fared during the war. Then we were off to a gingerbread demonstration at Simon Confectionary.

I really enjoyed watching this family make the gingerbread their family had been creating for generations. And, it was delicious – especially watched down with Glühwein.

I finally had my introduction to Glühwein in Passau. I had actually only heard about it for the first time just before I left. It was, after all, my first trip to this part of Europe.

I had been told it was a red wine, filled with spices such as cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. I would soon learn that there were many different versions of this warm drink using all types of wines.

We stopped at St. Stephen’s Cathedral where the Christmas Market was held. The art inside the cathedral was stunning, but I was anxious to get to my first European market.

The market was filled with much more than I ever expected, from drinks to foods such as bratwurst and baked goods (donuts are especially popular in Germany), to candles and crafts.

To me, everything was either a Christmas decoration or a potential gift, though a part of me wanted to take one of everything home.

We went back on the ship for lunch before returning to the market. Though my Monte Cristo Sandwich wasn’t a traditional German meal, it was quite good.

I knew I had many more markets to go, so I just left with the Glühwein and some chestnuts, something that reminded me of warming my hands on cold nights in New York.

We had a ravioli appetizer which was quite good. Then Tracy enjoyed the scallops for dinner while I ate the beef, but we both sipped the Austrian wine.

We finished dinner appropriately with a local favorite, Apple Strudel. I had been a bit worried that there wasn’t a lot going on after dinner on the ship at night, but it soon became apparent why – the days were long ones and we were all more than ready to retire by 10:00 pm.

Another long day was ahead of us and this was a place I had been waiting to get to for a long time, Austria, my grandmother’s birthplace and home to all those breathtaking scenes in the Sound of Music.

*Christmas in July? Yes! I was running a bit behind and I decided to just save my Viking River Christmas 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!

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 River Christmas 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.