The Viking River cruise ship the Odin sails past Budapest

The Viking River cruise ship the Odin sails past Budapest. (Photo: Viking River Cruises)

It's no wonder that vacationers return from cruises packing a few extra pounds — cruising is pretty much a 24-hour feeding opportunity, with choices both varied and plentiful. But if quality over quantity is what you seek, the gourmet experience of a Viking River Cruises will satisfy your palate.

On a recent cruise through Eastern Europe sailing on the Danube River from Bucharest, Romania to Budapest, Hungary, I enjoyed delicious fine dining at every shipboard meal, from a menu based on locally sourced ingredients in dishes inspired by the five countries on the itinerary.

Viktor Csuklich"In the winter before each season, the corporate chefs plan and test the menus and recipes, and we load in supplies every two weeks. But it's really important to be able to buy locally" as needed, says Viktor Csuklich (right), who has been executive chef aboard the Viking Longship Rinda since it launched in 2013. Local cheeses, fruits, wine and beer are just a few examples of what's on board.

The ship even has an organic herb garden on its sun deck, planted with fresh thyme, sage, mint, chives, rosemary and parsley. "We use it a lot, for garnishes, for sauces, marinades," says Csuklich.

Csuklich whipped up fantastic off-menu dishes for diners with special needs, from gluten- and dairy-free to low-carb vegetarian, doing amazing things with grilled vegetables. A culinary highlight of the cruise was the Taste of the Balkans dinner, a buffet-style feast featuring local delicacies served in the dining room, the outdoor deck, and in the kitchen itself, where the chef welcomed passengers. The menu featured dozens of items including burek (savory pastry) cevapcici (meat kabobs), and shopska salad from Bulgaria, Serbian plum and juniper brandies and Hungarian goulash and Somlauer dumplings for dessert.

The Viking River Cruise ship Rina's herb garden alongside miniature putting greens

The Viking River Cruise ship Rina's herb garden alongside miniature putting greens. (Photo: Gerri Miller)

The kitchen wasn’t the only area that opened its doors to the 175 travelers aboard. One morning, Capt. Nikolae Lovin invited passengers to visit the ship’s wheelhouse, which has an ingenious feature: it can be lowered if there’s low clearance on a bridge. Like all the new Viking Longships, the Rinda, which is named for a Norse goddess, was built with sustainability in mind. The 443-foot ship has four energy-efficient hybrid engines and solar panels at the rear of the sun deck — which also has a jogging path for those who want to burn off a few calories before the next delicious meal.

You can bring a little taste of the Balkans to your own home. Try these recipes courtesy of Viking River Cruises:

How does a cruise ship focus on local food? Here's how one river chef makes it happen
Our writer explores the cuisines of the Balkan region on a Viking River cruise.