I’ve always like cruising. One of the first trips I went on as a young adult was a cruise and since then I’ve been on many, from those 4,000-person mega-ships down to small expedition style vessels that shuttled me safely around Antarctica. Since that first trip I’ve experimented with a variety of cruise niches and, overtime, I’ve narrowed in on the types of cruises that I truly enjoy. As I wrote last week, a disastrous experience with Princess Cruises in 2014 was the final straw for those mega-ships, a style I had never particularly liked, and I thought that my days of cruising onboard larger vessels were over. And they are. But that’s why I was so eager to try out the newest player in the ocean cruise market – Viking Ocean Cruises. We all know Viking from their commercials touting some of the best river cruise experiences in Europe and around the world. And having sailed them, I’d agree with that. But it’s because I had sailed with Viking that I really wanted to try out their ocean ships, to see if the promises held true. Lauding smaller ships (around 900 passengers) without those annoying features like casinos and endless stores along with a design aesthetic that can only be called modern Scandinavian – these were the promises that had me so intrigued. I thought that if they were able to execute everything as well as in those sketches I saw a couple of years ago, then not only would this potentially be the ocean cruise line for me, but I also knew that it would forever change how many of us perceive cruising moving forward.
What Makes Viking Ocean Cruises Different
People who have never cruised before tend to have what I think is an unfair perception of what the experience is really like. They see them as floating cities not interested in the travel experience per se and more interested in partying and eating. And you know what, for many cruise lines that isn’t totally inaccurate. Ultimately any cruise is what you make it, but it’s easier to do that on some ships than others. These reasons are ultimately why I decided that the large, 4,000 passenger ships are no longer my thing. I hated being treated like a number, like a walking ATM. I enjoy travel experiences that make me feel special, as if the staff actually cares that I’m onboard and where the destination is the focus. You find this on the very small ships and I shouldn’t have been surprised when I also found this onboard the Viking Star.
The Star is the first of several ocean liners that Viking is building and onboard you won’t find the mainstays of other ocean going vessels. There is no casino, no endless array of ways to spend your money, no gold by the inch, no theme parks whose sole purpose is to separate you from as much as your hard earned money as possible. No, on the Viking Star the experience is one of premium hospitality and respect. Respect that you’re on vacation, that you have selected to sail Viking for the destinations but as well as their service and even better, Viking has no interest in nickel and diming anyone. There are a few ways to spend money onboard, but not many and they aren’t constantly being sold as on so many other cruise lines. No, instead the attitude onboard was as relaxed as I’ve ever experienced, the passengers as happy a group as I’ve found on the high seas and the entire experience fills a void that many of us didn’t even realize was there. Called inclusive pricing by the company, it means that many of the things we have to pay extra for on other cruise lines are included in the base fare like: every stateroom has a balcony, there is an included excursion in every port, all onboard meals (even premium), beer and wine served with meals, Wi-Fi, laundry facilities, access to the full Nordic-themed spa facility, 24-hour room service and so on. That’s a tremendous value and does a lot in creating a more relaxed and hospitable atmosphere. If passengers aren’t constantly being asked to sign for a variety of charges they’re happier, more relaxed and as I said before, they feel more respected as guests onboard the ship.
The Ship and Onboard Experiences
Spending more than a week onboard the ship I had the opportunity to chat with many of my fellow passengers, to get their thoughts and opinions on this new ship. Their thoughts were interesting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that for about half of everyone I polled, it was their first ocean cruise. So why were they there? Why would they choose an upper premium cruise line like Viking as their first foray into the world of cruising? The reason was simple; they had sailed on several Viking River Cruises and so enjoyed the experiences they knew that would translate into the new ocean series. And from my own experience, I have to say that they were absolutely right in that expectation.
Décor and ambience shouldn’t mean as much to me as a traveler as it does, but it does help create the mood for any trip. Whether it’s in a hotel lobby or on a cruise ship, the look and feel is important and that’s an area where Viking and I mesh on every level. Last year I sailed on a Christmas sailing along the Danube, and I loved exploring the ship, discovering the quiet alcoves and even the large public areas that were elegant, refined and not ostentatious. Clean lines, muted colors and understated elegance define the Viking River ships and I was thrilled to find that carried over to the Viking Star as well.
Technically called a “small ship” ocean liner, the Star didn’t feel too small at all; in fact it is a very manageable size and getting around it was easy and made sense. Like their river cousins, the ocean ships have that same level of refined elegance, without ever wasting space. Everything makes sense, from the artwork to the lounge areas. You’ll never see a tassel on these ships, but what you will find are public areas where you actually want to be. While it’s not as big as those massive mega-ships, not once did I feel as if space was at a premium, far from it, in fact there are so many options for guests that it guarantees no one will ever feel that way. From the Explorer’s Lounge at the front of the ship with its library and telescope, to the Wintergarden next to the outdoor area, the ship was designed to facilitate any sort of relaxation guests might want to try.
There is so much to say about the ship itself I think I may have to devote an entire post to it, but one area I want to highlight was my favorite spot onboard the Viking Star – the spa and fitness area. Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first; the fitness area is a great size and has all of the equipment you’d need to stay healthy while sailing. It was also heavily used, which was great for me to see. The modern traveler, no matter age or background, wants to be a healthier traveler and that was proven to me by the near-constant popularity of the fitness area. Walking from the center though into the locker rooms is where the true magic of this section comes to life. The locker room isn’t your standard space and in fact rivals the best spas I’ve been to around the world. Lockers, sauna, plunge pool and a relaxation area make it the perfect spot to decompress and freshen up after a workout or spa experience. It’s that spa experience though that stole the show for me.
Drawing upon Scandinavian traditions and preferences, the spa includes a sauna, steam room, therapeutic pool (imagine a giant Jacuzzi) and even a snow room (with actual snow) where you can recover from the hot steam or sauna experiences. The spa area is relaxing and includes every amenity you could imagine. What’s even better about it is that it’s complimentary for all guests to enjoy. When I sailed the Celebrity Solstice a few years ago, they had something similar but it came at an extra cost. But you don’t find that on Viking, instead you find areas like the spa that add so much value to the trip and which are just included in the overall cost of the cruise.
Destinations and Excursions
The ship was great, but just as with their river cruises the Viking Ocean Cruises are intensely focused on their itineraries. Ultimately, that’s why we all travel and that’s at the heart of Viking, to experience the world in comfort and ease. That’s especially true with Viking’s passengers. I noticed this last year on the river cruises as well, but most of the passengers I met on the Viking Star were extremely well traveled and had a fierce intellectual curiosity. Not unlike me, most of them have a tremendous wanderlust and have spent their lives feeding it whenever they can. Any of them could have booked a cruise to nowhere if they just wanted some fun in the sun, but that wasn’t the main goal for any of them. No, like me they wanted to see new sights and visits areas of the world foreign to them, and that was wonderful to see.
Most of the Viking ocean itineraries aren’t like anything else available. They feature ports that most cruise lines don’t or can’t offer, due to size of ship more than anything else, as well as experiences in those ports that are more immersive than anything else offered in the industry. Keeping to their philosophy onboard the river cruises, each port includes a complimentary tour for guests who want to take advantage of it. That’s huge; no one else does that and it is a tremendous value add for all passengers. The complimentary excursions aren’t watered down versions either; they’re robust and engaging tours that offer a fantastic introduction to the various ports. There are also excursions that have extra fees, but those fees weren’t excessive and they were interesting enough day trips that I availed myself of many. Viking prides itself on keeping the destination front of mind, and so many of those excursions are immersive opportunities to learn more about the destinations, from private experiences to meeting and sharing with local residents. You don’t find that on any other ocean cruise lines and it makes the overall travel experience so much more robust and interesting than it would be otherwise.
I sailed on their Empires of the Mediterranean itinerary which included stops in: Venice, Pula Croatia, Dubrovnik Croatia, Kotor Montenegro, Santorini Greece, Athens, Kusadasi Turkey and Istanbul. Some of these ports you’ll definitely find on other cruise line sailings, but not all and given the fact that Viking sails the Mediterranean later than anyone else, our ship was the only one in port at each of these stops. Not only that, but the excursions truly were extraordinary. From visiting Bosnia to trekking through the mountains of Montenegro, the excursions I selected, both included and paid, came together to transform the travel experience from something nice to something extraordinary. I travel to experience the world and learn, both of which were greatly enhanced by my Viking experience.
Cabins and Food
At the end of the day though, where we sleep, relax and eat are important aspects of any cruise, and Viking kept that in mind when designing these new ships. The room sizes of course range depending on category, but even at the tier I was booked on I was shocked by the size of the stateroom. It was extremely generous and made relaxing there something that was actually enjoyable. This may sound trivial, but the bathrooms are also large and the base shower has to be the largest standard shower at sea. I’m tall, and being able to get around the cabin, including the bathroom, was a luxury unto itself. As I mentioned before, every stateroom also has a veranda so that you can enjoy a morning coffee outside in privacy, or watch the sunset with your loved one over a glass of sparkling wine. Some category types also include complimentary sodas and snacks or alcoholic beverages in the minibar and are replenished daily as an extra benefit. It may seem like a small thing, but being able to grab a Diet Coke every morning from the privacy of my room was a great perk to enjoy.
The food experience is not dissimilar from other cruise ships in that there is a variety of light dining options for all meals, as well as a main restaurant for dinner. There are also two premium restaurants available for dinner bookings and a generous tea service offered every afternoon with sandwiches and desserts. But what is different is that every food experience, from a special dinner at the Italian restaurant, to grabbing a snack or even the delicious tea sandwiches are all included. There are no extra fees for any restaurant or anything you’ll eat onboard. Cafes, special stations – it’s all included and that is where Viking sets itself apart. Of course it helps if the food is actually good, and it is. I’m a picky eater and found great options throughout the day from the room service breakfast, to that fantastic Italian restaurant I mentioned. One area where frequent cruisers will note a big different is what Viking calls the World Café. On a conventional cruise ship, I’d probably call this a buffet, which it sort of is but not really. In a first at sea, almost everything on this “buffet” is made fresh and the entrées are almost entirely made to order à la minute. All that means is that they have several entrée options that instead of being prepared in giant vats and left to dry out under a heat lamp, are made as the guests request them, with a wait usually under a minute. No one else does this, and the ability to have a quick but delicious meal onboard a cruise ship is a luxury unto itself.
How It All Comes Together
Visiting fun destinations, meeting interesting people with similar interests, not experiencing one line for anything ever, eating delicious food and enjoying the ability to relax without stress – these are some of the reasons why I think Viking Ocean Cruises are unlike anything else on the market. The company doesn’t like to use the word luxury, but this is a luxury travel experience. All of these minute details come together and coalesce into a travel experience that is unexpected and leaves you craving more. From the many dozens of people I spoke with onboard, everyone was thrilled with the cruise. That never happens. It’s impossible to please everyone, and yet that’s exactly what I found. In fact many of the couples I got to know well over that week booked their next Viking cruise while still onboard the Star. Leaving nice comments is one thing, but the true validation that a travel company is doing something right comes down to dollars and cents, and those passengers proved that they agreed with me in thinking that Viking is now the best ocean cruise line in the world. Are there options out there that are higher end? Of course, several in fact. But they don’t combine the resources that a ship carrying 1,000 people can offer with the degree of attention to detail found on Viking. The Viking Star provides the best of the luxury cruising experience at a price point that is attainable with results that are extraordinary.
Viking changed the world of river cruising when they first started sailing through Europe. They turned a down and out industry into one of the hottest new travel trends and now they will do the same for ocean cruising. Before Viking Ocean Cruises you had two options – go on a mega-ship at a reasonable cost and deal with the annoyances or pay an extreme premium for an over-the-top luxury cruise experience. There was no middle ground and now there is. I honestly and truly believe that Viking has created the cruise line for people who hate cruises, or at least who think they do. They have removed everything that is annoying about cruising and instead accentuated all of the many wonderful positives of the experience. They have once again filled a gap and will once again transform an industry in the process. Many will seek to replicate this success, but just as in river cruising, there will ever only be one original innovator.