While ultimately any cruise should be about the destinations and what you see and experience, when it comes down to it the ship itself is necessarily an important part of that travel experience. I didn’t know what to expect before first boarding the new Viking Star, the first in a series of ocean liners developed by the cruise line Viking. Classified as a small ship, it was my first time sailing on a ship of that size. Not a typical 4,000-person mega-ship and not a small expedition style cruiser, the Star is something entirely different and I was eager to discover what life onboard was really like. What I experienced during my week on the ship was unlike any other cruise ship I’ve been on, and I mean that in every positive way possible. It’s as if they took the design style and philosophy behind their acclaimed river cruise ships and expanded them to life on the high seas. You won’t find noisy casinos or endless shops onboard the Star, instead you find a ship that is designed to greatly augment the experiences of the passengers and to create a relaxing but fun haven for those hours not spent in port, but onboard. Of all of the many features of the new Viking Ocean cruises ship though, these were amongst my most favorite.
Relaxing public areas
In recent years my travel style has evolved away from the massive, over-the-top cruise ships that seem to be all the rage today. I have no interest in robot bartenders, waterslides or climbing walls. Those are easily avoided, but what isn’t is the feeling that you’re floating in a small city. I don’t like the fact that no matter where you go, there are hoards of people and very few places to just relax. This is where the Viking Star excels perhaps the most. The public areas onboard the ship were all designed with one thing in mind – the comfort of the passengers. Seems logical, right? You’d be surprised though how few other cruise lines really grasp this concept. The lounge areas onboard the Star vary but all include elegantly designed furnishings, plenty of space and a wealth of activities to prevent anyone from getting bored. There’s also a ton of space – not once was I left wandering aimlessly looking for a spot, any spot, to sit and read or watch a movie on my iPad. The exterior public spaces though are just as great, with loungers and chairs spread around the decks and pools and even an innovative Wintergarden, a solarium of sorts next to the main pool area. Everything meshes well and just works, and ultimately that’s what we all want on a good cruise ship.
Cruise ship cabins usually are fairly similar to each other, but with the Viking Star I found a style that made me look forward to relaxing in the cabin instead of dreading it. The first thing to mention is that unlike other cruise lines, every stateroom has its own balcony. There are no interior rooms and while the sizes do differ based on which category you choose, you’re always guaranteed a veranda and plenty of cabin space to relax for a week or more. I don’t normally talk about bathrooms, either in hotels or on cruise ships, but I was so surprised by the Viking Star’s bathroom that I just have to mention it. I don’t have the statistics, but I have to believe that the shower is the largest standard shower currently sailing. Unlike the small cubicles onboard the larger ships that require an understanding of physics and gymnastics to navigate, the showers on the Star were light, airy and enormous, at least by cruise ship standards. I’m tall, and being able to get around the cabin, including the bathroom, was a luxury unto itself. Other standard features in all staterooms include king-size beds, LCD TVs with both live and on demand programming and of course free WiFi is found throughout the ship. 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.
Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant
Aside from the look and feel of the ship, perhaps my favorite feature of sailing on the Viking Star was the inclusive pricing. Nearly everything you need during the course of the voyage is included in the base price, so unlike almost every other cruise line passengers don’t feel like they’re being nickel and dimed. This is perhaps best seen in the food and drink offerings, especially their specialty restaurants. On every “mainstream” cruise ship, the specialty restaurants onboard not only require reservations in advance, but they also come with extra fees. I’ve never understood that and apparently neither did Viking, which is why their specialty restaurants may require reservations, but there are no extra fees attached to the experience. My favorite of these non-main-dining-room options was the Italian restaurant, Manfredi’s. As soon as you step inside, you know you’re in a great Italian restaurant from the décor, to the chef baking up fresh focaccia from a dining room based oven. The menu itself is very traditional Italian with appetizers, pasta courses, main courses and of course delicious deserts. When paired with the complimentary wines (a mealtime feature found on all Viking ships and in all restaurants) the experience couldn’t have been more satisfying.
The Viking Star is, after all, a cruise ship and so the pool spaces are an important feature. By the end of 2016, Viking will be sailing not only in the Mediterranean, but also the Caribbean, so time outside in the sun is important. Since there are never more than 930 passengers onboard, the two pool choices are ample and not once did I see anyone fighting for space or jockeying for a lounge chair. There’s plenty of both onboard the Star. The main pool in the center of the top deck is a great relaxation space and even has a retractable dome, which means it can be, and is, used at any time of year and in any weather condition. There’s also the added bonus of a glass-backed infinity pool at the back of the ship, along with a hot tub, which means you can be completely enveloped by the destination or gaze over the horizon wistfully as the ship cruises through the water. It’s a wonderful perk and from my own experience, a popular one as well.
No casino, no mall, just elegant comfort
This is what I loved most about spending time onboard the Viking Star; it’s completely unlike those horrible mainstream cruise ships currently sailing around the world. I do not like being nickel and dimed or feeling like I’m regarded not as a valued passenger, but as a walking ATM. Viking does what the others don’t, they treat their passengers with respect. This comes bounding through by NOT including a casino or an endless array of shops full of overpriced and useless nonsense. The net effect is that there exists onboard a certain level of perpetual peace and harmony, a general sense of elegant relaxation that is completely lacking on those mega-ships. There are a couple of shops, but not many, and instead of pointless casinos Viking installed more areas to relax and mingle as well as the Theater featuring great shows, performances, movies and lectures delivered by subject matter experts.
This was without a doubt my favorite area on the ship and is like nothing else I’ve seen on a cruise ship. 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 the Viking Star, 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.
Relaxing in the Explorers’ Lounge
Blame an increased reliance on electronics or just my at-times manic nature, but when I relax, I need a little stimulation at the same time. That’s probably why I found myself regularly patronizing this two-story lounge located at the bow of the ship. Even better, its design encourages mixing and mingling with others and thanks to that, I met a lot of new friends while relaxing in this, the ship’s premier lounge. With massive windows offering stunning views, an outdoor walkway and even books and displays highlighting Scandinavian history and culture, it’s the ideal place to while away a laid back afternoon. It’s also a hub of activity both before and after dinner as guests enjoy a cocktail, or listen to some live music before heading to bed.
Afternoon snacks, I mean tea
I mentioned the inclusive nature of the Viking Ocean cruises, but it bears repeating because it is so very rare to find. At no point will you ever be charged for food, whether it’s via room service, in any of the restaurants and cafes or even at the daily afternoon tea. Tea was a big event onboard the Star, and every day the Wintergarden was full of passengers enjoying an afternoon snack and chatting with friends, both new and old alike. Every day at 4pm, the Star staff serves up a delicious collection of snacks including scones, sandwiches, desserts and of course a wide selection of fine teas. I didn’t take part every day, but when I did it was a nice and civilized way to grab an easy snack and meet new people.
At the end of the day, a great luxury experience depends not on the thread count of your bed sheets, or on the presentation of your evening meal. No, true luxury always is found in service and hospitality, both of which seem to be at the heart of any Viking experience. Whether it was the cabin steward who took such great care of me during my stay, or the bar manager who quickly remembered that I have a certain fondness for Diet Coke, not once did I find any fault with the service onboard the Star. This is in stark contrast to my experiences onboard the larger cruise ships, where finding good service was difficult and where by the end of the first day, I couldn’t wait to leave. I wasn’t alone in feeling like a valued passenger onboard the Star, everyone I talked to had similar experiences, and when I saw so many passengers taking photos with their favorite waiters, servers or stewards, I knew that Viking Ocean cruises was doing something right. Luxury is when amazing service coincides with great finishings and using that definition, then the Viking Star is one of the best luxury cruise experiences you’ll ever enjoy.
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