It has been nearly three years since Viking cruises entered the world of ocean cruising and in that short period of time they’ve certainly made their presence known. Bringing to the high seas the unique sensibility that has propelled them to being the top river cruise company in the world, their ocean voyages around the world have proved just as popular. I first sailed on the Viking Star, the first ocean ship the company christened, in 2015 which I why I was so curious to once again sail on the vessel over the 2017 Christmas holidays. I wanted to see what, if anything, had changed since I first stepped on board and how the company is managing their customers on the oceans. The experience was a positive one I’m happy to say and today I want to share what my most recent experience was like as I sailed from Barcelona to Rome on the Viking Star.
Cabins and Onboard Life
One of my favorite features onboard the Viking Star a couple of years ago was my cabin. I’ve sailed on a number of cruise lines over the years and the comfort and size of my room onboard the Viking Star was amongst the best I’d experienced. On my most recent cruise I decided to upgrade to a slightly larger room in the Penthouse Veranda category; a great decision on my part I think. The size was extremely generous and made relaxing there something that was actually enjoyable. This may sound trivial, but the bathrooms are also large and the shower is just as generously sized. I’m tall, and being able to get around the cabin easily, including the bathroom, was a luxury unto itself. 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.
Viking makes no qualms about who they are as a company and their demographic is very similar to that of their river cruises. You won’t find kids or water slides onboard a Viking oceans ship, but I prefer it that way. Design 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. Sailing on a number of Viking river cruise itineraries, I always love exploring the longships, discovering the quiet alcoves and even the large public areas that are elegant, refined and not ostentatious. Clean lines, muted colors and understated elegance define the Viking River ships and that standard carries over to the ocean-going vessels in a way that is nearly seamless. Onboard activities are fine, but could be better. I would prefer to see more varied experiences and shows offered, but that’s a small criticism. Ultimately, Viking is very much focused on the destinations, as any great cruise line should be.
Destinations and Experiences
Sailing on Viking’s Iconic Western Mediterranean itinerary, I started in Barcelona, ended in Rome with stops in Saint-Tropez, Monte Carlo, and Livorno. Marseilles was a scheduled stop, but intense winds prevented us from docking, giving us an unexpected but welcomed day at sea. Just as with their river cruises, the destinations are very much the focus of the travel experience and the company helps passengers experience the best each port of call has to offer in ways no other line manages. 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.
I appreciate consistency, but I equally appreciate innovation and thoughtful change. Spending another week onboard the Viking Star, I was mindful to take note of any changes and I really couldn’t find any. Just about every aspect of the experience was the same as I experienced in 2015. For the most part, that level of consistency works well for Viking but it would also be nice to see new features and some changes, especially from the perspective of a repeat passenger. While my favorite restaurant in 2015 was once again my favorite in 2017 – Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant – the menu hadn’t changed. That, along with a diminished quality in Viking’s version of a buffet restaurant and overall the food wasn’t as good as it was when I first sailed them. On the whole though, in spite of a couple of small issues, I was overall pretty pleased with the meals and other food options offered.
In spite of a few hiccups with the culinary side of the house, I once again fell under the spell of Viking’s unique brand of hospitality. It’s not over the top or ostentatious, instead it perfectly reflects what I call elegant comfort. You won’t find any jeweled-encrusted staircases here, but for me that’s a good thing. Instead everything is managed impeccably well but also in a way that is thoughtful. One of my favorite examples is the daily ritual that is afternoon tea. 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. The included spa access is also a favorite experience. 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.
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 are doing 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.