For the first time in ten years, the cruise industry has an entirely new cruise line. On May 18, in Bergen, Norway, Viking Ocean Cruises christened the Viking Star, the first of three ships for the new line. Though the line itself just debuted, Viking is hardly a new name in cruising. Over the past five years, it has amassed a fleet of river vessels throughout Europe, Russia, and Asia, dominating the industry with nearly 60 ships. Since the introduction of its innovative Longships® in 2012, Viking has earned a reputation for providing supreme comfort at an exceptional value, and it enjoys nearly half the total market share of the river-cruising industry.
Now with Viking Star—and its sister ships, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, to be introduced in 2016—the company looks to conquer the ocean, expanding on many of the features that made its Longships so successful. We were onboard Viking Star for a small leg of its inaugural journey from Turkey to Sweden to see how the river titan has taken to the seas. Here are a few of the ship's highlights.
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Forget interior rooms with no natural light. Every stateroom on this ship includes a veranda, spacious accommodations, and large showers. The terrace-for-everybody feature is one of the many amenities meant to achieve two objectives—total onboard relaxation combined with grand exhibition of the surroundings, so that the bounteous sights of the ocean ports can be enjoyed not just from common areas but also from the comfort and privacy of your own room. Because Viking Star is a small enough vessel (930 passengers) to dock in ports that larger ships cannot, it spends more time sailing through scenic passages such as the Thames River in London or the fjords of Flåm, Norway.
At 270 square feet, the standard staterooms are quite spacious compared to other ships’ standard rooms, with a king-size bed, small seating area and desk, and a large flat-screen TV. Bathroom fixtures, particularly in the shower where water flow and temperature are easy to control, are sleek and modern.
One particular feature experienced cruisers will appreciate is reduced noise from the toilets. By necessity, cruise ship plumbing is outfitted with a turbo-powered vacuum system that can sound particularly unpleasant as flushing toilets detonate throughout the ship. But Viking Star has enhanced sound isolation in its stateroom bathrooms, significantly muffling the noise from each room.
The main lobby is called The Living Room, an apt name for a space specifically designed to promote relaxation and social interaction. At first glance, you see deep couches, a polished wooden bar, and an elegant staircase illuminated by a vibrant LCD display of natural scenery. In other words, you see a typically lovely lobby, not necessarily a living room. But you’ll discover that it truly does have that casual ease and inviting feel. Although it’s a main hub and meeting area of the ship, there’s not a lot of bustle; many folks come here to relax with a book and a glass of wine. If you’re not catching up on your own reading, there’s a thoughtfully stocked library that offers a number of inspirational travel books, classic literature, and fascinating history. Other passengers content themselves with backgammon, Scrabble, and card games. And although there’s free Wi-Fi everywhere, you’re more likely to find folks engaging in conversation than staring at their smartphones.
The promenade deck wraps around the ship in a continuous loop for strolling or jogging complete laps. There are two pools, each ingeniously designed to integrate the sea and sky. The main pool has a retractable sunroof, perfect for those chilly Baltic days. When they have to enclose the pool, the air remains pleasant and dry thanks to a highly efficient ventilation system. And on the edge of the stern's upper deck, a glass-backed infinity pool suspends swimmers in seemingly endless waters, as ocean and pool appear to become one.
One of our favorite common areas is the two-deck Explorer’s Lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the bow. Often when the ship approaches or leaves port, passengers can gather here for “scenic sailing” to hear a crewmember provide a lively narration about the sights. Other times, there is a pianist or guitar player serenading guests who, in our opinion, not only have the best seats, but also are served the best drinks in the house. Our cocktails in the Explorer’s Lounge were expertly mixed, and it became our go-to spot for a Sidecar—cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. Sitting in this lounge’s sumptuous armchairs, listening to music or enjoying “cocktail and conversation” hour among the antique globes, astrolabes, and navigation tools is a key experience on this ship.
Food and Drink
Viking’s river-cruise model for food-and-beverage service is one of the most welcome transplants to its ocean ships. As on its Longships, there’s no charge for room service, specialty restaurants, or wine and beer at lunch and dinner. Viking Star also adapted the Longships’ Aquavit Terrace deck plan, which provides plentiful al fresco seating on top of the stern; the World Café restaurant has glass doors that fold open for even more outdoor dining.
The World Café provides buffet service from live cooking stations and open kitchens. It’s linked to The Restaurant, a venue designed to be the Star's core dining experience. Its à la carte menu changes daily, often featuring regional specialties from the nearest port. For example, as we approached Norway, items such as seared arctic char and gravlax were offered. Each menu also features a “Classics: Always Available” section that, at dinner for example, includes Norwegian salmon and New York strip steak. The overall cuisine concept is Mediterranean and American with French and Asian influences. Sauces and marinades tend to be light, the fish and produce is fresh, and much of the baking is done on the ship. Menus and buffet offerings are selective, presenting a dynamic, but not overwhelming, range of cuisine.
In total, there are eight dining options, from Mamsen's, a small bistro that evokes a Norwegian mother's traditional kitchen (specifically, Hagan's mother and some of her original china), to Manfredi's, an Italian restaurant for feasting on dishes such as parmesan-crusted lamb chops, osso buco, and creative desserts like Nutella-infused panna cotta.
The Cruise Itinerary
Charlie Parker once summarized his approach to music by saying, “Master your instrument, master the music, then forget all that [stuff] and play.” Similarly, Viking's approach to cruising might be: “Master the ship, master the amenities, then forget all that stuff and explore.” For all the painstaking details that have gone into creating an environment that engenders total relaxation, Viking's ships are primarily designed to be “destination-first” vessels for culturally curious travelers. Viking CEO Torstein Hagan's philosophy is “Don't disturb the picture with the frame.” The destination is the picture, and the frame is a ship powered by state-of-the-art propellers that reduce fuel consumption and increase speed, which means less time in transit and more time in ports (each with an excursion at no extra price)—more time to view the picture, more time, in fact, than any other cruise line. Viking overnights in every destination, spending an average of 12.1 hours in each port, while most of its competitors spend an average of six to eight hours.
Viking Star sails nine- to 50-day itineraries—yes, 50! There were a good number of “50/50” passengers on our sailing—couples celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary with a fifty-day cruise. The ship journeys through Northern Europe, the Baltic, and the Mediterranean.
Rates from $2,649 per person. Visit www.vikingcruises.com.