Exclusive Review: Viking UK shows how you can cruise safely post pandemic

Renowned maritime writer Tony Slinn took one of the first cruises aboard the brand new Viking Venus when the UK restarted cruises this month.  Here’s his review.

COVID cancelled our Viking Elbe river cruise. But the cruise company weren’t to be stopped, offering us instead an eight-day UK ‘staycation’ ocean cruise aboard the brand new Viking Venus. Cruise-starved for 18 months and given this would be our first experience of Viking’s sea-going ships after five Viking river cruises, we leapt at the chance.

We travelled in a deluxe veranda cabin on deck five and bought ourselves a vital Silver Spirits drinks package.  I’d followed Viking Venus’ construction at the Fincantieri yard from the 2017 start through to her commissioning. Fincantieri is responsible for all seven ships currently in Viking’s ocean fleet (another is being built), which are all-balcony, 745ft long by 94.5ft wide, and accommodate 930 guests in 465 cabins.

In terms of today’s cruise behemoths, that classes them as ‘small ships’ –  something we like.

We also liked the fact that they are adults only, don’t have a casino with shrieking slots and punters, serve stunning food in a variety of restaurants and include wi-fi, some shore excursions, gratuities, and wine during meals as part of the deal.

We enjoy our wine. which is why we upgraded to the Silver Spirits upgrade, which covers cocktails, wine and spirits before and after meals and throughout the ship. We’ve always paid for that in the past, but were surprised to see ocean package wine list prices capped at USD25, the base price for ‘house wines’. On river cruises they’ve been double that and included champagne.

That said, the included wines were not bad, and there was a good choice. But, as we both love fine wine, I did have a discussion with the beverage team about introducing a ‘gold’ package … and who knows, it might happen.

Schedule

Viking TV presenter and British journalist Anne Diamond was revealed as the ship’s ‘Godmother’ at the May naming ceremony, breaking a bottle of aquavit on the hull by using an ancient Viking broad axe to cut the ribbon holding it in place. A mini cruise for the great & good followed – we were on the second ‘real’ cruise.

That was a blessing: rain, wind and grey skies greeted passengers on the first while we had mostly blue skies and warm sun. This is Britain, don’t forget.

Anne obviously liked the ship, because she stayed on for our cruise to give a couple of interesting lectures and was guest of honour at the Explorers’ Society’s past guest cocktail party, where Future Cruises manager Sam told us we were the only fare-paying passengers on any ocean cruise ship in the world!

We sailed from Portsmouth, spent day two at sea and docked in Liverpool, Tresco on the Isles of Scilly, Falmouth and Portland.  We took included excursions at all four. The final day was spent cruising around, but not stopping at, the Channel Islands before returning to Portsmouth.

‘Iconic Liverpool’ was the title of our first two-hour coach tour with a very knowledgeable guide. It surprised us as a lovely city with a great history, and, of course, we visited Penny Lane accompanied by that Beatles song. At Tresco we were tendered to the island for a visit to the Abbey Gardens, which are spectacular.

‘A Cornish Snapshot’ heralded the Falmouth visit that included the old tin and copper mining district and the site of the the recent  G7 meeting. Sadly, the picturesque town centre was off limits to our coach. No such problem on Portland, a former Royal Navy base, and again a very knowledgeable guide brought it to life for us.

The ship

If you’ve sailed aboard any of Viking’s other ocean vessels, you’ll feel right at home.  They are almost all the same. For us,  it was all new and half the size of liners we’d cruised on before.

In your cabin, you’ll find information about the works of art that adorn the ship, which also has a baby Viking ‘museum’ and much more.

The spa impressed us and not only has a hydrotherapy pool, thermal loungers, saunas, and plunge pools, but also a Snow Room. No snow on our cruise though, but the room was very cold.

Not so in what became our favourite haunt for a late night post-prandial brandy, the Explorer’s Lounge. It features a huge water vapour fireplace—an artificial electric device that uses water mist and LEDs to create a realistic flame illusion.

Shops, a well-equipped gym, a pool section with its own grill for casual lunches and a huge sliding roof  – ideal for the unpredictable UK climate – plus a late night jazz club named Torshavn were also impressive. Up top, Viking Venus features separate sun and sports decks, the latter with bowls, table tennis, and more.

As for dining, all passengers had complimentary access to the Chef’s Table restaurant, which I’m told usually incurs an additional charges. We were treated to two excellent five-course meals, themed on British and Norwegian food with paired wines. We also enjoyed an Italian meal in Manfredi’s—the Bistecca Fiorentina was superb. And if you’re looking for a light lunch, I can recommend Mamsen’s for a Scandinavian open-sandwich buffet with gravlax, shrimp, and more.

Most of our meals, though, were in the main restaurant and buffet-style World Café, the latter on deck seven and opening onto the Aquavit Terrace with its hot tub and infinity pool. And we had the weather to enjoy both.

One place I know Brits felt at home – the midships Wintergarden serves a quintessentially British afternoon tea that includes scones with jam and clotted cream. As we learned on our Falmouth trip, in Cornwall it’s jam first, cream on top, the reverse in Devon. The Cornish say it’s because their clotted cream is far superior and deserves to be on top.

Entertainment on our trip consisted of live music from the Viking band, a pianist, a classical trio and a guitarist who set up in various venues. Normally, Viking offers evening production shows in the Star Theatre, but not on our cruise. It was, however, the venue for well-attended daytime lectures. The ship also offers a wide array of books, board, and digital games scattered in most public rooms.

Finally, praise for the crew. The ebullient Captain Johan Malmberg was bang on in describing Viking Venus as “the friendliest ship at sea” in his briefings. You couldn’t ask for more.

COVID-19’s Impact

Viking took its pandemic precautions very seriously.

Firstly, you had to prove you’d had both jabs and take a health survey before boarding, the latter proving a problem in our case as Viking’s website locked up. No matter, carried out in Portsmouth’s cruise terminal.

That was followed by a temperature check and the first of daily NAT saliva tests (nucleic acid amplification technology). These involve spitting into a tube that you seal and which then goes to the ship’s onboard laboratory. Automated temperature checks via infrared cameras also equipped with face recognition, plus hand sanitation stations, were in place at points around the ship—restaurants especially—and, while charming, the staff made sure they were used.

Mask wearing was compulsory in all public areas other than when on open-air decks, eating or drinking. We were also given, and had to wear, a contact-tracing dongle throughout the cruise and on shore excursions.

Viking limited passenger numbers to half the ship’s 930 capacity, but only 284 were aboard our cruise, which aided social distancing. That was helped by measures such as well-spaced restaurant tables and lifts restricted to two people or a ‘household’ of four.

In the World Café, normally a self-service buffet, staff and all food were behind glass screens and served to you—again, with so few passengers, no real queues resulted.

Measures extended to shore excursions: you were not allowed off the ship by yourself, only with fellow guests on organised trips. Other than at Tresco, our complimentary excursions saw us remain in our coaches with only ten-minute outside breaks—in Liverpool, not even the latter.

As a result, only one passenger tested positive for COVID-19 and was immediately disembarked. And on final disembarkation, the rest of us were given negative NAT test certificates, though these were not required by the authorities for British residents.

Cabins

All have balconies and Viking Venus has options for every pocket

Even basic cabins are spacious, have huge beds, benefit from minimalist Scandinavian design, have plenty of wardrobe and cupboard space, multiple USB and power outlets, heated bathroom floors, free wi-fi, and 42″ flat-screen, interactive LCD TVs with complimentary movies on demand.

■ Veranda and Deluxe Veranda—both are 270 sq. ft. The latter gives you a few extras, such as one guaranteed priority reservation at the speciality restaurants 60 days prior to departure, priority booking of spa treatments 60 days prior to departure, and a coffee brewer.

■ Penthouse Veranda—338 sq. ft., more priority reservations extending to 77 days for shore excursions, 70 days for others, plus a welcoming bottle of champagne and complimentary pressing and shoeshine services.

■ Penthouse Junior Suite—405 sq. ft., many more priority reservations extending to 87 days for shore excursions, 80 days for others, champagne, and complimentary laundry, dry cleaning, pressing, and shoeshine services.

■ Explorer Suite—including private veranda, sizes range from 757 to 1,163 sq. ft. and have varying layouts depending on where they are on the ship. Priority reservations now at 97 and 90 days and the suites’ dining areas seat four.

■ Owner’s Suite—on deck seven and 1,448 sq ft with a private library, wine and music collections curated by Viking chairman Torstein Hagen. Its boardroom seats 12, and the list goes on, including dinner with the officers, and a private car excursion.

The verdict

Highs

■ Superb staff

■ Excellent food

■ Beautiful ship

■ Attention to detail evident everywhere

■ Top-level organisation of boarding, excursions, disembarkation, et al.

Lows

■ High-priced optional excursions—eg: USD189 per person for fairly basic trips in Liverpool

■ Dumbed down Silver Spirit beverage package compared to Viking river cruises

■ Lack of evening theatre shows

■ Cramped and crowded private tenders at Tresco.

Prices vary depending on the cruise you pick and the time of year. We travelled in a deluxe veranda cabin on deck five the Silver Drinks package

For more, see vikingcruises.com.au