The slick new luxury expedition ship Viking Octantis sails from Milwaukee in the United States to Thunder Bay in Canada, taking in rugged islands and stunning sounds along the way. Sue Wallace settles in for a memorable journey.

It is quite the James Bond scenario. One minute we are in a speedy Viking Special Operations Boat wave jumping over the turquoise waters of Canada’s spectacular Silver Islet near the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park on Lake Superior and the next, sipping bubbles and toasting the pristine landscape in all its glory.

Known as an SOB for short, the sleek military-grade boat travels at high speeds and it’s a thrilling ride, reminiscent of a big-screen Bond boat chase with the wind in your hair and the occasional freshwater spray in your face, while snug in a high-tech suspended seat.

Guide Hans Martin, who has spent many seasons in the Arctic, spots a bald eagle soaring from afar and later talks about the windswept 30,000 islands in the archipelago – some are tiny, with just one tree.
Blue skies, bright sunshine and the odd fluffy white cloud frame the pretty vistas of this remote pine-tree-smothered Lake Superior coastline in Ontario.

The area has a fascinating history: the equivalent in today’s currency of AUD$87 million of silver was extracted from a small underwater mine 384 metres below a tiny rocky island close to Silver Islet until it closed in 1884.

Later we visit the historic general store and tea house on the shore of Silver Islet village, where the cinnamon buns are legendary.

“This area is rich in history and just look at this spectacular scenery,” says Jeff Korkola, who with wife Sandy, owns the store, which opened in 1871 for the mining company and miners. The original till, receipt book and miner’s felted wool helmets, covered in candle wax that lit their way to the icy depths, are displayed.

The port is a highlight of an eight-day nature-laden Great Lakes Explorer cruise from Milwaukee in the US to Thunder Bay in the Canadian province of Ontario aboard the expedition ship Viking Octantis, which debuted this year.

The Great Lakes, consisting of Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario, make up the largest expanse of fresh water on Earth by total area and the second largest by total volume, holding 21 per cent of the world’s surface fresh water.

The enormous expanse of water resembles an inland sea, with white-capped waves flip-flopping backwards and forwards as the wind springs up. It’s quite different from river and ocean cruising, but just as enjoyable.

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What’s the ship like?

Viking Octantis accommodates 378 guests and 256 crew and is a stunner. Purpose-built as an expedition ship equipped to cruise to the Antarctic and other remote destinations, it’s also big on style and comfort with luxe touches.

There’s an emphasis on discovery and learning, with a 36-person strong expedition team providing opportunities to release those inner curiosities and be involved with experiments in the scientific laboratory. Guests can participate in research activities, hands-on workshops and the release of a weather balloon early one morning to gather statistics, in partnership with the University of Cambridge and Akvaplan-niva, a company attached to the Norwegian Institute for Water Research.

The ship is a treasure chest of sophisticated ‘toys’, including two six-person submarines named John and Paul – they are yellow, of course, and endorse chairman Torstein Hagen’s love of the Beatles. The other two submarines, George and Ringo, are aboard sister ship Viking Polaris, which is set to launch later this year. The 270-degree spherical windows provide a look into what lies beneath the lake waters.

There are also 17 military-grade high-tech Zodiacs, 16 kayaks and two 12-seat SOBs all located in an enclosed in-ship marina, The Hangar, which has revolutionised boat entry for passengers from an interior slipway shielded from wind and waves.

Viking Octantis features the best of Scandi design, highlighting Norwegian culture, history and eclectic decor, with amazing attention to detail.

We listen to engaging lectures, documentaries and feature-length movies in the impressive panoramic auditorium, Aula Theatre. Inspired by the University of Oslo’s famed ceremonial hall, the former venue for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, it is home to reproductions of the three central murals that Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch created for the original Aula, as well as floor-to-ceiling windows.

Expedition Central is the hub for everything you need to know about activities, complete with a striking ceiling art installation Thinking about the Flyway by Norwegian artist Toril Bonsaksen, which illustrates the incredible migratory journey of a seabird.

Some of my favourite haunts are the Living Room and The Library, where you can cosy up on a comfy sofa beside a faux fire and flip through beautiful books ranging from explorers’ tales, garden design and travel, curated by Heywood Hill bookshop, a literary landmark in the heart of London.

Another is the outdoor Finse Terrace, with its sunken sheltered seats and lava rock ‘firepits’. It’s named after the Hagen family dog, which in turn was named after Norway’s Finse Plateau where polar explorers including Nansen and Amundsen trained. The adored dog’s paw prints are set in the floor tiles.

But my happy place is the Nordic Spa that reflects the holistic wellness philosophy of Scandinavia with its bathing rituals. It’s hard to leave the warm bubbly waters of the hydrotherapy pool, but I do and sit in the sauna, then refresh with a cold bucket shower and warm up in the traditional Norwegian badestamp, or wood-sided hot tub, open to the outside.

My skin tingles in the invigorating snow shower as tiny snowflakes descend. I rub my feet in the snow mound then laze on a heated tiled bed until it’s time for a Swedish massage with deft hands. I leave completely at peace with the world and ready to sink into bed and dream of snowy adventures.

My stateroom is a haven with a Nordic balcony – a large window that opens halfway down and becomes a lookout, a bed that entices you to linger, sofa, vanity desk and a drying closet. The ensuite has a heated floor and is stocked with Freyja products, and there’s a coffee machine and mini bar.

Feeling peckish? You can order 24-hour room service, then watch movies on demand, live webcam views and repeats of enrichment lectures – heaven, really.

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Dining aboard the Viking Octantis

The much-loved Manfredi’s Italian restaurant offers the farm-inspired heartiness of Tuscany or the robust flavours of the northern provinces. Insalata Caprese with buffalo mozzarella, vine-ripened tomatoes and basil is followed by bistecca Fiorentina, a house special – think thick-cut rib eye coated in garlic oil and rubbed with porcini mushroom powder, kosher salt, brown sugar and red chili flakes; outstanding. There’s only one word for the grand finale tiramisu – “squisito” – exquisite.

The Restaurant offers daily-changing menus and regional specialties made with fresh, local ingredients and always-available classics including the Chairman’s Choice – poached Norwegian salmon – which I love. There’s no extra charge for these two restaurants, but bookings are essential.

The World Café is like a food hall, with excellent small cafés including the Grill, a sushi bar, and a 24-hour bakery; you’ll also find premium seafood and international dishes.

My favourite is the intimate Mamsen’s, which pays homage to Hagen’s mother, Ragnhild ‘Mamsen’ Hagen, where traditional Norwegian food stars including split pea soup, smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches) and waffles prepared to Mamsen’s original recipe.

When it comes to cake, the Suksessterte, or success cake – almond cake slathered with rich layers of vanilla custard – is downright addictive.

The iconic image of Mamsen on her cross-country skis pulling her grandchild on a sled, and tableware reimagined from the plates and cups used in the family kitchen, endears this intimate dining space to many.
For pre-dinner drinks, we head to the Explorers’ Lounge, where an Aquavit cocktail seems fitting, while after dinner we head to the Hide. Finding it is part of the charm.

Nestled within the steel bow of the ship, the Hide resembles the interior of a rustic explorers’ cabin. Large, angled windows offer amazing views of the scenery during the day, while at night it’s a cosy retreat.

Itinerary and activities on board

Onboard activities include wilderness and wildlife lectures, scientific workshops, music recitals and trivia. Ports include pretty Mackinac Island, which is home to charming Victorian-era houses complete with blooming hanging baskets. It’s car-free: transport is by horse drawn carriage. There are plenty of fudge shops, and the stately Grand Hotel is perfect for high tea.

There are three stops in Georgian Bay, including Parry Sound, the town of Killarney and Frazer Bay, which are all part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

We spend a morning on deck at Soo Locks, which joins Lake Superior and Lake Huron, sipping Irish coffee to warm us. Silver Islet is our last port before disembarking in Thunder Bay.

Viking Octantis merges luxury and adventure expeditions seamlessly, while awakening a spirit of discovery – no doubt it would meet with approval from Mr Bond.

Great Lakes Explorer cruises on Viking Octantis depart on May 19, June 2 and June 30, 2023, priced from $8,795;


Favourite experience? The self-guided onboard arts trail is an ode to Nordic heritage. It features eclectic digital and print media, sculptures, installations, photography and oil paintings that stopped me in my tracks.

The many exquisite works are hand-picked. These include originals by Astrid Nondal, Toril Bonsaksen, Anne Ingeborg Biringvad and Hanne Lydia Opøien Figenschou, Thore Heramb and Jakob Weidemann.

What to pack for your trip

Leave your evening wear and stilettos at home: it’s more about being casual and comfortable on Viking Octantis.

Take a warm waterproof puffer jacket for shore excursions, a fleecy top, sturdy shoes, hat, mosquito repellent and sunscreen. The sun can be fierce even on cloudy days.

For evening, smart pants, shirts and casual dresses suit the expedition-style ship. Don’t forget your swimmers: the Nordic hydrotherapy pool is fabulous.

Binoculars are supplied and wet weather pants can be borrowed. There’s a drying closet in your stateroom for damp clothes and laundries on each floor are complimentary.