With a name that conjures up seafaring conquests, it was only a mater of time before Viking Cruises took to the high seas. Sue Bryant is curious to see how the river cruise expert takes to the open water.
When Viking Cruises decided to take its river cruising formula to sea, the company asked its regular passengers what they’d want from a cruise ship. Not too big, they said; but not so small either. Not stuffy or formal and with shore excursions thrown in.
The result, with many of Viking’s trademark Scandinavian touches, is the brand-new, 930-passenger Viking Star, which is already receiving rave reviews. I jumped on board for a few days of the maiden voyage to see what all the fuss was about.
Viking Star is typically Scandinavian, very cool and stylish, reflecting the colours of the Arctic in summer: taupe, stone, pale grey, the scarlets and oranges of the lichen and the bright green of the moss. Add plenty of bleached wood, colourful woven throws and cream sofas draped with reindeer pelts and you’ve got an idea of the decor. Light floods every room, as it would a Norwegian home, and every cabin has a balcony. There are little hints at nature everywhere – rock and moss gardens, and clusters of birch trunks around the pool. It’s reminiscent of the ever-expanding fleet of Longships that sail Europe’s rivers, but with more: the first infinity pool at sea, for example, high up on the aft deck with only a wall of glass between you and the ocean. Floating in the warm water, gazing down at the ship’s wake is a surreal sensation.
The spa features the first sea-going snow cave (with real snow), in addition to a saltwater jacuzzi pool, sauna and steam room. All of this is free to use, unlike some cruise lines that charge US$25 a day and upwards just to have a sauna. Viking has forbidden the horrible touting for tips and product sales that comes hand-in-hand with most cruise-ship spas, too.
There are personal touches of chairman Torstein Hagen everywhere, not least a late-night bar called Torshavn, featuring the rare malt whiskies and jazz he loves. Mamsen’s Norwegian deli is a big hit, too; Mamsen was the nickname for Hagen’s mother, Ragnhild, and the deli serves her special recipe of Norwegian waffles piled high with berries and whipped cream. There are assorted herrings and Norwegian pastries – cinnamon rolls and kringle, sticky buns with almond paste.
My favourite of the four restaurants was the Italian-themed Manfredi’s, where I had a delicious spicy fettuccini wrapped in smoked aubergine followed by grilled sea bass and a rich tiramisu. The evening buffet in the indoor-outdoor World Café was pretty amazing, too, starting with a colourful array of sushi and a sumptuous display of giant prawns, mussels, crayfish and whole legs of king crab.
Of course, the ethos of Viking Star is actually getting off the ship to explore and there’s a wide choice of excursions. The included tours tend to be standard sightseeing trips, although everybody I spoke to praised the quality of the guides. But there are other tours, at reasonable prices: on my cruise these included sea kayaking from Cartagena, visiting the home of a matador near Jerez and trundling round Lisbon in a private tram. Back on board, people gathered in the blue-and-cream Explorers’ Lounge before dinner to listen to lectures and swap experiences against an appropriate setting of treasures from real expeditions past – vintage telescopes, old maps, fish skulls and seashells.
Viking only sells its cruises in English-speaking countries and my shipmates were almost exclusively American, with just a smattering of Australians and Brits. The age group was younger than I’ve encountered on the company’s river cruises; the informality and cool, boutique look of the ship may have something to do with this.
If you’re looking for butler service and grand ballrooms, Viking Star won’t be for you. But for an almost-all-inclusive, casual cruise in gorgeous, understated surroundings, it’s perfect.