Expedition and Traditional Cruising Combine for an Experience That Appeals to…Everyone!
I am luxuriating in the steamy, bubbling waters of Viking Polaris’ thermal pool, a powerful jet trained on the sore hip that I woke with after dancing a bit too enthusiastically at the ship’s Living Room last night. On the opposite side of the deck, at Expedition Central, a group of my shipmates are huddled around an extensive collection of wildlife skulls, listening as one of the 18 scientists on board decodes the mysteries that bones reveal about the diverse array of creatures they’re examining.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of the 30,150 grt, 378-passenger Viking Polaris: an expedition ship that dazzles the scientifically inclined while, at the same time, delighting even those of us who failed chemistry in junior year of high school.
I sailed Viking Polaris from Toronto to New York during her Canadian Discoveries itinerary, the Great Lakes and Canada being the ship’s beat when not sailing the polar regions. And if the thought of a visit to eastern Canada so soon after the catastrophic wildfires of this summer surprises you, let me assure you, the only “Smoke on the Water” I experienced was the Deep Purple song streaming from my Spotify app.
Boarding and Disembarking: One of the many luxuries of a small ship is the ease of boarding and disembarking. Instead of thousands of shipmates snaking around stanchions for hour-long waits, both procedures are simple and comfortable with Viking Polaris….and there’s glass of sparkling wine waiting for you at the end! 10/10
Ship Design: Anyone who’s sailed Viking Cruises’ ocean ships will feel right at home here, amid the elegant Scandinavian décor, blonde woods, flickering faux fireplaces and comfortable carpeted nooks framed by well-stocked bookshelves. Even some of the ocean ships’ favorite public rooms make an appearance aboard Viking Polaris, like Mamsen’s for lighter fare (don’t miss their feather-light, fruit-topped waffles for breakfast and split pea soup and open-face sandwiches at lunch), Manfredi’s for superb Italian dining, The Explorer’s Lounge with its sweeping views of the sea and, of course, The Nordic Spa which features treatment rooms, a fitness center and that spectacular Thermal Spa which, at no charge, offers use of the Thermal Pool, steam room, sauna, Snow Grotto, cold plunge and more. And just like Viking’s ocean ships, aboard Viking Polaris you’ll find conveniences like a business center stocked with computer terminals for guests’ use and launderettes on each deck.
But make no mistake: Viking Polaris is an expedition ship. In addition to Expedition Central, guests find the 380-square-foot Science Lab with wet/dry laboratory facilities (guests even get to don white lab coats while attending sessions there), and the Hangar, a garage-like storage facility for the ship’s zodiacs, kayaks, Special Operations Boats and even two submarines. That’s right! “Ringo” and “George” are yellow (what else?) submarines that, in calm seas, may be booked by Viking Polaris guests for dives of up to 300 meters. (“John” and “Paul” are found aboard Viking Polaris’ sister ship, Viking Octantis.) And, of course, there’s The Bow, a spacious viewing platform just steps from my cabin, 3002. With each announcement of a wildlife sighting, The Bow was where I’d run—and not only would I find leaping whales or dolphins, but servers circulating among the binocular-toting guests, bearing trays of delectable, whipped-cream-topped Irish coffees, Bloody Marys garnished with crisp strips of bacon or flutes of bubbly. 10/10
Lectures and Entertainment:
Expedition Lectures and Entertainment: It’s not surprising that nature, the environment and exploration take center stage aboard Viking Polaris. Its team of scientists, chosen based on their publication record, passion for field work and ability to make science entertaining, lead expeditions conducted via zodiac or the ship’s 9.8 ton military-grade Special Operations Boats. Water samples are collected during these sailings, and once on board, the plankton, microplastics, oil byproducts or other substances are interpreted with results presented during the evening’s daily briefing or in the more intimate settings of The Science Lab or Expedition Central.
Amazingly, aboard Viking Polaris, guests participate in real, significant science and some of those results have appeared in scientific journals. In fact, Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen’s goal with Viking Polaris (and sister ship, Viking Octantis) is that every voyage offer opportunities for scientific discovery. There is even talk of installing scientific devices aboard Viking’s ocean ships in order to expand the line’s data collection abilities.
During our Canadian Discoveries voyage, Viking Polaris launched a balloon from its registered on-board weather balloon launch station. The information collected by the balloon, which soared to 18.6 miles, was transmitted back to the line’s science partner NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the data incorporated into forecasts provided by the U.S. National Weather Service! 10/10
Traditional Lectures and Entertainment: By their very nature, evenings aboard an expedition ship are low key (leave the dressy clothes at home!) with much of the “entertainment” centered around social interaction, sharing the fascinating experiences of the day. While this is the case aboard Viking Polaris, the non-scientist still has options: a delightful whiskey/truffle tasting at The Hide (a nearly-hidden speakeasy-type lounge on deck 1, accessed only via deck 2), cocktail demonstrations and wine tastings (all at no charge), dance nights, films in The Aula Theater, team trivia (general questions, not scientific!), cards and bridge, and tabletop jigsaw puzzles everywhere! An “iPhone Photography” lecture was outstanding and inspired me, for the very first time, to try the “time-lapse” setting on my phone.
Aside from dance night, music skews classical with a touch of pop, or an occasional show like the talented Taras & Diana’s Ukrainian Folk Song concert and “Timeless,” a music celebration of classics performed by Entertainment Manager and superb vocalist Elmer del Fierro at The Aula Theater. 8/10
The dish appeared before me, a vision of six tender escargot broiled to perfection, each swimming in its own decadent pool of melted garlicky butter. Sure, we’ve all enjoyed escargot before…but at a cruise ship buffet????
Viking Polaris’ World Café breaks the mold, particularly when it comes to evening dining. Amid a spacious and comfortable setting, each night guests find not only live “a la minute” cooking, open kitchens, an assortment of delectable sushi, The Grill’s mouthwatering surf and turf, pizzas, salads and inventive specials, but a working bakery—from measuring to mixing, proofing and even baking in the Café’s windowed ovens.
Unlike other cruise or expedition ships, Viking Polaris features no main dining room, so it is to World Café most people head to at dinner time. Yet, also unlike other ships, there is no restriction on the number of times a guest may book one of Viking Polaris’ excellent alternative restaurants that are available at no surcharge–Manfredi’s, with its menu of Italian pastas and specialties and The Restaurant, with one daily menu supplemented by a second menu filled with “always available” classics. Simply book your reservation via your cabin’s interactive TV or visit Guest Services. Do it every day, if you’d like.
In keeping with Viking Polaris’ outstanding value, wine is complimentary with lunch and dinner, but that applies only to the red and white being poured that evening. For additional varietals, as well as unlimited beers, cocktails, liquors and more throughout the cruise, opt for the “Silver Spirits” beverage package, reasonably priced at $25 per person per day (both occupants of a cabin must purchase the package).
Stateroom: I’ve found the solution to the insomnia I experience at home: the heavenly bed in my 220-square foot Deluxe Nordic Balcony cabin aboard Viking Polaris. The Nordic Balcony concept may disappoint some who seek an outdoor viewing area, as the “balcony” is simply a retractable window that is raised and lowered at the push of a button. A sleep shade that creates complete darkness operates the same way. The rumble of the motorized window and shade, however, might disturb a late-sleeping cabinmate if the early riser wishes to have a peek outside!
Like the rest of Viking Polaris, when it comes to accommodations, think Nordic design, modern yet homey. Each cabin contains two spacious closets and ample drawers along with a floor-to-ceiling drying closet for damp clothing, replenished mini bar stocked with soft drinks, bottled water and snacks, coffee and tea maker, high-end binoculars ($450 charge if you swipe them!), and an interactive TV where you may view your day’s schedule (printed versions of The Viking Daily are available only by request), on board account, live TV, movies, on board presentations and more. A comfy throw blanket is arranged on every bed—perfect for an afternoon nap. Bathrooms are modern with step-in shower, a selection of lovely Freyja toiletries and a heated floor, designed for polar regions but appreciated even in Canada! 10/10
An appealing thing about Viking Cruises is its practice of offering a selection of included shore excursions along with its optional ones. And don’t dismiss the included experiences, assuming those with a hefty price tag are superior!
The scientific focus of Viking Polaris is never more evident than while perusing shore excursion options. A zodiac ride will likely be led by a scientist who chooses the best route based on weather and water conditions, pointing out wildlife and exotic birds along the way; a ride aboard a soaring Special Operations Boat will find you collecting water samples to be analyzed once back on board and an experience aboard one of the ship’s kayaks immerses guests in the beauty of the nature that surrounds them. Price tag on each? Zero.
During our sailing, which visited several ports in Quebec, including Quebec City, as well as stunning locations of the Canadian Maritimes, I found my included tours were often more enriching than the optional ones!
Days after a disappointing culinary tour in Trois Rivieres (cost $129), I attended Viking Polaris’ Ceilidh on the Wharf in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and discovered an afternoon of outstanding live music by a talented (and humorous) father and son duo and a lavish lunch that included salad or clam chowder, a whole lobster served with a hefty mound of potato salad and coleslaw and a glass of wine or beer. No charge.
In Halifax, an included tour offered a stop at Peggy’s Cove followed by a visit to Fairview Lawn Cemetery and the burial grounds of 121 victims of the Titanic disaster. The excursion was led by one of those rare tour guides who combines knowledge, passion and personality, bringing many of us to tears with the identified Titanic victims’ stories, including that of an infant, the first body found during Halifax’s rescue operation, and only positively identified as Sidney Leslie Goodwin in 2007. We viewed J. Dawson’s grave, which inspired the name of the character in the Titanic blockbuster film and were haunted by the scores of tombstones bearing no name, simply the words “Died April 15, 1912.”
Of course, those looking for that once-in-a-lifetime experience might want to venture beneath the surface within a yellow submarine–$499 per person for a 30-minute dive. I signed up but—safety first!–choppy seas prevented the dive. 9/10
Service: Viking Polaris’ gratuity charge of $17 per person per day seems woefully inadequate to reward its cheerful and capable crew…and perhaps the most professional Guest Services staff at sea! 10/10
Shopping: The Nordic Shop, Viking Polaris’ sole retail venue, carries a limited selection of sweaters and toiletries and, like every other ship at sea, Pringles! 4/10
Whether your passion is science or simply cruising, Viking Polaris is sure to dazzle. I like to think I tested her during this sailing and, unlike me and my chemistry course in high school, she passed with flying colors!