Something different: A Viking Ocean cruise through Canada and the Northeastern U.S.

In two days we will set off on another cruise adventure, and part of this trip visits a region that I haven’t visited by ship before: The Canadian Maritimes.

We will be traveling on a 12-day itinerary called the “Eastern Seaboard Explorer” on the new Viking Sky. This will be our third trip this year with Viking. Last year at this time we spent two wonderful weeks venturing around the Baltic Sea on the line’s first ocean vessel, the Viking Sea.

Then in June, we traveled down the Rhine river on the Viking Hlin, one of the company’s 59 river ships.

The Sky is the third ocean-going ship and we will be interested to see what design tweaks they have made over the original Viking Sea.

Actually, I have visited all of the ports on this itinerary: Montreal, Quebec City, the Saguenay Fjord, Gaspé, Halifax, Boston and New York. But except for the latter two, I have never arrived by ship. We were supposed to visit Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, which would have been new to me but we learned last week that because of new speed regulations in the St. Lawrence River and Gulf of St. Lawrence (to protect the right whales) we would not make that port in time for our excursions, so they substituted the Gaspé.

Many years ago I had a wonderful visit to that remote peninsula as part of an excursion with fellow travel writers and still remember it in great detail. I am glad that Chet will get to experience this. I am particularly hoping to spot some whales while we are enjoying the fall color.

We are overnighting in several ports, giving us extra time to explore them…another hallmark of the Viking way of operating cruises that we appreciate. We also enjoy the included excursions

We will be traveling with my sister- and brother-in-law, Vicki and Carl, who are totally new to Viking…so it will be nice to have input from those with fresh impressions.

So far, Viking has impressed us in so many ways, particularly with the staff. So embarkation on Saturday can’t some soon enough! 

Several crazy travel days, trying to reach the ship 

We are here. That seems like a simple statement but making it happen took a lot of trouble. So here is a recap of the past few days. Note in black italic some lessons learned during these misadventures.

Our travel travails began Friday when we arrived at Traverse City airport in Michigan in the morning for our short flight to Chicago where we were to connect to a flight to Montreal. We were to arrive in Canada about 4 p.m. We would overnight, have dinner, and board the Viking Sky the next day.

But American Airlines had other plans. The four of us had been unable to check in online the day before because of the international leg. But when we arrived at the counter and hour and a half early we were informed that we would probably miss the flight because the airline had sold 50 seats but the plane could only carry 33 because of runway construction … and that 33 had checked in already.

The alternatives the offered weren’t good and the best case was that we would now reach Montreal about midnight. They had us wait until they offered big bucks for people to give up their seats but not enough did so, so we had to be rebooked. By this time, all decent alternatives for that day were already full.

So, unbelievably, we had to stay overnight in TVC. Of course, they paid for it but we ended up losing at least $450 for cancelling our hotel rooms in Montreal and had to get up at 4 am. to catch a 6:20 a.m. flight. We did make it to Montreal around 1 p.m., took a cruise transfer and embarked around 2:30 p.m. My bag made it to our cabin by about 4 p.m. but Chet’s was not there until after dinner. Another aggravation.

The only good thing about this entire experience is that AA gave us each $2,500 worth of travel vouchers (equal to what they were offering folks to give up seats).

Once again, our practice of always flying to a cruise one or two days early paid off but we were whipped once we made it onboard so did nothing but have dinner that evening and crashed early. 

This is not the way we like to begin a cruise. 

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Viking makes a point of staying overnight in key destinations, so the ship was still there Sunday morning. We were signed up for “A Taste of Montreal” tour that cost us each $149. It ran four hours and made several stops. It began with a walking tour and some samplings in Old Montreal … all very quiet until we encountered 15,000 running enthusiasts competing in a half-marathon!

Then we traveled by bus to the Marché Jean-Talon, the largest market in the city which encompasses a full city block. This was definitely a highlight for me and I could have spent hours there poking through the food stalls and the boutiques surrounding them. First we stopped at Le Marché des Saveurs du Quebec, a store featuring more than 6,000 food and beverage products produced in the province. We sampled ice cider, pate, cheeses, crackers and more and I admit to buying a tempting vinaigrette dressing.

Our last stop was the Andrea Jourdan La Boutique where Andrea herself, a chef and cookbook author, introduced us to several of her products and I admit to filling my shopping bag with a few more delicious finds. (I admit it is fun shopping with Canadian dollars, worth about $1.23 to the US dollar.)

I took away two key thoughts from this tour: Although I found it enjoyable, I am not sure it was worth $300 for the two of us…especially when I found many similar tours being sold online for $60. I should have done more research online before committing to these somewhat expensive optional tours. The other is that the Jean-Talon market is so worthwhile that I would recommend foodies who like to shop just book a taxi or Uber off the ship and go to the market directly. I would have loved another hour or two there…although not sure Chet would have been up to that. Sometimes it is more worthwhile to just pick one activity for your day. 

However, that evening we were peppy enough to attend the captain’s staff introductions and the variety show after. But it is going to take another day or so to settle in. Good thing this cruise is 12 days!

Roaming around picturesque Quebec City and fixing a phone problem 

After a tumultuous first two days, our next two were more normal. Thank goodness.

On Tuesday, we were escorted around historic Quebec City by Caroline Tetu who works with the port promoting cruise tourism. Of the 5 million tourists who visit QC each year, only 200,000 are from cruise ships so this aspect of tourism has great growth potential for the city which will have over 130 cruise calls this season. However, the majority of these are in the fall and they are trying to extend the cruise season through spring and summer and eventually even winter. The port has set a goal of attracting 400,000 cruise guests per year by 2025.

Most recognize the symbol of the city, the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. It is regarded as the most photographed hotel in the world and is a beautiful sight to see as the ship approaches on the St. Lawrence River. Just take a look at the gorgeous photo that my sister-in-law Vicki captured at 6 a.m. in the morning.

Our tour encompassed a visit to the Plains of Abraham battlefield where the French and English fought for “New France” in 1759, during the seven-year French and Indian War. It is on a bluff overlooking the river. We then moved into several lovely neighborhoods, each with its own little central streets full of shops, bars, and colorful window boxes of flowers. We made an interesting stop in St. Jean-Baptiste, where we poked our heads into an old church to see that it had been converted to a public library – Biblioteque du Claire Martin. A block away is what is believed to be the longest operating grocery store in North America, J.A. Moisan, founded in 1871. Here we sampled cheese curds and maple cream cookies, both Quebec delicacies.

We then visited the Chateau, which boasts over 600 rooms and three restaurants. It was built by the CP Railroad, which also constructed the majestic Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise in western Canada. The rooms are mostly quite large, reflecting the period during which is was built. Here we sampled the “Jam Le Sam,” a colorful bourbon, maple syrup and fruit jam concoction that is one of the signature drinks in the Le Sam bistro.

Lunch took us to a trendy restaurant, La Buche, where we sampled rabbit wings and poutine. Poutine (poo-teen) is famous amongst Canadians, but virtually unknown in the U.S. The basic recipe is french fries, covered with fresh cheese curds and gravy. Sounds horrible and laden with cholesterol.  La Buche takes their version up a notch by adding fresh bacon and something slightly sweet. Bottom line: It was delicious! Who knew? A popular snack amongst teenagers, locals also promote it as a formidable hangover cure.

Dessert with another sugar-laden local delicacy, Poor Man’s Pudding. Basically, it is a cake laden with butter and brown sugar. Definitely needs a scoop of ice cream to cut the sugar!

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We returned to the ship after for what I hoped would be a quiet afternoon. However, there was a text message on my phone from Verizon telling me we had a $50 data charge. Oh my…I thought I was all set with TravelPass, which charges us $5 a day when we make calls and/or access cellular data from Canada. And we had not done either, or so I thought…

So I called the toll-free Verizon phone number, and spent the next hour getting it all straightened out. You see, we are traveling with two Iphones (used primarily for photography), three Ipads and a laptop. All were supposed to be using the ship’s complimentary wi-fi. But I learned that my husband’s Ipad had been connecting to the local internet provider and that he had already racked up $50 worth of charges.

But we have TravelPass, I explained….only to learn that TravelPass was installed only on my phone and none of our other devices. The solution was to cancel the $50 charge by putting Chet’s Ipad on a special deal where he buys 100 mb of data for $10 and to put TravelPass on all of the other devices.

Hard lesson learned: When traveling or cruising abroad, be sure to check your cellular plan carefully for your international options. Best advice is to turn off all cellular data (simplest way is to keep the phone or tablet in airplane mode) and use only wi-fi. In most cases you will be charged a minimal amount for texts. (You can also set up your phones to make calls using wi-fi but although I do that in the U.S., I am a bit apprehensive about trying it abroad.)

But what about emergencies, you ask? I advise my family to text and email me ASAP and ask me to call them. I also give them the ship’s phone number and they can contact me that way. Then I can turn my cellular back on and make calls using TravelPass. 

After two days in cities, it was fun to explore the Quebec countryside

For two days we were busy exploring two great cities in Canada, Montreal and Quebec City. So, it was a nice break to sail into the Saguenay Fjord yesterday and to check out a more rural and quite beautiful part of Quebec.

When you get to the region of Saguenay, it seems like you are in a very remote area but actually it is only a 2-1/2 drive from Quebec City. But when you consider that Saguenay is the farthest north settlement in Quebec and the only thing between it and the Arctic are a national park and a few small native settlements you get the idea.

Although there are small villages all along the 65-mile-long fjord, the main commercial center is Saguenay which consists of the districts of La Baie, Chicoutimi and Jonquiere where 146,000 people live. Cruise ships dock or anchor in the Ha!Ha! Bay at La Baie so all tours begin from this point.

It is certainly a welcoming little town, with clowns and jugglers greeting passengers as they disembark for tours and giving everyone a piece of blueberry pie as they return to the ship.

Many passengers took advantage of the more adventurous activities offered here, such as inflatable boat rides into the St. Lawrence Marine Park, whale-watching expeditions or soaring in a seaplane over the cliffs that border this dramatic waterway.

A homespun highlight for many is a pageant put on by the locals relating the history of the region. This was an included tour for Viking, so some 700 of the 900 passengers on our ship attended and generally it got favorable reviews.

Our tour explored the history and highlights of the region and included stops at two local craft studios. One was the glassblowing studio of Giuseppe Benedetto and the other was the Le Chevier du Nord, a farm where they raise Angora goats and rabbits, spinning yarn from their fleece and creating handmade hats, blankets and other garments. A family enterprise, they maintain 60 nannies and their offspring, feeding them a very specific diet to improve the quality of their fleece.

Tourism – cruising, in particular – is extremely important to this region. The local pulp factory closed way back in 1930, putting some 600 people out of work, but the city now exports bauxite for the production of aluminum.  Many residents are involved in tourism one way or another. The cruise port opened in 2008 and they are expecting 50 ships to visit this season. An odd fact is that there are often traffic jams when cruise ships are in port because people who live in the vicinity want to come in and see them. The region has now arranged shuttles to bring the local people in when particularly popular ships, like the Queen Mary 2, are in port.

Saguenay is the only region in Quebec to have its own flag and they are proud of the fact that 99 percent of the people speak French. Tourism will probably change that over time, but about 20,000 residents here are descendants of one early settler…a Frenchman named Pierre Tremblay and the current mayor is a Tremblay and so was our tour guide.

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Today was our first day at sea and it brought rain and a temperature change. It was a dreary, dreary day confining all but the hardiest to the interior of the ship. Reading, games, napping and listening to lectures was prevalent.

The main restaurant, usually closed at lunchtime, was doing a bustling business and people lingered to chat or dessert and coffee.

Everyone kept an eye on the water outside, hoping to spot a whale. They are migrating at this time and we may see some over the next couple of days.

I am sure that the free launderettes were busy (I managed to get my laundry done yesterday) and that the spa and gym were also occupied but nowhere on this lovely ship was it crowded. 

Musings about crew, food, tours and wi-fi 

Last year, just about the same time of year, we sailed for two weeks in the Baltic Sea aboard the Viking Star. So it was lovely that when we boarded the Viking Sky for this cruise that we saw so many familiar faces.

There were our two favorite bartenders, Natasha and Igor. The restaurant manager Jon. The cruise director Aaron. Several of the entertainers. And others, whose names we did not recall but faces were familiar. But the ship is small enough, just over 900 passengers, that it is easy to remember outstanding service. Of course, it is no surprise that many of the key staff are working on the Viking Sky, the company’s newest ship – at least until earlier this week, when the Viking Sun went into service.

As I have said before, happy crew means a happy ship and that is so true for Viking. So many crew members have told us how much they enjoy working for this company. It certainly shows.

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Last night we had our first opportunity to dine in a specialty restaurant, The Chef’s Table, which serves a five-course set menu that changes every three days. We enjoyed a new menu called “Anthony’s French Bistro” which featured a lovely consommé, a goat cheese in puff pastry appetizer, a red current liqueur granita, sole as the entrée and a raspberry confection for dessert.

Accompanying this feast were five premium wine pairings. This usually costs an additional $25 but was included in the Silver Spirits beverage package which we had each purchased for this cruise. Several of these wines were unfamiliar and it was nice to have the opportunity to sample them.

Tonight we will have our first opportunity dine in Manfredi’s, the Italian specialty restaurant. This was our favorite on our previous Viking ocean cruise and we hope it will be again. We have been exceptionally pleased with the food on board this ship. It has been excellent in all venues thus far.

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About ten days ago, we received an email from Viking informing us of a change in itinerary for yesterday. Because of new speed restrictions in the St. Lawrence river we would not be able to make Prince Edward Island in time for our tours so it was decided to substitute Gaspé in Quebec instead.

I had visited this area about 30 years ago and had vivid memories of a two-day stay. However, I must say that the included Viking tour to Forillon National Park was a disappointment on many levels…possibly because the tours were put together at the last minute. We rode on school buses, the stops were not well explained and we were mixed with about 200 rambunctious middle school children at our main stop. Our guide admitted it was his first day and we were his second tour. He tried, but it was painfully obvious.

Little matter. No trip is ever perfect and we enjoyed the fact that the sun came out and there was a considerable amount of fall color. Also, I was able to pick up some of those delicious maple cream cookies (which seem to be a Quebec delicacy) and some cheddar cheese curds for snacking at the local grocery.

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Today is a quiet day at sea. Again, the skies of grey and overcast so not much time is being spent on deck. Temps are around 50 degrees F. The slow pace gave us the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely lunch in the main restaurant and then we attended a port talk about Halifax which we will visit tomorrow.

Although wi-fi is included for all on this cruise, it is painfully slow today – probably because we are out to sea and so many on board are trying to access the internet at one time. But as my brother-in-law Carl commented, “Well, since we aren’t paying for it I guess we really can’t complain.”

Addendum:

I had just finished writing this article when the doorbell rang on our cabin. It was our daily 4 p.m. delivery of ice and my husband answered the door. The cabin steward making the delivery said, “Weren’t you on the Viking Star last year?” We said yes, and recognized him as our previous cabin steward, I Komang from Indonesia. He then said, “Yes! You were in cabin 3031.” I trust that he doesn’t remember us for doing something dreadful, but what was I saying about a really special crew?? I even still had his photo on my computer.

The LiV Nordic spa is well worth experiencing

Today we are in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and because we have been here a couple of times we opted to sign on for an afternoon tour to the scenic Peggy’s Cove. This gave me the opportunity to slot in a massage this morning.

And much to my surprise, my masseur was Joe from Sweden who was my therapist on the Viking Star last year. Familiar crew members are now commonplace on this cruise.

There are many features on the Viking ocean ships that are distinctive but one of the first to catch my attention was the LiV Nordic spa. The spa area luxurious, well-designed and open to everyone. It is also very large for this size of ship.

The ladies and men’s locker rooms are separate, each with its own dry sauna and a cold plunge pool. In each locker you will find a robe, slippers, spa underwear, a towel and a box for valuables. You lock this unit with your room key card.

In between the locker rooms is a common area with a good-sized thermal pool (96 degrees), with another smaller hot tub adjoining (100 degrees). The larger pool has aeration jets for those who want to do some resistance swimming.

There is also a large steam room and the “snow grotto”… a chamber where snow actually falls from the ceiling and accumulates in drifts on the floor. If the snow is too much of a shock to your system after your heat soak, there is a shower where you can just dump a bucket of cold water over your head…literally.

I first experienced this Scandinavian tradition of alternating heat and cold in Finland some years ago but I bet a lot of Americans will give it a first try here. According to the spa literature, “alternating hot and cold baths detoxes the body, relaxes tired muscles and boosts circulation.” Simply, the Nordic bathing ritual involves:

Relax in the sauna

Dip in the cold plunge

Heat up in the sauna (or steam room) again

Step into the snow grotto

Repeat as many times as you like

Trust me, it certainly wakes you up!

In addition, there is a full fitness center, small workout/yoga room and a hair and nail salon. The key for me here is that you do not have to be having a treatment to use these facilities. They are available to everyone at no additional charge

The décor all over the ship is distinctively Scandinavian. Spare, minimal, light colors. You will not find lush green plants around the pool, but rather stark arrangements of tree limbs. Table decorations are of moss, lichen and ferns rather than florals. The “atrium” spans three levels in the middle of the ship, giving it an airy feel.

People obviously are liking the Viking look, as nearly 750 of the 900 passengers on board are previous Viking customers. Of course, many first came to Viking through it river ships but it is obvious from everyone we talk to that they are loving this new Viking experience.

A look at this cruise company that is winning accolades…and why 

ABOARD THE VIKING SKY — Let’s talk again about this company, Viking Ocean Cruises. This new cruise line…brought to you by the folks who run Viking River Cruises…began sailing in April of 2015 and has been receiving rave reviews since.

Most notably Viking was named the #1 Ocean Cruise Line (mid-size ships) by Travel & Leisure readers in its 2016 and 2017 World’s Best Awards, knocking out luxury-line Crystal Cruises from its 20-year run in that position.

Viking River Cruises was founded by its current chairman, Torstein Hagen, and strongly reflects Scandinavian design and traditions. He was foresighted in seeing that while competition in river cruising was steadily increasing, there were opportunities for mid-sized cruise ships. After all, big ships were getting bigger and small ships were steadily getting more luxurious and more expensive.

So he set out to create something distinctive that would appeal to his river-cruising base. He did so by incorporating many of the hallmarks of river cruising. Viking offers an included tour in every port, complimentary wi-fi for everyone, verandas on all staterooms, free self-service laundry, premium dining venues at no extra charge and beer and wine with lunch and dinner. That is a hefty amenities package so while prices may seem a big high for a mid-level cruise line, the value is considerable.

But Viking Ocean Cruises is not for everyone. Its itineraries are very port-intensive, usually one every day, with few sea days. There is no casino, no passengers under age 18, no art auctions, no photographers.

Viking now has four ocean ships (and is introducing more). As their itineraries become more creative, I have noticed that there are more sea days involved which means that Viking has been ramping up their programming.

For example, yesterday many passengers were content to occupy themselves with reading, games and napping while others attended lectures, watched feature films, took in an amusing cook-off between teams of managers, or attended dance lessons, martini tastings and jeweler talks. Some headed for the small cinemas on deck 2, one which featured TED talks on the arts and the other a BBC film on the Northern Lights. Many got some exercise by walking around the promenade on Deck 2.

Entertainment is also a bit simpler. There is a four-piece house band fronted by a male/female singing duo. There is a classical trio (cello, flute, violin), a solo acoustic guitarist and a piano player which rotate around various venues. And there is a singing/dance troupe of three men and three women which perform basic production shows and cabaret sets. A highlight of this week, and something that was not on our cruise last year, was cruise director Aaron Seyfert performing a dynamic singing show that was excellent and certainly showcased his vocal range.

It is obvious that entertainment is evolving right along with on-board programming.

Which is all to the good as Viking prepares for its first world cruise on the brand new Viking Sun. Departing December 15, this trip spans 141 days and visits five continents, 35 countries and 66 ports, with 12 port overnights. Rates began at $45,000 per person and the ship is entirely sold out for the entire cruise. So expectations will be high!

Yesterday and this morning we were in Boston. After a basic city tour, we enjoyed visiting with our daughter and grandchildren who live here. Was great seeing them, even for a short time. We sail for New York this afternoon. Tomorrow the owner of Viking, Tor Hagen, will be on board for some special events and we look forward to meeting him.

Owner Torstein Hagen reflects on 20 years of Viking

ABOARD THE VIKING SKY – One aspect about sailing with Viking is that itineraries tend to be very heavy on time in port with most sailing done at night. This is convenient in some ways but it does tend to short-change you on time to appreciate the ship actually being on the water.

Our last two days on board provided us an opportunity to enjoy being at sea. As we sailed from Boston toward New York at 2 p.m., we finally had a chance to be out on deck to enjoy watching dolphins alongside and wind in our faces.

That evening our ship threaded its way through a very narrow manmade waterway called the Cape Cod Canal. It was so narrow that it actually felt like river cruising. The sun was setting and the light kept changing. We passed under three towering bridges and we marveled that the ship could actually fit under them.

Part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, the approximately seven-mile-long canal traverses the narrow neck of land joining Cape Cod to the state’s mainland. Most of its length follows tidal rivers widened to 480 feet and deepened to 32 feet, shaving 135 miles off the journey around the Cape for its approximately 14,000 annual users.

A swift running current changes direction every six hours and can reach 5.2 miles per hour during the receding ebb tide. It was interesting to learn that although being an artificial waterway, the canal is occasionally used by whales and dolphins including endangered North Atlantic right whales which may cause closure of the canal.

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The next morning we were able to enjoy breakfast in the main dining room with a window overlooking the rushing water. By mid-morning we were up on deck watching as the ship cruised into the Hudson River on its way to docking in Manhattan. There was narration on the open decks by one of the lecturers.

Of course, the most memorable moment was passing close by the Statue of Liberty. Always a Kodak moment when one feels welcoming home by this classic monument.

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Soon after docking around noon, everyone rushed off on afternoon tours but we stayed on board to finish packing and to attend a press event held by Torstein Hagen, the CEO and Owner of Viking Cruises. This was the Viking Sky’s first visit to NYC and Hagen used this occasion to give local journalists tours of the company’s newest vessel and to update everyone on the company’s 20th anniversary progress.

But although I have often written about the many things that Viking does right in its cruises, Hagen pointed out some little touches that I had not noticed:

  • The TV remote control is extremely simple with just the basic commands
  • Most handrails on board and levers to staterooms are covered in leather
  • The showers are largest at sea in standard cabins and have excellent pressure
  • The shower amenities (shampoo, conditioner, body wash and body lotion) are clearly labeled in large, easy-to-read letters and easy to open and close.
  • The dishes in Mamsen’s deli (named for his mother) is a copy of his family’s china pattern called Tor Viking II

And he also mentioned what Viking Ocean does not do:

  • No casino
  • No children under 18
  • No formal nights
  • No inside rooms
  • No butlers
  • No nickel-and-diming

Hagen states that he does not believe that the “Everything for everybody” is a good marketing concept. Rather, “What cruising should be all about is to take people to destinations and enrich their lives.” Viking’s target market is the 55+ age group of people interested in exploration rather being entertained.

He points out that the fact that all of the current Viking ships look exactly the same, except for artwork, “Makes our passengers feel right at home as soon as they board. It also is great for the crew as they know where everything is and can begin their work immediately…

“And the shipyards like it too. It makes shipbuilding faster and cheaper for us.”

Viking’s newest ship, the Viking Sun, went into service earlier this month and its 5th ship, the Viking Orion, comes on board in early 2018. Three more ships are on order. Obviously, the Viking formula is working.

October, 2017

 

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