ABOARD THE VIKING STAR — We have only been sailing on the Viking Star for two days. We began in Stockholm and visited Helsinki today. In that time, we have experienced two of the included shore excursions that are another hallmark of Viking’s destination-oriented approach to ocean cruising.
Taking another page from its long experience in river cruising, Viking offers complimentary shore excursions in every port. That is pretty amazing. Frankly, the only other companies that I know of doing this are Regent Cruise Lines, which is a luxury line charging extremely high rates, and the small expedition lines like Un-Cruise Adventures.
Viking is a mid-priced line, running fairly small ships (930 passengers) and seems to be proving that its new model can work. Now, to be sure, the included tours are mostly general port overviews but each of the ones we took was three hours long, hit all of the high spots, and the guides were very, very good. On top of that, Viking offered free shuttle service in both cities so people could either explore on their own or stay in the city after their tour to shop or visit a café.
In addition, Viking sells a full array of optional excursions and they are popular as for most passengers this is their first visit to the Baltic region, Despite the fact that the age of most passengers on this sailing definitely lean toward 70+, some 35 signed up for the bicycling tour of Helsinki today (3-1/2 hours, $99). When we encountered that group at the Olympic Stadium, all seemed to be keeping up! On arrival night in Stockholm, some 26 attended a tour of the Swedish Royal Opera and enjoyed a private performance.
Today we arrived in St. Petersburg for a two-day visit and almost everyone has booked at least one extra tour if not two. For many this is a highlight of this cruise why is probably why 190 folks chose “The Ultimate St Petersburg 2-day Program” for $469 per person and probably tacked on either the evening ballet performance or the folkloric show. We have visited this gorgeous city before and therefore we are going to take the included panoramic tour and purchased the all-day “Palaces and Villas of St. Petersburg” which will take us to places we did not visit previously.
Some additional Viking touches: Every passenger is given an QuietVox™ personal audio unit for use during excursions…yep, just like in river cruises. As you board your bus, you “sync” your unit to the guide’s frequency. By the second day, everyone seemed to understand how to do it. Viking also posts a staffer at an “information point” in the city to assist passengers – with maps, finding the shuttle stop, etc.
And at the end of each tour, your guide not only gives you an evaluation form (with a bar code on the back indicated date and name of tour) but also a towelette. And as you re-board, you receive a hot towel. Folks, trust me, a lot of big name cruise companies do not do these things!
Yesterday, the shore excursion director reported that 630 passengers opted for the included Helsinki excursion. That is a lot of people to handle. However, they divided the group into four departure times, including one of the afternoon. Two of those groups met in the theater, and two met pierside. As you leave the ship, a shore excursion staffer will make sure that you have your audio unit and assign you to a bus.
This morning it is very quiet on the ship as perhaps 90 percent of the passengers are already off exploring Russia. We are catching up on laundry, will have an early lunch and then head off on our afternoon tour. We are not quite used to the pace of being in a port every day (only one day at sea of the 14 days), so this timing works nicely for us.
September 7, 2016
Photos by Cynthia Boal Janssens