– Covid Restrictions Are Messin’ With My Med
The 930-passenger, 47,842 grt Viking Venus, launched in May 2021, sits in the dazzling port of Barcelona. If the stats sound familiar, it’s because Viking Venus is the seventh ship in the series of Viking Ocean’s identical sister ships, each following the same, clean Scandinavian design. If you’ve sailed Viking Ocean before, you’ll feel right at home aboard this latest launch. You’ll instinctively know where Manfredi’s is, how to get to The Explorer’s Lounge for your pre-dinner cocktail, and that deck 2 is where you’ll find The Thermal Spa.
But, likely, that’s where the similarity between your last cruise and this one will end, thanks to the Covid 19 restrictions implemented on board and ashore.
Viking leads the industry when it comes to aggressive safety protocols. In March 2020, Viking was the first line to suspend operations in response to Covid 19 and only resumed limited service with three UK-resident-only coastal sailings in May 2021 when that government lifted its cruise ban.
Today, there are few indicators that the line plans to relax its highly-successful safety program, which includes fully vaccinated guests and crew, daily saliva PCR testing analyzed in each ship’s on board lab, daily temperature monitoring, a contact tracing device to be worn at all times, daily health questionnaire, social distancing, a limit of six people in any group, UV ray disinfecting of heavily-trafficked areas of the ship and enforced mask wearing when not eating or drinking. And, while many Viking loyalists applaud the line’s commitment to the safety of its guests and crew, during my Mediterranean sailing, an equal number seemed to question what they found to be a few conflicting and, yes, often baffling messages.
Our Viking Venus sailing, which has a capacity of 930, includes only 423 guests…do I consider the ship half empty or half full? My opinion changes, depending upon the port.
Arrival/Barcelona: We’re in Barcelona…ole’! If there’s one good thing about Covid 19, it’s uncrowded flights–Sheree and I are each able to claim a 3-seat row in coach, lift the arm rests, lay down and get some sleep.
Clutching a hard copy of our negative Covid PCR test result and the QR code that was provided via email following the completion of the Spanish government’s online locator, we arrive and are whisked away by Viking representatives to Viking Venus where our temperatures are taken—twice—before boarding, registering and heading off to our 270-square foot Deluxe Veranda stateroom with interactive flat screen TV, mini bar (including a bottle of champagne and snacks), coffee maker, robe and slippers. A selection of 100% natural Norwegian Freyja toiletries stand on the vanity of our lovely bathroom which features shower, heated floor and fog-free mirror.
We’ve been in our stateroom for just moments when we’re reminded by our cabin steward that the first PCR test of the cruise is required. We prepare our first saliva test tube of this 12-day voyage and head out to town via Viking’s convenient shuttle bus, woozy from jet lag. With no energy to visit Basilica de la Sagrada Familia or other astonishing Gaudi masterpieces, we stroll Las Ramblas, visit St. Josep La Boqueria market and sorely wish the overnight stay in this magnificent city hadn’t been cancelled at the last minute. Whatever the reason for the cancellation, we sail to Sete this evening.
Sete, France: That sound! It takes me a few minutes to remember I’m aboard Viking Venus and that what I’m hearing is the ship’s foghorn blowing repeatedly as though some pissed-off New York City taxi driver is manning the bridge. I slide open the curtains and find visibility is zero.
It’s 6:30 a.m. and the daily program tells me that the World Café, the ship’s attendant-staffed buffet, doesn’t open until 7:00 a.m. so I head to Mamsen’s, a little nook tucked away within the Explorer’s Lounge that at breakfast, lunch and late-night features authentic Scandinavian selections like open-faced sandwiches piled high with tiny shrimp, heart-shaped waffles, pea soup and fish cakes. It is here, this morning, that I discover the best coffee on the ship. My eyes widen—this is so much better than the cup I had last night—and the attendant explains that Mamsen’s uses a different bean, a Norwegian blend, unsurprisingly, and I decide that Mamsen’s will be my early-morning destination for the remainder of the cruise.
The fog has lifted in time for Sheree and me to join a walking tour of Sete, a charming maritime village best known for its seafood, particularly tielle, a spicy empanada-like pie of octopus and tomato. As we roam the cobblestone streets that border the town’s canals (Sete is known as the “Venice of Languedoc”), our slightly eccentric tour guide plays tunes on his flute en route to Les Halles de Sete fish market and other local sites before concluding the walk and suggesting where we might explore on our own. The tour is an “included” one, Viking Ocean offering a selection of optional tours at additional cost and at least one free or “included” tour at every port.
Marseille: We’re in Marseille and if I had any doubt, it’s spelled out for me—high on a hilltop. Thoughts of the “Hollywood” sign come to mind and it’s no coincidence: Netflix gifted the sign to Marseille at the conclusion of filming the crime drama of the same name starring Gerard Depardieu. In fact, the city of Marseille has become Hollywood’s darling of late and a good number of residents have found themselves “extras” in films shot there.
Marseille is the first port on our itinerary that forbids independent exploration by cruise guests. We select a four-hour optional tour to Aix-en-Provence, a stunning town filled with Baroque architecture, outdoor markets, charming cafes and the glorious Aix Cathedral with its eclectic design that combines elements from the 6th through 19th century. The ban on independent touring extends even to shopping, but our guide leads us to the one approved shop on the tour, a confectioner that, amazingly, has agreed to let us use the bathrooms.
Back on board, it’s time to relax with a visit to Viking Venus’ Thermal Spa, a complimentary, though reservations-required, oasis that features a massive hot tub with powerful jets bordered by an hypnotic faux fireplace, heated loungers, steam and…yes! The Snow Grotto is back! Before Covid, the best Thermal Spa experience included a dip in the hot tub followed by a steam before a visit to the frigid Snow Grotto, a space piled high with snow, flakes drifting lazily from the ceiling. With the arrival of Covid, the snow had until now been removed, leaving the chilly segment of the treatment simply a cold room reminiscent of February in some of the apartments I’ve had.
There’s also some good news at the adjacent Viking Venus fitness center: Reservations are no longer required and masks are no longer necessary.
So why, I find myself wondering later that night when we pop into the Torshavn Club after dinner to hear The Viking Band, are we forbidden from dancing even when they’re playing the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”? Or, as my buddy Mike asks our cruise director, “Can you explain why I can’t dance with the woman I sleep with every night?” According to General Manager Marcel Gademan, “Dancing is risky. People won’t be wearing a mask and perhaps they’ll have had a few drinks. Others will join in and social distancing can’t be enforced.”
And, yet, this morning at what had been the staffed breakfast buffet at World Café, I noticed the tongs within each dish reversed, their handles outward. We can now serve ourselves rather than have our selections dished out by gloved attendants.
I’m so confused….
Villefranche-Sur-Mer (Monaco): Who could resist the principality where U-2’s Bono, Bill Gates, and Sean Connery all have homes? An optional tour delivers us to this fairytale land that conjures glamorous images, bringing it to life with visits to the Prince’s Palace and the sobering Saint Nicholas Cathedral where Princess Grace of Monaco rests alongside her husband Prince Rainier. In a land where the average income is $153,000 (versus the U.S.’ $52,000), it’s no wonder that while the rich and famous buy property, homes and yachts in Monaco, I purchase only a Christmas ornament.
To compensate, Sheree and I decide to dine like royalty this evening at The Chef’s Table. The Chef’s Table, one of Viking Venus’ two specialty restaurants, celebrates the cuisines of the world. Tonight’s menu (menus change every three days) is Asian Panorama, featuring Lobster & Chicken Shu Mai, soft, puffy dumplings accompanied by a hot pepper-spiked dipping sauce; crispy-skinned Peking Duck presented atop a duck-filled Mandarin pancake envelope and a swirl of flavorful Hoisin sauce. For dessert, it’s the Asian Trilogy, a chocolate banana spring roll, yuzu crème brulee and green tea cheesecake. There is no surcharge to dine at The Chef’s Table (reservations required) and wine accompanies each course, with upgraded wine selections presented to those who’ve purchased Viking’s Silver Spirits beverage package.
After dinner—and a bit woozy from the generous wine pourings at The Chef’s Table–we head to the Explorer’s Lounge, an observation room that, with its blue and cream Delft-like design, just might have the loveliest carpeting at sea. This evening Allen is performing, a talented singer guitarist who, astonishingly, performs everything from Neil Diamond to Led Zeppelin to The Proclaimers and even—at the request of a guest—AC/DC, flawlessly.
Florence/Rome/Naples, Italy: FACT: If I booked a flight to any of these Italian cities right now, I would need only present my vaccination card to roam, tour, shop, dine or attend the theater. Not so for the cruise passenger who, thanks to a government directive targeting cruise ships alone, may only remain in the “bubble” of a cruise ship-sponsored tour—even if that cruise passenger is tested daily, as we are aboard Viking Venus. Nobody respects a country’s desire to protect the health of its citizens more than I, but when, as a cruise passenger, I’m prevented from having pizza in Naples, then they’re stepping on my toes.
With Viking Venus’ tour variety, guests may experience some of the treasures held in these Italian cities but on some tours, like our included one in Rome, we’re forced to view bucket list sites like The Colosseum through the windows of a moving coach, trying to snap a photograph between the trees that line the roads. So many of my shipmates have never experienced Rome before and, sadly, they still haven’t. Not really.
In Naples, it was a different story with a magnificent tour of Pompeii. While Viking Venus guests were among the few donning masks while touring this archeological wonder, our awe at seeing this ancient city and the passion of our tour guide made it almost feel like pre-Covid times.
When in Rome (or Florence or Naples) aboard Viking Venus and you can’t do as the Romans do, head to Manfredi’s, Viking’s Italian specialty restaurant. In fact, head there a few times during your cruise if you can (reservations required; no surcharge) because it’s here you’ll find the rock star of Viking Venus cuisine: Bistecca Fiorentina, a 13 oz. rib eye steak marinated for two days in powdered porcini mushrooms, light brown sugar, ground pepper, red chili flakes, salt and garlic powder then grilled to a fragrant, smoky char, juicy and tender within. Begin your meal with a few helpings from the extravagant breadbasket, an order of the briny Brodetto ai Frutti de Mare or perfectly-spiced pasta arrabiata. Add plenty of good red wine and you won’t even care that the only works of Italian genius that you were able to admire up close and independently were the toilets at the comfort stops.
Corfu: Since the resumption of cruising, Greece has welcomed cruise passengers with open arms and after the restrictions of the last three days, we fall right into them! Following an included walking tour to get our bearings and see the sites, we venture off along the ancient streets, passing Byzantine churches, white-washed houses and the town’s central Esplanade, popping into local shops selling olives, spices, soaps and oils and smiling each time we’d come across a lazy cat curled up for a snooze—and there were many. Sure, we could return to Viking Venus for lunch but we stumble across Pergola Taverna, claim an outdoor table and indulge in a massive grilled seafood feast for two, devouring (almost, at least), a dizzying selection of the freshest calamari, octopus, shrimp and mussels we’ve ever had. This is what travel is all about!
This evening, we prepare for our visit to Dubrovnik with a guest lecture by Russell Lee: “Game of Thrones—the History Behind the Fantasy.” Until now, I had no idea that the epic adventure was filmed almost entirely in Croatia!
Dubrovnik: The sun is blinding as we board our coach for an optional wine tasting tour in nearby Konavle, a small wine region 45-minutes from the Old Town. Our route takes us past an area that was all but destroyed during the 1990’s Balkan war and, as such, homes are new ones, sometimes with an ancient surviving wall incorporated into the design. It’s 9:00 a.m. but visions of the vineyards and fields prepare us for the cabernet sauvignon, merlot and plavac mali that we’ll be tasting. Crvik Vineyards is our first stop and we’re rewarded with tastings of three delicious wines, savory cheeses, olives and rustic bread. The winemaker, Petar Crvik, who was educated at Zagreb’s Faculty of Agriculture, welcomes us and soon we’re almost as impressed by his clear, nearly-unaccented English (which he credits to American TV and film and British rock music) as we are his wines. Plus, he tells me I look like musician Laurie Anderson which surely isn’t a bad thing.
Fortified by our tasting, we head back to Dubrovnik’s Old Town and stroll the marble-paved squares and alleys of this perfectly-preserved medieval center surrounded by imposing stone walls. We marvel at the abundance of towers and fortresses, shops (including a staggering number offering Game of Thrones merchandise), markets and cafes hidden within and stop at a bakery to sample burek, a delicious local treat—a flaky pastry encasing savory, pungent cheese, meat or a combination of cheese and spinach.
I’d forgotten entirely about the kuna, Croatia’s currency! Despite Croatia’s membership in the European Union, the Euro won’t be the official currency until 2023 so I pay for my $3 burek with a credit card and curse the supply of kuna, leftover from my last visit, that sits in my desk back home.
Tonight we dine at The Restaurant, Viking Venus’ main dining room—it was actually a toss-up between here or The World Café, a more casual spot that, in addition to offering many of the dishes on The Restaurant’s menu, also features a delicious assortment of sushi each night. But The Restaurant is where we are, perusing its vast options that include standards like poached salmon, Angus strip steak and tiger prawns (available every night) and a “destination-based” menu that celebrates the cuisine of the day’s port.
The evening is a balmy one so, after dinner, we grab a glass of wine and spend the rest of the evening lounging on deck under a starry sky.
Split: Wow! Are we in Hollywood?? The palm trees that line the Riva promenade nearly convince me we are but that 4th century palace across the way, Diocletian’s Palace, says otherwise. And that is the wonder of Split: It is one of the oldest towns on the Adriatic but, at the same time, has a distinctly modern and dynamic vibe.
As it’s my first visit to this, the second-largest city in Croatia, I join Viking Venus’ included walking tour and explore the palace and its charming cobblestone streets, beautiful pre-Romanesque churches, Gothic chapels and well-preserved cellars. We stroll past works by Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s most famous sculptor, and pause at the well-preserved home of Sigmund Freud.
At the tour’s conclusion, we shop. And shop. And shop.
It was a very chilly morning, one worthy of a down jacket, but so often during this October itinerary, it’s warming up. Really warming up. And by the time we return to the ship, it’s sultry enough to take a dip in Viking Venus’ infinity pool, its surrounding deck chairs filled while diners occupy tables at the outdoor section of World Café and deck waiters scurry to deliver drink orders.
Maybe we are in Hollywood after all.
Venice: Ordinarily, I’d be delighted to end a cruise with an overnight call at one of my favorite cities in the world but we’re back in Italy…and back in the bubble, following a guide who holds a red and white Viking lollypop aloft as she speeds—and I mean speeds—through the narrow streets and passageways of Venice. The tour is labeled “At a Glance: St. Mark’s Square” and a glance it is. Our group is the only masked one in the crowded city and many of us feel awkward as we’re quickly lead through a crowded scramble of quirky shops for a quick view of Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, and Scala Contarini del Bovola before arriving at St. Mark’s Square. The overnight stay is a disappointment for all but those who have booked an evening gondola ride.
Viking Venus is a lovely, safety-focused experience that is the perfect choice for those looking to dip their toe back into the cruising waters. And while today’s restrictions and requirements may seem daunting and off-putting, don’t worry. Chances are they’ll all change tomorrow.
Photos credit Judi Cuervo
Viking Venus-Ship: Lead photo….
Thermal Spa: Viking Venus’ Thermal Spa: On oasis of relaxation
Chef’sTable-PekingDuck: The Chef’s Table: One of Viking Venus’ two no-charge specialty restaurants.
Pompeii: Pompeii: The ancient city brings history to life.
Corfu-Seafood: Corfu: Free to feast ashore in Corfu!
Dubrovnik-Wine Tasting: Cheers to Croatia!: A delightful wine tasting
Manfredi Bread Basket: A Treat in Itself!: Manfredi’s Scrumptious Bread Basket
Manfredi’s Bistecca: Manfredi’s Bistecca Fiorentina: The rock star of Viking Venus cuisine!
World Cafe Sushi: The World Cafe: For a casual meal…and sushi every night!
Split Sign: Split, Croatia: The ancient and the modern combine!
Venice: The Serene City: Even just a “glance” is magical.