By Cynthia Boal Janssens
Once again the bags are packed, the fridge is cleaned out, my desk is almost clear and Chet is fretting about all the last-minute details of leaving home for a few weeks.
Yes, we are bound for another cruise and so looking forward to sailing with a brand new cruise line, Viking Ocean Cruises, in one of our most favorite cruising grounds, the Baltic.
The new cruise line…brought to you by the folks who run Viking River Cruises…began sailing in April of last year and is already receiving rave reviews. Most notably, in July of this year Viking was named the #1 Ocean Cruise Line by Travel & Leisure readers in the 2016 World’s Best Awards, knocking out luxury-line Crystal Cruises from its 20-year run in that position.
So, naturally, I want to know what makes Viking Ocean so darned special. We just sailed with Crystal last fall. We know why it wins accolades. So we are eager to experience what Viking has to offer.
Viking River Cruises was founded by its current chairman, Torstein Hagen, and strongly reflects Scandinavian design and traditions. One inclusion I know I will enjoy is the Nordic spa that everyone on the ship can access, whether or not they purchase treatments…or so I am told.
But it is clear that Viking will be a distinctive experience. At first its prices seem high for a mid-level cruise line but then you realize that they offer an included tour in every port, free 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, borrowed of course from its very successful river cruise product.
But it is not for everyone. Its itineraries are very port-intensive, usually one every day, with very few sea days. There is no casino, no production shows, no bridge lessons, no cooking classes. Entertainment consists of folkloric troupes, and piano and cabaret shows. Or so they say on various cruise forums. I am eager to find out.
They certainly know how to make a great first impression. As soon as you book, they set you up on a special website called MyVikingJourney. There you can make all sorts of choices for your cruise. While many lines have something similar, Viking really presses you to make all … and I mean all… of your reservations in advance, particularly for shore excursions and meals in the special restaurants. They continue to send frequent emails about your itinerary and then a few weeks before the cruise send you a cruise package which include leather bag tags, luggage tags for boarding the ship, a booklet that includes your cruise documents and summarizes all shore excursions and ship policies, a checklist for your travel documents and a modest ditty bag. Rather nice, when most cruise lines now just have you print off your cruise docs from the web.
I also love this 15-day itinerary which takes us from Stockholm to 11 ports, ending in Bergen, Norway. While I have been to several of the major cities, there are a few that will be new. Tour prices in Scandinavia can be hefty so I signed up mostly for the included tours. Hope that was the right move. I look forward to sharing them with you.
Viking Star: The spa makes a big first impression
ABOARD THE VIKING STAR — We have not yet been on the Viking Star for 24 hours but she is such a nice size that we have pretty much explored all her nooks and crannies.
And so far, she rates an A+.
I came to find out why Viking Ocean Cruises received so many rave reviews in it first year of operation and it is quickly becoming apparent why that is. I’ll be discussing the “whys” in detail over the coming days.
There are many features that make the Viking Star distinctive but the one that really caught my attention on my first swing around the decks was the LiV Nordic spa. The spa area luxurious, well-designed and open to everyone. 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 (use is optional), 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). It 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. I intend to spend some serious time here.
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.
I understand that the ship, which carries 930 passengers, is nearly full this week but it doesn’t seem crowded even when the small theater is full for lectures.
We spent yesterday in Stockholm and today we just docked in Helsinki, Finland. We will talk about the shore excursions tomorrow.
The Viking Star: Shore excursions sell really well on this popular Baltic itinerary
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.
The Viking Star: Several heavy days of touring makes everyone appreciate a day at sea
ABOARD THE VIKING STAR – After the end of our second day touring St. Petersburg, Russia – a full day tour from 9 to 5 – my Fitbit registered 13,236 steps. We certainly did stand and walk a lot exploring the palaces and gardens of the czars.
But, hey, St. Petersburg is a bucket list destination for almost everyone aboard the Viking Star and they wanted to make the most of it. So for the two days we were there, everyone was doing heavy touring.
Because Chet and I were here for two days way back in 1998, we took it a bit easier with a 1/2–day tour (included) the first day and a full day tour the second ($149), and we skipped the evening programs. We saw plenty of churches and palaces, the highlight of which were the gardens at the Peterhof Palace.
Yesterday was a bit easier day in Tallin, Estonia…I loved this small city back in 1998 and it is still charming. We took a walking tour of its medieval Old Town (included) and then opted to stay in the city for lunch and a bit of shopping, returning to the ship via the free shuttle bus. There are some excellent quality handcrafts to be found here…head to Katarina Way to find some of those shops. The beer is excellent, too!
Because so much of Estonia’s history is intertwined with that of Russia, it was interesting to hear our guide’s take on certain historic events. As he noted with wry humor, “The Russians call him Peter the Great but we just call him Peter the First…he was not so great to us.”
The last time we were here our small ship was able to dock at the base of the main street to the harbor. Now that area is all reclaimed land and many new buildings have been built as well as a pier for cruise ships. Nice to see Estonia is progressing so well.
Today is our first and only day at sea and everyone was certainly ready for the break. Although the ship has a wide range of lectures and a few other activities, most everyone I see is reading or napping. I am sure the spa is busy and an energetic few are walking laps around the promenade on Deck 2 – another nice feature of this ship, a real promenade!
And the ship had yet another surprise for me. I did not discover until today that there is an upper level to the Explorers’ Lounge in the bow of the ship. It is a quiet room lined with bookcases and really comfy seating…I will be spending more time here. That is something else unique to Viking…they have bookcases scattered all over the ship and you are free to take books and read them at will.
Tomorrow we resume visiting a port every day for the final eight days of the cruise.
The Baltic is a fascinating part of the world and well worth exploring.
For most people I have met on this cruise, this is their first visit to the Baltic region. The ship is full, with 920 passengers, and the general manager, Ignacio Garcia, reports that it has been full for the last four sailings here. This is their final cruise here this summer. After this, they will be repositioning to the Caribbean via the North Atlantic. That cruise is sold out as well.
Most passengers are also well-traveled. Many have done several river cruises with Viking in various parts of the world and have done ocean cruising in the Caribbean, Alaska or the Mediterranean with other cruise lines before coming here. They know the ropes so there are few hiccups along the way.
Viking Star: Meals on board are very, very good and often have a Scandinavian twist
ABOARD THE VIKING STAR – We are now well into this 14-day Baltic cruise on the new Viking Star and everyone is beginning to groan a bit.
They are coming to realize that we have all been eating too much. The food on board is extremely good and varied and it is just too easy to give into temptation.
So let me give you an overview of the dining options. But before that, let me remind you that beer and wine are included with all lunches and dinners and soft drinks, juices and fancy coffees are available anytime free of charge.
For those who enjoy the occasional bloody mary or pina colada by the pool, or a pre- or post-dinner drink at the atrium bar, Viking offers a “Silver Beverage Package” and it appears that the cost of this has come down in recent months. We opted for the all-inclusive package that includes champagne and spirits, cocktails and aperitifs as well as premium wines available in all bars and dining venues for $20 per person/day or $280/pp for this 14-night cruise. Gratuity is included, too!
Another nice Viking touch: You do not have to sign chits at any bar; they just bill directly to your stateroom.
As for dining venues, there is the main dining room called (ta da!), The Restaurant. The two specialty restaurants are Manfredi’s (classic Italian) and The Chef’s Table featuring five-course “tasting” menus. The buffet is called the World Café. Casual fare can be found at the Nordic Deli called Mamsen’s and at the Pool Grill. There is no extra charge to dine in any of these.
Everyone is guaranteed a reservation in each of the specialty restaurants, if they so desire, and these may be made online before the cruise or embarkation day. After that, reservations are pretty much first-come. So far we have managed to dine in Manfredi’s three times and have a reservation for one more evening. Flexibility is the key. It does appear that Manfredi’s is the more popular restaurant of the two as it offers an extensive menu.
Most people try The Chef’s Table once but don’t necessarily return, even though the set menu changes every three days. The night we dined there they were featuring Scandinavian fare that included reindeer consommé, salmon-five-ways, Lappland granita, a lamb main course and cloudberry soup with sesame ice cream. That menu was followed by an Asian menu that included Peking Duck, then came “A Gastronomic Journey through Time” that was topped off by the 21st-century nut brownie. There are more menus to follow. With each of these meals, a wine pairing menu is offered for $25 – which is included in the Silver package. Another Viking bonus!
While I fully enjoyed the Chef’s Table experience, Chet was not so enthused. He simply wants more choices. Many other men we talked with feel the same way. Interesting.
We have discovered that many couples on this ship are traveling by themselves – the hallmark of well-traveled people, so we find ourselves striking up conversations with people everywhere we go. Sometimes we share a table but often we dine alone. There is no pressure either way. The main dining room has more two-tops than I have ever seen on board a ship this size.
The casual fare on board is creative and uniformly good. Mamsen’s offers Nordic specialties like shrimp salad, steak tartare and Swedish pancakes. The Pool Grill serves up super-sized hot dogs, reuben sandwiches, yummy cheeseburgers (that they will actually cook to order), grilled mahi-mahi, chicken wings and a nice array of salads.
Each afternoon a full tea is served in the lovely Wintergarten…a lovely part of the ship that seems to be underutilized. Another plus: You choose your type of tea from a menu of nearly 20 varieties and it is brewed in your personal from loose tea leaves. And, yes, there are scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam! Yum!
The Viking Star: A look at a typical veranda stateroom
ABOARD THE VIKING STAR – We just spent two lovely days in Denmark and today are in Stavanger, Norway. For most folks, the extensive touring in Berlin and Copenhagen wore them out a bit so spending yesterday in the little town of Aalborg was a welcome respite.
After a short look-about town, it was a day for catching up … doing laundry (the ship has free self-serve launderettes), responding to email (there is free wi-fi on board for everyone), reading or napping. Big-time napping.
Which brings me around to discussing our accommodations. For the past 10 days, we have resided in cabin 3031, a deluxe veranda stateroom. This is the most common cabin size on the ship. The penthouse verandas are slightly larger and, of course, there are a variety of suites, but not very many and they sell out early. But I am talking about the stateroom that most people are living in.
First, I have to say that it is snug. Very snug. So much so that two people cannot pass each other comfortably between the foot of the bed and the wall. And two people can’t get into the closet at the same time. That said, after this amount of time we have snuggled into our cozy digs and are accustomed to its limitations. Perhaps our biggest concern is the lack of storage space. There are only three drawers to be shared and a tiny drawer in each bedside stand. We are forced to put a lot of odds and ends on the upper shelf in the closet which I cannot reach unless I stand on the bottom rail.
But, like I said, you adapt and we have found crannies here and there to put things. I would advise you to bring several large magnetic hooks to put on the wall to hold jackets, hats, cameras and such. Also, bring less clothing. The availability of free washers and dryers means you really can bring much less than usual.
Also, this ship is very casual all of the time. There are no formal or even semi-formal nights. At the beginning of the cruise, Chet donned a sport coat for dinner but abandoned that midway through when no one else was wearing one. I brought a couple of sparkly tops that I’ve never worn either. In the cool ports, most passengers wore denim for touring. Chet never wears jeans in Europe but on this trip he donned the pair I got him to bring at the last minute. Ladies: Rely on basic black and you can really cut down on what you bring.
There is a real king bed and two small chairs with back pillows (Viking has pillows everywhere so if you need one to support your back there is always one handy) and a spindly coffee table that is totally useless as it flips over easily. The desk is all-purpose: It has a lift-up section that contains a lighted mirror and storage for makeup and other small items. Then it has a mini-fridge in a drawer. This is replenished every day with soft drinks, tonic and small candy bars at no charge. There is also room in this fridge to keep a couple of bottles of water, which is distributed generously throughout the ship. Alas, this eats up all the drawer space.
Something else this cabin has which most average staterooms never have is an individual coffee maker and the pods are replenished daily. Bags of potato chips are also provided complimentary and our ice bucket is replenished twice daily.
On the wall at the foot of the bed is a large flat-screen television which shows port talks and other ship information, movies, videos about our ports and a daily TV program recorded by our cruise director Aaron. Today he broadcast from the laundry facilities on board and interviewed the Director of Housekeeping. Interesting.
In contrast to the main cabin, the bathroom is of nice size and has good storage and a great shower. The balcony is also adequate with a nice-size table and two chairs.
In truth, because of this fabulous weather we have spent very little time in our stateroom. There are many more comfortable places to read on board and we usually head for those when we have some free time.
One last item: Viking offers 24-hour room service with a fairly extensive menu, everything from Norwegian gravlax to an angus New York strip steak. You are never far from food on this ship.
Viking Star: This ship boasts a crew that any company would envy
ABOARD THE VIKING STAR – We have all heard the adage, “Happy wife, happy life.” (Gotta admit, I’ve always liked that one.) But in cruising, the more appropriate saying is “Happy crew, happy ship.”
And the Viking Star is one happy ship.
In all my years of cruising, I don’t think I have ever encountered a staff as upbeat as the one onboard this new vessel. All 430 of them. Everyone is always smiling. Each and every staffer says hello when they meet or pass you on the ship. They are always willing to help or answer any question. They don’t pass the buck or indicate that it’s not their job. Everyone, from deck hand to caption is always in “can-do” mode.
And they speak excellent English. Pretty amazing when you think of it.
One immediately notices that supervisors pitch in everywhere to make the ship run smoothly. A personal example: I was in the buffet at lunch and was walking to my table with a couple of small plates in hand when I encountered a restaurant manager (three stripes on the sleeve!) and someone with him who was obviously from HQ, but in casualwear. This fellow immediately jumped forward, offering to carry my plates. What a way to set an example for the crew.
I would say that when starting their ocean cruise line last year Viking skimmed the best workers from a lot of other companies. Almost every crew member I spoke with indicated that they had worked for at least one other line and many had experience on two or three. That depth of knowledge is invaluable and makes it a lot easier to train new crew members as Viking add new ships to its fleet.
For example, assistant cruise director Elmer worked 10 years for Disney Cruises and another eight for Royal Caribbean. Our favorite bartender Igor worked for many years on Seabourn. Bar waitress Natasha began her career at sea on Princess (and we think she is so good that we hope she gets promoted.) And so it goes. Some worked for Oceania, others for Norwegian.
A great many are from Indonesia or Balkan countries like Macedonia, Slovenia and Serbia but mixed in are Filipinos, Swedes and other nationalities. Most of the officers are Norwegian – no surprise there. And the entertainers were mostly American, as was Aaron, the cruise director.
Like the ship itself, each staffer is immaculately groomed, with fresh uniforms, neat hair and subtle makeup for the ladies.
When asked, several indicated they really are happy:“I like it here, it’s nice.” “Nice crowd.” “Nice ship.” “They are very good to us.” “They have good training.” “They give us more time off in port.”
Kudos to Viking for accomplishing this in such a young company. I have included a few photos here of some of the folks who made our trip special. I easily could have added a dozen more. Yes, these crew members are that special.
So, again, what makes Viking Ocean Cruises so special?
We are home from our two-week Baltic cruise on the new Viking Star and we remain impressed. Here are some of the reasons that we think the folks at Viking are getting it right:
They do not have a casino.
They do not have photographers nor do they sell photos.
They do not have art auctions.
They do not have any passengers under the age of 18.
The drinking age onboard is 21.
They do not charge for passengers to use all of the spa facilities, including the thermal pool and the snow grotto.
They do not charge for wine and beer at lunch and dinner.
They do not charge for specialty coffees, soft drinks and juices anytime.
They provide complimentary bottled water in all cabins and on all excursions.
They do not leave towel animals in your cabin, or a turndown chocolate for that matter.
They do not charge extra to dine in their two specialty restaurants.
They show movies on the pool deck almost every night and the movies are keyed to the itinerary.
They offer sufficient live entertainment, but it is not excessive.
They do not promote sales in the shops on board.
They offer “included” shore excursions in every port at no charge, as well as an array of optional excursions that include evening events like ballet performances, folkloric shows and jazz cruises.
The wi-fi internet is free to everyone. Not fast (you won’t be streaming movies), but adequate for browsing the internet and checking email. There are four computers for passenger use on each ship.
They offer port-intensive itineraries, with overnights in the most interesting places.
They have a crew that are incredibly good – cheerful, helpful, efficient and always welcoming.
The ships are comparatively small, carrying only 930 passengers. Many of their recent sailings have been sold out.
The Viking Star was introduced in April 2015 and the Viking Sea was introduced this spring. In 2017, the Viking Sky will come online in early 2017 and the fourth ship, the Viking Sun will begin a world cruise in December of next year. Three more sister ships are on order.