Not content with dominating the world’s rivers with his ships, Viking founder Torstein Hagen has firmly established his brand on the planet’s oceans with the Viking Star and the five siblings due to arrive by the end of 2020. (The Viking Sea will be christened in May 2016, the Viking Sea in 2017.)
In her debut season (Spring 2015), the Star lived up to her name as she was awarded the cruise industry’s highest accolades. She was named Best New Ocean Ship and received a 5-star rating by the editors of Cruise Critic; received the highest rating in the mid-size ship category in Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2016; and was lauded by CNN as the “world’s best new cruise ship.”
Fresh and unique among scores of others, the Viking ship included the best features of river cruising (like ticket prices that included almost everything and destination-rich itineraries) and avoided the features most disliked by ocean cruise passengers (like brief port stops and à la carte pricing). The other ships of the Viking fleet will be similar in appearance to the Star.
I recently sailed a Mediterranean itinerary on the 930-passenger Viking Star and fell in love. She is a beautiful and welcoming ship, reflecting the founder’s Norwegian heritage in the sophisticated contemporary design, the Nordic-inspired spa and the many small touches (like the animated version of the Bayeux tapestry) that speak of Hagen’s personal involvement.
At about one-third the size of many cruise ships, which allows it to call at smaller ports, the Star never feels crowded or noisy. Perhaps this is because there are so many lounges and bars where passengers can congregate—or perhaps because the ship attracts adults (the minimum age to sail is 16) who appreciate and contribute to a serene and tranquil environment. (Hagen has said that his ship is not for people who love to party but rather for the “thoughtful”—and to that end, the ship has no casino and no Vegas-type entertainment.)
The Star has 465 staterooms (at 270 square feet) in five categories, all with private verandas. The Owner’s Suite is just under 1,500 square feet.
My category 2 stateroom was more spacious and felt more luxurious than staterooms in higher categories on other ships. The very comfortable king-size bed was fitted with luxury linens (and a cashmere blanket), a large flat-screen LCD TV that allowed me to watch (limited) live programs or choose from a good selection of movies-on-demand. Wi-Fi here (and throughout the ship) was complimentary. The closet was big enough to hold clothing for a month-long voyage (I wish!) and held a fluffy robe and slippers.
The bathroom was a delightful surprise and better than most, with a spacious glass-door shower, a stylish sink and a vanity with drawers and shelves that could comfortably hold toiletries (especially created for Viking and of an excellent quality) for two people.
Dining on the Star was a rare treat—because every dining venue provided exceptional meals. I usually avoid onboard buffet restaurants, but the World Café on the Star was like no other, offering such dishes as Angus steaks and Mahi-Mahi prepared à la minute. (At breakfast, even Eggs Benedict were prepared to order.) .At dinner service, the buffet served almost everything that was on the main restaurant’s menu, including such dishes as Peking Duck. I have never seen a seafood station like the one here, which offered succulent Tiger shrimp, crab legs and other high-ticket varieties, as well as beautifully prepared sushi. The bakery offerings were as good or better than those offered at top land-based shops.
Alternative dining is complimentary, including the tasting menu at The Chef’s Table, which comes with five matched wines. (For a $25 bump, five premium wines can be ordered.) Manfredi’s, the Italian restaurant, was a big favorite with passengers, some returning more than once to sample such outstanding dishes as risotto with truffles and asparagus and veal prepared in a variety of ways. Service at both venues was as careful and attentive as that at fine dining restaurants on land, and individual requests (e.g., for substitutions or half-portions) were met with a smile. Beer, soft drinks and a choice of red or white wines at meals are complimentary, as are specialty coffees throughout the ship.
An afternoon tea that includes finger sandwiches, pastries and scones (with cream and jam) is served in the Wintergarden, an indoor-outdoor lounge space adjacent to the pool area on the ship’s top deck.
Room service, available 24 hours, is also complimentary. Complimentary in my Category 2 stateroom were soft drinks, candy and potato chips. Bottle water is given out when leaving the ship.
As there’s more to any voyage than dining, the Star has a three-deck atrium where various musical performances can be heard throughout the day; the Star Theater, for regional entertainment and lectures; the Viking Piano Bar and The Kitchen Table (for culinary demonstrations) and shops for those who want to buy jewelry and other luxury goods. The Explorers’ Lounge, which has two-story panoramic windows, is the perfect place for swapping travel tales with other passengers. Located in this lounge is Mamsen’s, where traditional Scandinavian fare (including delicious Norwegian-style pancakes) is served throughout the day.
The carefully-curated ship’s library is a wonder and includes such a rich variety of old and new books and manuscripts and collectibles that I could only imagine the intelligence and imagination that went into creating it. (Books for borrowing are also located throughout the ship.)
The main swimming pool has a retractable roof, so swimming is possible in any weather. In the evening, the venue becomes an outdoor movie theater. The glass-backed cantilevered Infinity Pool is a real stunner–and unique to this ship.
In addition to a state-of-the-art fitness center with ocean views, there is a full-featured spa with a hot tub, sauna, thermal pool and Snow Grotto (yes, snow falls from the ceiling). (Admission to the spa complex is complimentary.) A salon offers hair and nail services.
In keeping with Hagen’s intent to focus on destinations, the ship sails at night (as do the river boats) so that passengers can visit as many ports as possible–and at least one complimentary excursion is offered at each. These excursions are as rich and thoughtful as those that carry hefty price tags on other ocean ships. For example, in Rome, the 5 1/2 hour tour includes many of the city’s major landmarks and historic monuments.
Another thoughtful feature is the complimentary laundry located on almost every deck. The washers are pre-loaded with detergent, so there is no fuss and no mess.
Also complimentary were the transfers to and from the airport; mine were as seamless as if I’d had a private service all to myself. In fact, on the return (and I don’t know if this happens at every airport), Viking personnel not only took me to the airport and handled my bags, but also escorted me (and other passengers) to our respective check-in areas.
So what extras did I pay for? The prices at the spa and salon were comparable to those on land, so I treated myself to a haircut ($49) and a massage ($99).
I also bought extra excursions, including a pizza tour in Naples (I thought it was so-so, though other passengers loved it), a half-day in Taormina (fabulous) out of Messina and a foodie tour from Trapani that had me tasting (and buying) superb olive oils.
Yes, the ticket price on the Viking Star will reflect the inclusive nature of the cruise—just as the ticket price for river cruises reflects the inclusiveness of those trips. (A number of passengers I spoke with were loyal fans of the Viking River brand and naturally stayed with the brand when choosing their first ocean cruise.)
In 2016-17, Viking will offer itineraries in North America, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Baltic and Northern Europe.
Bottom Line: Viking Ocean is not a mass market product. For those who appreciate the unique qualities of its ships, a cruise aboard the Star or its siblings can be sublime.
For more information, consult a travel agent, call 1-866-984-5464 or visit the website at http://www.vikingcruises.com/oceans.