Viking Ocean Cruises recently became the first new cruise line in a decade but how would they recreate the success of the river cruise ships that reign supreme on the world’s smaller waterways? As final preparations were made for a second ship to join the fleet, our copywriter Rebecca Martin boarded Viking Star to find out what makes Viking’s first ocean ship so special.
“Well dear, we always river cruise in Europe, so we decided to do that very same thing on the oceans instead”.
The diminutive, baseball cap clad American spoke in a Southern drawl when replying to my question of how she came to be aboard Viking Star. I had caught her attention whilst waiting to board the ship in Palma, part way through its Mediterranean itinerary, and I couldn’t help but think that she must have had quite the shock at embarkation, having been under the impression that the Viking Ocean experience would be similar to a Viking River cruise. Viking Star has the capacity to accommodate 930 guests; more than four times as many as the average Viking Longship that sails Europe’s waterways. I thought to myself that the poor lady wouldn’t know what had hit her if she expected the experience to be the same.
However, she wasn’t wrong, I was. I knew it from the moment I stepped aboard and it was reconfirmed at various points throughout my time on the ship. Viking Cruises have taken their successful formula on the rivers and brought it to the oceans, refusing to sacrifice an ounce of service or style along the way. It is what 84% of Viking’s river cruise passengers had said that they wanted and it is exactly what they had got. That little American lady was right.
If I could compare Viking’s first ocean ship to anything, aside from the longships for which the river cruise line is so renowned, it would be a five-star luxury spa resort. That being said, they’d probably prefer that I didn’t. You see, although the cruise line undoubtedly offers five-star surroundings and service on board its ocean ships, you’ll never hear them describe themselves as anything more than the top end of four-star; undersell and over-deliver is the Viking Ocean motto, meaning you’re never anything less than incredibly impressed. Spas have become de rigueur on new ships, so to say that the one aboard Viking Star is the best we’ve ever seen at sea is a bold claim. Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence to substantiate this assertion. Firstly, The Spa, as the haven of relaxation run by LivNordic is simply known, is complimentary to all guests, with the exception of treatments. Secondly, from the sleek reception desk to the airy salon and the plunge pools in the changing rooms; it is clear that The Spa is something special from the moment you enter. Alongside the aforementioned plunge pool, both changing rooms also feature a sauna, Jacuzzi and seating area that has ‘post-spa slumber’ written all over it. The Thermal Suite is seriously impressive; all sultry black marble, soft mood lighting and roaring flames (open fire isn’t allowed at sea, so the effect is created using illuminated water vapour. Clever, eh?). Whether you opt to take a pew on the heated stone loungers or the plush padded versions, your view of the pool is equally appealing.
Take a dip and you’ll have the choice of a bubbling whirlpool or the warm waters of the main thalassotherapy pool. The real star of the spa show however, is the Snow Grotto. Embracing the holistic approach to wellness for which Nordic culture is famed, brave souls are encouraged to delve into the foot-deep snow that accumulates overnight, before warming their cockles in the sauna. When done right, the process is detoxing, great for soothing tired muscles after a day of exploring and able to stimulate your circulation like nothing else can.
There’s no better way to end a spa day than with afternoon tea, so I’m only slightly ashamed to say that our group indulged twice in two days, at Viking Star’s Wintergarden. Choosing between 70 different varieties of tea isn’t easy but everybody knows that green tea offsets the calories found in cake, so we enjoyed two cups of that in between finger sandwiches, pistachio macarons, clotted cream on warm scones, tiny apple tarts and mousse volcanoes overflowing with chocolate sauce. The sun was shining in Valencia, dappling through the beech millwork canopy that sits beneath the Wintergarden’s retractable roof and imparting the kind of warm smugness that only ever comes with being on holiday. Nordic design in Mediterranean climates, served with a side of cake? What wasn’t there to love?
Elsewhere, the Explorers’ Lounge is vast, occupying two floors at the very forward of the ship. I’d headed here one morning to do some work and happened to sneeze as I walked by the bar. Within minutes, a rather handsome young waiter had appeared with coffee and cream served in vintage-style crockery, along with a tissue, which he handed to me with the suggestion that a hot drink might help my cold. It’s this kind of service, in addition to such serene surroundings, that makes your time on board Viking Star so special. Snuggling into deep sofas, surrounded by knitted cushions and reindeer fur throws, it is impossible not to feel relaxed. Later on, when the coffee turned to cocktails and the water vapour lit to become flames in the fireplace, the cosy ambience remained akin to that of a chic ski resort. Après ski at sea, who knew?
The Explorers’ Lounge incorporates one of the many charming details that help Viking Star stand out against the competition. From 11am, Mamsen’s Deli dishes up traditional Scandinavian fare, including freshly-made hot waffles topped with a Norwegian brown cheese known as Brunost. The sweet thing here, aside from the cheese, is that the word ‘Mamsen’ is Norwegian for ‘mum’ and the monochrome image that hides the counter within the walls of the Explorers’ Lounge when closed actually depicts the mother of Viking CEO, Torstein Hagen. The excitable child she pulls behind her is her granddaughter, Karine, and the image is one that could have fallen straight from the pages of any family photo album.
Viking Cruises’ Scandinavian heritage is apparent around the ship, from the black and white fjord photos that appear to have been ripped from the pages of private travel journals and framed, to the mementos that line the walls of the Living Room; a magnifying glass here, a map there, travel books everywhere. It’s apparent in the cool colour scheme and
the Scandi-chic décor of your spacious stateroom and it is incorporated into the design of the Atrium; a grand space where Viking’s Scandinavian heritage is acknowledged not only with displays of Viking artefacts but also by the first lichen garden at sea, painstakingly planted into a geometric work of art that sits beneath the central staircase.
While its staterooms and suites embody a sense of Scandinavian style, Viking Star’s restaurants are straight out of old Hollywood. Manfredi’s dishes up Italian fare in snazzy leather booths, the walls lined with black and white shots of silver screen stars. Open up the double doors to Manfredi’s private dining room and the glamour turns up a notch, all at no extra cost.
Private dining here is a must if you’re celebrating a special occasion; speak to the Maitre d’ in advance and he’ll arrange to have congratulatory messages from home displayed on the television screens that are discreetly concealed behind the artworks at one end of the dining room. With the whole group gathered, you’re set to work your way through an enticing Italian menu. My squid rings were ocean fresh, juicy and served with a balsamic aioli; the perfect fishy appetizer to a meaty main course. We’d been promised the best steak we had ever eaten and it certainly ranked highly, arriving smothered in a roasted garlic gorgonzola butter, and accompanied by a side of soft, salty, truffle roasted fingerling potatoes and piles of crunchy asparagus spears.
The Restaurant is the ship’s bright and airy main dining room, whilst The Chef’s Table joins Manfredi’s as Viking Star’s second speciality venue, offering a six-course tasting menu each evening. The menu here changes every three nights, alternating between Asian, Italian and French fare, and with space for 130 guests each evening, there’s plenty of opportunity for everyone to enjoy the experience during their time on board.
The Kitchen Table is the only dining venue that isn’t included within your cruise fare, but the interactive experience is well worth its fee of $299. You’ll need to set aside a whole day to dine here, accompanying the chef to market in culinary hotspots such as Barcelona, before returning to the ship to concoct the ingredients just purchased into an amazing three-course meal. Wine pairings are included, of course. If you consider yourself to be more of an oenophile than a foodie, Viking Star’s wine tasting sessions last just under two hours, include cheese and will set you back just $20.
The similarities between Viking River Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises extend to your fare, with everything from wines to the in-room minibar, room service, Wi-Fi and walking tour shore excursions included. On my second day aboard, I wired up my ‘QuietVox’ audio system and joined a walking tour of Valencia. My tour guide was as knowledgeable as they come, Valencia was beautiful and we even had a chance to try the city’s sweet signature oranges.
After two nights on board, we arrived in Barcelona, and a late airport transfer meant that we had the entire ship to ourselves for most of the day, giving us ample time to revisit the spa and tuck into dinner at the World Café. To compare this eatery to a buffet would be to do it an injustice, for it is the only casual dining venue at sea with its own open kitchen; order meatballs or a huge bowl of chicken pesto pasta and the chef will whip it up while you wait, leaving you free to gather a plate of accompaniments from the fresh salad section in the meantime. We tucked in on the terrace, with the Spanish sun on our backs and the black and white mosaic hot tub bubbling away beside us. When the time finally came to leave, we did so reluctantly and with our hearts set on coming back.