Viking River Star—Royal Viking Reborn
The world of ocean cruising has now been introduced to a ship with a cantilevered infinity pool, a spa snow cave, a Viking Heritage museum, a model of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki raft, singing (recorded) birds in the public bathrooms, and a buffet with King Crab legs available every night-no charge! Even the great showers were all personally tested and approved by the Chairman of the Board himself. It’s all part of the Viking Star, a new concept in a place priced like a premium cruise line, but with more in common with luxury cruise lines—a fascinating new hybrid which just might be the improved rebirth of the original Royal Viking Cruises from days past.
In the 1980’s Royal Viking Line was considered to be the state of the art in luxury cruising. It was sad to see that proud icon fail as a result of poor management by a large cruise line who acquired the brand. But, fortunately, one of the principles of RVL, Tor Hagen continued his personal quest to add high quality cruising products to the marketplace. He started 20 years ago with the purchase of several Russian river vessels which became the basis for Viking River Cruises.
Today, Viking River is the dominant leader in worldwide river cruising with 59 vessels in Europe and Asia. And, because they decided to sponsor a British soap opera on Masterpiece Theatre which became the amazing phenomena of Downton Abbey, they became the pre-eminent brand in river cruising. They became known as pioneers for introducing things like their fleet of modern “long ships,” which celebrate the company’s Viking heritage.
About four years ago, Mr. Hagen and his team decided it was time to re-enter the world of ocean cruising. They developed a concept which called for six identical “small class” ships which would carry a total of 930 guests. When they asked their river cruise passengers if they would consider cruising on a smaller vessel which would spend more time in destinations, they received an 84% positive vote that their river alumni would go on a Viking Ocean cruise. And thus the die was cast.
The first of the new ships is the Viking Star built in 2015. The Viking Sea arrived in 2016 and four more identical sisters will be built over the next two-three years. The developmental team included experts who had worked with Seabourn, Silver Seas, Celebrity, Crystal and Holland America Line among others. Not so much like IKEA, but more like Volvo. They crafted a product which offered comfort with a modern Scandinavian style of light woods and a clean feel. It’s obvious that they “borrowed” many of the nice features from their competitors and improved on them in the process. Plus they added new features like an infinity pool, a Norwegian deli, a spa snow cave, and a buffet with made-to-order cooking stations immediately behind the serving lines.
My wife Linda and I had the opportunity of taking the first “re-positioning voyage,” from New York City to San Juan Puerto Rico. Docked next to the Intrepid museum in the New York harbor, the Viking Star looked like a sleek and modern vessel, almost like the world’s biggest super yacht.
We were given a “deluxe verandah,” which was spacious and comfortable. A queen size bed, two chairs, a lighted closet, mini-bar fridge, two deck chairs, a desk make-up table which had a flip-up mirror, a good size bath room with large shower and heated floors, made up the basics of the room—along with a 48 inch wall mounted television which featured movies, live TV news and Euro-sports, an onboard statement feature (and much more), was state of the art. The deluxe verandah is the same size as the standard verandah, only difference is that you get the fridge refilled every day with soft drinks and water, and you also get the usage of a cashmere blanket and a pair of binoculars. Other staterooms include a penthouse verandah, a penthouse junior suite, explorer suites, and one owner’s suite.
The Viking Star features several impressive public rooms. Located mid-ship near the pool, the Winter Garden is the scene of the daily high tea which features scones with clotted cream, various finger sandwiches and pastry’s, all presided over by a “tea sommelier.” The Winter Garden has a design which features and artistic “Tree of Life” salute with interlinked branches covering the ceiling. And, like many of the rooms onboard, the doors to the Winter Garden can be opened so that more guests can watch special pool-side concerts and events.
The World Café is the buffet and is light and airy with a large number of available tables. If the weather is nice, many of the glass windows can be slid open to make the room more open air to the outside. At the end of the buffet is the romantic Aquavit Terrace with a large bar and an area where buffet specialties can be displayed and offered. At the other end of the buffet is the Pool Grill with custom made burgers, Reubens and other lighter fare. Across the ship from the Pool Grill is the Pool Bar which offers high stool seating facing the sea.
In the middle of the World Café deck is the pool and lanai area with lots of comfortable lounges and couches available for use. The pool has a dome and can be opened or closed depending upon weather conditions. There is also a nice performance stage area in front of the pool where bands play and concerts are held.
In the aft area on the same deck, the Explorer’s lounge has two stories and is a comfortable lounge to watch the seas. And, there is Mamsen’s a Norwegian inspired nook which serves a wide variety of dishes to warm the heart of any norselander. The Explorer’s lounge also features nightly piano music which fits the serene scene. On the second story is an exhibit featuring Thor Heyerdahl and his reed raft ocean voyages on the Kon Tiki.
On deck two the main Restaurant covers about half the length of the ship. It features lots of tables for two and several for groups as large as eight or ten. When the servers take the order they use I-phone like instruments to directly order to the galley kitchen. Oh, and for lunch or dinner wine, beer, coffee drinks and sodas are available and are no charge. The concept is that the main restaurant is equal to either of the two other specialty restaurants we’ll cover in a moment.
Deck two also has shops and the Star Theatre, the main show lounge. The acoustics of the lounge are excellent and both entertainment and lectures are offered. In a unique feature, the two rear wings of the theatre can be closed off and used as mini-cinemas (or meeting rooms) another innovative use of space. There is also a performance bar known as Torhavn, where a rock band plays at night, and during the day the room serves a variety of uses including holding Sunday church services, complete with projected stain class windows as a backdrop.
Deck one is where much of the activity surround the atrium takes place. At the top of a grand staircase coming down from deck two is a huge LED screen which features showing of art from the Norwegian artist Munch, and other scenes from around the world. Often a string group will play a concert on the first landing of the grand staircase.
On deck one, part of the atrium area is call the Viking Living Room, which has both a bar and coffee station. Comfortable chairs and couches are featured in this quiet place to read or relax. There’s even a small internet café located directly underneath the staircase. One thing to keep in mind is that the internet is free onboard, and that includes the crew who have their own wi-fi platform.
On the other side of the Living Room is what would be the front desk and shore excursion offices on other ships. In this case it’s a series of desks with computers arranged so that there’s no long lines in this much more serene setting. The use of technology on this ship is unobtrusive, but highly efficient and capable.
At the front of deck one are the two alternative restaurants. One is called Manfredi’s and features Italian cuisine, the other is called the Chef’s Table, with a rotating menu featuring a world-wide scope and paired with specially selected wines. These two restaurants are no charge, but they are relatively small, so reservations are mandatory.
The bow end of Deck one is the Spa and gymnasium area. Treatment rooms, and a beauty salon are part of the spa product. In both the men’s and women’s changing room there are nice sauna’s and cold dip pools, along with rain showers. In between the changing rooms is a large, co-ed thermal pool, and a spa tub. A large steamroom is just across from the snow cave where real snow is generated for those who need to be cooled down in an unusual location. There is also a medium sized fitness room with treadmills and other workout equipment.
One of the things that I appreciated about the Star was the 360 degree promenade track on deck two, which offered for laps to the mile. Even in wet conditions this walking/jogging area was useful and enjoyable.
On a regular cruise guests would be offered included shore excursions at every port call. And, because Viking feels it fits the nature of their product, the Star will often overnight, or spend extended hours in the most popular ports, so guests can add whatever they might like. One exec mentioned that they had a client in Italy who spent $40,000 to tool around the countryside in a brand new Lamborghini sports car, but that’s an extreme. Cultural immersion is a byword of the Viking customer and they go out of their way to “customize” that immersion as much as they can. It’s part of the reason why Viking Ocean feels they have a winning product.
After dozens of cruises, I can honestly say, the Viking Star merits its top of the heap ratings from the likes of Travel and Leisure and the Cruise Critic. The company is going full speed ahead, and I’d say it’s prospects look excellent. Another Downton Abbey homerun no doubt.