This week, my colleague Aaron Saunders and I traveled to France for the christening of 16 Viking River Cruises vessels. Aaron’s report follows.
Today was one of the most deeply moving days I have ever experienced in my lifetime, as we bore witness to the christening of Viking River Cruises striking Viking Longships, 14 of which will set sail this year and two of which were introduced into service last summer.
I know that sounds rather lofty, so perhaps I should explain. Today’s celebrations in Avignon could have easily been ho-hum; it is, after all, the third consecutive year that Viking has christened a massive amount of new vessels at once. Instead, Tuesday, March 18 became what I believe is the best celebration of Viking’s success out of them all.
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Our morning started with a tour of picturesque Avignon, all of which is easily accessible from the Viking docks along the Rhone. Our three-hour guided tour took us through the historic center of Avignon and to the Palace of the Popes, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
I could go on in detail about Avignon, but we’ll save that for a future article. For now, I want to focus on the big event: the Christening of the 2014 Viking Longships.
The official ceremonies kicked off at 2:45pm – under skies that inexplicably cleared, bathing Viking Buri and Viking Heimdal in brilliant sunlight for the first time today.
With a video uplink from the Neptun-Werft yards in Rostock, Germany near the seaside town of Warnemunde, a total of seven ships were christened today, following the nine christened yesterday in Amsterdam – for a grand total of 16. And there’s still two more to go on Friday in Portugal!
I want to take a moment to mention the Godmothers for these new vessels. Finding a suitable Godmother is no easy task, but Viking managed to find 18 extremely well-qualified women to perform the traditional duties for each new Viking vessel. They are:
- Susie Barrie – Award-winning author, broadcaster and wine personality. Viking Heimdal.
- Mary Berry – Television culinary personality and author. Viking Alsvin.
- Laura Ferreira – wife of the Prime Minster of Portugal. Viking Hemming (Douro).
- Vicky Garcia – COO of Cruise Planners – AMEX Travel. Viking Magni.
- Hanh Haley – Private Aviation Contractor – Viking Gullveig.
- Sarah Henshall – Vice President of Travel, AAA Carolinas. Viking Lif
- Marion Krase – Senior Employee, Neptun-Werft. Viking Hlin
- Mireille Mathieu – Bestselling French musician. Viking Buri
- Kathryn Mazza-Burney – Executive VP, TRAVELSAVERS. Viking Baldur
- Ana Moura – Golden Globe-nominated Portuguese artist. Viking Torgil (Douro)
- Regula Oderbolz – Managing Director, UBS AG. Viking Idi.
- Monica Petitpierre – Sao Paulo mentor for underprivileged youth. Viking Kvasir.
- Laura Pfleumer – UBS AG Corporate Client Assistant. Viking Kara.
- Geraldine Ree – VP Sales & Marketing, Expedia CruiseShip Centers. Viking Eistla.
- Anne Morgan Scully – President of McCabe World Travel. Viking Ingvi.
- Ayoko Ward – wife of maritime author Douglas Ward. Viking Delling.
- Anne Willan – preeminent authority on French cuisine. Viking Hermod.
- Pam Young – VP, Industry Relations for Travel Leaders Group. Viking Bestla.
When the champagne was streaming down the gleaming white hulls of the ships, fireworks exploded over the blue skies of Avignon, followed by red and white paper streamers that cascaded down on guests, swept by the intermittent gusts of wind that swept down the Rhone.
From there, we boarded six Viking-branded Mercedes-Benz coaches (all new, remember) and proceeded to our dinner venue: the imposing Pont du Gard.
Only 16 miles from Avignon, this 2000-year old Roman Aqueduct was inducted as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 and has been listed as a Grande Site de France since 2004.
The sun was just beginning to go down as we arrived to a full reception line of Viking staff bearing French wine, real Champagne, and other assorted beverages. An increasing array of ever-artistic-looking canapes were also trotted out, each one more delicious than the last. My favorite: the caviar with a hint of soy sauce. Tremendous!
Together with the recently-arrived Ralph Grizzle who had some mechanical issues with his original flight out of Washington Dulles, I hiked up to the top of the aqueduct spanning the Gardon river in full dress shoes and a suit and tie. I didn’t really care; how often do you get a chance to see the Pont du Gard at sunset?
After that, it was into an elaborate dining room tent for a five-course meal paired with exquisite French and German wines. The menu for this evening:
Mousse of Green Asparagus | truffle cappuccino
Red Mullet on Melting Potato | seafood nage, aioli foam
Surf and Turf | grilled fillet of beef, Canadian rock lobster, baby vegetables
Pecan Nut and Pear William’s Cream | pear sorbet
Trilogy of Cheese | walnut and grape bread, dried fruit chutney
As we ate, live music entertained us and numerous guests from Viking and other companies got up to speak about the success of the Viking Longships, and what these 30 vessels have meant to them.
Bernard Meyer, Chairman of the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg where some of the Viking Longships are being constructed, gave another heartfelt speech to Torstein and his Viking team. I admire Mr. Meyer – he’s a hell of a shipbuilder, and an eloquent public speaker. But there’s an honesty behind what he says that comes from the heart. It’s not something you often see. More than a business transaction (the remaining Longships are built at Rostock-based subsidiary Neptun Werft), Bernard Meyer is understandably proud of what their partnership has produced.
Torstein Hagen, Viking’s enigmatic Chairman and founder, said that he did a quick calculation to see how many lives Viking’s success has touched. Certainly, there are the Viking employees themselves. Then the employees of Meyer Werft and Neptun Werft shipyards, and Italy’s Fincantieri, where Viking Star is being constructed. The Oslo-based interior design firm of Yran & Storbraaten. Journalists like myself. Travel agents. And – of course – the 180,000 guests that Viking carries when they’re running at full capacity. Which, to be frank, is most of the time.
Viking also went two-for-two this year as they broke their own Guinness World Record. Last March, Viking broke the record for most ships christened in a single day by a single line, with a total of 10.
This year, Viking bested their own record by four, christening a total of 14 new ships. The same Adjudicator with Guinness that had presented the award at last year’s ceremonies stepped forward onto the stage to a thunderous round of applause. Tor was there to greet her like an old friend, and she was all smiles as she offered up the plaque and once again closed with the same simple yet powerful line as last year: “Congratulations!”
The girl’s name? Fortuna. Stunningly appropriate.
To cap the night off, a fabulous animated light show extravaganza was projected onto the façade of Pont du Gard, the climax of which involved gas lamps racing from left to right across the centuries-old aqueduct. It was, to put it bluntly, freaking awesome.
It would be easy for me to end this article by simply saying that I’m just here to see these 16 new Viking Longships be christened – or solely for the fabulous French champagne and the beyond-amazing atmosphere that has prevailed throughout our entire day in Avignon.
The truth is, I’m not. I’m here to support a company full of people I both respect and admire deeply. I’m here to see Viking – and Torstein Hagen – succeed once again.
If you saw Torstein Hagen on the street, you might think he’s a kindly grandfather out for a walk. Maybe on his way to pick up his grandchildren. You wouldn’t have him pegged as one of the larger-than-life names in the cruise industry, nor one of the major the driving forces behind the river cruise industry. In truth, I believe Torstein Hagen’s legacy will be placed alongside the likes of Ted Arison, Knut Kloster, Samuel Cunard, and maybe even Isambard Kingdom Brunel – the man who gave the world the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship.
For a man who started Viking in 1997 with relatively nothing to speak of, the Viking River Cruises that exists today is almost beyond comprehension. The Longships were a big gamble; Viking banked heavily on guests wanting more full suites and step-out balconies, coupled with a radical new approach to river cruising. But Hagen said, “Why don’t we give it a try?” Together with his talented team at Viking, Yran & Storbraaten, and Meyer Werft and Neptun-Werft, the first four Longships become a reality two years ago this month.
Today, there are officially 30 Viking Longships in the line’s fleet. With a light show bathing the Pont du Gard in a vibrant array of colours and designs from across the centuries, the living proof that dreams can come true is right here, sitting just a few tables away.